Sugg. Retail: $499.00 US
(Reprinted from the Fall 2005 Issue)
Just in case you somehow hadn’t noticed, portable audio is hot. White hot. Ipod white. The Ipod has become the Sony Walkman of the 21st Century and gained a cachet and ubiquity in popular culture unrivalled perhaps by any piece of audio equipment ever invented. Ipods are now the object of enough consumer lust that they can actually be dangerous to their owners. In Toronto, for instance, several incidents of Ipod muggings have been reported, owners of the device given away by the distinctive white earbud headphones and cable even when their pods are concealed. Of course these incidents are rare enough as to be almost indistinguishable from the background noise of urban crime, but you know some marketing department has really hit one out of the park when some kid is willing to roll you for the gadget in your pocket.
Ironically, if you were to pop this particular pair of headphones in your ear, even though they cost more than the Ipod itself, you’d actually be less of a target simply because they’re not Ipod white. But there’s a much better reason to put aside the headphones that come with an Ipod, or almost any other portable audio player for that matter, in favour of this pair from Shure: these sound far, far better.
Shure’s line of in-ear headphones, like those from rival Etymotic, grew out of their experience in the professional market supplying “personal monitors” to musicians who need to both hear themselves and protect their hearing when playing live. The E5Cs, and their less expensive cohorts, the E2C and E3C (US$99 and US$179 respectively), work very much like earplugs, fitting snugly in your ear canal and thereby dramatically attenuating sound around you. Think of them as earplugs with built-in speakers.
In this particular high-end iteration it’s earplugs with “dual high low mass/high energy micro-speakers”, an inline crossover built right into the cable, and an optional level attenuator (more on that below). The E5s also come with a tidy little nylon carrying case and come packaged in a snazzy brushed aluminum box.
For those accustomed to traditional circumaural (around the ear) headphones, or even run of the mill earbuds, the Shures take some getting used to. Just getting them into your ears for the first time takes some effort. Making the task easier is the wide variety of ear sleeves supplied with the E5Cs. These sleeves fit snugly on the business end of the phones, the different types and sizes allowing for a better fit in different sized ears. Most are made of silicone, in varying degrees of hardness and length, and there is also a foam pair which expand in your ear canal like traditional earplugs. Every ear is unique, of course, and getting a precise fit can take some work. It did for me, anyway.
Once I had figured out how to orient the things so that the stiff “memory-fit” portion of the cable swooped back and over my ear and I had slipped them into place with a little help by pulling back on my earlobe, I experienced what is probably a very common teething problem with the E5Cs and other ear canal phones. When first connected the sound was thin, bright and strident. Any hint of bass was entirely absent. After a little more fiddling, sleeve swapping, and lobe pulling I had the E5s in much more snugly. I knew I finally had a nice tight seal because I couldn’t hear a damn thing. That is until I started playing music through the things.
Listening in Isolation
A word of caution to anyone using the headphones for the first time: Start with the volume ALL THE WAY DOWN. If you were wondering why Shure supplies an attenuator with these headphones you won’t be for long if you fire them up at the volume setting you just used with your big Sennheisers or AKGs. They’re exquisitely sensitive, rated at 122 dB SPL/mW with an impedance of 110 ohms. Headphones don’t get any more sensitive than this, I don’t think, the E5Cs playing plenty loud with tiny amounts of power. Not only are they driving a tiny pocket of air inside your ear canal, they’re about as close to the eardrum as a headphone can get. In some cases they simply won’t play quiet enough (or volume changes will be too coarse) without the supplied attenuator; a small passive volume control with a mini jack on either end which connects between the headphones and the source. I listened to the E5Cs both with my Ipod Mini and on my Macintosh G4 laptop via the Echo Audio Indigo soundcard I reviewed in the Fall/Winter 2004 issue.
Once I’d figured out how to get them properly inserted I was treated to a unique sonic experience. Headphone listening is by its very nature personal, solitary, and intimate. With headphones of this type that feeling of intimacy is heightened even further since, with your ears well and truly plugged, the rest of the world, from an auditory standpoint anyway, simply goes away. When traveling by plane, which seems to invariably include close proximity to very young children with a penchant for prolonged screaming, this degree of isolation is your very best friend. With the Shures in your ears you will indeed feel like you’re in your own little world, a realm wallpapered with whatever music you happen to be listening to. The feeling of the music being “in your head”, or as a soundtrack to your life, is more pronounced than with any headphone I’ve ever used.
