Some background: as it says in my profile, I used to work in the live and recorded sound biz, and I'm moderately obsessed with good sound. My go-to headphones are still my Sony MDR-7506s, but the full list has included...
- AKG K240
- Etymotic ER6i
- Etymotic ER-4P
- Sennheiser CX300
- Sennheiser CX400
- Sennheiser HD650
- Sennheiser HD280
- Sony MDR-7506
- Sony MDR-V600
- Sony MDR-V700
- UE Triple.Fi 10vi
along with plenty of cheaper junk for travel, gym, etc. I use the AKGs with a Behringer UCA202 at work, the Sony MDR-7506s when listening at home or DJing, and I have been happily using the Etymotic ER4s with my iPhone 3GS, but when the UEs came up in Amazon's Gold Box for $99, I couldn't resist and picked up a pair.
I've been A/Bing the UEs and Etymotics for the last hour, and I have to say, despite the usual price difference (the UEs usually retail for about 2x as much), the comparison is not cut and dried. My first impressions are as follows, with the "winner" in each area in bold in case you don't want to read the whole thing.
The biggest known weakness of the Etymotics is the bass response, even when the flanges are shoved all the way down your ear canal and are tickling your temporal lobe, and the UEs are the clear winner here. The thump and throb of the bass on NIN's Gave Up and Zero Sum was much tighter, clearer, and more extended on the UEs, while the Etymotics gave up on clarity as the frequencies descended toward 20 Hz.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Etymotics redeemed themselves. The opening chords of Band of Horses' The Funeral gave me goosebumps, and the NIN tracks generally had more sizzle on the cymbals and more edge to the guitars and synths. The UEs sound a bit darker, despite the better frequency separation lent by the multiple drivers.
Still, the effectiveness of the UEs' multiple drivers can be heard in the clarity of the sound. Despite the compression of the some of the MP3s I have on my iPhone, the UEs carved out more of a pocket for each instrument and frequency range. I'm sure this difference between the headphones would be more pronounced with higher-quality amplification, but I could hear, for example, the muddying effect of heavy bass on the mids in the Etymotics, but not in the UEs.
Somehow, even put up against the multiple drivers, the Etymotics produced a wider, more defined soundstage. Special effects like dynamic panning were more pronounced, and subtle placement of instruments within the field was clearer, especially on quieter tracks with more headroom/less compression. The better high frequency response on the Etymotics may have something to do with this perception.
Because I use these headphones in the real world - on airplanes, buses, NYC subways, etc., there are some ancillary considerations that have a real effect on my headphone preference. Despite the fact that the UEs are billed as noise-isolating, the Etymotics were clearly superior at blocking outside noise, even in the relatively quiet environment of my office. The cord is a bit longer and heavier on the Etymotics, but lacks the built-in microphone of the UEs. The earbud flanges on the Etymotics take quite a bit of getting used to, whereas the UEs, while they don't fit as snugly, come with 4 different sets of tips and are immediately comfortable and feel easier to wear for long periods.
However, with the sound quality a near wash between the two, the main reason I'm switching from the Etymotics to the Ultimate Ears is the filters. The Etymotics have dirt/debris filters that fit inside the driver enclosure behind the flanged tips and must be changed every time they get clogged. They are tiny, difficult to replace, and not tremendously cheap - $15 gets you 3 sets of filters, and I have to change mine every few months at most. I consider the filter system to be the Achilles heel of the otherwise-excellent Etymotics, and I'm hoping for substantially less maintenance with the UEs. We'll see how it goes.