It's always a pleasure to use fancy in-ear style headphones, so we were thrilled when Shure's E500PTH Sound-Isolating Earphones arrived in the office. The $550 pair may be for serious audio heads only, but they produce such dynamic sound that we can't say they are overpriced. In addition to its triple-driver design, the E500PTHs include a push-to-hear adapter that allows you to have a conversation with someone without pulling out your earphones. While in-ear 'phones at half the price offer nearly the same sound, the E500PTH set takes portable sound to a new level.
Shure is no stranger in the fledgling in-ear style headphones market. The E series, which include the "low-end" $109 E2c's and the midrange $319 E4c's has made its mark in a world of brands such as Ultimate Ears, Etymotic, and more recently, Creative and Sennheiser.
The E500PTH 'phones (announced at CES) take the E series to a new level with its triple-driver design--basically three tiny high-definition speakers, a tweeter, and two woofers in each earphone (sensitivity at 1kHz, 119dB). Integrated passive crossovers keep the highs distinctive from the lows. Ultimate Ears' custom-fitted UE-10 Pros and UE-7 Pros both offer a triple-driver design, but they cost $900 and $850 respectively, and they don't offer the universal fit of the E500PTH headphones. That is, the UEs' ear fittings are custom molded, so they can be used by only one person.
We fell in love with the E500s' sound immediately, listening to everything from Roots Manuva to John Coltraine on an iPod. Tight, rich bass and razor-sharp highs were expected, but the midrange surprised us with distinctive power and clarity. Instruments typically buried in sound pop out; acoustic guitar riffs hover then dissipate; spoken voice is almost spooky. Quick listening tests versus the sub-$100 Creative Zen Aurvanas and the $250 Ultimate Ears Super fi 5 Pros proved that you get what you pay for, though the Super fi Pros certainly give you lot of bang for your buck. Further sessions listening to Bob Dylan and Ulrich Schnauss in lossless and several CDs confirmed that these are the best in-ear style headphones on the market for less than $600 (I haven't personally listened to the UE-10s).