By April 15, 2009

Etymotic Research ER6i Earphones Review (from a motorcyclist’s perspective)

I wrote about the Scala Rider Q2 bluetooth motorcycle communication system almost a month ago. I liked the ability to talk to another person on the bike, place a mobile phone call if I was stuck in traffic, or listen to music.

However, there was a major problem: the speakers that come with the Q2 suck, and I couldn’t hear much over 40MPH with my earplugs in.

I read about soldering a headphone jack connector to the Q2 unit and using and inner-ear earphones headset to eliminate wind noise. I started researching what earphones would be the next best thing to wearing my Howard Leight earplugs. Whatever I purchased needed to live up to a tall task:

  1. Provide acceptable protection against the ear-damaging sound associated with motorcycling.
  2. Be comfortable in my ears for a long period of time.
  3. Provide acceptable sound quality for my Scala Q2.

My research on motorcycle forums like Sportbikes.net, ADVrider.com and sport touring forums, I decided on the Etymotic Research ER6i earphones. They have quite a following from motorcyclists. The manufacturer claims up to 36dB in noise reduction, which would make them more effective than my old foam standbys. At $75 shipped from Amazon it was a lot to pay on top of the Q2 set, but without better sound my bluetooth headset would be useless.

I bit. Would the ER6i earphones do their job as advertised?

I took full advantage of Amazon’s “Prime” program, and the earphones arrived two business days later. I was impressed by the size; I was very worried about the headset sticking out too much in my ear and being uncomfortable when I had my helmet on.

http://gallery.drfaulken.com/d/6120-2/IMG_8447.JPG

The standard tip is a soft rubber-like three sectioned cone. I was a little nervous, as I had previous comfort issues with the similarly-styled SilentEar reusable earplugs. The headset comes with a variety of tips, and after trying all of them decided the standard one fit me the best. Unfortunately, I immediately recognized a problem that would doom the ER6i.

You have to jam these things in your ear hole pretty good to get decent sound protection. When you do that, however, they really hurt. The instructions state you just have to get a good seal on the third flange, which I easily did. After all, I’ve been wearing earplugs for well over a dozen years due to shooting and motorcycling. I get my foam plugs nice and deep, so that wasn’t a new feeling for me.

When I put my motorcycle helmet on, the pressure in my ear canal was so painful I didn’t want to turn my head. The ER6i were clearly too deep for comfort, so I backed them out. As you can imagine, extracting the earphones lessens their ability to both stay in and block noise. I practiced for a few days at home by just wearing the plugs around the house. I found a sweet spot between comfort and noise reduction and took to the road.

I wrote about this before when I owned my first BMW (which had great helmet speakers; Scala take note that your product sucks in this regard): riding with music is an awesome experience. Sometimes riding on the highway can become mind-numbing, and music is a good way to keep things active. I had a great morning listening to Pendulum’s “The Tempest” while riding in a torrential downpour — it was a surreal experience.

Unfortunately getting a proper fit with the ER6i was really hit or miss. I could start with a good fit and bump my ears while putting the helmet on — which resulted in a poor seal. Sometimes I would have an okay seal after putting on the helmet, but tightening the helmet strap would put too much pressure and cause me pain. Other times everything would be fine until I yawned … and then the seal would break and I got a nice WHOOOOOOSH of wind noise for half an hour. When researching my experience on the Internet, I found that others had the same problems I did. Some gave up right away, some learned to deal with the discomfort. I wonder if people who wore helmets that were too big found it easier to wear the ER6i.

Even when I did get a nice fit, I doubted the claims made by Etymotic Research in regards to noise isolation. There is absolutely no way the have a 36dB noise reduction; compared to the Howard Leights I would say they block out half of the noise as the cheap foam ear plugs. Even with the larger tips in (which really hurt) they didn’t block remotely the same amount of sound. The question I kept asking myself is if they were blocking enough noise to escape hearing damage.

After riding home with a half-sealed earphone on a really windy day, I decided the question wasn’t worth answering. Between the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t conundrum between shoving the phones deep in your canal or suffering wind intrusion, bumping the plugs out of alignment at the slights brush in my helmet, and wondering if Etymotic Research’s claims about noise reduction were true, I just gave up.

The earphones seem of nice quality, and although others have complained about the thin cord I didn’t find them to be an issue. As much as I loved motorcycling to music, it wasn’t enough to put up with the pain and the lesser noise reduction.

Not recommended for motorcyclists.

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11 Comments on "Etymotic Research ER6i Earphones Review (from a motorcyclist’s perspective)"

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  1. Gremlin says:

    I’m going to disagree with you one this one with a couple of caveats. I’ve used the ER-6 (not the 6i) for about two years while riding. During that time I’ve done several 12 plus hour rides without ever removing them for more than 20 minutes.

    There are a couple differences between the sound of the 6 and the 6i. The 6i has an increase bass response that I find totally unnecessary. If I want more bass, that is for the EQ to do.

