Review: Shure E500PTH / SE530PTH Sound Isolating Earphones
Pros: In-canal earphones with standard-setting sound quality, thanks to a triple-driver design previously found only in considerably more expensive earphones. Surprisingly comfortable, aided by extensive fit kit and optional extension cords. Includes gift box, carrying case, and useful - though not necessary - microphone attachment to let you hear what’s around you without removing the phones.
Cons: Though acceptable as-is for many users, additional color choices and lower price would be great.
Prior to January of this year, iLounge’s collected editorial staff would have believed it difficult - perhaps impossible - for a company to release earbuds that could satisfy literally all of our disparate needs. But as we noted in our Best of Show 2006 award for the E500PTH Sound Isolating Earphones ($549), premium headphone maker Shure has hit the trifecta: incredible sound, innovative features, and surprisingly good comfort across different ear sizes and shapes. The result is an earphone that, although expensive in an absolute sense, delivers more bang both overall and for the buck than Ultimate Ears’ $900 UE-10 Pros - our previous gold standard for “price no object” earphone performance. [Editor’s Note: The E500PTH has subsequently been renamed the SE530PTH; our review refers to it by its original name. Pictures of the SE530 package are now shown at the bottom of the review.]
Background: A World of Earphone Options
Our praise for the E500PTH should be taken in the appropriate context: we’ve previously been guarded in lauding expensive headphones, and have not given out flat A ratings lightly. Myriad replacement earbuds have been marketed towards iPod owners, whose white and gray pack-ins are widely regarded as very good freebies, but uncomfortable and lacking for bass and isolation. Many of the alternatives have struggled to match Apple’s designs on sound quality, while others - typically costing $40 or more - have rivaled them, and still others at $100 and higher levels generally begin to noticeably surpass them. However, at prices of $300 and above, companies reach a point of diminishing returns: it is hard to offer sound that’s cleaner and more detailed than Etymotic’s $300 ER-4Ps (iLounge rating: A), so premium headphone makers have tried to offer other premium-worthy features, such as custom-fit sleeves and extended bass. Generally, we’ve found these additions to be less than fully worthy of their added costs, and have said as much in our reviews.
So when we say that the E500PTH is the best in-canal earphone we’ve ever tested, and the best value for the dollar next to the ER-4Ps, you’ll hopefully know how much of an endorsement we’re giving Shure’s most recent release - this is the company’s finest product yet. To say that it does for in-canal phones what AKG’s outstanding but not truly portable K701 did for earcups is truly meant to put this design on a pedestal. This is a pair of earphones that improves in every way upon its predecessors from Shure, and frankly, every other product we’ve tested in its class.
What Makes the E500PTH Special?
Three major features set the E500PTH apart from other premium earphones we’ve tested: the two biggest ones are its combination of sound quality and comfort, which are impressively interrelated. In short, Shure has managed to shrink a triple-driver speaker design - one tweeter and two woofers per ear - into brown metallic and black plastic earpieces that are better than the ones in Ultimate Ears’ aforementioned $900 triple-driver UE-10 Pros: smaller, and without the need to be custom-fit to your ear canals. The other surprise is that they’re actually more comfortable than Shure’s earlier and equally expensive E5c earphones, which house only two drivers. As with most of the top-end in-canal earphones we’ve tested, you need to wear the E500PTH’s cords around the tops and backs of your ears, but neither the earpieces nor their cabling weigh unduly on your head.
It’s worth mentioning that Shure includes nine total pairs of ear inserts in each box, between which you’re essentially guaranteed to find something that fits comfortably inside your ear canals. The company generally demonstrates its earbuds with the form-fitting yellow foam inserts, which provide a mixture of good isolation and comfort, but there are also rubber triple flanges, and two softnesses of rubber caps in multiple sizes. We generally prefer triple flanges, and largely conducted our testing comparisons using Shure’s and those from other companies, but ultimately found that the E500PTHs best fit our ears - and others - with the foams. The flanges made these phones stick out too much for normal use, while the foams worked well with lots of ear shapes. Proper fit and comfort is essential to full enjoyment of their sound quality.
We could go into considerable depth regarding the merits of the E500PTH’s triple-driver technology, but it will suffice to say this: when they’re snug in your ears, these earbuds simply sound better than the best high-end earbuds we’ve tested, and we don’t mean that in a “with some songs, and for some people, they’ll sound better” sort of way. In tests across different genres of songs - rich-stringed classical and Indian music, deep-bassed rap, vocal tracks, and rock - the E500PTHs delivered exactly what we’ve been looking for: sound with detail and clarity equivalent to Etymotic’s ER-4Ps, plus added bass that is both noticeable and natural rather than boomy or otherwise exaggerated.
