Review: Etymotic Research ER-6i Isolator earphones

By SteveJack

I’ve been using Etymotic Research’s ER-6i Isolator earphones with my Apple iPod since last September. The earphones come in a small package featuring a photo of ER-6i’s plugged into an Apple iPod. The ER-6i is identical to the Etymotic’s ER-6 earphones, but have an 8 dB greater overall sensitivity and 8 dB more bass, are white instead of black to better match the iPod, and feature 3-flange eartips instead of 2-flange eartips. Both feature a pair of foam eartips, a 5 ft. cord with a 3.5 mm stereo plug, 2 replacement filters, a filter changing tool, shirt clip and a carrying pouch.

I had been using Apple’s standard iPod earphones exclusively for well over a year. After months with the ER-6i earphones, I’ve found out a few things. The ER-6i’s foam eartips worked better for me because I found the flanged eartips let in too much exterior sound and seemed to lack bass compared to the foam option. The foam eartips fit better, made the earphones sound better, and stayed in while I pounded the treadmill. Also, Etymotic’s recommendation that the flanged eartips be moistened prior to insertion is impractical in everyday use out and about. The 5-foot wires on the ER-6i, which seemed thin upon first inspection (especially compared to the thicker wires on Apple’s standard iPod earphones), have held up well – no problems since last September. I also found they coiled up and fit better in my iPod case than the Apple earphones.

How do the ER-6i’s sound? After eight months of use now, I can report they sound absolutely amazing. I cannot listen to my old Apple iPod earphones anymore because they sound like mud – I tried just a minute ago. In fact, I remember that after the first 30 seconds of listening to the ER-6i’s, my first words were, “wow, wow, and wow!” That feeling still happens each time I listen to them.

I will warn you, going from Apple’s standard iPod earphones to Etymotic Research ER-6i Isolator earphones is shocking. You will also ask yourself immediately, where is the bass? The answer is that the bass is there, but it’s there in the correct amounts, as the artist intended. You’ll probably feel the need to experiment with the iPod’s EQ at first, but you’ll end up turning it off: the ER-6i earphones don’t need help, you just have to acclimate your ears a bit. Apple’s earphones, while pretty good, tend to over emphasize the bass and introduce a muddy tone throughout. The ER-6i earphones are all about clarity and definition, featuring crisp, clean, accurate reproduction of sound. You will hear things within the music that you simply cannot hear with Apple’s standard earphones. I cannot recommend the ER-6i highly enough. The improvement in iPod’s sound is dramatic.

True, at US$149 a pair, these earphones cost more than the included Apple iPod earphones, but I think the ER-6i earphones are worth the expense. After all, why pay for an iPod and not be able to hear the sounds it produces with such clarity and correctness? Within a week, I’d adjusted to the flatter, truer frequency response of the ER-6i earphones and I can no longer bear to listen to the Apple iPod earphones. My only wish is that I had the ER-6i’s earlier. If you want crisp, clear sound from your iPod, Etymotic Research ER-6i Isolator earphones are an excellent choice.

More information about Etymotic Research ER-6i Isolator earphones and photos here.

Etymotic also sent me their ER4-88 Smartwrap cord winder. Smartwrap, winner of I.D. Magazine’s Design Distinction Award, is a cord manager for iPod headphone cables. It is designed and developed by Sumajin, an industrial design firm in Singapore. Smartwrap is easy to use and it serves the purpose. All that is required is to snap the cord into place at one of two places, then wrap and snap into place again.

Smartwrap is thin enough to fit into most iPod cases. It is made of pliable plastic polymer and, like the Mac, it is simple, easy-to-use, and it just works. No more “two-finger” cord wrapping, Halleluiah! I have been using Smartwrap for months with my iPod and I have no idea how we got along without it. In fact, I gave them as stocking-stuffers this past Christmas.

Each Smartwrap cost US$5.

More info about Smartwrap and photos here.

SteveJack is a long-time Macintosh user, web designer, multimedia producer and a regular contributor to the MacDailyNews Opinion section.


  1. Charlie,

    He gave you the information. It’s a review. How are you going to come to any conclusions on a set of earphones via text unless the reviewer tells you what he thinks? Go back to bed and get up on the other side this time. BTW: I have these earphones and SteveJack’s review is spot on. They really do sound beautiful.

  2. I got a pair of the ER-6i’s a few months ago after first reading about them on this site. (Yeah, there are a bunch of things about MDN that aggravate me no end, but I learn stuff here. And sometimes what I learn turns out to be true!) I love these earphones: the music sounds great and the noise isolation makes a tremendous difference. For example, I don’t need to jack up the iPod’s volume to cover up the background noise on a train, so I can avoid the high levels that cause hearing problems. Takes me awhile to get ’em sealed in my ear canals — I use the flanged eartips — but once that happens I’m in heaven. Highly recommended, especially for folks who listen to their iPods in noisey environments.

  3. Yeah, except I’m fairly certain taht this review has been posted here a number of times before. I don’t think it’s even been updated.
    (with the possible exception of the cord winder)

  4. I have heard good things about the ER-6i earphones all around. Personally I am using some Sennheiser PXC250 external headphones that I am really really happy with. The sound canceling is AMAZING. They fold up nicely but are still a little bit big for carrying around. But at least for me the sound and the comfort is worth it, especially with the superb sound canceling on Airplanes.

    More info here:

    If I ever have the cash to drop on some in ear earphones tho, the ER-6is seem to be the ones to pick.

