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how much more different is the ER4XR and the EX3R?
The 4XR is less bassy and is smoother through the mids and highs with better treble extension. It has a noticeably wider soundstage and sounds almost like an in-ear HD650: smooth, expansive, detailed, and open. The 3XR is a ”fun” take on the Ety mid-focused house sound. It's audibly different from the 4XR, which actually has more of a family resemblance to the 3SE. The 4XR is a pretty remarkable earphone and well worth the price, but you could say the same thing about the 3XR. If it helps, I ordered the 3XR, 3SE, and 4SR from Amazon and wound up keeping the 3XR even though the 4XR is better. Why? The "certificate of performance" that Etymotic includes with the 4 series inflamed my OCD because I knew I didn't get a particularly good pair, never mind that these variations are inaudible. If that won't bother you (or you get a perfect pair) the 4XR is worth the extra money.
The ER3 are designed to the same target reference curve as the ER4. They are just only matched to within 85% vs 92% for the ER4. The bass boost XR is consistent between the lines within those margins.
I will humbly suggest that your ER4 was fine despite the triggering measurements and it is your 'v shaped' ER3 that might be the lemon.
@GiantHeadphoneSquid thanks for the sober response. :) I actually returned my first pair of 3XRs and after listening to the second pair for 8 hours on Amtrak, I freely concede the sound can't truly be called "V-shaped." I've revised my mini review accordingly, but I stand by my assertion that the 3SE sounds more similar to the 4XR than the 3XR does. While the target reference curve may be the same, I don't think we should underestimate the difference that halving the impedance makes–as I'm sure you know, impedance is not uniform across frequencies, so the difference in sound can't be fully described by the slightly looser matching tolerance. It's kind of like the ER4PT vs the ER4S, which are well known for sounding more different than the impedance measurement might suggest.
Glad to hear you arrived at a pair of Etys that you enjoy. I take my ER3XR on the bus with me everyday, it’s a joy to have isolation and amazing sound to go :)
I agree that the biggest difference between the lines is the impedance magnitude. It makes doing a direct back to back comparison very difficult, since I have to adjust my source volume to compensate, which forces my brain to compensate in the interim.
The ER4P/T and S sounds differ due to less series resistance in the cable of the P/T, not difference in the transducer impedance like between 3/4. This results in a slightly more rolled off sound, but was a subtle difference. It was also easy to compensate for via an external series impedance. The ER3 and ER4 , however, use different drivers that have different impedance (both average, and likely vs. frequency); the difference is not from cable loading variation to the same driver. This is likely less linear and also less consistent between individual driver elements.
In contrast, Ety themselves noted that the XR/SR tuning variation was outside of the range possible for a simple passive impedance adapter even to the same transducers (specifically the ER4). . . many folks were very curious if an adapter would be released when the line was announced but were promptly shut down.
While we can only speculate if the extra ER3 variation correlates with frequency to have a filtering effect, we can at least qualify the magnitude of its potential effect according to Ety's tolerance specs:
I get in trouble when I don't let computers do the math for me, but we can approximate the envelope of allowable variation by adding the worst case manufacturing variations (aka your ER4 and ER3 vary in exactly the opposite and maximum extent, a perfect storm delta between the pair) as 15%+8% = 23% or about -1.2 dB, whereas the boost for the XR looks more on the order of 5-6 dB.