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Aural Battle

I've long resisted the temptation to purchase headphones for use with my old 3rd gen iPod. Never much of an audiophile, I figured my ears wouldn't be able to tell much of a difference between a $100+ pair of headphones and the stock ones that come with the iPod. For the most part the iPod headphones worked fine for me. Only thing I noticed was that with loud background noise I couldn't hear much of anything with them. But when it comes to pricey headphones, you definitely don't know what you're missing until you actually use them.

This actually wasn't my first foray into in-ear headphones however. Awhile back I had purchased the Apple iPod In-Ear Headphones when they first came out. That was a mistake. Couldn't get the things to stay in my ear so I sold them off real quick. But in anticipation of a widescreen iPod late last year (that never came to fruition), I decided to take another look at the headphones that were available. Based on the review at iLounge, I decided to pick up a pair of Etymotic ER-6i Isolator Earphones.

Etymotics ER-6i

At first glance the ER-6i certainly doesn't look very impressive. Rather odd looking for headphones but they are small which is nice. Comes with 4 sets of earbuds in total, 1 tri-flange, 2 bi-flanges of differing sizes, and 1 foam. While I had heard that the foam plugs are the easiest to use, they also got dirty much quicker. So I stuck it out with the rubber flanges which actually work just fine with my ears. Although apparently my right ear canal is deeper or larger than my left cause I discovered that the tri-flange worked best with my right ear while the larger bi-flange worked better in my left. Disappointingly, they only included a little black pouch to store the headphones in. You would think at the price they'd have some sort of winding hard case.

As for sound quality, let's just say I wasn't blown away when I first tried them at home. But I decided to stick with it for awhile and figured out how to properly set them in my ears. After commuting with it for a few months now, here are the pros and cons in my experience.


  • They don't call these "Isolator" earphones for nothing. When you get a good seal with these, they block out practically everything around you. I don't know how good they'd be at blocking out sound on an airplane but they worked just fine for me on a bus and subway.

  • Beautiful, crystal clear highs and mid range. It took me awhile to appreciate this but when I went back to the iPod headphones to compare, it really stood out. When paired with the isolator effect, it makes for some really easy listening of vocals and music in general. You don't have to crank the volume up much even in the noisiest of conditions to still be able to hear vocals.


  • Because of how well they seal up your ears, these headphones are rather susceptible to microphonics and the occlusion effect. Basically if the headphone cable rubs against anything, you'll hear it through the headphones. Your breathing? You'll hear it. Your footsteps? You'll hear it. It was pretty annoying/distracting at first but after awhile either my brain learned to ignore those sounds or they just stopped bothering me altogether.

  • Where's the bass? Compared to the great highs and mids, there's a distinct lack of bass with these headphones. You have to crank up the volume a bit to be able to finally hear the bass but even then, you don't feel it like you normally want to with bass. I guess you can't have it both ways with single driver headphones.

So if you can get past the cons of these headphones, the ER-6i is actually quite good. They're actually great for programmers, especially when it's time to buckle down and bang out some code (unless your music of choice during those times is bass heavy). Plug these in, tunes everything else out. Occlusion and microphonics don't apply since you're not moving.

However, it was the lack of bass that lead me to look for another pair of headphones. I tried out a coworker's Ultimate Ears super.fi 5 EB and found it too heavy on the bass. To the point where it just garbled the mids and overpowered the highs. The bass was pretty kickin' though. But they were also too big and cost twice as much as I wanted to pay. And I didn't like how you had to bend them over the top of your ears to have them stay in place. I stayed away from the Shure's cause I heard they weren't all that great (plus the loop up around the ear wear method I'm not too fond of either). So I took a chance on the relatively new V-Moda Vibe headphones.

V-Moda Vibe

At first glance they're certainly much more fashionable than the ER-6i although these also came with just a pouch (and a rather ugly one at that) to store the headphones in. Came with a ton of different silicon tips of varying sizes to try on though. After some testing I decided to stick with the medium-sized tips that they originally come with. It also came with a rubber v-shaped cable manager that you can wrap any extra cord around. I've been using these for the past few weeks during my work commute and my thoughts thus far.


  • Stiffer, heavier round cord seems to minimize microphonics and occlusion. Although this could also be due to the fact that these don't seal up your ears quite like the ER-6i's do (which is a pro or a con depending on how you like your isolation).

  • Much better bass reproduction. The mids and highs don't sound as good as on the ER-6i in general but it's not too bad either. And it seems kinda random, on some songs the mids/highs sound pretty darn super. On others, pretty darn bad. Maybe has to do with the encoding method and rate of the songs.


  • Not as comfortable as the ER-6i. My right ear would hurt after a few minutes of use unless I positioned it a bit farther outward in my ear canal. Although it does seem to get better with time.

So I think for everyday use, the Vibe actually works very well and much better than the ER-6i. Even though the high/mid range isn't as good, it's not significantly worse and you get a nice boost in bass. Noise reduction is less with the Vibe since you don't form as much of an air-tight seal with the ear plugs than the ER-6i but that's probably better when you're out and about on the streets of a big city anyway. So if you're in the market for a set of headphones that are a step above the cheapo ones that comes with most MP3 players, then you can't really go wrong with the V-Moda Vibe.


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» Aural Battle Revisited from Absurd Singularity
Just a quick followup on the earphone comparison I put up in February. For the past few months I've been using the Etymotic ER-6i earphones exclusively over the V-Moda Vibe due to the ER-6i's better performance on the high and... [Read More]

Comments (2)

Huh, I hadn't heard of the Vibe. Hurry up and get on a plane and let me know how these phones stop plane noise. :)

I do have to say, that plastic cable dongle that comes with the Vibe is a little obscene looking..


Heh, well I'm pretty sure the ER-6i's should work pretty well on a plane. The Vibe, not so much.

Obscene looking? It's a shallow V. What were you thinking? ;-p

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