|All In Your Head
February 2007Shure E500 Headphones
by John Crossett
There are many diverse, divisive issues for audiophiles to consider these days. By trawling any of the audiophile chat forums, you can find analog vs. digital, tube vs. transistor, CD vs. high-rez, and planer/electrostatic vs. dynamic debates raging, with adherents fervently -- one could almost say, religiously -- espousing their views as the only true way to sonic happiness. The headphone community has its own versions of these fanatics, and they debate a couple of central issues: dynamic vs. electrostatic and headphones vs. in-ear monitors (IEMs). This review will hold the interest of those engaged in the second debate.
Shure's $499 USD E500s fall into the headphone category, but they sit very near the top o' the heap of in-ear monitors now available. They are Shures top model, and they cost more than many highly regarded on-the-head 'phones. Why would you choose to spend more money on an IEMs than on a pair of real, honest-to-goodness dynamic headphones? For the most part, IEMs have been limited to use by those travelers who are looking for a way to listen to their music in planes, trains and automobiles. You know, the sort of areas where sound quality has usually taken a back seat to solitude. These people also want to listen without looking like a geek by donning a set of large, obtrusive headphones, and IEMs fill this bill.
Im not about to tell you that the Shure E500s, or any IEMs for that matter, are the only personal music listening devices youll ever need. What I will attempt to do is give you some perspective on whether or not IEMs like the E500s are worth your consideration as a serious listener. Do they merely help you get the most out of your travel listening, or can they be considered a primary pair of 'phones for all-around use?
Like most IEMs, the Shure E500s are small and light enough -- they weigh a miniscule 1 ounce each -- to fit inside your ears easily and comfortably. But the E500s are monstrously large in comparison to most IEMs on the market, including Shures own models. Much of this size difference can be attributed to the E500's triple-driver setup. Thats right -- squeezed within each tiny enclosure are three separate drivers: a tweeter and two woofers. The sound comes from a single tube that is covered by one of the multitude of firm, soft, triple-flange, or foam end covers provided in Shures comprehensive Fit Kit. These aid in creating the proper seal from the outside world. But unlike most IEMs, the E500s seal the entrance to the ear canal instead of having to be inserted deep inside to provide the same sealing off. This makes them the most comfortable IEMs around. Shure claims 32dB to 36dB of sound attenuation from the E500s, which is pretty darn impressive. Such attenuation rivals that of sound-isolating headphones that use electronic processing to achieve the same amount of isolation.
Another aspect of the E500s that separate them from the majority of the competition is the Push To Hear (PTH) feature. The PTH module looks like nothing more than a large, funky attachment that fits between the E500s and the source. Using a single AAA battery and a push switch, PTH allows listeners to attenuate the music and hold a conversation without having to remove the E500s from their ears. How big a deal is this? Removing and replacing IEMs when you need to speak to another person has been one of the main hindrances to IEMs being universally accepted as personal listening devices. The PTH module has a clip attached to the back that allows you to clip it to your pocket, thereby reducing stress and pull on the rather thin cable. This in turn aids in keeping the E500s right where you want them -- in your ears.
You are not tied to the PTH feature if you don't need it. Shure has designed the E500s to accept either the PTH switch or straight-wire connections. The E500s are terminated with a male mini plug right below the yoke, thus allowing the choice of which way to connect to the source. Shure includes both the PTH and two lengths of straight wire -- one about three feet long and the other about nine inches, so you only have to use as much cable as you need. All come with a female mini connection that slips right together with the male mini plug, making switching back and forth a breeze. I loved this feature. I found it to be not only ingenious but also a practical solution to a major drawback of IEMs.
Another feature that Shure has thoughtfully included is a volume attenuator for air travel. This allows you to control the volume when connected to the plane's high-volume audio system for watching that in-flight movie. There is also a 1/4" slip-on adapter for use with a separate headphone amp.
Shure-supplied specs point to multiple uses too. The E500s clock in with 119dB SPL/mW sensitivity, a low 36-ohm impedance, and a frequency range of 18Hz-19kHz. You are free to use the E500s in any fashion, connected to any device and in any condition (short of a driving rain storm) that tickles your fancy. Shure has done an excellent job of thinking out all of the possibilities. This is something that should merit applause given that some companies use their buyers as beta testers.
