Shure I Series Integrated Sound Isolating Earphones + Mobile Headset
You are happily listening to your tunes on your iPod when your cell phone rings. Of course, that means removing your earphones, and either putting in a new one for the phone call, or holding your phone up to your ear, which you can’t do if you leave the ear phones in your ear. When the call is over, it is time to switch back, meaning scrambling for the right wire, replacing the earphones, only to have the phone ring again a few minutes later, to do this dance once again. If your hands free headset has a wire, it is not long before it and your iPod earphones’ wires are a tangled mess.
I do not own an iPod (see my entry for more on that) but there are times when I do want to listen to music, especially on the train ride home or long plane rides, and for that, I use my Treo 650. This device incorporates many devices into one, including a cell phone, video player, MP-3 player, Palm handheld functions, a navigator, plus many more things. But here too there has always been a problem of listening to music and then getting a phone call, because the Treo, for some reason, handles phone calls separately from device audio (such as music), and the same earphones you use for music do not work for the phone call, acting almost like you had two separate devices.
So like an iPod owner, if I am listening to music on my earphones, and the phone rings, I have to remove the music earphones, and either answer on the phone itself, or grab a wireless headset to talk on the phone. This means, of course, that I too have to do the switching wire dance, and I too end up with a tangle of wires in a very short time, and it is not a simple transition from music to answering a phone call and going back.
But the smart folks at Shure solved this problem for both Treo owners and iPod owners with a very clever set of products: The i2c, i3c, and i4c (or i2c-t, i3c-t, and i4c-t) “Integrated Sound Isolating Earphones + Mobile Headset, selling at $119, $199, and $319 respectively and come with a 2-year warranty. (Note that Shure currently has these marked down to $99, $179, and $299 respectively on their web site.) The difference in price, as is typical of Shure products, relates significantly to better sound quality as the price goes up. But what separates these earphones from the rest of the pack is the ability to use the same earphones for both music and phone with no swapping or switching of plugs, cords, or wires. These things are so cool, they were named an Innovations 2006 Design and Engineering Showcase honoree by the Consumer Electronics Association.
The concept is very simple: A single plug, in the case of the Treo (the –t option in the model number) goes into the headphone jack. Along the wire is a pod with a volume control and a mute button (see above), and out of that pod comes a wire to a pair of very high-quality earphones with an in-line microphone on the right ear wire. When listening to the Treo audio, these earphones work like any other pair of earphones, albeit of much higher sound quality. On my Treo, when a call comes in, the application I use for music automatically pauses (pTunes) and I can simply answer the call directly. The phone audio replaces the application audio (music or game sounds), the small microphone is turned on, and the call takes place. When the call is done, I simply hang up and my normal audio is returned to the earphones. No wires to switch, no earphones to pull out of my ears, no plugs to change, thus no swapping or tangling of multiple wires or devices. A simple concept made very simple.
If you own an iPod (or game device, MP-3 player, or other audio generating device) and a separate cell phone, there are models of this product designed to work with that combination as well. Shure makes two versions of each model, one for the Treo (-t), and one for separate phone and audio device, such as an iPod and cell phone. In this case, there is a dual connector below the “pod” (see above) that replaces the single Treo connector, and that has a plug for your audio device (a stereo, 3.5 mm phone plug), and another for the cell phone’s hands free jack (a 2.5 mm 3 conductor plug.) There is a switch on the volume control pod to let you switch between the audio device and the cell phone. When the phone rings, simply slide the switch to the phone position, your music or audio is replaced by the phone’s audio, the microphone is switched on, and you can simply start your phone call. When the call is done, move the switch back to listen to your music or hear your game again, and like above, there are no earphones to remove, no wires to tangle, and no confusion over multiple devices. Switching made easy.
I was given an i4c-t to try out, which of course, had the most amazing sound quality. Since I could not try all versions, I cannot say how these compared with Shure’s other versions of this product, but given Shure’s reputation for high quality audio, I am “sure” they all sound very good. Like Nemo’s review of Shure’s high quality earphones for the iPod, these devices excel at audio reproduction. This is not surprising as these units use the same high-quality drivers used in Shure’s e-series earphones as well. Highs were crisp yet not tinny, there was sufficient base response, and the middles were well balanced between the two. My music never sounded so good from my Treo. Unfortunately, some of my music never sounded so bad either!
And that, of course, is both the good news and the bad news for MP-3 listeners. The good news is that well encoded music will sound amazing and phone voices will be clear and sharp. The bad news is that if you listen to low quality MP-3 files, you will now hear just how bad these files really sound, because these earphones let you hear everything that is recorded, including all the encoding noise associated with low quality MP-3’s. Using a cheap set of earphones, my 128 kbps, 44.1 KHz MP-3 files sounded just fine, because frankly, they were not very good at sound reproduction. But with these Shure earphones, these same MP-3 files sounded awful. I could hear all that encoding “noise”, distortion and clipping which is created by low bit rate encoded MP-3 files. Remember, MP-3 is not a lossless compression, so you will hear that loss now because of the excellent sound reproduction of these earphones. However, once I tried MP-3’s encoded at higher bit rates (192 kbps) or using Apple’s lossless compression, these earphones made the music sound amazing.
