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An Earful: Shure's E5c Earbud Headphones
Shure describes their somewhat recent (released last year) E5c earbuds as "Sound Isolating In Ear Earphones," and that's a pretty good, if understated, description. More fully developed, I'd describe them as outstandingly good sound isolators, with one set of in-ear soft rubber sleeves designed like industrial ear plugs (with triple isolating flanges) used to keep the ear from being damaged by loud noise. They are excellent time-tested sound isolators, indeed, with a medium hypodermic needle sized outlet directing the sound to the ear drum. Shure's E5c's keep the music in and the noise out. Just back from a vacation involving long air trips, I can safely say they are outstanding for air travel, being small and compact, and coming with a sturdy, similarly small and compact carrying case. With an Apple iPod, they would take up about the same space as two packs of cigarettes, if small size is the highest priority. The quality of their sound is on a par with some of the best headphones of any type I've yet auditioned. Shure's promotional literature doesn't do these darlin' little doobies justice, on that score. With superior sound, and special consideration given their sound isolating qualities, I'd say they at least hold their own when compared to the best of other "traveling" headphones. I'd go farther in my description and say the Shure E5c's raise the bar in the three major categories—sound quality, isolation from ambient noise, and travel convenience.
Those of you who follow my audio adventures might remember I once compared the Grado RS-1 headphones to the Sennheiser 600s. The Grado cans, together with the Grado headphone amp or straight out of my Sony CD Walkman, are fine sounding and I found them very satisfactory, with their big, rich, upfront sound. They seemed a match for listeners of Rock, Blues, Bluegrass, Jazz and the like. Plus, they travel well, being somewhat collapsible. The Sennheisers were equally satisfactory, with their more delicate, subtly laidback sound, and they seemed a match for listeners of Classical music, particularly of chamber music, solo instrument recitals, human voice recitals, intimate rock, small ensemble jazz, and the like. The Sennheisers didn't travel well, not being at all collapsible. The Grado headphones were like fine dynamic loudspeakers (say, the Wilson Puppies), while the Sennheisers were like fine electrostatics (say, the Martin-Logans). Both featured "open back" design. You pays your money and you takes your pick.
I was also smitten by the Sony "Noise Canceling" in-ear model MDR-NC11, that comes with a built-in microphone in each earbud that "measures" the amplitude of the ambient sound field and sends an equally loud, out-of-phase signal to the headphones to cancel the loudest external noise peak. If, for example, an airplane is resonating at 100 Hz and that noise is obscuring the music in the bass region, the little (single AAA battery powered) active circuit would measure the sound in the environment and send an out-of-phase 100 Hz signal to reduce the first by 10 dB, leaving only the unmasked music. Sony's little honeys worked well enough at home, canceling air-conditioner noise and such, and I liked their bright, quick, electrostatic-like sound for some types of music; but with their loudest output specified in the owner's manual at 102 dB, the system had trouble matching the volume of the loudest of jet engines. Of course, the ambient noise in an airplane differs with position and distance between the listener and the engines, so I had some lucky seats at which the Sony system performed as advertised, but there was considerable variation in my seating which made their performance inconsistent. Furthermore, Shure implies, such noise-canceling systems alter the phase of the music at the cancellation point causing audibly irritating artifacts. I'm not sure I ever found fault with that aspect of the performance of my Sony headphones, but I would concede I haven't tested all of the growing number of headphones in the "noise canceling" category. In any case, in a recent, in-flight, A/B test, (You can only imagine the looks I got from stewardesses and fellow passengers.) the E5c's, without noise cancellation, outperformed the Sony model MDR-NC11s—with, or without, noise canceling.
Having made this assertion, it behooves me now to demonstrate how I arrived at my conclusion. First, owing to the design of the Sony earbuds as compared to the Shure E5c's, the seal in the inner ear was not as good; and much, much more ambient noise was apparent. I thought that maybe it was just me, my hearing, my ears that were ill suited to the task. To test my hypothesis I asked my traveling companion on our way to Malta, a swinish merchant mariner who only identified himself as "Bodine," the dude randomly assigned to the seat next to me who expressed interest, to also give a listen. (We swirled the triple-flanged sleeves in vodka supplied by our stewardess, to avoid infection. Guess what Bodine did with the left-over vodka!) We found our conclusions were similar: the Sony phones forced us to play them with the volume control wide open on my Sony CD Walkman D-E356CK, or at the loudest possible setting, 9th level plus four clicks (implying 10). With the same piece of music, and with the same CD player, a few instants later, only substituting the Shure E5c's, I found I could listen comfortably at the lowest of the 4th level settings, while my co-listening-panelist found that a bit too loud and had to back the volume off a click or two into the 3rd level.
Shure specifies the sensitivity at 1kHz as 122 dB SPL/mW, as compared with the Sony's 102 dB SPL/mW, and 20 dBs is often the value of a "muting switch." That's 122 decibels of Sound Pressure Level at one milliwatt (one thousandth of one watt), as measured in a facsimile human ear. The Shures are loud; incontrovertibly and gloriously loud. Loud enough to shout down any jet engines with beautiful music to make your traveling more pleasant. So loud, they come with an airline type connector for movie watching, and an in-line attenuator, just to keep the pilot's announcements from damaging your hearing if you use them to watch airline movies (a BIG improvement). With their selection of various types and sizes of earplug sleeves, called their "sleeve fit kit," any user would be well enough isolated to keep the ambient noise in a jet plane barely noticeable.