Finally, the E500s come packaged in an aluminum box with the parts kept from sloshing around by the use of foam cutouts to hold each in place during travel. There is also an oval carrying case that is just big enough to hold the E500s and the PTH switchbox -- if you pack everything very carefully. The size of the carrying case is my only real complaint. I wish Shure had made it a tad larger.
I used the E500s in multiple configurations. I listened to them straight out of my iPod or Sony portable CD player -- a task for which their 36-ohm impedance was perfectly suited. They sounded fine used in this manner, but when I wanted to hear them at their absolute best, I listened to either of those sources connected to a HeadRoom Total BitHead portable headphone amplifier via either an Audio Lineout Bling Bling Silver cable in the case of the iPod or the mini-to-mini cable from the headphone output of the Sony CD player to the input of the PTH.
I compared the E500s to their little brother, the well-regarded E3c's, as well as to some AKG K601 headphones, out of either my portable rigs or an Original Electronics Master headphone amplifier attached to an Audio Research SP16 preamp using either a Marantz 8260 SACD player or Stello CDA320 CD player as source.
The E500s sounded like no other in-ear monitors Ive ever heard, which admittedly isnt as many as I'd like. What really made my ears perk up was how much they sounded like high-quality headphones. Yeah, you heard me right -- the E500s are good enough that they can embarrass quite a few dynamic headphones on sound quality alone. Its an overall cohesiveness that tips the scales in the favor of the Shure sound. Weve all heard different headphones that sound either punchy and bass heavy, bright and airy, or midrangey and lush. The E500s can cover all of these, and do them all at once. What this means for you is that there is no music that is off limits to the E500s. From thrash to hip-hop, heavy metal to pop, jazz to the blues, rock to classical, its all available to you and reproduced very well. No one frequency band is emphasized over any of the others, and the E500s are dynamic as all get out too. I fell for their total coherence and dynamic ease, as they made my personal listening time something special, something to be looked forward to and savored.
Brass instruments were particularly well served by the E500s. I slipped the Johnny Hodges/Duke Ellington CD Play the Blues Back to Back [Verve 314 521 404-2] into my Sony portable CD player and grooved out on the manner in which the Shure 'phones captured the essence of Johnny Hodges' alto saxophone. It had bite, it had brass, and it had balls. It also had that creamy Johnny Hodges smoothness. Sweets Edisons trumpet displayed all those traits too -- well, maybe not the smoothness, but you get the idea. I felt like I was standing right next to the musicians in the studio while they were playing. That's how immediate and visceral the sound through the E500s was.
Bass, whether bowed or plucked, was strong, steady and deep. The E500s easily differentiated between the large wooden cavity of an acoustic bass and its solid-body electric brethren. Whether it was Stanley Clarke from his new acoustic album Standards [Kind of Blue 10010] or Jaco Pastorius from his latest tribute album The Word Is Out [Heads Up HUSA 9110] -- specifically the song "Reza," which has Pastorius playing and the band overdubbing their parts -- I never felt like I was being short-changed by E500s. They went fully as deep as the music allowed, which in turn laid the proper foundation for the rest of the frequency spectrum. Mind you, the bass never stood out; it was simply there, a part of the overall musical whole. Again, cohesiveness.
As for the high frequencies, Ive always been impressed by the manner in which Pierre Sprey captured the cymbals on the Harold Ashby CD Just For You [Mapleshade 06232]. The sound of stick striking brass was well delineated with the E500s, as was the sense of shimmer as those struck cymbals wafted off into space. Sure, the tone of the cymbals didnt quite disappear into space as clearly and cleanly as with a top-quality speaker or headphone, but this is a sin of omission, and I can live very easily with it.
I cant say that the E500s imaged like a good pair of speakers -- no headphones do. This is one area that you sacrifice for the ability to shut out the outside world. However, good IEMs like the Shure E500s more than make up for this shortcoming by virtue of their ability to separate out different instrumental lines. Each instrument is allowed its own space to breathe. Pop a pair into your ears, pick an instrument out of the mix, and see how long you can continue to follow exactly what the musician is doing. This trait was especially noticeable -- and welcome -- when listening to classical music. Rimsky-Korsakovs Scheherazade [RCA Living Stereo 82876-66377-2] illustrated this point in spades. No part of the Chicago Symphony was excluded from my listening time, no matter how deep in the mix it was placed.
