The Strange and Solipsistic World of ER-6 Earphones
Written: May 28, 2002 (Updated May 28, 2002)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:Compact, remarkable sound, allows listening at lower volumes
Cons:Inconvenient to insert, modestly comfortable, may raise solipsistic questions
The Bottom Line: If music transports you, you want to save your hearing, and you enjoy floating dreamily and ghost-like around people, then these are the earphones for you.
When $129 looks like a "value":
Many people have written about the remarkable sound these earphones produce, much like their pricier ER-4S sibling. Never having heard the higher-end models, I can't directly compare them, but the often-repeated comment that they provide 85% of the ER-4S quality at half the price seemed compelling. I figured I'd start with the the value choice. It's bad enough explaining what appear to be $129 "earplugs" to your wife--explaining $269 "earplugs" seemed like an exercise in futility.
These were purchased primarily for a light rail commute, and I use them without an amplifier. The primary source is a RioVolt SP250 CD/MP3 player. I have also tested them on a Stereo-Link USB Audio SL1200 (which sports an extraordinarily clean and well-powered headphone port). The sound quality across all these devices is superb, producing much cleaner and clearer bass than my Grado SR60's.
The Etymotic experience:
No one has written much about the experience of wearing these earphones in public, which is presumably what they're designed for. Sure, you can use them at home, but unless you live in a construction site, the need for sonic isolation there probably isn't pressing.
It's true: getting these things in and out is not a breezy affair. The instructions suggest that you "moisten" the tips before you insert them. I suspect most of you will use the bodily fluid in easy reach: saliva. You can cram them in dry, but it's difficult to get a good seal (mostly because it's hard to place them very deeply in the ear canal). Furthermore, you will look odd enough stuffing the ER-6 plugs into your ears given the suggested "pull up on ear with one hand and insert with other hand" technique they recommend. You will appear to others to be wrestling with your own head, or maybe demons. Do this dry and you'll being making a spectacle of yourself for longer than necessary. Once you've got them in, one easy test for a seal that has always worked for me is to rub your fingers together right next to each ear. If you hear that "swishing" sound, you don't have a seal.
Also, should you have to take them out for some reason (oh...I don't know...maybe to talk to someone?), it takes a bit of digging to get them out. The other person will stand there staring at you as you dig awkwardly at your ears. He or she will likely not want to shake your hand once you've got them out. And yes, it's hard to talk with them in.
It takes some practice placing them properly. Sometimes the earphones make my ears feel as though I'm in a repressurizing airplane cabin, presumably because during insertion they have compressed air in the ear canal, leaving the air with no means of escaping. The sound is still clear, but it can drive you crazy until you get it right. As always, practice helps. Note too that you can order different tips from Etymotic Research, including foam tips. You can even get Etymotic to create custom earplugs for you (with a considerable outlay of cash), and then use an adapter to connect the ER-6 earphones to them.
Out of touch:
Start the music of your choice, and beyond the fact that it will sound remarkable and will fill your head apparently from the inside, you will find yourself feeling very detached from the world around you.
Okay, you say, this "Walkman" effect has been around for a while now: that peculiarly isolating (sometimes liberating) feeling you get from listening privately to music in a public place. True, but this is utterly different. For starters, short of going full dork and wearing closed-ear headphones, you're not blocking out the sound around you all that much--and even closed phones don't block that much. In fact, the only way to do so with traditional headphones or earbuds is to crank them loudly enough that they drown out whatever ambient sounds are disturbing you. Your ears will hate you for this, as will the people around you, having to listen to your tinny and obnoxious noisemakers.
The ER-6 earphones sit almost fully inside your ears. The only evidence that you're listening to music is the thin black wires. Yet more amazing, no one can hear what you're listening to. You can't hear them, and they can't hear you, and you don't have to blast the music--even soft passages come through clearly and undisturbed. They can be talking right next you, the subway rumbling through the tunnel, the plane leaving the runway, all you hear is music. Only the loudest sounds hint their way to your ears. This is a very cool and weird thing. Normal headphones simulate immersion, these earphones fully create it, and at volumes that won't leave you feeling regretful and hard-of-hearing by your early 40s. You start to wonder about your tenuous connections to the people and things around you--it feels positively illegal. You'll wonder what is real. You may wonder if you're dreaming. It's intense stuff, and potentially off-putting to be in public and simultaneously so isolated. Psychiatrists call this this a "dissociative disorder"--a fancy way of describing feelings of detachment from ourselves and the world around us. And just think, while some people spend decades meditating to experience this, you can get there by cramming a wee thing in your ears. All hail the modern world!
Death by earphone:
Which brings me to what may seem to be an obvious point to many. The instructions warn about walking around with these on, particularly in the presence of "vehicular traffic." I've tried walking around with them on, and it's creepy. I haven't tested this, but I'm not sure that you would hear a siren bearing down on you as you stepped blindly and blissfully into an intersection. At the very least, pause your music when you cross the street. At least you'll hear the loud stuff then.
Your body is noisy:
Incidentally, as others have mentioned, isolating earphones may block out the world around you, but the world inside you comes alive. Breathing, chewing and movement are all amplified with the ER-6 earphones, just as they would be with earplugs. One odd thing: unless you have ultra-cushioned shoes on, you will be able to hear yourself walk--each heel-strike vibration will travel up your body and into your head. Distracting, but if you can manage to walk to the beat, you'll add back some of that overdriven and "boomy" bass these earphones fortunately lack--just in case you feel nostalgic.
One last thing...your ears aren't as clean as you think they are. The ER-6s call for scrupulous ear hygiene. And you'll want to think twice about letting friends or family try them, unless wax sharing is your thing.
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