I seem to be spending a lot of my time evaluating high end in-ear headphones these days. Only yesterday I reviewed the Etymotic Research ER.4 micro Pros and a little while ago I looked at the Ultimate Ears super.fi Pros. Now I’ve got Shure’s latest top of the range in-ear set plugged into my head, and the obvious question is, how do they compare to the competition?
Actually that question is a bit moot, since there isn’t much in the way of competition for these headphones, at least not when it comes to price, but I’ll come to that a bit later. Before I get into the ins and outs of these headphones, I should first make it very clear that these are the best in-ear headphones I have ever listened to, bar none. The sound quality produced by the E500PTH headphones is, quite simply staggering and I defy even the most casual of listener not to be impressed.
What sets the E500PTHs apart from other in-ear headphones on the market is the triple driver design. Despite the relatively small physical size, each headphone has three tiny speakers inside it – one tweeter and two woofers. This means that these headphones really can turn their hand to anything – you want crystal clear high frequencies? You’ve got it! You want booming bass that flows through your skull? You’ve got that too! But most importantly, there’s a near perfect cohesion between the upper and lower end of the frequency spectrum.
The power is also breathtaking. No matter how high you push the volume, the sound just refuses to distort. Even if you set the EQ on your player to enhance the bass (not that these headphones need that) the triple drivers just take it in their stride, pumping that extra bass out without the slightest hint of distortion creeping into the proceedings.
As I’ve found with all high-end headphones, they can often highlight the limitations of compressed music and the E500PTHs are no exception. It therefore comes as no surprise that Shure markets these headphones as the ideal companion for lossless compression formats, or non-compressed digital music. Having listened to everything from MP3 to AAC to ATRAC, I can honestly say that these headphones really shine when you throw files encoded in formats like Apple lossless or FLAC at them, although 256Kbit ATRAC-3 Plus is also pretty damn good.
I listened to Amazing by George Michael in 192Kbit MP3, 256Kbit ATRAC-3 Plus and uncompressed WAV formats. Even the MP3 file sounded totally captivating with these headphones, but switching to the ATRAC file made me realise just how much difference a good encode makes if you’re using high quality headphones. The WAV file sounded stunning, although it was harder to pick out specific improvements over the 256Kbit ATRAC encode.
Next I fired up Breath Me by Sia, a track that I had recently used to evaluate the Etymotic ER.4 microPro headphones. This is a great test track since it starts off with very subtle acoustics and builds to a loud and enthralling climax. The Etymotic headphones handled this track admirably, but the E500PTHs just took things to a different level – I could still pick out every aspect of each instrument, but the overall effect was just that bit more cohesive, while the crescendo ending just felt so much more powerful.