Over the years, I’ve tested out dozens of different headphones and earphones, and until now, the best sounding ones I ever heard were a pair of STAX electrostatic headphones, connected to a schmancy tube amplifier. The technology in electrostatic headphones and speakers provides an incredibly clean and dynamic sound that is nearly impossible to produce with other driver technology.
If you had asked me if someone could shrink electrostatic tech down to an in-ear driver, I would have guessed it couldn’t be done. Well, the sharp engineering minds at Shure have done just that, delivering a pair of earphones which offer the kind of crisp and transparent sound associated with electrostatic drivers.
The Shure KSE1500 system is much more than just a pair of earphones. Electrostatic drivers require high voltage to be driven, and won’t work with a conventional amp. Incredibly, Shure has figured out a way to package up not just an electrostatic amp, but a high quality digital/analog converter (DAC) in a single pocket-sized device. This lets you easily connect to your PC, Mac, iOS, or Android device preserving a digital signal right up until amplification. The DAC supports audio files sampled at up to 96kHz resolution, but does perfectly well with the more typical 44.1kHz CD-quality audio files. There’s also the option to plug in an analog source through its 3.5mm mini stereo jack.
Until now, if you wanted to listen to electrostatic drivers, you’d need to buy a pair of large, over the ear headphones, along with a dedicated amplifier, specifically designed for electrostatics. Not only is this sort of setup completely non-portable, but it’s quite expensive. A pair of STAX SR-009s with an amp and a DAC will set you back over $5,000. The complete Shure KSE 1500 comes with everything you need for under $3000. That’s not exactly cheap, but it’s completely within reason in the world of high-end audiophile gear.
Since these are in-ear monitors, they offer another big advantage beyond portability – they almost completely block out ambient sound, and won’t disturb others with your music. To enjoy this benefit, you’ll need to select the best eartips for your ear canal, and ensure a good, snug fit. I prefer the squishy foam cushions that expand, but everyone’s ears are different. With these earphones, choosing proper eartips is more critical than usual optimum bass performance. Fortunately, Shure includes a wide variety of eartips to choose from. Once you get the earphones tweaked for fit, you’ll be rewarded with something very special.
Thanks to the electrostatic technology, the drivers are incredibly fast in responding to signals, with none of the distortion or lag that traditional earphone drivers can have. This results in crystal clear, nuanced sound that needs to be experienced to be truly understood. From the tiny string reverberations in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Concerto No. 1, to the bright cymbal chatter in Radiohead’s Paranoid Android, to every itchy scratch of the Cabasas in Tom Waits’ Way Down in the Hole, I discovered subtleties I never new existed on these recordings.
Every detail is present, offering the sensation that you were right in the recording studio with your favorite musicians. The soundstage isn’t quite as wide as you might get with open-back headphones, but there’s still good imaging that isn’t as “in your head” as some earphones can be.
I found the default settings to produce exceptional sound, though I prefer just a tiny bit more bass punch than the flat EQ offered. Thankfully, the Shures let you tweak and tune the sound to your heart’s content thanks to their built-in parametric equalizer. It includes five presets: flat, low boost, vocal boost, loudness, and de-essing. Low boost worked brilliantly for me, but if you want to customize the EQ curve to your exacting specs, you can do that too. You can hear your EQ changes in real time, and thanks to the inclusion of an analog-to-digital converter (ADC), you can apply filters to analog sources as well.
The Shures include everything you need to get started right away, including the earphones and portable amplifier/DAC, a handsome leather case with a belt loop, an AC adapter, a rubberized storage case for accessories, a variety of ear tips, and cables for analog, USB, and Lightning audio sources. Battery life for the amp/DAC is rated between 7 and 10 hours in case you want to take it on the road. You can expect the best battery performance with an analog source and all digital processing disabled. For the most part, I hooked up to my iMac’s USB jack, so I never had to worry about battery life.
Priced at $2,999, Shure’s KSE1500s aren’t for audio neophytes, but those with deep pockets and a taste for the finer things will be rewarded with amazing audio heretofore unavailable in sound-isolating earphones. Beyond being able to truly check out from the world and enjoy audio without external disturbance, what makes the Shure’s so special is their ability to surprise you with newly discovered dimensions of your music library in each and every listening session.