Pros: Amazing clarity; clean sound throughout the entire range. Extremely lightweight, yet durable. New Ultra-Soft flex sleeves are much more comfortable than the old, harder plastic ones.
Cons: Pricey for many iPod users. Bass, while accurate and clean, is not ‘booming’ or powerful by any means – not for bass lovers. Isolation when using grey Ultra-Soft sleeves is poor.
Before we present our review of Shure’s new E3c Sound Isolating Earphones, we need to put forth the following disclaimer, which is especially important when discussing issues of comfort and sound quality: Everyone’s ears are different, so “comfort” and “sound quality” are subjective determinations.
Recognizing this, we prefer that readers understand our reviews of headphones to be informed, but not conclusive opinions.
With that said, we previously used and truly enjoyed Shure’s E2 model earphones ($79.99), which as a step up from more common $30 alternatives displayed a markedly impressive improvement in sound quality. We were therefore anxious to try the company’s E3 ($179.99), at the very least to see what aural improvements an extra $100 would buy.
In short, while the E3s are excellent earphones in terms of comfort, sound quality, and build quality, their value for dollar is another matter altogether. We’re still not sure that the E3s are twice as good (or more) as the E2s, a performance or quality multiplier which the price suggests. However, such is typical behavior of the audio market; as prices increase, the increase in quality ceases to be in direct proportion with the cost. Serious buyers should be aware of this.
In-ear headphones can be described as “earplugs that sing;” directly inserted into your ear canal, they (hopefully) form a good seal, keeping outside noise out. This “isolation” effect is often much more effective than “active” noise cancellation technology, and allows you to detect subtle nuances in music that you may never have heard before. Music sounds as if it has been injected into the center of your head, an experience which hooks many listeners. Serious listeners using in-ear headphones often find it hard, if not impossible to return to “regular” over-the-ear headphones.
Also, because in-ear headphones are inserted securely into your ear canal, they are designed to not fall out, making them quite useful for on-stage musicians or active iPod users. But as a consequence, there is one important accessory that all in-ear headphone users must buy, and use religiously: A large box of Q-Tips. Replacement sleeves are rather expensive from Shure—keeping your ears clean can really cut down on the cost of owning in-ear headphones.
All of Shure’s In-Ear headphones are designed to be worn in a rather unique way: the earphone cords, after exiting the earpiece, are draped over the top of your ear, and meet at the base of your neck, continuing down your back. While this takes a bit of adjustment, we eventually found this to be a superior way to wear headphones: the cords stay conveniently out of your way, and are quite discreet (especially when threaded underneath a shirt or jacket).
Package & Build
Shure includes the following items along with the E3 headphones:
A handy and compact zipper-style carrying case, which feels durable and well-constructed.
A “fit kit” consisting of Shure’s new “Ultra-Soft” Flex sleeves and their classic Flex sleeves, each in sizes of Small, Medium, and Large, along with a “universal fit” pair of yellow expanding foam earpieces.
An “earwax removal tool.”
A multi-language user-guide.
The E3s can also accommodate Triple-Flange Sleeves and custom ear molds, both of which were unavailable for testing, but which may (at an added cost) improve the E3 in terms of comfort, isolation, and sound quality.
Like the E2s, Shure’s E3s have that certain almost intangible quality product “feel.” They’re durable enough for musicians and casual users, and it’s easy to tell: the earpieces themselves are very well-constructed, and the cord feels higher quality than many cheaper competitors due to its larger-than-average thickness. Even the Y-junction (where the single cord separates into left and right channels) is built like a tank, plenty resilient against typical or atypical tugging.
Comfort and Style
We found the E3s to be extremely easy to wear, lightweight at 0.9 oz and consequently barely noticeable. They are unquestionably a wonderful improvement from the rather large and relatively heavy E2s.
The largest factor in E3 comfort is one’s choice of sleeve. We disliked Shure’s hard, thick “Classic” Flex Sleeves very much, and found them painful to use. But we found the “Ultra-Soft” Flex Sleeves to be extremely comfortable, and also liked the Foam Sleeves. Either of these latter sleeves allowed us to listen continuously for up to six hours without any discomfort whatsoever.
Style is another important factor, though clearly less important than comfort overall. When Shure released the E3 early this year, they made it quite clear that they had iPod users in mind. The industrial, bland look of their previous model earphones were replaced with elegant, white little earpieces, but for some reason, Shure chose to make the E3’s cables grey. While that color choice didn’t bother us too much, an all-white design would have made many die-hard fashion-conscious iPod users significantly happier.
We put the E3’s through their first extended listening test in an enclosed public area where people were talking. To test their isolation abilities, we simply put them in our ears without any music playing. Surprisingly, we could hear outside noises almost as clearly and loudly as if the headphones were not inserted – simply horrible isolation. Even with music played, we could hear a significant amount of outside noise when using Shure’s new Ultra-Soft Flex Sleeves. While extremely comfortable, the Ultra-Soft sleeves are made of a very thin silicone, contributing to the weak isolation.
Somewhat happily, we had absolutely no problems with isolation when using the Classic Flex Sleeves or Foam Sleeves. The isolation with both of these other sleeves was extremely effective (and on par with E2s equipped with comparable sleeves).
We treasure isolation, and thus found ourselves using the yellow Foam Sleeves most throughout our trial period – the Classic Flex Sleeves were just too uncomfortable. This is mildly unfortunate, as I prefer the look of the Ultra-Soft Flex Sleeves and the fact that they’d likely need to be replaced less often.
In sum, we were not totally thrilled with the tradeoffs we needed to make to achieve both comfort and proper isolation.
The first two words that crossed our lips when testing the sound quality of the E3s were “simply amazing,” at least, for mid-priced headphones. If allowed only one word, we would choose “clarity.” In direct listening comparison tests, our E2s (a prior high-water mark for low-to-mid-priced sound quality) often sounded comparatively muddled and dark.
The E3s sound is much more refined, especially in the mid- and high ranges. We found the lows, mids, and highs to be consistently on-target: none were exaggerated or overpowering. Instruments were clear and distinct.
It’s worth briefly noting that the E3s’ bass has received a few negative comments, specifically suggesting weak bass response. While the bass is not exceedingly powerful, we would choose to characterize the E3’s low-end as clear, accurate, tight, and appropriate. Users who prefer a clean, tight, accurate, balanced sound will likely appreciate the E3s, while those who prefer powerful, exaggerated bass might want to look elsewhere.
Shure’s E3s are for serious listeners: significantly better than E2s in comfort, style, and sound quality, they only have one major disadvantage – they are more than twice the cost. Casual listeners need not apply.
The mark of a good audio product is its ability to render earlier innovations unimpressive. Perhaps not surprisingly, the E3s dethroned Shure’s E2s, making it possible for us as listeners to recognize specific flaws (i.e.