Review: Shure E4c Sound Isolating Earphones
Pros: Highly attractive in-ear canalphones with impressive highs and clean midrange, fantastic fit kit for various ears, and solid build qualiy from cords to earpieces. Includes great zipper case and other accessories for non-iPod devices. A solid step up from lower-end headphones.
Cons: Though touted as offering extended bass response, low-end performance is unimpressive by comparison with comparably priced competitors. Long cable isn’t as good a match for iPod users as for others.
If any pair of iPod-styled headphones is going to win you over on aesthetics in 2005, Shure’s E4c Sound Isolating Earphones ($299.00 MSRP) would be the ones. Positioned directly in-between the company’s $499 MSRP E5cs and its $199 E3cs, the E4cs are a challenger to popular, excellent earphones such as Etymotic’s ER-4 series (iLounge rating: A), as well as Ultimate Ears’ recently released super.Fi UE 5 Pros (iLounge rating: A-). However, the company’s MSRPs belie the fact that their earphones are actually much cheaper at many retailers; the E4cs can be had for only $175 if you look around.
Of those three earphones, the E4cs are unquestionably the best looking. Shure designed a white, gray, and gunmetal version specifically with iPod fans in mind, and the enclosures are almost a work of art - particularly when they’re capped with one of the included frosted transparent rubber ear caps. In person, they look as good as they do in their glamour shots, and certainly are a step up over the very nice super.Fis and the aging ER-4s. A five-foot cord is a foot longer than the super.Fis’ - a fact which is less beneficial for iPod owners than others - but on the flip side, it feels stronger, and better designed.
You can choose from nine different types - some dark gray, some clear, and one each of yellow foam and white triple flanges - all included to help you get a comfortable fit and a good seal against outside noise. Between these options, we found the E4cs to be exceptionally easy to fit and make comfortable in our ears, as well as to screen out sounds from the outside world. We remain big fans of the triple flanges generally, and strongly preferred how the E4cs sounded and fit with them on, but liked the clear rubber ones most on style. It’s a choice you’ll have to make for yourself. There’s also a black, less heavily promoted version of the E4cs for those who prefer the color, or need iAnonymity.
Shure also includes a set of replacement filters, a nice zipper case, a level attenuator, a headphone jack adaptor, and a cleaning tool with every pair of E4cs - a pretty comprehensive package by comparison with other options in its price range. By contrast with the super.Fi 5 Pros, Shure’s zipper case is a bit more practical for everyday use, its ear kit is a bit better, and it includes a line attenuator for use with non-iPod audio equipment. But Ultimate Ears’ metal and leather earphone holders are both very nice, and may appeal more to some people. In any case, both companies pack-ins are starting to seriously outdistance Etymotics’ ER-4 series, which are long in the tooth in this regard.
But looks, fit, and pack-ins only tell a small part of the story when it comes to earphones, and it’s here that the E4cs have the toughest time competing against the outstanding, reference-grade ER-4s and the highly competant, bass-rich super.Fi 5 Pros. Shure’s web site says that the E4cs deliver “brilliant highs and extended bass,” and company representatives explained to us early this year that Shure was aiming for a more consumer-friendly, bass-adjusted sound than the E5cs, given the demands of lower-price buyers. The perception - and probably a fair one - is that lower-end consumers look less for “accurate” sound than “pleasing” sound, and they’re pleased more by warmth and bass than anything else.
For that reason, we were a bit surprised to discover a couple of things about the E4cs: on or off an iPod, they’re considerably stronger on highs than on the lows - they produce sound that’s nicely detailed and crisp in the treble and midrange, but aren’t impressive in bass response. That’s not an entirely bad thing: in our first few listening sessions with final production models, we immediately found the E4cs to be an improvement on clarity over the earlier E3cs and peer earphones such as Etymotic’s ER-6is.
But the E4cs were nowhere near as aggressive in bass as we’d expected. It was much easier to coax clear, rich bass sounds from the super.Fi 5Pros with or without the use of equalizers - a fact that some have attributed to the iPod’s bass characteristics, but we found to be the case regardless of the devices to which the E4cs were attached. We gave the E4cs a work out with non-iPod devices, including computers and two iPod competitors, but found that they performed the same relative to the super.Fis on anything we tested. Ultimate Ears’ low-end sound was more than a bit smoother and richer, and offered noticeably more bump in every bass beat.
What does this really mean in the bigger picture? If you’re stepping up from a pair of lower-end earphones, you’re highly likely to notice a difference - and improvement - from the sound of the E4cs. Most likely, you’ll hear considerably more detail in your songs than ever before, and if you pick the right ear molds from Shure’s fit kit, you’ll benefit from dramatically superior isolation to what you’re accustomed to. These facts are at least equally important in understanding the E4cs’ appeal - even if they’re not the richest headphones in their price range, they won’t disappoint any person who views them as a step up from what they’ve previously owned. From our perspective, the E4cs are actually more comfortable than Shure’s more expensive E5cs, and more stylish as well. Given that they’re solid on detail and strong on highs, we think they’re definitely a solid, recommendable product.
That said, the people most likely to gripe about the E4cs are people who have used competing and/or higher-end earphones, and expected Shure to deliver the end-all, be-all of iPod listening devices. Regrettably, the E4cs are not that - Etymotic still has the edge on detail, and even the less bass-heavy Ultimate Ears 5-series model is stronger on bass. The E4cs are super-stylish, comfortable, and solid-sounding earphones that will impress almost anyone making a step up, but they won’t blow away serial headphone collectors or bassheads on sound.