Etymotic Research ER2SE and ER2XR earphones
- Chris Martens
- Jun 2020
The Elk Grove Village, Illinois-based firm Etymotic Research is arguably one of the oldest, if not the oldest, makers of high performance earphones in the world. Long before Apple created the iPhone or iPod and long before Beats by Dre came into existence, Etymotic was building its iconic, high accuracy ER•4p-series earphones. The operative phrase there “high accuracy”; from day one Etymotic was fiercely committed to building earphones that delivered linear, neutrally balanced and true high-fidelity representations of the recordings being played. In sharp contrast to the tonal ‘flavour-of-the-month-club’ approach we so often encounter these days, Etymotic was, is, and probably ever shall be an accuracy-first earphone maker.
The early ER•4p earphones were marvels of miniaturisation and were among the first commercial earphones to be based upon purpose-built, precision-matched and custom-tuned balanced armature-type drivers (then more uncommon than they are now). The tiny ER•4p’s featured extremely slim cylindrical earpieces fitted, in most cases, with Etymotic’s signature triple-flange silicone ear tips. Remarkably, those earphones offered between 35dB – 42dB of passive noise isolation, making them the world’s first true noise-isolating earphones—ones that even today offer unmatched levels of noise reduction.
While the ER•4p models remain in production today, Etymotic has expanded its product range to include three new families of earphones: the top-of-the-range ER4SR/XR models, the mid-level ER3SE/XR models, and the new entry-level ER2-series models selling for $159 or £169. Present-day ER4 and ER3 models use balanced armature-type drivers, while the ER2 models introduce new high performance dynamic (or moving coil) type drivers. At Etymotic’s suggestion this review focuses on the ER2 models, partly because they are the firm’s newest offerings, but also because they represent the lowest cost means of accessing Etymotic’s famous high accuracy sound.
Like most Etymotic earphones, the ER2s come in two versions: the ER2SE (Studio Edition) that promises dead neutral tonal balance and flat frequency response, and the ER2XR (Extended Response) that adds a generous but not egregious dollop of added bass lift. From the lower midrange on up, the two models sound more or less identical, so that bass output is the real differentiator between the two. Rest assured that whether we are talking about the ER2SE or XR-version earphones, Etymotic simply doesn’t do grotesque sonic colourations; it’s not in their corporate DNA.
Etymotic’s founders were audiologists who have a deep, abiding concern for hearing health and hearing preservation. This concern manifests itself in Etymotic’s commitment to building earphones offering extremely high (35dB – 42dB) levels of noise isolation. Etymotic explains that the ER2 models feature “a variety of ear tips to provide 35dB+ of noise reduction so you will hear all the detail buried in the mix without raising the volume to compensate for ambient noise” (italics are mine).
The ER2SE/XR earphones feature slim, cylindrical metallic blue metal earpieces embossed with white text on the earpiece barrels to indicate which model is which. Accessories include a set of protective filters and a filter removal tool, a shirt clip, one set of compressible foam and two sets of 3-flange silicone ear tips (sizes M and L), a detachable four-foot signal cable and a compact zipper-closure storage pouch.
For my listening tests I ran the ER2SE and ER2XR earphones in side-by-side comparisons, while driving them with Astell&Kern’s excellent SP1000M digital audio player. The player was loaded with standard and high-res PCM and DSD music files and also provided access, via Tidal, to a wealth of MQA material. Here are my findings.
First, as a long-term user of Etymotic ER•4p-series earphones, I was struck by the strong sonic family resemblance between the classic ER•4p’s and the new and far more affordable ER2-series earphones. The ER2’s carry forward Etymotic’s traditional deep-insertion ear tip and earpiece design motif (more on this later), but they introduce slightly revised (and nominally more comfortable) versions of the firm’s signature triple-flange ear tips. The ER2’s also feature detachable and user replaceable signal cables—a feature the venerable ER•4p’s did not have.
I’ve referenced Etymotic’s ‘high accuracy’ house sound several times in this review, so it’s only fair to ask what sonic characteristics define that sound. To my ears, Etymotic’s sound is defined first and foremost by notably neutral tonal balance in the SE (Studio Edition) models or by mostly neutral balance with audible but not overblown levels of added bass lift in the XR (Extended Range) models. Next, the Etymotic sound brings unexpectedly high levels of focus, resolution and transient speed and definition at every price point in the line—even for the entry level ER2 models (which, speaking candidly, are ‘entry level’ in name only). Finally, the tiny ER2’s offer, once properly fitted, downright astonishing levels of bass extension, impact, clarity, and low-end grip. In short, the ER2SE is voiced much like a high quality, high accuracy and decidedly full range loudspeaker, while the ER2XR is voiced much like that same loudspeaker, but with the bass dialled up to about ‘11.5’.
