If you’re looking for earphones to use while motorcycling – or almost anything – you will not find better bang for your buck than these.  Go buy them and be happy – or at least protect your hearing while also listening to what you fancy.

-Awesome sound quality
-Blocks obscene amounts of ambient noise (~32dB) effectively muting the world around you, including your nagging wife.
-Actually stays in your ear

-About twice as expensive as the crappy ones you were going to buy.
-Effectively mutes the world around you, including the car that’s about to hit you.

Ok, first of all these are officially called “in-ear monitors” (IEM) and not “earphones” or “headphones”.  Feel smug.  The difference between a monitor and a hi-fi speaker is in the audio production.  Studio monitors are typically designed to be close-range loudspeakers that have a very flat frequency response curve so the sound engineers can hear the music accurately for proper mixing, while a hi-fi speaker is designed to fill the entire room with the music and can employ different frequency response curves to achieve different “color” in the audio.  What this mean for you in selecting earphones is IEMs will represent the music accurately and clearly.  If you want some bumpin’ bass – make sure you have an equalizer.  The Etymotic ER6i is a consumer-level in-ear monitor.  You will get the benefit from professional audio development, without breaking the bank.

The first thing you’ll notice about an IEM is how tricky they are to put in.  It might take a few days or even weeks to figure out – they go in deep, real deep.  You know the Ceti Eel from Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan, aka: the-worm-the-bad-guy-put-in-the-good-guy’s-ear?  Description from Wikipedia: “The slime-covered larva will seek out a larger animal, enter its skull through the ear and wrap itself around the cerebral cortex. This causes the subject intense pain and makes them very susceptible to suggestion. As the larva grows, the host suffers from insanity and eventually, death.”  Putting in-ear monitors in is not too dissimilar to that, but the result is simply auditory input of your fancy.  The intense pain, susceptibility to suggestion, insanity and/or death is completely up to what you listen to.  Regardless of how your audio makes you feel, you can rest assured these will play it clearly and accurately.

The second thing you’ll notice – after you get them in properly – is how quiet the world around you becomes.  With ~32dB of noise reduction, you get certifiable levels of hearing protection.  Do you actually get certified hearing protection?  Of course not; you could crank these babies up and blow your ears out as fast as any sweaty night club blasting overplayed shitty pop music.  I was surprised by how easily music drowns out ambient noise, and it’s easy to understand why they come with a warning about operating machinery, or bicycles, or simply jogging on the sidewalk.  If you frequently find yourself having intense emotional reactions due to the noise around you, whether it be office banter, a nagging wife, or some punk playing crappy music, then find solace with these as they transport you into your own personal auditory world.  Sometimes movies will have this sort of effect where the radio in the background is playing music and it’s just part of the ambient sound in the movie, then the main character turns the volume up and the music becomes louder and clearer while everything else is muted.  That’s what these are like in real life.  Mute the world around you and be submersed completely into the music you have playing.

The third thing you’ll notice is the sound quality, especially if you’re not much of an audiophile to begin with.  The simple fact is that these can be had for a fraction of what a comparable hi-fi home stereo would cost.  Not only does the ER6i do a great job at reducing ambient noise, but the sound quality is so good that the details musicians put in to a song will pop out like never before, as will the ambient noise in the recording studio (it’s more frequent than you might think!). Even how much white noise your mp3 player has when the music is paused will become apparent.

The fourth thing you’ll notice, especially if you’ve had less adequate earphones in the past, is that they actually stay in your ear! That’s right folks, no more battling with earphones constantly falling out.  Back before my enlightenment with these in-ear monitors, I used to wear a thin balaclava under my motorcycle helmet to keep earphones in.  I also had to keep the wires in a proper location so that they wouldn’t tug the earphones out of my ear.  With the Etymotic ER6i properly inserted in the ear canal, they form a seal and sort of “lock” into place and I don’t need the balaclava anymore, and the wires don’t pull them out.  After holding some pressure on the ER6i for a couple seconds while putting them in, they require a surprising amount of force to take out, and should be removed slowly to avoid an extreme pressure change on the eardrum.

