Elec­tro­static in-ears? They’re a Shure thing

FOR Ex­cep­tional in­sight and subtlety; sure­foot­ed­ness; build AGAINST DAC sec­tion could be more ca­pa­ble

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - Contents -

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

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