  5. Oh I should mention though, the site I linked to just shows the headphone part and not the sound canceling unit which is about the size of a large cigar and clips on your belt.

  6. It is a little awkward but with in-ear headphones I found it a lot easier after I read this tip.

    Simply stretch your ear upwards slightly by pulling the top with finger and thumb then insert the earpiece and release your ear.

  7. I own the ER-6i too and agree with most of what is mentioned in the review. The sound is great but for the price of these headphones, it had to be. All in-ear headphones sound better than conventional headphones simply because they isolate the sound that you want to hear from all the environmental noise that you don’t. Going back to the Apple headphones is not enjoyable because all the environmental sound seems more distracting. Having said that, Apple’s headphones are easier to put on and take off than the ER-6i. Plus, they are not as bad as this review stated, certainly not “muddy.”

    The ER’6i’s cord is too thin and fragile so I hope that a revised product will use something thicker. The included shirt-clip is designed so that the cable goes in a small plastic hook; this bends it sharply so I do not use it. I also hate the way the cable comes out of the headphones. It comes out of the bottom so when I push the headphones in, the cord bends sharply against my ear. It is just bad design. Better to have the cable coming out of the very back of the headphones.

    The big minus about these headphones, and this is something that no review has mentioned yet, is that they are designed so that every couple of months new filters and tips have to be purchased for them. Replacement filters are necessary because ear-wax builds up into the headphones over time. This will certainly result in muddy sound from the ER-6i. As for the tips, the foam kind did not last one month for me. They became too soft and eventually disintegrated. I guess jogging daily in a hot and humid part of the world is too much for the foam substance. The three-flange plastic tips are more durable but less comfortable. It is also possible to push them too far into the ear canals and this can be painful. Anyway, all these replacement parts cost more than some other headphones and unfortunately they are only sold in packs of three. No bulk-purchases are possible so over time the ER-6i will cost a lot more than US $149.

    Having said all that, these are probably the best headphones for the iPod. They sound very loud and clear with the iPod’s volume set to half-way, they match the look of the white iPods and their initial price is less than the cost of an iPod Mini.

  8. Insert like this

    Btw. You don’t need new filters. Just turn up the sound real loud once a month to blast away any wax ” width=”19″ height=”19″ alt=”wink” style=”border:0;” />

  9. I use the rather pricier ER4-P’s and generally agree with your “Wow!” experiences.

    I’ll note that moistening the flanged eartips — the same 3-flange style as my 4-P’s? — is actually very easy. Hold your tongue for a second between your index finger and thumb, then twist those fingers around the flange. All the moisture you want to let them slide in easily. Repeat for the other ear.

    You’ll probably find that you clean your ears a bit more often, and after that, you’ll probably just give each flange a quick lick. In private, natch.

    A good seal is essential to keeping the bass from leaking away. Your complaint about hearing outside noise and weak bass indicates you didn’t get a good seal. No sense going with what you THINK will be better, the proof’s in the listening. But I suspect you’ll find the flanged tips good with some practice.

  10. Actually, I’ve had my pair of etymotic’s ER 4P’s for about 4 years and have NEVER had to replace the filters. I keep my ears clean. I use a q-tip before I put them in. I have let 1 or 2 people hear them, but after they tried them, they had little specks of wax inside the flange and I won’t let anyone share them now.
    Maybe I’m wrong, but looking at the filters on mine, they look fine and don’t have any wax. Plus, they still sound clean.
    The only thing is (and I use the flanged tips) that they are kind of uncomfortable for very long periods. I may go back and try the foam tips again, just to try something new.

  11. one more thing…

    this page has info on filters.
    but, my qestion to other users here is this: on the web page it states that, “a filter may be blocked without appearing to be dirty.” So, is there a way to really tell if they need replacing. Hmmmmm…..
    They sound fine, but what if they could sound better if I replaced the filters.
    any help on determining whether they need changing in appreciated.

  12. In response to the thread about replacing filters:

    I have a pair of ER-6’s and used them for about a year before I had to replace the filter once on one side – On the ER6, the conduit (or tube) from the driver into the ear insert is wider, and more suseptable to having earwax get in via the insert. The ER-6i’s conduit is much thinner, and I have now had this pair since they were first available (August 2004) and have not had to replace a filter yet (even though I bought extra at the time). It is important to occasionally clean the inserts (rubber or foam) to keep everything clean and clear, and the more often you do that the less often you will have to change a filter (if ever).

    As for buying new tips, the link at the end of the article here had a page where you could in fact buy multiple sets of everything if you do need to (including varients of sizes of tips, which I was not even aware of!).

    I have been enjoying etymotic headphones of one type or another for over 2 years now, and absolutely love them – they will make you want to break out all your old music and listen to it again, because you will hear things you missed the first time around (depending on your speakers and headphones up to this point of course!).

    One little bit of advice for anyone in Canada thinking of getting a pair – find a local dealer!! I got nailed with a massive import duty when I bought the ER-6i’s directly from Etymotic (they filled out the customs tag wrong), that was almost half the cost of the headphones themselves! So save yourself some major $$ and look for a local distributor…


  13. about the filters…
    I went ahead and changed mine yesterday because of this thread and they are back to the way they sounded when I first bought them. again, i’m not sure how you really tell when to change them.
    Max, how did you know that one needed replacing? Was it less loud than the other side?
    – John

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