Monday, September 16, 2013

REVIEW: Shure E2c In-Ear Monitors

shure_1I'm slow to adapt to fashion and trends.  I've been wearing 2nd hand jeans since 1973 and I've passed through periods of trendiness and tackiness during that 30+  year interval without changing my habit.  It's not that I'm specially cantankerous, I just don't care what other people think.  Decades ago, SF writer Ted Sturgeon convinced me that "90% of everything is crap"; although I think Ted was an optimist.  The opinions of most folks are based on ignorance and the human herding instinct and I can't think of a reason in the world why anyone with half-a-brain would be interested.

All that said, I've viewed the iPod revolution with revulsion.  No, I'm not convinced that MP3 files are unlistenable.  In fact, I think as a consumer format MP3 files at low compression ratios are as good a format as consumers have had ever in history.  I do, however, dislike the hardware related to iPods.  The iPods, themselves, are disgusting pieces of audio crap, producing high levels of a variety of distortion components and low levels of unclipped output for the collection of really awful transducers typically connected to the output. 

As a writer who often works in less than ideal environments, including my own kitchen where my wife feels an overwhelming desire to interrupt my work any time she passes through the room, I've been on a long search for a small, comfortable, and decent sounding headphone for years.  Every couple of years, I give up on my most recent awful compromise and try another miserable earphone product.  I've suffered a variety of Sony failures (excluding a wonderful set of ear buds that I managed to lose in 1991 and for which I have never again found a replacement), Koss ear buds of every variety, and some expensive in-hear monitors that will remain unnamed to protect the reputations of folks who should know better. 

This year (2008), I coughed up another $100 for a pair of Shure E2c in-ear monitors.  My first impression was pretty awful.  Not because of the phones, but because the instruction manuals came in every language but English.  I had to go on-line with to find instructions in a language I most understand.  What's that about? Is the English-speaking world really that insignificant? 

The E2c's are odd shaped.  Fitting them to your head and ears is not intuitive, at least it wasn't for me.  I think they best fit when the cable is run behind your head.  There is a cable sleeve that can be snugged to your neck, helping to hold the phones in place after they are fitted. The cable appears to be very heavy duty and the 2-year warranty is probably an indication of how durable the cable actually is; cables being the usual weak point in this kind of audio equipment.  To get these phones in place, you pretty much have to screw them into your skull.  If they are fitted slightly off center of the ear canal, a look in either direction will shift the image and, sometimes, mute one of the phones.  When you find the right sleeve, though, the seal is solid and independent of movement. 

I pretty much expected to hate these things as much as I've hated every other ear phone experiment of the sort, but I was disappointed/surprised/amazed on the first listening.  After wrestling with the smoother, more comfortable silicon ear sleeves, I settled on the stiff foam ear plugs and found a combination of positions and cable routing that worked for my ears.  Rolling the foam up like industrial foam ear plugs, I managed to insert the driver far enough into my ear canal to keep the phones in place and on-axis with my ear drum.  Once that engineering task was finished, I began to experiment with listening material.

Listening to 320kbps MP3 files through my laptop computer, using Microsoft's Media Player was unimpressive.  Almost awful, in fact.  Everything seemed harsh, brittle, and a lot edgier than I remembered.  If I had needed to make a decision about the E2c's at this point, I'd have said they are tinny, distorted, and harsh.  I didn't, however, so I moved on to better sound sources.  Moving the exact same files to my Sony CD/MP3 player, I found that those tunes sounded much more rich, more dynamic, and less flawed than on the PC.  I didn't expect that, so I went back to the original source files, 44kHz/16 bit CDs.  Everything I disliked about the MP3 files moved even further to the background and the imaging became sharp, pleasant, and more detailed.  The bass, however, needed some EQ to find a balance.  I decided to drive these sensitive, relatively high impedance units with my home system, which includes a Hafler FET power amplifier.  The phones produced an even more focused, more pleasant, tighter, and more detailed sound, which totally surprised me.  What this indicates is that the E2c's are accurate enough to reproduce relatively minor (compared to most ear buds) differences in sound sources.  That's an accuracy not often found in this kind of product.   

This EQ requirement I noticed with the CD player was partially true because I was able to listen comfortably at dramatically lower levels than I do with most phones.  The upside to this is that I have found myself wearing the Shures for hours without fatigue or loss of enjoyment.  My 58-year-old ears are becoming very sensitive to volume, so this has multiple advantages.  After a morning of writing and listening to music, I suffer no tinnitus effects and I've enjoyed hours of acoustic isolation and productivity. 

Headphones are incredibly personal.  The phones that I like, or love, can easily be the phones you hate.  I haven't yet decided that I "love" the E2c monitors.  I do like them for the moment and that is about the best thing I can ever say about this kind of equipment. 

2010 Update: While I still like the sound of the Shures, the reliability has been suspect. I'm going on my 3rd pair (all in warranty) of the E2c set I bought in 2008. Both failed sets failed the same way; attenuated output from the right earpiece. The cables are not damaged. There was no obvious wax in the ports, but the output suddenly dropped about 12-15dB only on the right side. Shure's warranty policy has been terrific, but the downtime is irritating.

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Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.