POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 26
E500pth In-Earphones - Good to Go!
as reviewed by Max Dudious
Reviewing a product that is successfully designed and manufactured is usually a pleasure. This is one really fine product, and reviewing it is a pleasure similar to reviewing a fine wine. Dudes, the vivid sounding Shure E500 "in-earphone" set is incrementally better than its predecessor as "Flagship Of The Line," Shure's laid-back E5c; it plays louder and has better bass 'n' balance than the next-best model in the line, Shure's E4c; and it meets my personal requirements for a Dudely portable audio product because it is relatively comfortable, sounds great, travels easy, and it isolates the listener from ambient noise very well. I'll go on to tell how, and why.
To begin, I'll remind you that I'm not an engineer: what you get from me are the opinions of a hobbyist who is much like you. As an Older Dude I have enough time on my hands to attend Head-Fi meets, Home Entertainment and other audio shows, that the (statistically speaking) vast majority of you 200,000+ Positive Feedback Online readers don't regularly attend. Think of me as your proxy, eccentric old Uncle Max, who is allowed out of the attic every once in a while to go scouting the latest developments in personal, mobile, audio systems. I am not an Oracle. I'm just an opinionated columnist, whose writings you have come to know and (I hope) adjust for. If you don't agree with me all the time, that's cool. I used to have a film critic I agreed with about 66% of the time (what is it they say about two out of three?), and I used his columns as a beginning reference point. I knew that I disagreed with his politics (he worked for the Baltimore Sun), but I agreed with his aesthetics. So, if I kept that in mind and performed the necessary calculus, he became a crutch I leaned on successfully much of the time when going to the movies. It's like keeping a co-worker's shortcomings in mind. I'm sure most of you do that automatically, without any encouragement from me.
When I first listened to the E5c, two years ago, I figured there would be some who felt them uncomfortable, who on principle resist inserting anything in their ears smaller than their elbows. I, for one, was willing to put up with some minor discomfort to get the high quality "retro sound" (like big ole' Bozaks) they produced. (You might remember the "retro" fad of two years back.) I guess the feedback to Shure's marketing people was—the E5c were uncomfortable enough to turn off many prospective owners. So greater comfort must have become a high priority in the redesign. And the Shure engineers, bless them, have been able to come up with a better sounding, more curvy 'n' comfy product, the E500, that in my ears doesn't press against any of the ridges. That makes them a much more comfortable flagship.
The newly curved driver housing must have been tested on some number of folks with different sized and shaped ears, and the resultant design goal seems to have been to make the new E500s with a "universal" shape. I only have one pair of ears, but I've gotten opinions from a number of folks in my "listening panel" (who represent a small and statistically insignificant sample of sex and age differences, as well as listeners with different shaped ears), a large enough group for me to tentatively conclude these in-earphones have a pretty comfortable shape. Plainly speaking, the Shure E500's driver housing (not the part that goes into the canal that leads to the ear drum), has been redesigned, and while it is not much smaller than the E5c, it is much more comfortable.
