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Shure E4 and E5 High-Performance Earphones

Part II

February, 2006

Jason Victor Serinus

 

Since the E4's highs are not balanced by midrange richness and deep bass extension, their presentation is somewhat monochromatic; it is definitely tilted toward the upper frequencies. I have read a review on another website that compares the E4s to earphones from another company that purportedly deliver more bass for less money. Though evaluating more than two models of earphones is beyond the scope of this review - I would love to sample the Bose Noise Canceling headphones sometime to see if they have the characteristic Bose sonic signature that audiophiles frequently deride - my extended time with the E4s suggests, that for music lovers who mainly listen to CDs and SACDs, the E4s may not provide ultimate satisfaction. They certainly didn't do it for me.

The E5s are an entirely different story. Here's what I wrote in the airline terminal, awaiting my flight to Las Vegas:

"Thanks to the E5's separate bass module, these larger earphones definitely deliver a more complete sonic picture. The darkness of the cellos and double basses at the beginning of Philip Glass' Symphony No. 6: Plutonium Ode [reviewed in November, 2005] comes through in spades, as does the brilliance of Lauren Flanigan's voice. The beauty of the solitary chime at the start of the final third movement, ringing over repetitive cellos, is striking. So is the great dynamic range of the recording.

"With allowances for the fact that I'm listening through a Powerbook, rather than a high-end amplifier, this is a satisfying listening experience. The music may not either glisten on top or shake the gonads as much as it does over huge speakers, but it is smooth, close enough to full, seemingly free of distortion, and sufficiently beautiful to satisfy.

"Most important, the midrange that is the heart of all music is present in spades. I can appreciate the changes in dynamics and awe-inspiring versatility of soprano Lauren Flanigan, as well as Glass' formidable skill at orchestration. The silences truly sound silent, and the fortes formidable. I have had to lower the volume several times to avoid ear damage. (Editor's Note: Recent news reports suggest that earphones can cause damage to your hearing, so be careful. I think there is a tendency to really crank the volume with earphones because they sound so good.)

"Now I switch back to the E4s. The richness of the cellos and double basses is replaced by thinner sound. This seems like such a different piece of music. The E4s, I acknowledge, might suffice if all I wanted to focus on was Lauren Flanigan’s voice. It comes through loud and clear on the E4s, albeit without the depth heard through the E5s. But if I want to hear more of what each instrument can offer – if I demand to connect with the heart and soul of this music – only the E5s will do.”

Further Explorations

While Apple's G4 Titanium Powerbook may offer decent sound reproduction for CDs and DVDs, it cannot approach the sound generated by a high-end universal transport, oversampling DAC, amplifier, and speakers. I thus attempted to evaluate the E5s with other sources.

Alas, none of the gear in my reference setup accommodates headphones. Nor do I own a headphone amp. I had to turn to other equipment in the house.

I immediately learned just how bad the sound is through my ancient portable CD player's headphone amp. Bloated, artificial, distorted . . . the Powerbook sounds light years better. If it never bothered me that much through the Radio Shack headphones, consider the limitations of the medium.

Then I tried the headphone jack on my spouse's vintage Kenwood receiver, only to encounter another lousy headphone amp. Nor was the sound through the headphone amp of his Sony first generation CD player anything but hideous. Those of us who hated the sound of early CDs were not helped by such players.

Instead of continuing the agony, I decided to further evaluate the sound using the Powerbook.

Simply put, I love the sound of the E5s. Their response is extended and smooth, granting a warm sheen to the sound. The top may be less tilted up than through the E4s, and detail may at first seem somewhat softened – if you’re listening to a CD drawn from an analog master tape, you'll hear considerably more tape hiss through the E5s than the E4s – but the highs are definitely present.

To further understand the difference between the treble response of the E4s, E5s, and my Radio Shack "anti-reference," I used all three models to listen to a poor quality cassette recording of a phone interview I had made by hanging a microphone over my speakerphone. No Dolby noise reduction was employed.

I could not believe how much more hiss I heard through the E5s than through the Radio Shack babies. There was so much noise that I had no desire to hear how much additional hiss I might hear with the E4s. One time was plenty. This made me realize that the E5s offer more natural, albeit softened treble response than the E4s, which are overly detailed on top.

Conclusions

The E4s, which do a fine job of shutting out noise, offer detailed reproduction of higher frequency information. Their tonal balance, however, is neither midrange rich nor deeply extended. The sound is very much what one would expect from mp3s reproduced through an iPod or similar portable device.

The E5s, at least the equal of the E4s when it comes to noise reduction, beautifully integrate a pleasing, well-extended top with a warm midrange and extended bass. Their sound is quite seductive; music seems all of one piece, possessing a satisfying, non-fatiguing warmth. In case you're wondering, I intend to purchase the review sample and use them to review music with my Powerbook when my home computer is not available.

 

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2006 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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