And wait until you get a load of the E500s' way with vocals. These babies handle the human voice very well, both male and female. I love John Prine's In Spite of Ourselves [Oh Boy Records OBR-019]. In it, he shares vocal duties with a passel of female singers he has long admired -- Iris Dement, Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris, Delores Keene and his wife Fiona. All of singers' voices were reproduced in a distinct manner, their vocals completely and purely their own. Prines voice, softer and lower now after a bout with throat cancer, was easily identifiable as that of an older, wiser singer.
When I played my iPod through the Total BitHead using Audio Lineouts Silver Bling Bling cable and the E500s, I found out two things very quickly. First, the iPod is a serious music reproduction machine, especially when fed a lossless signal. Second, even my ACC/320 tracks sounded better than merely good through the E500s. I could tell the difference between lossless and ACC/320 tracks with ease, and I could also tell easily how good the lesser tracks sounded even with their less-then-full-bit fidelity. Once again, I came away fully impressed with the E500s as full-fledged audiophile-quality transducers.
The Shure E3c's ($179) had been my IEMs of choice for travel listening. However, there was no sonic area in which the E3c's equaled their bigger, costlier brother. The E500s had deeper bass, cleaner mids and a purer treble. Articulation was much better via the E500s than the E3c's as well. Comfort also tilted in the direction of the E500s, thanks to the fact that the E500s only needed to seal the entrance to the ear canal as opposed to the E3c's, which must be inserted well into the ear canal. Do not discount comfort, especially with in-ear monitors. After all, you won't care how good a pair of IEMs sound if you cant stand wearing them. The E3c's are a good pair of IEMs, and they've served me well. For their price, they still stand tall. However, two additional drivers, tweaked sound to appeal to the audiophile market, increased comfort, and the PTH feature justify the added cost of the E500s and still make them a bargain.
When matched against AKG K601 headphones ($299), the battle was much, much closer. The biggest differences? The portrayal of space and, again, the comfort level. The K601s do space and imaging very, very well, probably about as well as any headphones Ive heard. Much of the reason for this is that the K601s are an open-back design, giving a more out-of-head experience than any IEMs, even ones as good as the E500s. Sound via the K601s can seem to come from the space around and inside your head. The E500s, on the other hand, could not manage this, the sound being confined to the space between the ears. But the E500s' ability to delineate the separate aspects of the music helps to overcome this difference to a certain extent.
The bass of both sets of 'phones is fairly equal. The E500s seemed to go deeper and with greater output, but the K601s were tighter and more detailed. The differences were slight, so dont make too much of them. The midrange was also close, with a slight edge going to the K601s -- one of their strong points. The E500s, on the other hand, countered with greater midrange articulation. The treble of both is a bit subdued -- rolled off, as measurements may show -- but if I had to choose, Id say that the K601s have a more lively and lucid top end.
As for comfort? The AKG K601s slip onto my head and seem to float there. Their soft, round pads surround my ears, not press down on them. The E500s, on the other hand, are still noticeable. Yes, they are light weight and small, but they still can be felt as objects poking in your ears -- just not to the extent of most other IEMs.
The beauty of the AKG K601s and Shure E500s is that they are used differently. They can peacefully coexist and complement each other. If I had to choose only one, I'd choose both!
The headphone market is chock-a-block full to bursting with good-quality models to satisfy you during your personal listening time. Its up to you to decide whether or not a pair of in-ear monitors is something you really need and will use often enough to justify spending the nearly $500 Shure's E500s will cost. To my ears, the E500s offer sound quality that's commensurate with their price -- and more. My AKG K601s offer a level of comfort that no IEM can quite manage, and their sound is terrific too. Will I therefore be sending the E500s back? No way. They have shown me whats possible in private listening, offering the best possible sound while neither disturbing the person next to me nor allowing the outside world to intrude.
To call them a Reviewers' Choice would be a tad redundant at this point. If your situation runs to needing a way to cut yourself off from the outside world while listening to your favorite music and you want to spend that time listening in the highest possible sonic fidelity, then the Shure E500s become a must-hear product -- and very possibly a no-brainer purchase. They met all my expectations and then exceeded them.
Traditional headphones vs. in-ear monitors: Which side of the great debate am I on? After hearing the Shure E500s, both.
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