When comparing the 500 to the 4c, it is immediately apparent when you hold the two close together just how much smaller and lighter the 4c is. And, in a way analogous to loudspeaker design, you might anticipate the 500 would have bigger bass, which it does. Also in a way analogous to (isobarik) loudspeaker design, you might expect the 500 to have better controlled bass, and your expectation would be correct. Not to take anything away from the 4c, or the 5c, they are pretty nifty designs in their own right, but the 500 does offer extraordinary sound against which many good headphone sets might suffer in comparison. The quality and quantity of bass produced by the 500 is very well controlled and doesn't call attention to itself, but it is there. The smooth, soprano-friendly mid-range is much like the 5c, but it also has more presence. Go figure!?! The 500's highs seem soft, at first, but when there is a cymbal clash you realize there is nothing missing. The highs are extended compared to the 5c, which sounds a bit too laid back, perhaps rolled off. The 500's highs are sweet and airy. So, how does it sound? It sounds robust in the bass, with presence in the midrange, and extension in the highs. In a word, it sounds "vivid." The 500 sounds like it has been tipped a bit toward the mid and low bass when compared with the 4c, which sounds a bit brighter and more detailed. When compared with the 5c, the 500 sounds tipped up across the presence region. You pays your ten $ spot (a dollar adjusted for inflation), and you takes your choice. This is my opinion on how they all break out:
It also seems the whole line of Shure earbuds has been designed to travel easy, they are so small and light. The new 500s have exaggerated this element of their design. First, they come with various super-lightweight connecting cables that can be made shorter or longer. Use the shorter one for jogging, or working out with your personal music system (iPod, portable CD player, etc) attached at the belt. Use the longer one with your lap-top or desk-top computer; or your dedicated, late-night, desktop CD/SACD player; and/or your Single Ended Triode tubed amp. Either way, you're in for some superb sound. I think a well-engineered SACD, amplified by a SET amp, really shows the Shure E500 headphones at their best. And I think that is very fine, indeed. They also come with a zippered hard case that is somewhat smaller than a pack of cigarettes. You can carry the 500s, with accessories, in a shirt pocket . They are designed to be travel friendly.
The E500s come with triple-flanged, soft-rubber, sound-isolating, ear-plugs. These are particularly good for traveling on planes or trains as they have been measured to block out 30-37dB of ambient noise. That's really an impressively high amount of blockage. Most "muting" switches on amplifiers only produce a 20dB drop. Since the dB is a logarithmic measure, a 30dB drop is a whole lot more. And a 37dB drop is most excellent, dudes. Shure technology blocks the ambient sounds, yet allows the music to pass to the ear by using the tried and true industrial, triple-flanged, protective ear-plug with a tube-like void running down its center. The drivers (two woofers and one tweeter) push the air into what amounts to a soft rubber hypodermic needle (with flanges) that directs the air to the ear drum.
Shure argues that the 500s are a better choice than the sound blocking technologies (used by Bose, Sony, and others) that pulse a low frequency, in reverse phase, to cancel the drone of a jet engine. Shure's system presents no possibility for phase error in the music, they say. My experience with reverse-phase systems is such that I agree with Shure, with qualifications. I'm not sure what phase errors sound like at various spots in the frequency band. I know what a 180 degree phase-reversal sounds like: the imaging goes all to hell as the sound-stage collapses. I have found where you sit, how close to the jet engines, has a lot to do with how effective the reverse-phase systems can be. Since you can't always guarantee the "best seat in the house," you might get good performance from the phase-canceling system one time, and poor performance the next. Shure holds triple-flange ear plugs offer better odds for getting consistently optimum performance from your personal sound system, and that matches my experience.
Another quality of the 500s is their efficiency: they play loudly: 119dB SPL/mW (that's nearly jet-takeoff loud from one milliwatt, one thousandth of one watt), to be more accurate. That is really most humongous. For example, the Grado RS-1 model is rated at 98dB SPL/mW, and that has been thought to be pretty efficient—efficient enough to play well straight out of walk-around CD player. Obviously the 500s are 21 dB more efficient and they will startle the listener with sudden outbursts, like the full orchestral blast near the beginning of "Witchcraft" on John Pizzarelli's new album, Dear Mr. Sinatra (Telarc; SACD-63638). I mean startlingly loud. Having 30-37dB of isolation from ambient noise, and the possibility of more than 119dB of zotz obviates the need for phase canceling. With a high-quality signal source (CD player, iPod), plus the 500s you are good to go. This is a system designed with jet-travel in mind.
