I've always used closed or semi-closed cup headphones for monitoring audio during video shoots, until now. The sound isolation gained by using closed or semi-closed headphones is necessary to be really able to hear accurately what's going on in a loud and jumbled shooting environment. Headphones are generally comfortable, somewhat isolating and accurate, and we're all used to them. They can also be cumbersome, heavy and take both hands to adjust and seat properly. I've tried iPod style ear buds, which have been somewhat accurate. However, they are usually biased more toward reproducing high bass levels and artificial highs. Also, they haven't been very good at neutral isolation (they tend to isolate external sound by overwhelming it with the reproduction) and they haven't felt all that comfortable or that they were in place securely.
Etymotic R-4B earphones Etymotic Research has specialized in developing innovative, high fidelity hearing products for the past 25 years, based on deep and wide research in audiology, the branch of science that studies hearing, balance and related disorders. The company name, Etymotic, means "true to the ear."
Etymotic's ER-4 MicroPro series of earphones consists of four related, but purpose-differentiated, models: the 4P, 4S and 4B.
The 4P is designed with enhanced bass response and higher sensitivity, specifically for portable media players without a headphone amplifier. They provide a roughly 10 dB boost in the higher frequencies and about 13 dB boost in the lower frequency ranges.
The 4S has a very flat response and is targeted at portable media players with a built in headphone amp. It compensates for the high frequency emphasis of CDs with a pronounced frequency response between roughly 7 to 10 kHz, a response that typically is close to stage monitors, which makes them very useful for in-ear monitoring during live performance.
The 4B's "B" stands for binaural, and this model is specifically designed to monitor material not equalized for loudspeaker playback. It served as the focus of this review.
All ER-4 models provide roughly 20-25 dB of noise isolation. Sound quality and isolation are directly related to how well the earphone is seated in the ear.
All the members of the series have similar features, except for response curves, and come in similarly configured kits, including the same accessories. Each set has a 5-foot connecting cable, terminated in a 3.5 mm stereo plug. Also included is a 1/4-inch stereo phone plug adapter, along with replacement foam ear tips, four replacement filters and a changing tool. There's a short clip to secure the cord, a small travel pouch and a larger storage box. The ER-4 series ship with flanged ear tips installed, which make a nice seat and seal in the ear. These can be easily replaced by the disposable foam tips, which might be more comfortable to some users and depending on the shape of the ear canal, might provide better sound and isolation. On the end of the earphones, beneath the ear tips, are tiny filters that are designed to smooth the frequency response and protect the earphones from ear wax. When these become clogged, sound quality is diminished, and so replacement filters and a changing tool are provided.
I used the ER-4B in a number of shooting situations, and was thoroughly impressed on each occasion. The first test situation was one of the most chaotic that I could imagine—a shoot of the final project of a high school video class.
Imagine, if you will, a musical sequence, with 15 dancers, seven actors, a director, a choreographer, musical playback coming from a car stereo, all in a corner of a busy parking lot in the middle of town, with teenage intensity and volume levels. I agreed to record audio for them that day, and this seemed like a good chance to try out the noise rejecting and monitoring capabilities associated with the ER-4B's.
The second use was in taping a play in an elementary school gym—mixing an on-camera short shotgun and two condenser mics that were closer to the stage.
The third application was a fairly simple interview in an office setting, but accompanied by a lot of environmental noise.
All three situations required accurate monitoring of the sound hitting the recorder's microphone, while at the same time minimizing the bleed of the actual room (or area) sound. Subjectively, the ER's provided a much clearer sense of what was I was recording, as opposed to what was in the room. And also subjectively, they seemed to do a better job of isolation than my usual field monitoring headphones, with which I never had any complaints or problems.
In addition to making it easier to separate room noise from the monitored signal, I felt that I was able to hear the monitored signal much more accurately. The earphones were so light that it was easy to forget I was wearing them. In fact, on at least a couple of occasions I came close to pulling them out as I walked away from the camera. Their lightness and comfort are both big positives.
Fast Facts Application
Small size; highly accurate
MSRP is $299
www.etymotic.comMonitoring accuracy, perceived accuracy, and trustworthiness are all interesting concepts, and to a certain extent moving targets as well. On looking back at my experiences with the Etymotic Research earphones, the extreme accuracy they provided is not something I've experienced so clearly before. I will state that my first reaction to the ER-4B's was that they sounded a bit harsh. However, sometime later and through much comparison, I realized that this was the effect of a significantly flatter frequency response—something we are always looking for in monitor speakers. Once my points of reference were re-established—really necessary with any new monitoring configuration, and which only took a bit of time—I felt full confidence in what I was hearing through the ER-4B's. They mount and stay securely in the ear, although it can take a bit of practice to get them inserted straight and without too much pressure. If the ear phones are not inserted correctly, the sound will not be as accurate.
My only, and small, complaint was that the plug wires were susceptible to noise from touch or rubbing, which can be annoying. To address this,Etymotic Research includes a clip in the earphone kit for restricting the amount of movement the wires can have.
All in all, I found working with the ER-4B's an extremely enjoyable experience. Their small weight meant that it was easy to keep them in place throughout a shoot (as long as I remembered I was plugged in), and still be able to hear, but not be distracted by, the room sound.
Once I had become accustomed to the difference between the response curve of these earphones versus the ones I've used for a number of years, the Etymotics were a complete joy to use. Their size, accuracy, sound isolation and excellent value will make them a worthy addition to any field audio kit, and I will keep them in my daily shooting kit for the foreseeable future.
Michael Hanish operates Free Lunch, a video/audio/multimedia production house near Guilford, Vt. He may be contacted at email@example.com.