Electrostatic in-ears? They’re a Shure thing
FOR Exceptional insight and subtlety; surefootedness; build AGAINST DAC section could be more capable
We’re no strangers to premium-priced gear at What Hi-fi?, but even we took a collective gasp at the £2500 price tag attached to Shure’s new range-topping in-ear headphones, the KSE1500S.
In-ears have a hard time with perceived value at the best of times, but before you write these Shures off as an exorbitant luxury for those with more money than sense, take a closer look.
A technological first
The KSE1500S use electrostatic drivers. It’s the first time we’ve reviewed in-ears with this technology, and it gets us thinking that these headphones might be worth taking seriously.
Electrostatic technology is rare, and for good reason. It involves a very light diaphragm loaded with static charge placed between two metal grids. As the music signal is fed to these grids, they vary in polarity accordingly, so causing the diaphragm to move. This movement is translated into sound.
It may appear simple, but it’s difficult to engineer properly due to the high voltages involved. It took Shure eight years of development to get the KSE1500S to market.
Why go to all this trouble? Because distortion levels are tiny and the signal response is fast, so a well-engineered electrostatic design will give you a more detailed and accurate sound than conventional alternatives, all other things being equal (which they usually aren’t).
You do, however, need a dedicated amplifier. The unusual electrical demands of electrostatics mean normal headphone amplifiers just won’t work directly into the headphones. This dedicated amplifier accounts for a sizable chunk of the Shure’s hefty price.
The amp pack is beautifully made. It’s solid and feels like a quality item. We particularly like the knurled volume control, and the display is clear, if a little small. There are two inputs – 3.5mm line-level connection and micro-usb. There’s also a digital-to-analogue converter on board, capable of accepting PCM signals up to 24-bit/96khz (but not, sadly, 24-bit/192khz or DSD).
Delve into the menus and you’ll find equaliser functions. There are presets to boost bass and cut highs, even one to de-emphasise sibilance. There’s also the provision for fine-tuning these settings.
Suspend your judgement
We find these comfortable to wear. As with all in-ears it’s vital you find the right tips, and Shure provides a generous spread of sizes and shapes to provide the best seal. The leads also loop around the ears for additional security. Shure claims 37db of noise isolation, and that rings true as we walk through our busy office or out onto a noisy high street.
If you’re expecting to be blown away by the sound the KSE1500 makes then you’ll be disappointed, initially at least. These in-ears major on accuracy and detail resolution rather than impressing through lots of bass or emphasising punch. Our first reaction when putting them on is that they sound a little understated, but that impression soon changes as we discover just how insightful and well balanced they are.
They’re wonderfully clean and clear without sounding either bright or forward. Their tonal balance is spot on, in fact, and the transition from deep bass to the highest treble utterly seamless. Electrostatic technology’s inherent lack of distortion also makes them easy to listen to over long periods.
Transparency is of the highest order. They reveal the natural warmth in the beautifully recorded Mount The Air by The Unthanks with ease. The lovely vocals come through with immense subtlety. There’s no shortage of nuance – these headphones deliver each change of intensity and emphasis with considerable skill. They communicate the dynamic ebb and flow superbly too.
Texture and organisation
Move to Kendrick Lamar’s King Kunta and the Shures respond with wonderfully textured bass and an enviable ability to organise, even when the music is busy.
All that insight is great, but it does mean that these won’t hide the flaws in the rest of your set-up. Use Spotify, for example, and you’ll find the results thin, hard-edged and lacking in subtlety.
All this is through the line-level input – the DAC section isn’t as good, sounding thinner and less subtle.
While these in-ears will work with phones and portables, you’ll really hear what they’re capable of only with top-end hi-fi sources. That’s the dichotomy of the KSE1500S: they’re meant for travelling, but the only way you’ll hear them at their best is with talented home gear.
Is there still a place for them? We think so, simply because they’re so good. Calling these the best in-ears we’ve heard is selling them short. They’re among the finest headphones around, regardless of price or type.
KEY FEATURES + + + + + + + + + + + + + Electrostatic drivers Dedicated amplifier Sound isolating
The amplifier pack is beautifully made. It features a retro knurled volume control and leather carrying case