Zotz is a technical term of my own invention by which I mean startle-ability! BAM, like Emeril does with food. It is related to the term "dynamics" found in the audio literature. I think the dynamics of a loudspeaker as expressed in most spec-sheets is inadequately derived to signify what I'm getting at. If I take a loudspeaker and pass an A 440Hz sine wave through it at one watt and measure, say, a 92dB signal output using standard methods, and then I increase the dB reading until I get to its highest output before it misbehaves, say, 112dB, most folks would say that loudspeaker had good dynamic range. And they'd be right. But if that speaker were "slow" in returning to its neutral position on a pulse tone test, it wouldn't necessarily have zotz. Furthermore, some speakers might pass a pulse of A 440 pretty well, but have trouble passing a complex musical event with much zotz, like the full-sized swing band referred to above making a one-note blast. Zotz is the ability to go from soft to loud in an instant and settle quickly, the ability to startle the listener, even if he's listening at a low level. The Shure 500s have lotsa zotz. The best Grados have pretty damn good zotz. The Sennheiser 650s have less zotz than the Grado. Etc., etc.
As a term, zotz then is a particular kind of dynamic range. Sometimes this is confused by some as being "brash." "Brash" is a term I use to designate a particular frequency-range-balance that suggests a quality of in-your-face presence. It is more a tilting of the frequency response curve toward the presence range, 2kHz-4kHz, that is irritating in some speakers and headphones. If it is controlled, and kept within reasonable limits, a one or two decibel (brightness) plateau at that octave in the frequency curve can bring revealing inner detail. If the plateau isn't well-controlled, the tweeter or crossover too sibilant, it can make such detail seem too obviously up in the mix and too "brash." Zotz and "brash" don't mix well. Some folks like zotz with clean brightness, though, and the Shure E4c is a good example of that mixture done well. Brightness with zotz is a combination I like a lot when it is done well, as in the larger Lowther speakers. For the sake of analogies, the Shure E4c is like a startlingly clean, full-range Lowther 8" speaker, say their PM5A, in one of their horns, which rolls off below 50Hz..
The E500 has lotsa zotz, and its tonal pallette is tilted more toward "warm." I'd guess it has a little plateau in the 100-400Hz range that I call the cello range, that others call the mid-bass. It is not pronounced to the extent that it makes human voice unrecognizable. Diana Krall, say, is still herself. It is subtle and makes most singers seem to have fuller "chest tones" instead of steelier "head tones." And this characteristic is usually what reviewers mean when they say something is "warm." If the Shure E4c is like a full-range Lowther 8" PM5A, the Shure E500 is like a Lowther 8" PM5A with augmenting Klipsch horns used as sub-woofers. You still get your presence, but it is supplemented with big bass, 100Hz and lower, that continues up into the cello region for warmth, so the presence doesn't sound "too up in the mix."
In my mind's ear I can hear you shouting, "How can you say that?" "That's inaccurate!" And, "That's wrong!" To which I can only answer, these are only word pictures. By using something with which you are familiar these words create the first half of an analogy; and then, if I'm successful, I invent another word-picture to take you to something you'll have to imagine, the second half of the analogy, the 500s you haven't heard yet. I'm trying to give you an idea based on my most recent experience. I know the Shure headphones don't sound exactly like the Lowthers. It is just a stretching of the words to give you an approximation. Don't forget, "Writing about audio gear is like dancing about architecture." It's an almost impossible task to start with. And as Yogi Berra once famously commented, "Ninety percent of this game is half-mental."
Let's see, I've tried to establish that the E500s are comfortable, portable, travel well, block ambient noises very well, and sound vivid in a particular way. I haven't gotten to the accessories found in their packaging. Shure provides a "Sleeve Fit Kit" of various sleeves that attach to the "driver," fit in the ear canal and aim the air at the ear drum. One pair is made of crushable open-cell foam that compresses to fit in the ear's main canal. This allows considerable amount of ambient sound to pass into the ear through the foam, which is a high-percentage of air. The second is a medium-soft clear single-flange sleeve, that does a pretty good job of isolation, shapes itself to the ear's canal fairly well, and comes small, medium, and large. The third is a nearly black butyl, softer, single-flange sleeve that conforms nicely to the shape of the canal, does an even better job at noise isolation, and comes small, medium, and large. The fourth is the white, soft-rubber, triple flange sleeve that isolates 30-37dBs' worth, and while it is the most "invasive," and needs to be placed the farthest into the grand canal, it also isolates best and sounds the best. You might experiment around until you make your final choice, or develop different uses for different sleeves, like which to use while at your computer when your phone might ring. You might not hear the phone while listening through the triple flange sleeves to your favorite tunes.
