How good are Shure's new E500PTH in-ear headphones? They're "hear your favorite song for the first time" good. They're "what will I listen to next" good. They create sound that is so high-quality that it's at least as much fun listening to the headphones as it is to the music they are playing.
These in-ear, sound isolating headphones are the successor to Shure's vaunted E3C. However, this newer product uses a three-driver design -- one tweeter and two woofers. They are sound isolating -- as opposed to noise canceling -- due to their tight but surprisingly comfortable ear fittings. And, they come with a new feature that, depending on how you look at it, is either a gimmick or a long-needed feature: the ability to turn down the sound with a flip of a switch and hear, via a built-in microphone, what people are saying to you and what you say in response without having to take the earbuds out.
In other words, if sound quality is paramount -- and you have $500 to burn -- you're unlikely to find any with more complete, professional sound quality.
Sound With No Gaps
The combination of sound isolation and Shure's three-driver system creates sound with no gaps that is startling in its clarity. Mid- and high-range sounds are bright with no distortion or muddying. Specific instruments that might be indistinct with lesser headphones are brilliantly-defined with the E500PTH headphones. You can feel and practically see the strings vibrating when listening to a guitar strum. A string section is both a cohesive whole and clearly made up of individual instruments.
And, even more remarkably, the low-end is absolutely transparent, natural and tightly defined. There's no hint of unnatural thump-thump in these headphones. Nor is bass sound flattened or smoothed out. If you need thump, you'll need to either set your music player to provide it or use the cheap earphones that came with your audio player.
The overall clarity was so strong that, several times, spoken word made me involuntarily look at the doorway to see who entered.
Isolation And Surprising Comfort
Sound isolation is another key to the extraordinary sound quality of the E500PTH. The ear fittings are designed to be pliable enough to fill the ear, keeping out ambient sound.
By contrast, noise cancellation headphones, which are being gobbled up by travelers, create noise within a specific sonic range that cancels out other noise in that range. Shure argues that their more passive approach removes more extraneous noise than noise cancellation. In any case, the lack of ambient noise greatly contributed to the sound quality.
However, in other sound isolation headphones I've tried, the price you pay is in comfort. I'm not earbud person at any rate -- I invariably find them uncomfortable. However, the E500PTH headphones were the most comfortable earbuds I've worn. The comfort comes from two factors. First, the ear fittings are soft and pliable and didn't cause any discomfort by putting pressure on the ear canal. The headphones come with a variety of fittings, although I found the standard rubberized ones to be precisely the right ones for me.
The other reason these headphones are comfortable is that they are designed in such a way that the wire hangs on your ear -- you insert the earbuds from above and the ear supports their weight. These earbuds are, with their three drivers slightly heavier than other earbuds; this type of in-ear installation is necessary to avoid discomfort. Plus, the slightly heavier weight would exaggerate the tendency of earbuds to fall out and need to be readjusted.
One of Shure's innovations is what the company calls push-to-hear (which explains the PTH in the name of the product). This is a little switch with a built-in microphone that connects to the headphones and to the audio device. When you push the switch, the music is dimmed to a very low level and the microphone is activated, enabling you to hear outside sound, such as somebody speaking to you, and to hear yourself respond. That means you don't have to take the headphones out in order to have a conversation.
The system worked fine -- and was, indeed, a convenience. However, the push-to-hear unit was flimsy. In particular, the door for the battery wouldn't latch properly and the battery would fall out. The only way I could use this feature, then, was to manually hold the door closed.
And while the push-to-hear unit is hardly big, it is not exactly something you'd want to carry with you when, say, you are jogging, even though it comes with a clip for attaching the unit to your belt. But then, you don't have to use the push-to-hear unit. In fact, in addition to a variety of ear fittings, the system comes with two extra extension cables so you have plenty of length. And, another short extension includes a volume setting -- instead of using the push-to-hear box, you can simply use the volume control for the headphones to turn the volume down.
While Shure could put a bit more design and engineering thought into the push-to-hear function, overall, these are absolutely high-end headphones. The sound is beautifully clear and complete and they're comfortable enough even for those of us who ordinarily wouldn't use in-ear headphones. If you can afford the $500, the E500PTH headphones will give new life and vibrancy to your music collection.