Final considerations:

  1. They have a 5-foot chord.  I think it’s perfect.  I’m 6’2″ and have had earphones with a too-short chord that would hang my mp3 player from my ear canal – not fun and easily avoided with a long chord.  5′ is not so long that it gets in the way, but the chord does tangle a little easier – a moot point, in my humble opinion.
  2. They do take some practice to put in correctly.  You might give yourself a wet willy first to lube up your ear canal to make the job easier.  I’m serious.  My preferred technique is to pull back on my earlobe with my opposite hand to open up the ear canal, push them in until I feel them “click” into place, then release my earlobe and keep pressure on them for a couple seconds while they form a seal with my ear canal.  A light tug on the chord will let me know if they’re sealed in place or not.
  3. I focus on using them while motorcycling, but they were originally developed for on-stage musicians as an alternative to traditional foldback stage monitors (the speakers that point at the musicians to help them play in-time and in-tune).  I frequently use the ER6is at my desk to block out office banter.
  4. If you have problems with your current earphones falling out, then give these a shot.  It’s worth noting that it may take a few weeks to figure out how to put them in properly.  Also they come with a variety of tips, so you’ll have to experiment to find out which ones work best for you.
  5. You may immediately discover that your mp3 collection is not a high enough bit-rate, or other problems with your audio equipment.  High fidelity isn’t about having one or two nice components, it’s about having an entire system.
  6. The ambient noise reduction is so great, that I can feel loud, particularly bass ambient sounds more than I can hear them.  A couple examples:  I have to be touching my bike to tell if it’s idling or not (or look at the tachometer) since I definitely can’t hear it.  I will feel loud cars and motorcycles before hearing them.
  7. Their small body size causes virtually no discomfort while wearing my helmet compared to the earphones I’ve used, which can be intensely painful after only a half-hour of riding, let alone an entire day.
  8. There are several advantages over Active Noise Canceling headphones:  Cheaper, lighter, higher fidelity, and in some cases better noise reduction.
  9. As a final note, this is more of a review of in-ear monitors vs. traditional style earphones since these are the only in-ear monitors I have experience with.  Notwithstanding, in-ear monitors are vastly superior to traditional earphones, even the silicone tipped variety and I have been extremely happy with the ER6i.   I’m happy to hear reader’s opinions on different models/brands of IEMs.  As far a I’m concerned – I’m never going back to a “normal” earphone.

Simply put:  These do exactly what earphones should do:  Provide excellent audio fidelity while staying in your ear and reducing ambient noise.

Etymotic has a number of different in-ear models to choose from.  The ER6i is specifically intended for the portable music player market.  It also appears to have the smallest body size, and thus is probably the best at fitting in a helmet.  There are a few other options at different price points, noise reduction, and fidelity.


Etymotic Research ER6i Isolator In-Ear Earphones (Black)
Etymotic Research ER6i Isolator In-Ear Earphones (White)

Etymotic Research website

Other Etymotic in-ear products:

If you’re the sort of person to only go for the absolute best:
Etymotic ER-4P Portable In-Ear Earphones
Etymotic ER-4S MicroPro Reference Earphones

These might be the best for air travel, with greater noise reduction and better fidelity, however I’m suspect of their ability to fit in a helmet:
Etymotic Research HF5 Portable In-Ear Earphones (Black)
Etymotic Research HF5 Portable In-Ear Earphones (Cobalt)

Similar to the HF5, but at a lower price point:
Etymotic Research MC5 Noise Isolating In-Ear Earphones (Blue)
Etymotic Research MC5 Noise Isolating In-Ear Earphones (Red)
Etymotic Research MC5 Noise Isolating In-Ear Earphones (Green)
Etymotic Research MC5 Noise Isolating In-Ear Earphones (Black)