Isolation and loudness are two quite important variables to me. I've flown with my Grado RS-1's and while they are excellent for listening at home, their open-back design allows too much jet engine noise in. The result is I only feel comfortable, again, playing music with the volume up near wide-open. While this is no problem for the Grados to handle, it sure does run the batteries down quickly, and it probably isn't good for my old ears. At home I find I listen to the Grados at the 6th or 7th level volume settings, depending on the music and the recording's loudness level. In the same environment, hunched over my computer's keyboard, this minute listening to the fabulous FIM recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, I find myself in the 3rd level volume settings while listening to the Shures. Try to visualize me, cuddly and grey grandpa, surrounded by three sets of headphones, a Walkman CD player, a stack of unreviewed CDs (to remind me of how derelict I am in my duties), straining to hear the real if subtle differences among these headphone sets. I remind myself of St. Jerome at his desk according to Caravaggio, as I recently saw in St. John's Co-Cathedral in Valetta on Malta. Instead of being hunched over papers, with old libri all around by candlelight, here I am hunched at my computer terminal in the eerie glow of midsummer's night.
If the Sony's are bright and quick in the trebles as compared to the Grados, which have more bass and are more upfront and presence-oriented than the Sennheisers, which are more laidback and favor delicacy more than presence—if that can be said, I'd go on to say that the Shures' characteristic sound falls somewhere between the Grados and the Sennheisers. They have really amazing bass like the Grados, prodigiously deep and textured. Yet they have the suavité of the Sennheisers in the midrange and trebles. The fiddles sound on the "woody" as opposed to "wiry" side of the continuum (as on the Sonys) when playing the FIM Vivaldi. Yet, when listening to the great bluesman Junior Wells' Telarc album, Come On In This House, the cymbals come jumping out and the electric bass drives the band with convincing realism. Ironically, some of my older CDs, such as Max Roach and Clifford Brown's Studies in Brown, which were recorded a tad on the bright side, come through "in balance" through the Shure E5c's. Maybe it's hard to imagine how a pair of headphones could have the ebullient, blow-you-away bass of the Grados, and the suave, smooth mids and slightly soft highs of the Sennheisers. But, that's what the Shures seem to have, if I can trust my aging ears.
(And I do trust ‘em. I recently had to take my car in for a service. The service manager wanted to replace an expensive part whose bearing, he said, was shot. I perceived the noise as an intermittent chatter rather than a constant whine. I told him I suspected a piece of sheet metal heat shielding nearby, and when we tightened up the supporting bolts, the chatter went away. Such is life among people who listen hard.)
I think this characteristic sound is the result of Shure's sense of audio balance that dates back to their earliest phono cartridges. They had nice rich bottom end, a sweet mid-range (a quality that seems to be having a vogue just now among the most advanced amps and speakers, if my remembrance of the May, N.Y. Home Entertainment Show is accurate), with not too exaggerated highs. Funny how SACDs are starting more and more to sound natural, like LPs, rather than excessively detailed (as I believe many moving coil cartridges often did). The best SACDs, like the recent Telarc recording of Prokofief's Romeo & Juliet, take us back to the future.
Most headphones, particularly in-ear types, have only one driver. It is hard to imagine how to get more than one into an "earbud" housing. The problem becomes one of how to design a driver that is small, and low-mass. Up to now it seemed one way would be to emphasize the bass, or the treble. The result often had the effect that if one emphasized the bass, the trebles would suffer; and vice-versa. So the Sony noise-canceling model was a bit bright, and needed some bass boosting at my CD player to sound balanced. The models lower priced in the Shure line have only one driver. In the E5c the Shure engineers went to two drivers, adding a "tweeter" and an in-line, passive crossover. This allowed them to balance the sound, and to voice it to their taste, which, as I've said, reflects their corporate history. Of course, this raised the cost of production, and the cost to the consumer, as it obviously costs more to pack all this technology into a product.
I happen to like this headphone—a lot. It has all the sonic characteristics I value. It is loud enough to handle soft-to-loud changes in dynamics with knock-down, drag-out punch. It has impressive (deep and detailed) bass, a natural (neither too frontal nor laidback) midrange, and slightly soft (placing violin scrapes down in the mix) highs. It sounds like the most natural rigs I heard at the Home Entertainment Show last month in New York. It plays music of any type with aplomb and equanimity. It also travels well, being small and fitting into its hard, zippered case. And it is such a good sound isolating device that it doesn't require a noise-cancellation system. You could get on a plane, and if you didn't feel like listening, they would be great at noise reduction.
For those of you who intuitively feel uncomfortable with something inside your ears, you might try these anyway. They become an acquired taste, like fine single-malt Scotch whiskey. If you're like me, you'll find the pluses outweigh the minuses. The Shure E5c's are lots less cumbersome than bulky standard headphones, most of which nowadays come with open backs, letting unwanted sound in. For those of you who feel the $500 price is prohibitive, Shure offers the E3c at $179, and the E2c at $99, with similar sound and fewer features. But if you'll settle for nothing less than dual, highly dynamic, itsie-bitsie, two-way, fit-in-your-ear micro-speakers that employ many of the tricks of hearing aid technology to deliver professional-quality sound, then your wait is over. The Shure E5c's deliver the balanced sound that makes them the answer to the need for great-sounding, noise-isolating, traveling headphones for the discerning Dude. They are a true advance in the technology, especially with the "triple flange sleeves." Some say they were named for a character, Flange, in the Thomas Pynchon short-story, "Low-Lands." I think that's a lot of bunk. Hear the E5c's for yourself at a good dealer, remember to de-wax your ears before you go, and tell ‘em Max Dudious sent you.
This article also appears in the current issue of Audiophile Audition