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E4c Earbuds - Sometimes Less is More
as reviewed by Max Dudious
Two years ago I wrote a review of Shure's "top of the line" E5c Earbuds in these pages. At the First National Head-Fi Meet, a month or so ago, I was taken by the newer E4c model. It was a bit different, with subtle distinctions made in the voicing and the physical dimensions of the driver housing that would seat in your ear. In a thing so small, subtle distinctions are actually quite large. I'm sure Shure had its share of market research input before it actually put the E4c in production. These things are what a savvy, veteran, audio journalist picks up at a Head-Fi Meet while feigning to be so laid back he is about to fall over. All journalists are poseurs, doncha know? Actually I'd been driving from Baltimore to New York since early in the AM, and by the time I arrived in Bayside, Queens I was already wiped out.
To begin with, the E4c are smaller and less invasive to my ears. Now I'm not against earbuds, as some folks are, on principle. They just can't stand to have anything invading their ears. They can listen to circumaural headphones just fine, but earbuds plainly are too much. I never seemed to mind the earbuds. I might have been fascinated with them as a technological breakthrough, remembering all those clunky "cans" that were the norm just a while back. But it is clear that some earbuds are more comfortable than others. To the extent that the E4c (one driver) are smaller than the E5c's (two drivers), they are more comfortable. With the triple flange seals in place, and worked properly into the ear's canal, the E4c stay in place, and they seem no more uncomfortable, I imagine, than wearing a hearing aid, or a large ear ring. One gets used to it.
As Ye Olde Editor, Dr. David Robinson has said about headphones, "Comfort ain't an important thing, it's everydamnthing" (or words to that effect); and as I've noted, the E4c are obviously more comfortable. The E5c pressed against the outer rim of my jug handle ears, and while they were not intolerably uncomfortable, neither were they yummy to the touch. The E4c are an improvement. As the yes-men say on The Sopranos, "Definitely." I'm not sure if the E4c are as firmly fixed in the ear as the E5 are, and I'm sure I'd not go jogging wearing them: at $300/set, they're too expensive to lose. But you might figure out some innovative way to manage musical jogging, with silly putty, or Crazy Glue, or something. With a portable CD player or an iPod they would be great for sunbathing, commuting, or trips on airplanes, or cars, or trains. Seriously, I'd draw the line at jogging or tennis, because perspiration and small electronic parts don't mix. (And if you'd try Crazy Glue, I disavow any legal responsibility here and now. Even if you're my long lost cousin.) If I had to have sound while jogging, I'd use very cheap, disposable earbuds, the type I wouldn't miss if they shorted out.
Back to comfort. On some imagined continuum between comfortable and uncomfortable, the E4c are more comfortable than their big brother, Shure's E5c.
How do they sound? (Always a key issue in these reviews.) Before I get into "compare and contrast," I'll explain my methods. Conducting most of the listening tests using a Sony Walkman™ D-E356 CD player, a Sony ICF-SW7600GR AM-FM-Worldband Receiver, a HeadRoom Desktop Millett Hybrid Amp, and a Single Power Audio SLAM PPX3 (SET) amp, I liked playing with the Sony radio because I could tune it between stations and listen to "hash" that had a characteristic sound. Through one set of earbuds, the Shure 4, you could hear a peak of about one or two clicks up on the imaginary treble tone control when compared with the Shure 5. On the 5 I heard a half-click to one full click peak on the imaginary tone control in the mid-bass, or "cello region." Gentle reader, you might take a small AM-FM portable with you when you shop and conduct a similar test yourself before you purchase. More treble usually means more detail. More mid-bass usually means more warmth on human voices.
I'd say that (based on my earlier comparisons), while the E5c were somewhere between the Grado RS-1s (up front and detailed) and the Sennheiser 650s (suave and laid back), with the E4c the Shure engineers uncharacteristically moved a bit toward the Grado RS-1. They have a notch or two greater presence and high end than the E5c, as well as the same deep bass. That makes them great for listening to pop and rock and especially blues. They also do well on jazz and small classical ensembles. I find this quite ironic because at the Head-Fi Meet I got to listen to the Grado 325i in A/B with the Sennheiser 650, through superior amplification, and, again, I thought John Grado might have designed the 325i model to sound more like the Sennheiser.
The AKG 701 headphones (which are getting a lot of buzz just now) I found to be very detailed, with a pleasing midrange, and a rich low end. The E4c, though differing by virtue of being earbuds, have many characteristics similar to the traditionally engineered AKG 701. They're up front and detailed, with a tad more presence in the midrange and airier high frequencies than most, and with a terrific low end when positioned correctly in the ear. To check out the deep bass, I listened to the E4c through Single Power Audio's SLAM amp. It has one feature you don't see too often these days—"Texture Control"—a continuously variable damping adjustment. This tightens and loosens the grip of the amplifier on the transducer, making bass (most noticeably) more or less controlled. This is a real if subtle adjustment and allows the listener to tune the bass to his preferred sound. Exercising the variability I could tell that it takes a very low damping factor to have any effect on the E4c, so with most transistorized CD players or iPods it will be just fine. With the HeadRoom Millett Hybrid Amp, which uses tubes in the output stage, it was just fine.
That takes care of my three criteria in evaluating headphones. Shure's E4c have an all around good sound, they present a natural sound stage, and they'll sound good with just about any source. Being small, and coming with a hard, small case, they travel well. And with their soft-rubber triple-flange ear plugs designed to slide down into your ear's canal, they do a really outstanding job at isolating you from ambient noise in the environment. With no music on, they reduce the loudness of a jet airplane about 20dB, or about the same amount as most "muting" switches. Don't forget, the dB is a logarithmic function, so these are "industrial strength" noise isolating devices. And, as they keep the noise out—they keep the music in, which is my third criterion. "I got the music in me." The inverse quality (My fourth criterion. Didn't I try this gag in my Lowther column? My bad.) is, they keep the music in so you maintain privacy even to the extent of your wife not being bothered though you lay side by side in bed. As I said, the E4c sound great, travel well, are first rate sound isolation devices, and they're considerate of (and play well with) others. As George and Ira Gershwin once famously wrote, "I've got music ...who could ask for anything more?"
I think a lot of HeadRoom's Millett Hybrid Amp. I found listening to some of my favorite CDs through the Millet Amp and the Shure E4c an unalloyed joy. The reproduction had the virtues of both tube and transistor designs. The Shure E4c provide a quite pleasing balanced presentation—whether for Mozart or Junior Wells.
The verdict? Highly recommended! If you are in the market for a pair of high quality traveling (or stay at home) headphones that will light you up for $200 less than their big brother, you've got to Minuet or Moon Walk down to your Shure dealer, plunk your plastic on the counter, and tell ‘im Waxie Maxie sent ya. He'll just charge you double.