Review: Etymotic Research ER-6i Isolator black earphones

By SteveJack

I’ve been using Etymotic Research’s ER-6i Isolator earphones with my Apple iPod since September 2004. And now they come in black to match Apple’s black iPod and iPod nano. 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, also come in white to match white iPods, 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 previously 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? With nearly a year and a half of use now, I can report they still sound absolutely amazing. I cannot listen to my old Apple iPod earphones anymore because they sound like mud – I tried again 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.

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Related article:
Etymotic announces 6i Isolator earphones now available in black to match new Apple iPods – December 07, 2005


  1. I gotta tell ya: I’ve been using my 6i’s for almost two years now and besides the cord on one side breaking after about a year (Etymotic replaced) I have no complaints. I do bump the bass up one notch on the iPod’s EQ though – I like just a little more thump.

  2. This review is spot on.
    I’ve had mine since christmas and I love them.
    They are worth their weight in gold.

    You should be careful though if youre using these when on a bike or when running.
    Since these plugs will cancel all background noise.

  3. GREAT earphones! Spot-on review!

    I have a pair of ER-4s for myself and bought my girlfriend a set of ER-6is for her iPod. She prefers the ER-6i to the ER-4s because there is less sound isolation and she feels less cutoff from the world and a possible quick doom listening and walking on New York streets.

    I DO prefer the ER-4s, but use them with my PowerBook listening to CDs. No compression for me, thank you.

    If you love music and love your iPod, do yourself a HUGE favor and get a set of ER-61s! You’ll thank yourself. You’ll also find yourself ripping CDs at higher bit rates and never use iTMS (aside from podcasts) again!

  4. I love my 6i’s too. Got mine about a year ago, partly because of a prior review Steve J. had written here at MDN and the favorable commnts it elicited. Found I prefer the flanged tips. My only complaint would be about how difficult it is to get ’em sealed in my ear canals. But once they’re in, it’s heavenly!

  5. After breaking my ER-6’s, I picked up a pair of ER-4P’s.

    There is no going back!!

    I’ve heard some good things about the Shure earphones as well, but have never tried them.

  6. Ick, earbuds. I find them so uncomfortable. Give me good old-fashioned over-the-ear headphones that I can quickly throw on or off without having to wiggle them in and out of my ear canal.

    It’s times like this, when I hear people singing the praises of $150 earbuds, that I’m glad I have imperfect hearing. I’m not deaf or anything, but due to chronic ear infections when I was a kid, my perception of high frequencies is greatly reduced. Essentially it means that standard audio equipment sounds just as good to me as the expensive audiophile stuff. It’s true, ignorance really is bliss.

  7. I use the “Cheap Sunglasses” rule of thumb for earbuds: If they cost enough to make you wince when you accidentally drop them in the lake, hear them crunch underfoot, or find them chewed to pieces in the dog’s bed – they cost too much…

  8. For those on a budget, or who don’t like earbuds, I highly recommend the Koss PortaPro headphones, which can be had for around $40. They’ve got rave reviews on some audiophile websites, and they’re the best <$100 headphones I’ve heard except for the Grado SR60s, which are not as portable. I’m a beer-budget audiophile, and I’ve got a pair of Stax Lambda Pro electrostatic headphones, so I know what top-end phones sound like. The Kosses are very similar to the Staxes in their basic character, and have surprisingly full (but not bloated) bass. Granted, they’re not as quick or airy, but switching from the Staxes to the Kosses is not a horrible shock. The Kosses fold up into a fist-sized ball, and I’ve had mine for about eight years now. At <$50, they’re an absolute steal.

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