Sound isolation is also important for a good listening experience, and is especially important when trying to hear a phone call in a noisy environment. And Shure understands this need well. These earphones performed well in that area, effectively blocking out most of the outside noise around me, making music much easier to hear at non-deafening volumes in a loud or noisy place. Likewise, voices on the phone were also easier to hear in noisy environments. Unlike bulky headphones that use heavy sound isolation, which make them large and heavy, or unlike active sound cancellation technology that can add artifacts to the sound and can also be larger, Shure’s simple isolation devices are extremely small and light weight and add nothing to the sound. And because they do not use either technology, they fit easily INTO the ear as well, blocking noise right at the ear.
Since no two ears are alike, Shure included in the package a good number of different types of sound isolators, each in small, medium and large sizes as well, which attach easily to these earphones, and when properly installed and inserted into the ear, can reduce outside noise by as much as 37 dB. My favorite, a soft, flexible sleeve easily fit into my ear, were quite comfortable for a long period of listening time, and were also secure enough to not fall out while exercising, running, or riding a bike.
But did they really work? I decided to test this theory of sound isolation by trying to listen and make a phone call on the Rockridge BART train platform, a heavy rail commuter train that makes a hell of a lot of noise. This location was a particularly good test as this train platform is also located right in the meridian of an 8-lane freeway. The noise level at rush-hour time, even without a train entering the station, makes normal conversation with a person standing next to you almost impossible. After all, you are standing less than 50 feet away from 8 lanes of auto and truck traffic, with an occasional large train entering the station at regular intervals. So, I popped in these earphones and switched on some music. While I could still hear some freeway noise, I could actually hear the music quite well, and at a “normal” non-ear splitting volume. It was impossible to hear the music with my cheap earphones on this platform. But what about a phone call?
The “VoicePort Inline Microphone” also performed well. Shure claims that this device is “acoustically tuned to filter out background noise” and it seems to actually work fairly well. Unfortunately, the first set of these I tried worked so well that the person on the phone call could not hear me unless I held the microphone right next to my mouth. Seems it tunes out anything not close to the microphone quite well. A replacement set of earphones solved this problem for the most part, and I was able to carry on a regular phone conversation basically standing in the middle of a freeway. I could easily hear the caller, and they said they could hear me as well, and heard very little background noise, BUT ONLY if I positioned the microphone near to my mouth. Positioning the microphone is important for a good quality conversation, but the Shure design has problems as it “hangs” the microphone way too low on the wire not near your mouth. They also do not include a lapel clip to move it up either. This added to the problem of callers not hearing me well in my all trials, and required me to hold the microphone near my mouth to make it work well. Using a clip from another hands-free headset, I clipped the mike high up near my shirt collar and all worked well. Why Shure does not include such a small clip is beyond me.
Everything came shipped in a nice carrying case, although this case was a larger than I would like and took up a good deal of room in my bag. Maybe that is because the “pod” (volume control and mute button connector) was a bit on the larger side as well, leading to the larger case size I suspect. The pod too could have been made much smaller and less obtrusive. The wires are also very heavy, which will make them last longer, but also made them a bit on the stiff side as well. Lastly, this device should have an “answer” button on the “pod” so that you can leave your Treo or cell phone in your pocket and still answer the call. Perhaps that function is not as easy at it seems, but really made handling the phone call a bit clunky if your phone was not readily accessible.
However, for the prime function of good audio listening with an easy to switch between an audio source and a phone call, these do a great job, and their audio quality is way up there.
A few specs for those who care:
Speaker Type: HiDef Driver with Tuned Port Technology
Sensitivity (at 1kHz): 111dB SPL/mW
Impedance (at 1kHz): 29 Ohms
Cable Length: 1.61m (63 inches)
Output Connectors: Single – 2.5 mm gold-plated,
right-angle,4 conductor plug
Dual – Audio: Gold-plated stereo, 3.5mm
(1/8-inch) phone plug.
Phone: 2.5 mm gold-plated, right-angle,
MyMac rating: 3.5 out of 5. This might have scored higher, but really needs a smaller form factor and case, an improved microphone with an integrated clip, lighter weight wires, and an phone answer button are really needed. If Shure wants to make using your phone and iPod easier, then make it easier! And like all Shure products, while you get what you pay for in audio quality of the earphones, some may find it hard to pay more for a pair of earphones than they did for their Treo or iPod. I would really like to see a high quality, lower priced option from Shure that does al this, but then again, would it sound as good?