Another accessory Shure provides is a continuous attenuator. This is a small device that you can pigtail into the line in front of the headphones, but after whichever length of interconnect cable you are using. With the flick of your finger it can pass a full signal, or block it somewhat, or cut to silence. It seems most useful on long plane trips when the pilot preempts the sound track of a movie to make an announcement. As many of you already know, that can be a very loud and uncomfortable experience without such a device. You get used to using it, even if there is a short time lag where the pilot's voice is overwhelming. Remember, the E500s are loud.
Finally, there is the "Push To Hear" (PTH) circuit. The purpose of this accessory is to allow the user to bypass the music, or the in-flight movie soundtrack, to be able to hear someone who addresses him (say, a steward), and to be able to hear his own reply. This small attachment is pigtailed into the interconnect cable and amounts to a battery-operated, microphone-driven, audio circuit that hangs around the neck. The listener can, with the flick of a finger, get the circuit into operation, muting the regular input and allowing him to hear himself or whomsoever is speaking to him, adjust for loudness through his attenuator, and when such an exchange is completed, return to listening – without taking his in-earphones out of his ears and reinstalling them for optimum performance. I haven't had occasion to use this in-flight yet, as my wife and I are hanging close to the family beach shack awaiting the arrival of yet another precious parcel. But in around-the-house testing, it operates as advertised.
We all make earwax, so I'll remind you I've managed to keep my various in-ear sleeves clean by dipping a cloth in a dilute solution of water and audio appropriate liquid dish detergent (Palmolive) and massaging the various sleeves with it. I remove the residue by repeating the massage with a clean spot on the cloth and clear tap water. Next, I dry them as much as I can by massaging with a dry spot on the audio appropriate cloth (old T-shirt). I've found not removing the sleeves from the "driver" keeps them from stretching out of shape, and prolongs their utility. I think this procedure, with great care, can even clean the open-cell foam type, if one, making an exception ("A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."), removes them from the driver, allows them to soak a half-hour in the detergent solution, then applies a softer touch to keep the wax from filling the open cells. Finally, I let them dry in open air on a paper towel.
The triple-flange are the most complicated, but I find them hearty enough to withstand bending the flanges forward when washing and doing a preliminary drying with your clean, audiophile-recommended cloth. I've found I can keep the sleeves in service for a long while if I perform a routine cleaning when I can see waxy buildup, or when they begin to look discolored. Of course, you must proceed most diligently using the least amount of solution you can. I take no legal responsibility if you drown your earphones and short them out. Remember, water and electrical circuits do not mix. Proceed with all possible care.
The Shure E500 "in-earphones" are the new flagship of the Shure line. They are an improvement over the current next-best in-earphones, the model E4c, and the previous flagship 'phones, the model E5c. They are more comfortable, sound better, travel well, isolate well, and come with a handful of accessories (the "sleeve fit kit," the attenuator, and the "Push To Hear" circuit) that make them easier to use. Priced at $500, they are a bit steep, but when you think that the Grado's new flagship headset is priced at $1000, they seem about right value for money in today's market. So, if you want to hear music when you jog, or sunbathe, or become a jet-setter, all you have to do is Turkey Trot on down to your Shure dealer to pick up a pair, and when you do be sure to tell 'em your eccentric ole Uncle Max, sent you. You'll be good to go.
[A shorter version of this article also appears in the current issue of Audiophile Audition.]