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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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My sweetheart bought me a pair of Etymotics ER-6 Isolator ear phones for our decennial. Those of you who know us know that I had a hand in both the selection and purchase of these aural wonders.

We were able to purchase ours for $114.95 on eBay and the list price is $139, but that’s strictly for suckers. I’m sure some of you gentle readers will be thinking, “$114.95 for ear phones?! Bill Brown thinks he’s better than us.” No, no, no. I may in fact be better than you, but these ear phones don’t confer such an evaluation automatically. I just know that aural immersion is a great environment to code in and that is worth far more than either the price I paid or the list price—in other words, it’s a good value.

I’ve been looking for a replacement for the ‘phones included with Dagny, my iPod. Bang & Olufsen’s were too expensive (and I wasn’t really sure that they were worth it). The ER-4’s were also too expensive, but I thought they would be worth it. So, ultimately, I decided what represented the best value and read everything I could find about that choice. Since I couldn’t take them for a test drive (I’m not sure I’d want to stick something that had been in who-knows-how-many ears in my own. I’m not a germophobe, but that’s gross), it all came down to this comment on MetaFilter. Anything that made someone feel isolated and “like the sound was being injected straight into my eardrums” was the right thing for me.

So I waited and regaled the love of my life with stories of how wonderful my life would be if I could just shut every other sound out of my head while I worked. Our decennial seemed like the perfect opportunity for her to show me how much I meant to her. When they arrived, it was reminiscent of my iPod unwrapping.

I read the instructions on how to insert them properly into the ear canal and proper maintenance. At this price, these things will be handed down to the next generation (with new tips, natch). Getting the seal nearly right, I cranked up ol’ Dagny (I can call her that now that the new generation iPods are out, even though she was acquired at Christmas 2002). The noise reduction of just having them in my ears was significant—the manual suggests it’s on the order of 20 dB. Turning on the music completely drowns out any external noise. I was in coding heaven!

After a day and a half of serious use, I can honestly say that these things are worth every penny. While I sit at my desk and code, I am blissfully unaware of my surroundings and, most importantly, my co-workers and phones. They suggest that you don’t jog, drive, or pilot while wearing them and I would concur. As I walked around my floor, I became aware of why you shouldn’t jog with them: you can hear every footfall, your breathing, and your talking sounds like an internal monologue. You get used to that after awhile, but it’s almost haunting at first.

The frequency range is quite extensive, listed from 20 Hz to 16 kHz. I think I probably should have used iTunes’s equalizer function better because the bass didn’t sound like I expected it to. Or maybe I’ve become conditioned to subpar performance by all of the headphones I’ve used in my life. Or maybe I didn’t get a great seal when I inserted it. Seals are critical in such a tiny package and I didn’t effectively moisten the silicone the first couple of times.

If anything startling comes up in future use, I’ll definitely note it here but as of today, these things are great. I don’t see how the ER-4s could improve on these babies, so I’m not willing to pony up the dough and will probably never regret my purchase decision. Also, this purchase brings my iPod-related expenditures to over $600 not including music. I’m still of the opinion that it’s money well spent, though I doubt Sandi would agree with that.