Jul 232014

Lack of time, or some excuse resembling this, has translated into a total lack of recent updates – though I’ve been accumulating a backlog of sorts to post about.  First, a couple of things I started using back around the start of the year!

Etymotic ER-4PT Earbuds

Alas, on a trip late last year, the set of earbuds I was using at the time – Ultimate Ears super.fi 5 Pro – failed to make the final connection from Vancouver to Seattle, and as a result, were probably unceremoniously tossed out along with the usual seatback pocket trash.  Which is unfortunate, since they weren’t particularly inexpensive, nor were they that old (they served me for a little over 5 years, with a replacement cord less than a year ago).  After I didn’t get a response (as expected) to a Lost-and-Found filing with Air Canada, I found myself unwillingly in the market for a new pair of earbuds.

The UEs were actually the first earbuds I ever purchased.  I prefer big speakers over small speakers, small speakers over headphones, and headphones over earbuds.  However, my headphones are entirely impractical for travel since they’re an open design that allows sound to pass both in and out; good for Olivia’s early days – or should I say, sleepless nights requiring a rapid response – but not so good for the constant noise and close proximity to others of an airplane.  And with almost a half million miles of travel during the period of time that I owned the UEs, the airplane scenario was all too common. While I travel far less frequently than I did previously, with two trips to Asia on the calendar for early 2014, I definitely didn’t want to be stuck with airplane headphones that can now miraculously be manufactured for perhaps 20 cents – with sound quality to match.

So, I went through the same routine that led me to the now-discontinued UE earbuds I’d purchased previously – going through pretty much all the reviews and comparisons I could find in what I thought was a “reasonable” price range. Earbuds are like anything else in audio: you can spend a near-infinite amount for increasingly infinitesimal gains in sound quality, and while I care about sound quality, I’m not an audiophile with golden ears that detect even the faintest of flaws in sound reproduction. Neither, I suspect, are most of those who purchase $1,000 headphones, but that’s another matter. At $299, the ER-4PT was definitely more than I was looking to spend, but it didn’t take long for my weak brain to rationalize the purchase with exaggerated images of how much nicer the flight would be.

As expected, for that price, the ER-4PTs came with a whole array of useless packaging and other material, which I assume is designed to convince me that I didn’t spend too much for the small improvements over a $50 pair of earbuds:

That box was literally a box within a box within a box – which as expected, I haven’t opened or touched since taking out headphones out. I’m guessing consumer product makers have done their research, and shown that all this superfluous stuff makes the purchaser feel better about the premium that they paid, though somehow on me it has the opposite effect and makes me wonder why I got something so wasteful.

Inside came paperwork assuring me that the flat frequency response of the headphones was manually tested, by a nice person known only as “K.M.”:

The bump in the frequency response, reassuringly, comes from having to correct for the natural frequency response of the ear.  While this is helpfully explained in the material that accompanies the ER-4PTs, this fact seems to undermine the point of the graph; it’s one thing to look at the frequency response for a speaker, or the MTF graph for a lens, where it’s well accepted that you want it to be as close to a straight line as possible.  It’s quite another thing to look at the graph above and know whether it’s the perfect reciprocal for the frequency response of the human ear canal. They could have literally printed anything and I’d be taking their word for it.

So, how’d the ER-4PTs acutally perform? Ignoring the fact that pretty much anyone spending a bunch of money on audio gear is extremely biased towards thinking that it sounds great, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the ER-4PTs.  While I primarily drive it with non-audiophile devices – my Nexus 5 and 2013 Nexus 7, usually – I’ve now spent a lot of time with these earbuds and they surprise me in a way that the UEs never did. I can sometimes be listening to a random assortment of tracks on a plane, but when it switches to really well mastered track with clear vocals – often Norah Jones, or Diana Krall, or something along those lines – it’s actually stunning how clear and pleasant the track is. Perhaps more importantly, the rather odd looking earbud design, which looks like a stack of three earbuds of increasing size, is much easier to insert and wear for an extended period of time in such a way that you’re getting the best that the headphones can offer. I tried all the tips that came with the UEs, and while I was eventually able to fiddle things into place, it took much more effort, and was far less consistent.  I still don’t really like the feel of anything in my ears, but on a ~10 hour flight back from Korea – my first trip with these earbuds – I just listened to music from start to finish, and fully convinced myself that going for the ER-4PTs was not, in fact, folly.

Qi Wireless Charger

Charging your phone by plugging a micro-USB cable into a small, flimsy port on your phone designed for this purpose – and doing this, say, 700 times over the seemingly short two year lifecycle of a modern smartphone is practically begging for something to go wrong. Indeed, my Galaxy Nexus had to go back to Samsung for an issue with the charging port, and Valerie managed to get her phone into a flaky state where the USB charging pins looked a little questionable. So it really seems like an investment in a wireless charger that spares your devices from the daily connection & disconnection is a good idea. Paying ~$50+ for some name brand seemed unnecessary, but $20-25 for a generic model seems perfectly fine. I got a pair of Ruix units, but some OEM lets anyone make and sell these units under their own brand.

There’s really not much else to say, except that there may be compatibility issues with older devices (I had to get a specific model for Valerie’s Nexus 4, and it’s a bit spotty), and that you need to be careful with positioning so you don’t wind up with a dead phone in the morning. But compared to losing my Galaxy Nexus for a couple of weeks of warranty service, and having to completely wipe it, this is a purchase I feel is well worth it.

 Posted by at 5:32 am

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