One of the other inherent advantages of headphones like these is their ability to make great bass. Since they’re tasked with pressurizing such a tiny volume of air they stand a much better chance of being precise and well controlled in the bottom end. The more air you need to pressurize, the bigger the driver, the harder it is to drive and control, and so on, which is why big loudspeakers with truly great bass are rare.
The E5C’s are particular standouts in terms of bass. In fact, they’re phenomenal in this regard. Bass definition, control, and impact are orders of magnitude better than any earbud headphone I’d ever heard and on par with some of the best large headphones (ie. the Sennheiser HD 580 which I borrowed from a friend for comaprison). The Shures could not be overloaded, faithfully and tunefully reproducing even the toughest deep bass material with aplomb. There are a number of tracks on Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, for example, that will put the bottom octave performance of any system to the test. The Shures just sailed on through without even breaking a sweat, and not at the expense of sounding analytical or dry in the bass either. Instead my notes are peppered with terms like “rich”, “tuneful”, and “involving”.
Perhaps the biggest problem with most traditional earbud phones is sizzly, zingy, scratchy, and generally nasty top end (often due to the fact that there is little to no bass response to shore up the overall tonal balance). With the Shures yet closer to your eardrum and sealed tight in the ear canal the potential for treble atrocities is dangerously high. There is simply nothing between the driver and your ear to tame uneven response. Fortunately for your 500 greenbacks you get a very smooth operator in this headphone. Perhaps motivated by fears of sizzly top end and long-term listener fatigue its designers gave the E5C a slightly warmer than neutral tonal balance. When I compared the E5Cs directly to a pair of Etymotic ER6s the extra warmth of the Shures seemed quite pronounced and vocalists sounded a little chesty. By the same token, however, they were noticeably less sibilant, and, in the long run, less fatiguing. They also had just phenomenal bottom end reach and impact by comparison to the Etymotics, which, on the aforementioned Mama’s Gun, sounded a little strained when the going got deep and heavy.
As you might expect from having a small speaker sealed tight in your ear canal, headphones like these are also capable of conveying staggering levels of detail. Again the Shures do not disappoint in this regard. The trick, however, is to do this smoothly enough that the listener doesn’t want to yank the things out after ten minutes. The E5Cs succeed remarkably well in this regard, conveying the tiniest details and the subtlest dynamic changes without becoming grating or overwhelming. Again, the slightly warm of neutral tonal balance I think helped in this regard.
A tiny driver so close to your ear should sound very, very fast with an immediacy difficult to reproduce any other way, and the Shures certainly accomplish this. Low level details were laid bare. Glenn Gould could more clearly be heard signing along with the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, for instance, than I’d ever heard before. The inevitable corollary of this, however, is that artifacts like tape hiss or the shortcomings of an inferior source will also become that much more apparent. The Shures’ transient speed and dynamic abilities, by the way, made for stirring piano sound on the Gould recordings, especially when he was hammering away on the left side of the keyboard.
Although they occupy a totally different product category, it was instructive to compare the E5Cs to a big pair of high-end circumaural headphones; in this case a borrowed pair of Sennheiser HD 580s. The Sennheisers are the antithesis of the Shures in almost every way: open backed instead of sealed, relatively inefficient, and just plain large. Accordingly they sounded fundamentally different. The Sennheisers sound more like speakers than any headphone I’ve heard: open, airy, smooth, and forgiving. For listening at home, with no one nearby who might be bothered by the sound spilling out of them, they’re ideal. Because they’re designed to be sealed up in your ear canal I don’t think headphones like the Shures are capable of open or airy sound like the Sennheisers, or, inversely, that large, open back headphones could be capable of the same kind of bass performance and “in your head” intimacy as the Shures. With such different intended uses a direct comparison isn’t really fair to begin with, both headphones excelling where they’re intended to. Just don’t expect a big, airy, spacious sound from the E5Cs.
The upshot of all this? The E5Cs are fantastic portable headphones, providing the isolation, efficiency, and exceptional sound quality needed to make a mobile audiophile happy. If you’ve become addicted to your Ipod, these could very well be your next vice. Like any good vice they’re expensive, but cheaper, competing phones are not likely to have the long-term listenability or the bottom end prowess of the Shures. If you crave great portable sound, and especially if you prioritize bass response and spend lots of time flying, then look no further.