E500PTH Sound Isolating Earphones

E500PTH Sound Isolating Earphones with Push-To-Hear Control
Company: Shure

Price: $500

First time I listened to songs on my iPod using Shure’s super-premium in-ear earphones, I thought it was the most immediate, exciting audio playback experience of my longish life as a musician and music lover. And the most uncomfortable. I had no interest in becoming accustomed to idiotic compressed foam tips inserted into my precious ear canals. With some enthusiasm (meaning not much), I told Shure’s product manager I could hardly wait for a personal evaluation leading to a favorable review in MyMac.com. That was January, 2005, in an exceptionally noisy Moscone Center exhibition area of San Francisco’s Macworld Expo a year and a half ago, accompanied by colleague Owen Rubin.

One year later, same people and location, updated products, same reaction to the foam tips. Shure introduced E500PTH at Macworld 2006, with better audio drivers plus a clever in-line on/off microphone, so earphone listeners can communicate with the real world without having to remove aforementioned tips from ears. Owen and I were impressed. Artie Alinikoff visited the Shure booth later that day, writing his own report.

Now, eight months later, E500PTH is in full production, with samples **finally** available for the media. I’m listening to these earphones day and night, and they are good. How good? I’ll tell you, but first please take ten minutes to read both previous recent reviews of competing products from XtremeMac, Ultimate Ears, and Etymotic Research, linked from here and here.

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Is Shure the Microsoft of earphone manufacturers, with regard to earpieces? Included with E500PTH is a set of grey “soft flex sleeves” that strongly resemble those from XtremeMac, clear “flex sleeves” just like the ones from Ultimate Ears, and a “triple flange sleeve” that is almost identical to tips by Etymotic Research, plus the generic foam cover that Artie prefers (bless his ever-lovin’ heart). If the result is comprehensive comfort for every possible user preference, who’s to criticize? My first choice for comfort and audio isolation remains clear silicone blobs by Ultimate Ears and Shure. A close second choice is soft grey lightweight rubber cones by XtremeMac and Shure.

With fit and comfort being so important to me and other in-ear earphonuts, my initial goal was to fall asleep wearing E500PTH. What better program to lull me into dreamsville than Chad and Tim’s latest MyMac.com Podcast (sorry, comrades)? Both styles of softy tips did the trick, and I was snoring along with the current Macintosh news and podcaster views (or so my spouse informs me). Perfect score on audio isolation, comfort, and fit. E500PTH is meant to loop behind your ears, which takes about six minutes to figure out and 30 seconds to feel natural.

Audio evaluation is somewhat tricky, and always subjective. In the past I used convenient sidekicks for supplemental comparisons, but this time Nemo is doing a solo act. I listened. And listened. Then listened some more. Jazz, classical, rock, folk, younameit. Large range of Equalizer settings. Day after day. Night after night. Then I did back and forth comparisons with the highly-rated Etymotic ER-4P buds, that impressed me in our previous review. The results are (gasp):

Shure’s E500PTH has a thick, rich midrange that is satisfying for most listening situations and types of music. I can hear (but not always feel) the frequency response extend into bass and treble registers. The overall experience is of a hearty main course musical meal, without a memorable appetizer or dessert course.

Etymotic’s ER-4P, costing $200 less but without the PTH (see below) microphone, has a more evenly-distributed audio presentation that is somewhat less meaty in the middle, especially when switching over from the Shure phones. Serious listeners will disagree as to the merits of each approach to audio engineering, but my personal preference (and I’m talking about the top of the market of finely-designed and crafted earphones) is a slight advantage for Etymotic over Shure. ER-4P is more like a satisfying main course seafood salad entreé, followed by a desert of seasonal fresh fruit. See my “It depends” comments below.

Here’s how MyMac.com rates E500PTH’s earphones on our 20-point scale:

COMFORT and FIT (6 points possible) = 6, based on variety of insertion tips included, and on oversized driver shells that conform beautifully to the ear.

