I was born with the wrong-shaped ears for most earbud-style earphones - they just fall out. So earbuds that are designed to sit in the ear canal work far better for me, with the added bonus of getting better sound quality by blocking ambient noise, and sparing my neighbours the leakage.
I’ve used various pairs of Sennheisers and Sonys for a fair while - but while they’re reasonably in-ear, the design of their rubber seals still allows a fair amount of ambient noise in. That’s not too much of a problem in a relatively quiet environment, but not so good in places like the Tube - it’s tempting to crank up the volume to drown out the surroundings, and that way lies tinnitus and hearing loss.
Having used various types of earplugs for noisy DIY jobs, I was quite intrigued by the type of earbuds that use soft rubber flanges - and when the plug on my previous pair of Sennheisers meeting with an unfortunate accident coincided with a eBuyer voucher, I figured it was time to give something else a try.
Etymotics specialist in high-end earphones, and have a range of models that use both foam and rubber-flanged sleeves. The ER6 and ER6i are their mid-tier models, physically identical apart from the ER6is having a boosted frequency response, supposedly to work better with iPods and the like. Frankly, my hearing is shot to bits so these sorts of claims don’t make a lot of difference - but I do like more bass than a flat response can provide, so the 6is looked like a better option.
Physically, they’re about 1cm long by 0.5 wide in a slightly-hexagonal shape, and are clear so that you can see the innards. The cable emerges from the unit at a right-angle, so they hang down when you’ve got them in your ears - and because they sit so deep in the ear canal, they’re practically invisible. The rubber flanges are food-grade Band Aid blue and have a Towers-of-Hanoi shape to them. The cables are symmetrical, about 1m long and terminate in a right-angled 3.5mm stereo jack plug.
Inserting them for the first time is somewhat strange. They claim to manage around 36bB of sound isolation, which seems credible - the rubber flanges make a more-or-less completely airtight seal in your ear canal. That makes them quite tricky to insert - I’ve found the best way is to moisten the tips, pull my ear up with my opposite hand and insert them pointing upwards. That way they slide in and sit properly, although it is a bit of a public performance.
Once they’re in, you realise just how much sound reaches you through bone conduction. You’re very aware of breathing and swallowing - you wouldn’t want to chew gum while listening to music, for example. This is something that you get used to, along with the somewhat strange “plugged” sensation - for the first week, I was a bit worried about sneezing in case my eyeballs popped out of their sockets. Taking them out is just a case of pulling gently - too hard a tag and they come out with a “pop” that makes your ears ring. Personally I think the isolation works far better than “active” headphones, without needing gigantic ear cups and batteries.
The sound isolation is superb - they’re ideal for use in noisy situations such as the Tube when the temptation with leakier models would be to crank the volume up.
The sound quality is good - although they’re not overly bass-heavy, there’s a decent “thump factor”. The midrange doesn’t overwhelm, and the high-end response is more than equal to my hearing capabilities. While audiophiles might find something to mutter about, I’ve been more than satisfied with their performance for a range of music genres and speech
Because they fit so deeply inside the ear canal, these are ideal for use when you’re moving around - they’re not going to fall out if you’re running etc.
The build quality (aside from a slight reservation about the cable below) is good - they feel solid and robust enough to stand up to repeated use.
The complete package includes a zip-up storage pouch, foam eartips for if the rubber ones don’t suit, some replacement wax filters and a filter tool
The sound isolation is so good that this could be a hazard in some situations - and it’s difficult to hear PA announcements. This is trade-off to one of the benefits, so it comes down to what sort of situations you’re going to be using them in.
The cable doesn’t look overly robust - although there is strain relief at the earphone end, I’d be careful about yanking them out by the cables
The cable is a bit too long for use with iPods - I personally prefer the Sony approach of a shorter cable from the earphones and an extension cable. But YMMV.
The rubber eartips are something of an earwax squeegie - as you haul them one, the flanges do have a tendency to collect gunk. But you could see that as a benefit - not only will other people think twice before pinching them if they’re encrusted with your earwax, they’ll also keep your ear canals nice and clean if you use them on a regular basis…
- There aren’t really any show-stopping problems, unless you’re not keen on the idea of in-ear models. Something to be aware of is that these do sit right in your ears, so if you’re not comfortable with that, these aren’t for you.
Overall, I’d say these were a good replacement for my previous Sennheisers, if slightly on the pricey side for what they are. Having said that, I noticed a huge variation in actual street prices, so it’s worth shopping around.