Top Rated Earbuds: The Etymotic ER-6 Isolator

by Justin Thomas •

Recommended by: ZDNet, CNET and Wired Magazine.


The name Etymotic means “true to the ear” and is pronounced “et-im-oh-tik.” We’re huge fans of the company’s ER-4P earbuds but it retails for a whopping $330. The ER-6 Isolator earbuds, meanwhile, carries a list price of $130 and is designed to offer most of the performance and features of its pricier sibling for a lot less money.

The ER-6 earbuds come with both silicone rubber and foam eartips, which the user can swap. They’re designed to fit into your ear canals, like earplugs, to block out ambient noise. We judged their effectiveness to be the equal of active or battery-powered noise-canceling headphones. There’s just one caveat: some buyers, particularly those with smaller ear canals, may find the eartip insertion rituals a bit daunting or unpleasant (you really have to jam them in). Also, the rubber eartips in particular have a tendency to attract earwax and will have to be cleaned regularly. But this reviewer found the ER-6 to be highly comfortable–arguably more so than other top in-ear headphones, including the Shure E3c or the Etymotic ER-4P. On the other hand, some CNET editors preferred the fit of Shure’s E3c and Sony’s less expensive MDR-EX71SL.

As with those in-ear models, when we walked or moved, we heard the ER-6’s wires rubbing against our clothing. You get used to the sounds over time, but they’re there, and the ER-6’s very thin and superflexible wires are prone to tangle; ours did, even after we carefully stowed the headphones in their carry pouch.

Ah, but the ER-6’s sound is extraordinarily fine. Because of its noise-isolation attributes, on a roaring NYC subway train, we were able to listen to our iPod at very moderate volume levels; we didn’t have to blast our ears to enjoy our music. Then again, if you want to play loud, the ER-6 can achieve fairly high levels with a portable MP3 player, though the ER-4P was able to play louder.

Listen, and you’ll hear a purity to the sound that few ‘phones can match; we were constantly surprised by the ER-6’s ability to resolve even the most subtle details of our music collection. Bass response is excellent–deep and well defined–for an earbud-type headphone. Bass buffs will be happier with a full-size Grado SR60 ($69), our iPod headphone champs. However, overall the ER-6’s sonics are cleaner and far more resolved than the SR60’s. As always, your buying decision is a matter of identifying your priorities.

The Etymotic ER-6 Isolator is available from Amazon

Comments 4

  1. I must take exception to this factually incorrect statement

    “Bass buffs will be happier with a full-size Grado SR60 ($69), our iPod headphone champs.”

    These lowest end Grado’s are known for their flat response and rather “tinny” sound. Their cosmetic appeal far exceeds their sonic abilities, hence preferred mostly by the tragically image conscious.

    If you really want low-end a pair of decent Sennheisers will do a much better job. (plus you won’t look like a WWII telegraph operator waering one)

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