It's no secret that the white earbuds that ship with the Apple iPod are pretty lackluster headphones. In fact, the market for replacement 'phones has become a contentious battleground in the nascent "iPod economy," with even Apple competitors such as Sony releasing white versions of existing headphones simply to hitch a ride on the portable music player's ever-rising star. Despite commanding prices that often rivaled the cost of iPods themselves, Shure and Etymotic--both using models adapted from professional audio headphones--quickly established themselves as the leaders in the noise-isolation earbud field.
The Shure E4c headphones represent an evolutionary advance in Shure's popular in-ear E series. They feature a new Tuned Port Technology, which enhances the tiny earphones' bass response by improving airflow around the driver. The E series' earpluglike designs block background noise so that you can listen at lower volumes in noisy trains, buses, and planes. And unlike noise-canceling headphones, the E4cs don't rely on batteries to power their hushing abilities.
Stylewise, the E4cs were designed to complement--yes, you guessed it--the various permutations of the iPod. Thankfully, though, the E4cs aren't completely monochromatic: the earpieces are an attractive blend of white, light gray, and silver, and the cables are also light gray. If you prefer a darker look, check out Shure's E4s, which are the exact same headphones but with black earbuds and a charcoal gray cord. The E4cs retail for $299, and for those who'd prefer to try them risk-free, Shure offers a 30-day money-back guarantee for models purchased through its Web site.
In order for the E4cs to achieve their full bass response, you need to push their earpieces into your ear canals. And since human ears come in all sizes, the E4cs come with a pair of disposable foam sleeves and an assortment of reusable flex sleeves to ensure a comfortable fit. The E4cs can also be used with custom-molded earpieces (made by a hearing specialist) to provide even greater noise isolation and comfort. The E4cs weigh almost nothing--just 1.1 ounces--and come with a plug-in volume-level control, a gold-plated 1/4-inch home adapter, and a nifty compact carrying case that provides a tangle-free way to store the earphones.
We started our auditions by comparing the E4cs with the company's $179 earbuds, the E3cs. At first we didn't think the sound was all that different, but as we listened, we noted that the E4cs sounded a little weightier, so baritone saxes sounded deeper, stand-up basses had a richer, woodier tonality, and male voices had more, ahem, testicular authority. Over extended listening sessions, we became aware of the headphones' superior low-level detailing, which allowed us to hear subtle reverberation. Also, the "spaces" between the instruments were more apparent. Sound isolation was excellent in both models, approximately on a par with that of the best active noise-canceling headphones we've tried. The E4cs' bass was accurate and clean, but if you're a glutton for bass and need relief from noise, check out noise-canceling headphones, which have tons of bass.