The Shure E4c: Big sound, big price.

Shure has been producing professional audio electronics for over 80 years, but the company just entered the consumer space about 2 years ago.

They are makers of microphones, wireless systems, mixers, audio processors, personal monitors and phonograph cartridges. The product I will be reviewing today falls in another category that they also produce: high-end earphones. Today we will be reviewing the Shure E4c sound isolating earphones. I was personally looking for a good pair of headphones and I obviously started looking at the more ‘traditional’ circumaural or supra-aural types, but what I ended liking was something totally different. Read on to find out more. The E4c
Basically there are 4 types of headphones: Circumaural (these have pads that go around the ears), Supra-aural (Supra-aural headphones have pads that go on top of the ears), Earbuds/Earphones (are placed directly outside of the ear canal, but without fully enveloping it) and Canalphones or In-Ear Monitors (IEM). IEM are ear buds that sit directly inside the ear canal and fully envelop it. IEM were developed originally for musicians trying to monitor their performance in loud onstage environments. The Shure E4c is also of the IEM-type, but Shure markets them as ‘sound isolating earphones’ and is part of their E series line of IEM, that includes the E2C, E3C, E4C, E5C and the new E500PTH. So this places the E4c just a step below the flagship E5C and E500PTH that retail for a whopping $500. The E4c has a retail price of $319, but can easily be found online from $100 to $130 less. Besides the E series, Shure also offers the E series: Gaming Edition, I series (The E Series with integrated microphone) and QuietSpot headsets for mobile phones. So what makes the E4cso special? The E4c basically works like ear plugs and literally blocks the ear canal, isolating most surrounding sounds and uses a single driver to produce a very impressive sonic performance. But more on the way it sounds later.

Sound Isolation
One of the key features of IEM, including the E4c is it noise reducing properties. This is important as the music generated by the driver is affected by external sounds. By blocking external sounds just like earplugs you get a simple, natural form of noise reduction, in fact these blocks up to 37 dB of ambient noise. Because these create an isolating listening experience they allow you to hear greater details at lower volumes.

Low-volume listening can be less fatiguing over extended periods and safer than turning up the volume on your headset to compete with background noise. This is of course done passively, compared to popular active noise canceling headphones like the Bose QuietComfort2 that are able block a lower amount of ambient noise. Because they actively block out sound with the use of electronics they are heavier/bulkier, are battery driven and generate tones that can only target selected frequencies. Headphones using an active noise canceling system can even add additional audio artifacts, including the audio hiss found in many active noise canceling headphones. Sound isolation depends how good the seal created by these IEM are and it’s a good thing that Shure provides different sizes and shapes of these sleeves. I tried every single one of them but found that the foam sleeves did the best job in isolating external noise. The standard flex sleeves that come as also standard do a good job, but these require you to know as to how to put them on, something you’ll learn after a longer period of using this set. The foam sleeves have the advantage of providing good isolation without much hassle. Jamming these babies deep inside your ear canal feels uncomfortable at first, but after a week of wearing them you’ll barely notice that they are there. How would a real world user experience this sound isolation? Having the Shure E4c on feels similar to being under water, you see things happening around you but the sound is highly recessed, I would say 90% of sounds get blocked this way. Wearing the E4c has a very eerie feeling to it and is difficult to describe. You can still hear others talk but the voice is highly recessed and trying to talk yourself sounds very strange as you can mostly hear a low frequency rumble coming from your head. When it’s very quiet you get some kind of a Darth Vader effect hearing yourself breathing. The feeling is indeed very interesting and I don’t think you can ever get accustomed to the feeling created by this effect, I have used these for several weeks and each time I put these on I have to stop for a few seconds due to the very interesting experience created by the sound isolation.

The Shure E4c’s design definitely seems to have been governed by the iPod craze, sporting the iPod-matching white color, with metallic accents and a grayish-white cable. The Shure E4c looks very stylish in white but is now also available in black; these are actually a breath of fresh air from most IEM, as most of them tend to look like probing or medical apparatus.

When you take a quick glance at these you would never guess the $319 MSRP. But a further inspection shows the contrary. From the thick cable, gold-plated connector, removable sleeves, slightly inwards bending earphone nozzles and high quality fit and finish, you’ll notice that these are not your average headphones. The overall quality is very good but at this price point I would not expect otherwise. Shure didn’t skimp on the accessories either and have included a pair of disposable foam sleeves, a pair of triple flange sleeves, three pairs (small, medium, large) of flex sleeves, and three pairs of soft flex sleeves (small, medium, large) to ensure the ideal personalized fit. Most of these are standard fair but the triple flange sleeves look very intimidating and most users will think twice in using them. Due to the length they will go much deeper in the ear canal, and will feel uncomfortable to some. The E4c comes with a carrying case and level attenuator that allows for comfortable listening from high-output audio sources. Also included is a wax removal loop. You will definitely get to know your ear wax really well owning a pair of these. After using these I had to do my cleaning ritual before storage using the wax removal loop as the wax can block out the sound coming from the drivers or damage the sound filter.