AUDIO QUALITY and SOUND ISOLATION (6 points possible) = 5, with high marks for isolation, but a slight reduction based on audio balance weighted toward the midsection of the listening spectrum.

ACCESSORIES, CASE, and MANUAL (4 points possible) = 3, thanks to outstanding selection of cables and connectors for every possible person and situation, and a decent five-language manual, but a case that is somewhat impractical.

CONSTRUCTION and DESIGN (4 points possible) = 4, with plenty of attention to detail in every aspect.

TOTAL = 18 for 4.5 out of 5 (high recommendation) by MyMac.com.

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Now let’s address the mysterious PTH part of the equation. In Shure’s own words:

Push-To-Hear (PTH) Control — Switch between music immersion and your connection to the outside world.

A first for sound isolating earphones, the detachable Push-To-Hear Control allows you to activate the VoicePort Microphone and adjust levels of external sound for clarity — ideal for brief conversations without removing your earphones. The integrated switch allows you to conveniently alternate between your music and external sound.

That’s it, and it works as advertised. A couple of gripes:

Adjustable volume control on the PTH module is so small and recessed that it’s almost impossible to use unless your fingers are tiny and ultra-nimble.

PTH module’s in-and-out cabling and shirt clip are a little clumsy to position without more trial and error than should be necessary.

Both microphone on/off switch and battery compartment cover are awkward to use.

Otherwise, it’s handy dandy, and very inventive. Once you get used to it, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. Can it be purchased separately, for people who already own or will buy different earphones from any manufacturer?

MyMac.com rates this PTH gizmo as a 3.5 out of 5, bringing the grand total for Shure’s $500 E500PTH Sound Isolating Earphones with Push-To-Hear Control to a solid 4 out of 5.

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Returning to personal preference of premium ‘phones and your subjective sense of their audio attributes, once I finished writing the above, four visitors tested, without knowing my prior remarks, both Etymotic Research’s ER-4P and Shure’s E500PTH earphones. Comments included, in no special order:

“Shure is good, comfy and lightweight, resonant, and full tone. Etymotic is more tinny.”

“I didn’t like either one. Etymotic has no oomph, and Shure has no depth of sound.”

“I really hate all earphones. Shure is physically less irritating, and I can’t tell any difference in sound between them and Etymotic.”

“Shure feels more like they’ll stay inside my ears, and they sound clearer. Etymotic are lighter in weight, which I like, but I’m not wowed by their sound.”

Leaving us with a huge caveat. Once you are considering the differences between comparable high-end earphones, you’ll need to apply an “IT DEPENDS” to, among many factors: the song you’re hearing, the quality and bit rate of its recording and compression, the iTunes or other equalizer or tone controls you are using, the insertion tips of that particular set of phones, and your individual preferences as a listener. Whew! That’s confusing. But realize that when you purchase Shure’s E500PTH you are obtaining top quality earphones with a useful microphone attachment that you’ll use frequently, and with satisfaction, for years. Just keep them away from kids, animals, and anything in your kitchen.

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Hold everything! As I was getting ready to submit the above for publication, a close friend, Rob, who is a professional audio engineer, stopped by for lunch and then did a lengthy comparison between E500PTH and ER-4P. He tells MyMac.com:

“Very comfortable, with fine sound isolation. Midrange and upper register are smooth and natural. Every song is as good with these earphones as the original recordings can possibly sound. I listened to a variety of your classical compositions, and I can hear the subtle aspects of every one that reflect how each was recorded, from inferior to outstanding. And I especially enjoy that Haydn Trumpet Concerto on your iPod, Nemo. But the Shure ‘phones are really lacking in the low range, which is a disappointment.”

“These are a bit brighter, John. The high end sounds good, more responsive than the Shures. There is more low range also, but not much. Etymotic’s are not as comfortable, but otherwise they are very good. For example, cymbals are clean, bright, and clear, as they need to be, instead of being smoothly incorporated into the overall response, as the Shures have. I give a slight edge to these from Etymotic. Very interesting test, for a pro like me.”


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