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.
Considered by iLounge’s editorial staff to be amongst the best earphones we’ve ever tested, and already a recipient of our Best in Show award following their surprise debut back in January 2006, Shure’s E500PTH Sound Isolating Earphones have just arrived in final packaged form. Using a unique split-cable technology to offer the user’s choice of standard or enhanced earphone cabling, the E500PTH blends a triple-driver design – previously found only in custom-fit earphones from companies such as Ultimate Ears – with an optional “Voiceport” microphone that lets you hear outside noises without removing the earphones. If you prefer not to carry the microphone, the standard cabling is similar in weight, thickness, and length (3′ 9″ total) to other pairs of earphones.
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.