While the world of headphones has been exploding lately, some of the best names are the ones that have been around for a long time. Names that have developed a reputation and a signature sound. Names like Etymotic Research, a company known as much for hearing aids and hearing protection as for studio-grade audio reproduction. They approach audio like a science and focus on the most accurate earphones they can. I was super impressed with the ER4SRs (earlier this year/last year), but even I had to admit those $350 studio-reference earbuds were not for everyone. Etymotic dropped a pair of the next step down into my lap – the ER4XRs. Where SR stood for Studio Reference, XR stands eXtended Response. Normally I roll my eyes at companies when they use the X instead of the E, but ER3ER looks and sounds silly.
So where do these in-ear headphones sit in comparison to Etymotic’s big boys, and how do they sound in general? At $179 they still have a lot of work to do, even if they don’t have to live up to the huge price tag of their beefy big brothers.
Build and Style
Like the ER4SRs, the ER3s are ultra-simple in their outer design. The headphones terminate at one end in a standard 3.5mm audio jack and split into left and right dedicated earphones after a small cylindrical casing that helps reinforce this standard headphone weakpoint while also giving the shirt clip something to hook onto. Up at the earbud we get two more simple cylinders. Etymotic isn’t interested in making these disappear into our ears or look stylish – they just need to make the absolute best noise possible.
Also like the ER4s the ER3s are symmetrical. There’s a little raised letter on each headphone, but it’ll take most listeners a little while before they can put these on without looking.
Compared to the ER4s, there is one notable difference. The cable between the Y-splitter and earphones split off into two spiraled cables for each earphone, presumably to isolate the wiring and decrease interference. While it never gave me a problem, I did notice how fragile it felt from time to time. These have joined cables that look and feel stronger.
But that’s a small advantage, really. Strong cables on wired headphones are important, sure, but when they build them right it hardly matters. Like the team over at Shure, Etymotic wants you to buy one pair of headphones and stick with them. Their in-ear monitors use MMCX (“micro-miniature coaxial”) connectors. That means that if Fido chews through the cord, or your kid gets creative with the safety scissors, you can pick up a new cable for your super-expensive earbuds and snap the expensive part onto the fresh cable.
For me personally, knowing that makes that big pricetag a little easier to swallow because I know I’m making an investment, not buying something to fill in a gap.
Aside from the buds themselves, the package is sparse. You’re getting very little here, but that’s because these don’t need much. The soft case has room for the buds themselves, the extra ear tips, filters to keep the buds clear of earwax (ew), and the metal goober used to remove said filters. The headphones themselves don’t have any in-line audio controls or a mic of any kind – they’re headphones and nothing else – and that’s kind of the point.
And you know what, that’s okay. They sound insanely good.
One reason for this is that they focus not on noise cancelling but noise isolation. Instead of trying to science the sound away, Etymotic just gets in the way of the sound. It’s startling how well it does it, too. If you bury these things in your ears, they can really block a lot. The triple-flange tips aren’t to everyone’s taste. Sometimes I love them, other times it feels like they’re tickling my brain. Try every set of ear tips in the box before you pick one.
As I said, these are “Extended Response” headphones. While the ER4SR (Studio Reference) and ER4SE (Studio Edition) headphones go for a flatter sound that looks to reproduce the audio with absolute accuracy, the XRs offer a little bass boost to give the sound a little extra kick. Compared to the ER4s, the ER3s feel louder to me, and the bass is definitely more prominent. In quieter tracks like the opening sections of Yes’ “Roundabout” or Miles Davis’ “So What,” the amped-up bass is immediately apparent.
One of the things that surprised me about the ER4SRs is how much I preferred their flatter sound they have. I’ve seen these described as still being relatively flat but compared to the ER4SRs they sound truly like completely different headphones. They’re more “fun” to listen to. The opening drums of Metallica’s “Of Wolf and Man” pop like I’d expect. When the bass drops in in Kyuss’ “Green Machine,” it sounds powerful and driving.
Despite this, another Kyuss track, “Space Cadet” comes through clean and clear, with all the different instruments getting attention. I’d say for a bass-heavy song like that, the ER3XRs actually perform better because the song is has so many bassy elements anyway that it sounds like it’s missing something on flatter-sounding earphones.
At the same time, that punchier sound means they’re a little more fatiguing to listen to. The highs are sharper on the XRs along with that punchier bass, so tracks like Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box” call more attention to themselves. It’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but I found myself turning the volume down a few times. When a sound hurts to listen to I have a tendency to squint, and I found myself squinting a lot more with the ER3XRs because they’re louder and sharper.
Again – that’s not a bad thing! Music sounds lively, and bass guitars stand out very nicely. Tool’s “Sober” is an absolute pleasure to listen to on these. Some older tracks a little less so – they didn’t add much to The Police’s Synchronicity II. Really well-mastered tracks like Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” have all the detail – put that one on and really listen with your full concentration – but with a little extra bonus.
But overall, the ER3XRs are a blast to listen to. They’re loud without losing detail. They pop without feeling like they’re trying to impress me like some of the really bass-y headphones out there.
If you dig these up on Amazon, they’re going for $150 at the time of this writing. For my preferences, they compare very favorably to other similarly-priced earbuds. If you’re rocking a phone with a headphone jack or – gasp – a dedicated audio player – these are a solid choice. They offer premium sound without totally shattering the bank. $150 is expensive, but not beyond the pale. They’re small and easy to take with you anywhere, but the replaceable cable and ear tips mean they’ll stick with you even if something does go wrong. They’re a much better value than the ER4s, which I still love. But I have to admit, I’m digging the bass.
Disclaimer: Etymotic sent us a review unit of the ER3XRs for review. We spent about 10 hours with them before beginning this review.