It seems that most people tend to get the best sound isolation and sound quality from the foam sleeves and we would have liked to see more of these included. Why so many pairs of the others sleeves while the foam sleeves that need to be changed more often you only get 1 pair? Stylewise they look simple yet stylish; this is good as they offer in my opinion similar or in some cases superior performance to Circumaural or Supra-aural headphones that are much bigger in size.

The sound
Let’s get something straight, the Shure E4c is capable of some serious sonic performance that for me was overwhelming at first (in a positive way), but to get to this audio nirvana you are going to have to pay the hefty price and second you are going to have to get a tight seal in the ear canal. This last part is very crucial and in the beginning is where it goes wrong for a lot of people, including me. At first I didn’t really master the art of putting them on in the right way and as a result the sound lacked, especially in the bass department. After I got this right, I tried different sleeves and found that the foam sleeves are the most comfortable to wear and most importantly create a tighter seal thus having better sound as a result. Due to the better seal the sound isolation improved, the sound got more immersive and the low-end changed dramatically. With out the seal, there was a lack of bass, but getting the proper seal showed that the E4c was quite capable in the bass department. Depending on your ear canal’s shape some of the other sleeves might work better for you. For the ultimate fit there is also the option of getting custom made ear molds.

For the listening test I used an Ipod nano and a Sound Blaster X-FI Platinum connected to my PC. For some variation I also hooked them to a Nokia N80 music phone. After some extensive listening I concluded that the E4c sounded very balanced without the low end, mids and higher frequencies being emphasized. All of this is done without any audible colorationor serious audio flaws. This means that it leaves some room for the audio to be tweaked. I know some people like music with emphasis on either treble, bass or mids. This means that they will not like the standard sound, but this can easily tweaked to their liking. For purist this is ideal as the sound is delivered as is. Overall the sound can’t be characterized as layback, but more in your face and in your head. I knew these were good but they performed much better then I expected. Another area where the E4c excels is in the details, due to the sound isolation, the music it produces doesn’t have to compete with external noise, thus preserving more of the details. Listing to tracks I know well revealed several details I didn’t know of. Because of the detailed sound, your MP3 tracks ripped at 128 kbps will sound horrible as the compression comes at the price of less detail and artifacts, especially in the higher frequencies. Lossy audio formats aside, Creative Sound Blaster Audigy’s DVD-Audio test disc really showed what the E4c was capable of. The E4c’s performance was impressive with well-defined mids and bass with the vocals having a strong presence. The treble seemed more recessed here as compared to the mids and lows. Overall the sound from the E4c can be summed up as impressive, but because the sound quality depends on the seal a lot of people will find the sound quality to be lacking and will probably return them before hearing their true sound. These are the best sounding single driver earphones or headphones (IEM) I have heard that are also very compact in size, ideal for MP3-players and music phones. These would also be a great match to high-end speakers in a desktop environment.

The E4c is expensive, no doubt, but the impressive sound that they produce does justice to the price. But it is the price that will keep many from trying them out. The overall quality and style is excellent and the white version does look good paired with the iPod. You could go for similar sounding Circumaural or Supra-aural headphones but again you would be stuck with much bigger cans and you’d be getting inferior noise isolation or non at all. It would have been better if Shure included more pairs of the foam sleeves, as these wouldn’t add much to the overall price. I also wish Shure had included more guidelines in getting a tighter seal; most users will give up on the first try and never experience what these can really do. On the other hand they do provide a great on the Shure website, walking you through the process of getting these on. I just wish this info would have mad it in the included manual. In my opinion those are small details that can easily be fixed. On the other this doesn’t stop the E4c from being a very remarkable product and would be a good choice for a true audio fanatic, average listeners tend to use the standard earbuds that come with the mp3 player, they are the ones that will really be awed. I also do have to stop and wonder about the sound quality of the E500 sporting an even more impressive triple-driver design, but I will leave that for another review. Because of its impressive audio performance and tiny size we give it an equally impressive score of 9.8 out of 10.

-Thick and quality cable
-Very impressive sound
-No emphasis on a particular frequency range
-Sound Isolation is impressive and works really well
-Well defined bass (Not boomy)

-Good sound depends on good seal
-Only one pair of foam sleeves
-You will get to know your ear wax really well, constant cleaning needed
-Manual needs more guidelines in getting a proper seal

Written by Devin