    More importantly, the er-6 only has two flanges. Try nipping off that tip flange. I also recommend looping that wire over the top of your ear (inserting the headphone upside down). Then when you put your helmet on, you won’t be pulling on the wires and upsetting your seal.

    For hearing protection, I usually use my db meter and a fancy cardboard contraption to get actual spl for a given headphone/music player combo. I aim for 75 db. At 75 db, OSHA says no hearing protection is required. Then I insert the headphones and go for a ride. With my er-6 I don’t EVER have to turn the volume up. That’s damn good isolation.

  2. drfaulken says:

    Hi Gremlin — I am glad your ER-6 earphones are working out for you. I had read about cutting off the thinnest flange, but didn’t want to in case I needed to sell the ER6i.

    Inserting them upside down and looping the cord are both interesting ideas. I am not certain if the former would help on the ER6i, as the back is square and would be bumped regardless of orientation. How does this help the earphones you have from getting bumped out of place?

    I am glad you mentioned the db meter and testing … how do companies like Etymotic validate their claims on noise reduction, and is it possible to test it at home? I guess you could have a ~34db noise according to the meter and then see if you could hear it with the Etymotics in.

    Thanks for your comments, I hope they are helpful for someone else with the same problems I did.

  3. Spectre says:

    Nice write up Doc. I have had good experience with the Skull Candy ear buds when I was riding. The best thing about them for me was that the back side of the speaker housing that sat outside the ear was flat, instead of conical like most ear buds. When I had my helmet on the buds would rest on the padding rather than dig into the side of my head, and depending on the helmet I was wearing would even leave me with a little wiggle room for comfort.

    Might want to check those out. I have also put mine through a lot of abuse and they are still working as well as they did when I bought them two years ago.

  4. Gremlin says:

    With the third flange cut off, you can insert the headphone the way it’s meant to. The entire headphone is inside the ear just like a properly inserted ear plug. When it’s properly inserted, the only part of the headphone that is touched by the helmet is the wire, so looping over the ear prevents wire noise from reaching you and prevents the helmet from pulling on the wire.

  5. Motodisiac says:

    Interesting. Your thoughts on ER6i’s completely mimics my experience with them. I bought a set few years ago, after several unsuccessful attempts to use them I gave up and they have been sitting my my desk ever since. The cord is complete junk and will look like it went through hell in no time. There is no way these provide adequate noise protection, maybe if you have never used the earplugs you may be fooled that the noise is reduced.
    By the way I also use Scala Rider Q2 and while it’s completely useless for listening to music while riding, it works just fine for communications with my riding buddies and customers who call in at the wrong time 🙂

  6. BigOrange says:

    I do use the ER6i all the time on the bike – two tricks are to try the small flanged earbuds and stuff them as far into your ears as they go I think Etymotic suggests wetting them first (yes, this is getting to be a bit more information than required). The small earbuds should be the least uncomfortable and if they are seated properly they do a good job at reducing outside noise (which I find doesn’t intrude until ~70 mph).
    Not sure what the problem with cutting off flanges is as there are spares with the phones and replacements are available on the internet. They also came with foam earbuds as well for those with more delicate ears but continually replacing these would quickly become costly.

  7. Chris says:

    Didn’t your set come with foam plugs as a replacement for the flanged plugs? I could never get the flanges to sit correctly, but the foam plugs work just like the normal earplugs (get them warm, squish them down, and insert). They do an excellent job of keeping the noise down.

  8. drfaulken says:

    Hi Chris,

    Yes they did. I put them in and found they did not attenuate as much sound as the flange plugs, which in turn did not reduce as much sound as my Howard Leight Max plugs.

    Also, the foam plugs are not meant to be multiple use according to Etymotic.

  9. asdf says:

    Isn’t motorcycle riding dangerous enough without blocking out your hearing with loud music? This seems like a very risky undertaking. I’d want 100% of my hearing devoted to saving my butt in case of unforeseen surprises which sometimes are detected solely by hearing. Not playing loud music may make the difference between you avoiding the accident and being the accident. Is it worth it for some music? Maybe its time to get a better bike so the machine is more enjoyable? Usually when people get more high end in their riding, nicnaks like music seem a little irrelevant.

  10. asdf says:

    I should have added….the point is the ride, right? Music is just an afterthought. Not a priority.

  11. DrFaulken says:

    Hello there,

    Thank you for your note and your concern.

    Do you ride at higher speeds (50MPH+) often? I find that regardless of playing music or not, I can’t hear anything at those speeds due to my protective ear plugs or earphones. I can’t think of a single instance in my four and a half years of riding that I used my hearing at highway speeds to detect danger.

    The only thing I can hear at those speeds are road noise, wind, horns (usually mine) and the sirens of emergency vehicles.

    What kind of sounds do you expect to detect solely by hearing that might avoid an accident?

    I may see your point if you ride on the street at lower speeds, perhaps on a cafe racer-style motorcycle or a scooter. What kind of bike do you ride, and in what conditions?