Pricey, but with great sound

Shure Inc.'s E500PTH headphones cost $500, but speak volumes in the quality they offer

Plugged In

August 31, 2006|By Eric Benderoff | Eric Benderoff,Chicago Tribune

Nothing improves the performance of an iPod, or any other portable music player, more than great headphones.

I've been testing the newest headphones from Shure Inc. and if you have the money for the luxurious E500PTH, spend it. It blows away the sound you get from Apple's iPod headphones, and it makes Shure's E3c headphones, the last set I tested from the company, seem like a product from an inferior rival.

But $500 is a steep price for this sonic improvement, double the price of some iPods. Are headphones worth that much?

Yes, if you value great sound and an experience where practically no ambient noise seeps in while listening. In fact, you can keep the volume lower with the "sound isolating" E500 because you will not hear the chatty co-workers next to you. Nor will you hear the screaming infant two rows behind you on an airplane while trying to catch a nap after a long business trip. Is that worth $500?

I listen to my iPod while writing because it helps me concentrate amid the noise of an open newsroom. Still, wearing my standard iPod headphones, I hear, albeit faintly, conversations around me. But with the E500, I can't even hear the phone in front of me ring, let alone an interview being conducted by another reporter.

I just hear the music. And it sounds good.

Shure calls these high-definition headphones and compares the improvement in sound to the visual clarity one gets with high-definition TV. The E500s use three miniature high-definition drivers - a tweeter and two subwoofers - to reproduce sound.

All I can say is that the sound from my iPod has never been better. I hear subtleties I missed before and the music is richer in tone. I kept switching between my Apple headphones, the Shure E3c and the E500. Each time, the E500 sounded significantly better.

Another improvement over the E3c line is the fit. Shure designed those headphones for the user to wrap the wires around one's ears and then string the cord down your back, not in front of you. I found this irritating, uncomfortable and awkward when I needed to access my iPod if it was in a carrying bag.

With the E500s, you still wrap the wires around your ears but you string the headphones down the front. Also, these black-chrome-colored headphones, like previous Shure models, come with a "comfort" kit for your ears. There are several sizes and styles of soft and flexible sleeves to choose from, and it is easy to replace one set to try another for the best fit. I prefer the foam sleeves, as I did with the E3c.

However, a dubious innovation with these headphones is the Push-To-Hear accessory it ships with. This clunky device, which connects to the headphones and can be clipped to a belt, lowers the music volume to allow for a conversation. Basically, you turn on the PTH to amplify someone's voice through a built-in microphone instead of removing the headphones.

It's a silly idea and poorly executed. The PTH doesn't turn the music off; it just lowers the volume. Why not just hit pause? Well, the PTH doesn't have a pause button, volume controls or buttons to skip to the next song. If those controls were included, the PTH would be handy.

I use Apple's remote control to pause or skip to another song with my iPod. It plugs into your headphones and is useful during my commute, for instance, so I don't have to reach into to my case if I need to hit pause. It's a $39 accessory from Apple, and works quite well with these $500 Shure headphones.

(Note: The iPod Remote works only with older iPods; the iPod Radio Remote, which includes an FM tuner, works with new iPods and costs $49.)

Another drawback to the E500: There are too many parts for these headphones. It's an accessory loaded with accessories, including the PTH, three choices of cables to extend the reach from your iPod to your ears, and the various earphone-fitting sleeves. My desk is scattered with Shure stuff.

At the least, having too many parts does provide choice. On the other hand, it adds needless clutter - and cost - to a device that speaks volumes just fine on its own.

Eric Benderoff writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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