Shure E4 in-ear earphones

In New York and other major cities, I understand, bus accidents are a real problem. Buses turn right and failing to yield to pedestrians. Clueless pedestrians walk in front of buses. I haven't seen any statistics, but I'm guessing that in this era of cell phones and iPods, the problem has gotten worse: not only do such devices distract you, they make it harder to hear warning signs—such as the sound of a municipal bus bearing down on your ass.

I don't live in a big city, but I do enjoy my Apple iPod. So, shortly after John Atkinson positively reviewed Shure's E3c in-ear 'phones ($199) in the May 2004 issue (Vol.27 No.4), I went out and bought a pair.

JA was right about the sound. If you get a good seal, the E3c sounds great—nicely balanced, with smooth treble and full bass. I enjoyed them a lot, but I had one problem: they kept breaking on me, even when I steered well clear of city buses and other large, fast-moving objects.

I encountered two main failure modes. I use earphones when I exercise—it's great to be able to listen to my own tunes and block out the gym's loud, low-quality PA—and when I exercise, I sweat. When sweat got inside one of my E3cs, the transducer shut down. Shure addresses this in their owner's manual: Just let 'em dry out and they'll soon be good as new. That worked at first, but the third time the right channel shut down (it was always the right channel), it shut down for good. The E3cs were still under warranty, so I shipped them back. Shure sent me a new pair—no questions, no charges. No complaints at all about Shure's warranty service.

But a while later—nine months, maybe a year—the new pair failed, this time in a different way: The little plastic tube that goes in your ear (covered with your choice of sleeve from the provided Fit Kit), and fires sound directly at your eardrum, broke off. Again, it was the right channel, though I'm sure that's just a coincidence. Sent 'em back, quickly received another new pair. Again, no complaints about the warranty service.

I'm not sure why that tip snapped—probably the stress of repeatedly inserting the 'phones in my ears and twisting them to get a good fit. I might have assumed I'd done something wrong, except that just a few months later the new, third pair broke in exactly the same way. This time, I was impatient: Instead of sending them back for warranty replacement, I went down to a local music shop and bought a new set.

This time I got the E4, which is marketed as an in-ear musician's monitor for pro-audio use. There are also the E4c consumer and E4g gamer models. The only difference I could find was the color: The E4c is white, the E4 gray. I didn't check the specs on the E4g, which is black, but Shure states on their website that the only differences among the three models are in color and packaging.

Shure sells the various E4 models as a step up in performance from the E3 series, various models of which are still available. But to me, the most important difference is a design change that I expect will solve the E3's reliability problem. Whereas the E3 body is molded from two plastic halves glued together, the E4 has a one-piece plastic body and a screw-off metal cap. It's much less likely that the E4 tip will break off, because the part of the body that takes the most stress is made of metal instead of thin plastic. If a tip does break, it's easily replaced (the E4 models come with two spare tips). Only time will tell, but I think the new design may solve the moisture problem, too; if they get damp inside, you can just unscrew the tips and let them air out properly.

Besides the E4 and the E3, Shure offers three other in-ear options, ranging in price from $99 (for the E2 and the E2c) up to about $500 (for the E5 and E5c). The new E500PTH model allows you to hear people around you talking with the push of a button. But as far as I can tell, the E4 models are the only ones with screw-off tips.

As JA pointed out in his review of the E3c, the key to getting good sound from in-ear 'phones is a good seal: no seal, no bass. To improve your chances of getting a good seal, the E4 provides a wide range of fitting options, including a pair of triple-flange sleeves that aren't supplied with the E3c. Still, for me, the compressible foam tips were the best option, with the possible exception of custom earmolds (see sidebar, "Custom Earmolds from Westone").

Once I got a good fit, the response of the E4 was extended in both directions, and quite natural, if perhaps a bit lightweight, in the bass. While the E3c sound is very detailed with plenty of bass, it's midrange-focused. To get an idea of what the E4 sounded like to me, just take that E3 sound, grab it firmly by both ends of its frequency range, and stretch it out toward both extremes so that it gets thinner (and maybe flatter) in the middle, but reaches further up into the treble and further down into the bass. Switching from the E3c, I found the E4's treble a little splashy at first. I still do on certain recordings, but the E4 rates higher on the scale of audiophile virtues than the E3c. Does that mean they sound better? For some recordings, yes; for others, no.

The E3c costs $199, the E4 $319. If you get serious, you may end up spending another +$100 for a pair of custom earmolds from Westone or Sensaphonics. Just call an audiologist; they may not know what you're talking about at first, but they'll figure it out (see sidebar). By the time you've paid tax and shipping, you're up close to $500.

That's real money—few portable players cost more—but it's worth it to have a good portable listening experience. If, like me, you have a real life with a full-time job, a family, and maybe a commute, serious listening time is precious and rare. It won't replace your home system, but a pair of Shure E4s and a good portable player will let you listen to music—really hear the music—in places you can't haul your home system to: the car, the gym, the subway, the noisy streets of a major city. They're also great for noisy commuter airplanes.

The Shure E4s are earplugs that make music. With outside noises blocked, you can have a really intimate listening experience even at low levels. Just watch out for buses.

Shure Inc.
5800 West Touhy Avenue
Niles, IL 60714-4608
(847) 600-2000