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Big Phat Sound: Shure E5c Earphones

Two-way ear monitors for your listening pleasure By Charlie White

Shure E5c isolating earphones
When I first reviewed a pair of Shure's earphones, the E3c, here on Digital Media Net six months ago, I thought I had experienced the pinnacle of in-ear headphone sound. Then, those earpieces' big brother, the E5c, arrived here at the Midwest Test Facility. I gathered together some high-end sound sources, plugged the phones into them, and oh, my. If you want to know what music really sounds like, these Shure E5c babies are the devices for you, even though they do cost a cool $499.

These high-end baubles have their origin in the ears of first the hearing-impaired and then  rock stars. The serious business of enabling people to hear has motivated the constant development of the technology inside the E5c for the better part of a century. Hearing aids have gotten to be so precise and so small, they can hardly be seen inside the ear. Noticing the invisibility of these devices and craving the full-spectrum sound they got in recording studios, rock stars appropriated the technology, wearing them on stage to hear themselves singing in the high-decibel environment of stadium-rock venues. They got their studio-quality sound and no one was the wiser, and they were able to eliminate those pesky wedge fold-back speakers often used as on-stage audio monitors. While at first these earphones were only available as custom-made items, Shure decided to develop a line of commercially-available units, of which the E5c is the best, resembling most closely the ones worn by the stars.

These aren't exactly earphones -- they're so good that you could call them in-ear monitors. What really sets them apart from their lesser siblings are the two drivers in each earpiece, with all their sonic traffic being directed by a tiny electronic crossover contained neatly in the cable. It's the earphone equivalent of having a woofer and a tweeter inside each ear, where each speaker specializes in either low or high frequencies. The result is superb sound, the best audio reproduction I've ever heard.

This two-driver technology sounds noticeably better than the E3c, Shure's less-expensive model that I reviewed earlier here on DMN (click here to read that review). Comparing the E5c to the already-great E3c -- Shure's $179 version that has but one driver in each ear instead of two -- after listening to drums on the E5c, the E3c's drums sounded like the guy was banging on garbage can lids. The E5c drums sounded like completely undistorted, tight, roaring thunder.  With the E3c, the high frequencies were certainly there, but were not as crisp. The lows were audible on the E3c's but lacked the punch and presence of those in the E5c. Sound from either model is amazing, it's just that the E5c elevates this sound quality to an entirely different class of amazing.  

To evaluate these extraordinary ear speakers, I decided to get some extraordinary source material. I picked up a DVD-audio recording of the Big Phat Band's album called "Swingin' for the Fences". It's probably the highest-quality recording I've ever heard, and consists of a style of music with which I'm intimately familiar, having played saxophone in numerous big bands of this type for many years in a former phase of my life. In addition to this rip-roaring big-band audio DVD, I listened to all kinds of .wav files, mp3s of various compression, and even airline audio. I listened to my sound track on a Premiere Pro timeline as I edited at 35,000 feet, and I listened to my portable mp3 player, too.

In that Big Phat Band audio DVD, there's an a capella passage of a saxophone section playing, and I can tell you from experience that it sounded exactly like it does if you're sitting in the middle of a sax section playing with four other players blowing like hell. The baritone sax had that throaty sound and slapping attack that felt like it does inside my head when I'm really honking it out. And the alto sax sound, through these earphones, allowed me to hear all the overtones mixing together in that complex cocktail of aural delight that can only be alto saxophone playing at its finest. With all five saxes playing together at full-tilt, the open presence of these earphones lets you hear each individual part as well as the perfect way they mix together. It sends chills down my spine. And then there are the midrange frequencies, where vocals are smooth yet assertive, and sound just as if the singer were sitting right across a table from you, telling you a musical story without any amplification at all. If sound were color, these earpieces would project a spectrum of Fall hues, warm and burnished while still crisp as the Autumn air. But I write metaphorically about color, because the depth and clean, uncolored realism of these devices is at a level I didn't think possible with electronic devices. Sure, with cheaper phones you can hear an approximation of these things, but with the E5c, it sounds just like you're there.  

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Related Keywords:Shure E3c, Shure E5c, studio-quality sound, in-ear monitors, ear speakers, isolating earphones, audio monitors, audio-for-video editing

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