Like the AKG K701s, the E500PTHs deliver sound that even neutrality-obsessed audiophiles will find acceptably balanced on the high and low ends, with just enough warmth to make music sound richer and better than you last remembered hearing it. This is true even by contrast with the more expensive UE-10 Pros, which add a hint of bass to the ER-4Ps, but not enough to fully justify their $600 difference in price; here, the E500PTHs are perceptibly but delicately superior. In a word - and a rare one around these parts - we’d call the E500PTH’s sound balance “perfect” for an in-canal phone, even when heard immediately after competitors that are themselves very hard to fault.
Is anything wrong with the E500PTH design? Our sole criticism is a trivial one: their coloration. The brown metallic casings don’t match anything - iPods, ears, or most tastes - particularly well, and we hope that the company will follow in its past traditions and release different colored versions to meet the fashion needs of prospective buyers. Though many of the E500PTH’s consumers won’t care a bit about this factor, and we’re not put off by the color enough to mind much ourselves, black, white, or clear versions would definitely go over better than these.
The Microphone and Other Accessories
As noted above, three major features make the E500PTH package stand out - the third is one of six accessories found in the company’s metal, gift-quality box. Like other Shure earphones, you get a nice semi-hard ballistic nylon, zippered carrying case, an adapter for older, larger headphone ports, a volume attenuator, and an earpiece cleaning tool, none of which requires additional description. But you also get a set of three different headphone extension cables - one is the default 3-foot cable that attaches to the earbuds to leave you without dangling wires, and one is only around a foot long.
The last of them is the critical piece, a “Push to Hear” (PTH) control box with an included Voiceport microphone. In our view, this accessory is the least necessary component in the entire package - we’re of the impression that E500s will ship without them at some point in the future - but to the extent that it works well and offers an innovation not found in competing premium headphones, it’s worth mentioning.
If you connect the control box to the standard earbuds and their 19” cable, there’s no need for either of the other extension cables: a person of average or above-average height can place an iPod in a pants pocket, clip the control box’s rear metal belt clip to his or her other pocket, and wear the headphones comfortably without cord dangle. So connected, the box gives you the ability to do one thing: hear the world around you even when the sound-isolating earphones are still in your ears. Flipping a switch on the box’s front turns the AAA-battery-powered feature on, and a slightly-too-recessed dial on the side lets you turn the ambient sound amplification feature up or down.
In our tests, the feature works well - especially when you’re wearing the right ear sleeves and really screening out sounds around you. Whispers and voices are rendered in enough detail that you’ll think you have modest super-hearing; a microphone is actually mounted on the cable near your head in a position that lets you hear your own voice. While we’re not sure that we’d buy the PTH pack separately, it makes a nice bonus feature for an already outstanding package.
Before you take the last comment on the PTH pack as a low note, consider this: having actually used bigger in-canal earphones such as the UE-10 Pros, which are physically difficult and sometimes uncomfortable to take out of your ears, the E500PTHs are so comparatively easy to insert and remove that the microphone feature isn’t truly necessary here. Pulling them out for a short conversation or an extended rest from listening isn’t a hassle - and it’s more polite - so unless you’d benefit from the slight hearing enhancement the pack offers, you’ll probably just want to use the lighter standard cable. In our view, the better application for such a device would be as a part-time cell phone accessory, where you’d clearly want to keep your earphones in rather than take them out.
Overall, our feeling about the E500PTH earphones is overwhelmingly positive: for the foreseeable future, the only way we’d imagine Shure could improve this offering would be to lower the price - it has so impressively engineered these headphones physically and electronically that we would be hard-pressed to find a major flaw worth noting other than the cost of entry. But then, to the extent that the E500PTH comes in at a price $350 lower than the category’s previous performance leader, yet delivers superior sound quality, greater comfort, a microphone accessory, and other goodies in its package, even that factor is hard to criticize. In the E500PTH, Shure has delivered the ultimate in-canal earphone at a better price than its competitors - a very highly recommended offering that is too expensive for many iPod users to afford, but deserves to be worthy of their lust in the meanwhile. As all of iLounge’s editors are now lusting after E500s of their own, we can only hope that someone will be inspired to take up the challenge of doing better, for less.
SE530: Shure’s Slight Update to the E500
In mid-2007, Shure released the SE530, a re-named version of the E500 that is only slightly different from the prior version.
The SE530 now includes four sets of Shure’s superior coated black foam eartips, rather than the previous clear rubber tips, in addition to three sets of gray rubber tips and a single set of triple flange tips. By default, it ships without the PTH module mentioned above, and sells for $500. With the PTH module, the price goes up to $550. Contrary to the many photographs of the SE530 that are out there, these earphones look basically identical to the copper-colored E500s, so don’t expect them to be silver and black.