What my words perhaps do not convey is the extent to which the ER2 models are sonic overachievers of the first rank. Most of us who have spent significant time in the personal audio world will have formed opinions about the levels of performance we can expect from sub-$200/£200 earphones and I found the ER2SE’s and XR’s surpassed those expectations in a truly major way. In terms of focus, articulacy, dynamic expression, and extended frequency response the ER2’s could easily pass for models three or four times their price, which I consider remarkable.
To appreciate what I mean, try listening to the track ‘Goodjinns’ from Renaud Garcia-Fons’ Oriental Bass [Enja Records, 16/44.1], which offers intricate slapped acoustic bass passages, delicate and equally intricate percussion accompaniment, brilliant contributions from a forceful horn section, and soaring statements from violins. The ER2’s did a superb job of delineating the signature transient characteristics and timbres of each of the instruments, while also conveying the distinctive dynamic ‘feel’ of each instrument—neatly showing how each in its way helps bring the composition to life. The net effect is of hearing a rich, thoroughly engaging, and masterful presentation of the recording—one that left me thinking, “Can these really be sub-$200/£200 earphones; they sound much too good to be sold for that price.”
Similarly, listen to Brad Mehldau’s original soundtrack for the Yvan Attal film Mon chien Stupide [My Melody, 16/44.1] and note both the purity of timbre and also the rich, vibrant and accurate tonal colours the ER2 models deliver on each of the instruments represented. The interplay between the acoustic bass, piano, and drum kit on ‘Henri’s Lament’ sounds terrifically delicate and soulful, while the voice and textures of the piano in particular are spot on. On ‘Breakfast’, note how both the ER2SE and XR capture the deep, woody, and swinging voice of the acoustic bass as set against lilting piano lines and the incisive ‘clack’ of wood-block percussion accents. Then, on ‘Cecile I’ observe the deft way that both ER2 earphones define and delineate differences in textures and timbres between the bowed cello and pizzicato acoustic bass heard on the track (there is enough overlap between the ranges of these instruments that their voices can become muddled through some earphones, but this was not a problem at all for the Etymotic ER2’s). The point I mean to make is that the Etymotic ER2SE and ER2XR are sufficiently revealing that they invite close and careful listening, much as one might do with far more costly earphones in play.
Given my positive comments thus far, some will surely ask, “But is there a catch?” Indeed there is, sort of, in that Etymotic earphones use a so-called ‘deep insertion’ design involving use of the firm’s steeply tapered triple-flange ear tips. To get satisfactory sound and proper isolation the ear tips must seal properly in the ear canals, which is a proverbial ‘piece of cake’ for some listeners, but much easier said than done for others (sadly, I fall in the latter camp). The solution turns out be a shorter and less sharply tapered new dual-flange ear-tip design from Etymotic, which worked a charm for me, providing ease of insertion, an excellent seal and long term comfort.
It’s not often we find earphones that are accessibly priced yet can be recommended enthusiastically for listeners of all experience levels, up to and including jaded audiophiles. Just try a pair of ER2SE’s or ER2XR’s (we’ll leave the voicing choice to you) and see if you don’t agree.
- Type: Dynamic driver equipped universal-fit earphones with flat frequency response (SE version) or a moderate degree of bass lift (XR version)
- Driver Complement: One miniature, full‑range, high performance dynamic (or moving coil) driver per earpiece
- Frequency Response: 20Hz–16 kHz
- Noise Isolation: 35dB–42dB
- Impedance: 15 Ohms
- Sensitivity: 96dB @1kHz at 0.1V
- Maximum Output: 120dB
- Accessories: One pair compressible foam ear tips, two pairs (sizes M and L) trip-flange silicone ear tips, one pair of inline filters and filter insertion/removal tool, detachable and user replaceable four-foot signal cable, shirt clip and compact zipper-closure storage pouch
- Weight: Not specified, but extremely light!
- Warranty: 2 years
- Price: £169 UK, or $159 US, the SE and XR models are identically priced
Manufactured by: Etymotic Research, Inc.
Tel: +1 (847) 228-0006
Distributed in the UK by: Etymotic UK
Tel: +44 020 8772 2700
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