It's no secret that the white earbuds that ship with the Apple iPod are pretty lacklustre headphones. In fact, the market for replacement headphones 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 rival the cost of iPods themselves, Shure and Etymotic -- both using models adapted from professional audio headphones -- have quickly established themselves as the leaders in the noise-isolation earbud field.
Stylewise, Shure's E4cs were designed to complement the various permutations of the iPod. Thankfully, though, the E4cs aren't completely monochromatic: the earpieces are an attractive blend of white, light grey and silver, and the cables are also light grey. If you prefer a darker look, check out Shure's E4s, which are exactly the same headphones but with black earbuds and a charcoal grey cord. The E4cs retail for £220, but you can find them online for a lot less.
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 31g -- and come with a plug-in volume-level control, a gold-plated 1/4-inch home adaptor and a nifty compact carrying case that provides a tangle-free way to store the earphones.
We wish that Shure had included a shirt clip like the one that comes with the ER-4Ps -- the E4cs' thick, dangling cable often feels like it's about to yank the earpieces from your ears. And the E4cs' recommended insertion process -- looping the wires behind and over the ears -- can be an involved manoeuvre, especially for those with long hair.
Another small gripe on the design is the E4cs' tiny L and R earpiece labels, which are hard to decipher under low-light conditions -- colour-coded earpieces (similar to Etymotic's) would have made for easier distinction.
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' earplug-like designs block background noise so that you can listen at lower volumes on noisy trains, buses and planes. And unlike noise-cancelling headphones, the E4cs don't rely on batteries to power their hushing abilities.
We started our auditions by comparing the E4cs with the company's cheaper 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-cancelling 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 AKG's K 28 NC noise-cancelling headphones, which have tonnes of bass.
We next compared the E4cs with our longtime reference in-ear headphones, the Etymotic ER-4Ps, and we have a new winner! The E4cs sounded more open, less inside our head, more dynamic, and a tad richer than the ER-4Ps. The Etymotics are still great headphones, but on Lucinda Williams' CD, Live @ the Fillmore, the E4cs put us in the first row of the venue -- it was amazing how clear the sound was. At the same time, the vocals' natural warmth was preserved, and the bass power and definition were first-rate. The ER-4Ps' cooler, more analytical presentation had oodles of detail but didn't sound as rich.
The E4cs' phenomenal performance leaves little room for complaint. The bottom line is that the ultracompact Shure E4c earbuds sound flat-out amazing -- they're the best in-ear headphones we've heard to date.
Edited by David Carnoy
Additional editing by Kate Macefield