Shure KSE1500 review: taking electrostatic headphones mobile
In the cavernous hallways of the audiophile rabbit hole, electrostatic headphones are the ultimate, deepest, and dankest level. By the time you’ve started seriously contemplating (and abbreviating) electrostats for your next purchase, your friends will have long since written you off as a hopeless case. That’s because headphones of this type cost a ton, require dedicated amplification, and are usually enormous, ugly things. All performance and no pizzazz.
Shure, the company that’s been providing microphones for US presidential speeches for decades, has decided to remix the electrostatic formula in an effort to try and civilize the category for a wider audience. The eye-watering price doesn’t change, as Shure’s solution costs a severe $2,999, but the format does: the Shure KSE1500 is an in-ear electrostatic headphone system, and its amplifier is the size of a chubby iPod. So you’d still have to care an awful lot about the quality of your music to buy one, but not quite to the fanatical levels that conventional over-ear electrostats require.
Not just a pair of headphones
Shure’s KSE1500 is best described as an in-ear headphone system. That’s because the earphones come bundled with their very own amplifier that also handles digital-to-analog conversion. The earphones don’t work with any other amp, and the amp doesn’t work with any other headphones. You can feed a digital music signal into the system via a MicroUSB interface — Shure provides a USB cable for PCs, Macs, and Chromebooks, Lightning for iPhones, iPods, and iPads, and MicroUSB-to-MicroUSB for older Android phones — or use the analog 3.5mm line-in if you only want to use the amplifier. The built-in battery is rated for 7 hours of playback with the DAC and 10 hours without it.
Why all the fuss about electrostatic technology? It’s universally regarded as the purest and most accurate way to re-create sound. Using the magic of electricity, an extremely thin diaphragm is propelled back and forth to generate sound, with the advantages over conventional headphones being in the diaphragm’s reduced mass, instant responsiveness, and the way its entire surface moves at once. For the listener, these traits manifest themselves in negligible distortion and a highly dynamic, nuance-rich sound. The engineering to make this happen has always been difficult and therefore pricey, so Shure’s achievement in shrinking it down to an in-ear size is hugely impressive. And, though you might think it unlikely, the KSE1500s are actually on the cheap side for a good electrostatic system.
My first encounter with these headphones, two months ago, came after hearing plenty of mythologizing about their unique awesomeness. Then I unboxed them, picked a set of foam tips from the dozen varieties provided, plugged the accompanying amplifier into my iMac, and felt a great deal of nothing. Nice, I thought, the sound is just nice. Nothing to write home or to the internet about. Needless to say, that’s an underwhelming first impression for any product costing as much as the KSE1500s to make, but these headphones’ strength lies in the subtlety and precision of their sound, not its impact and emotiveness.
The best way to describe the KSE1500 sound is with a bit of audiophile jargon: transparency. Whatever my music is supposed to sound like, that’s what I get. Shure clearly set out to build a pair of devastatingly accurate headphones, and to a great extent, I think it’s succeeded. The more I listen, the more detail I discover, right down to the reverberations of a settling string. Multilayered compositions like Steve Reich’s Works album (or any other large orchestra or multi-track electronic music) are unfurled and presented on an uncongested, natural soundstage. In terms of frequency response, I hear everything from deep sub-bass right up to the highest highs, which is what lends the music its sense of a wide dynamic range. And none of this is dependent on fancy high-res music files: the quality of the KSE1500s is as apparent with conventional 320kbps MP3s as it is with lossless audio.
The only thing missing from these headphones is distortion — and, in one respect, I think that’s actually kind of a problem. I find the KSE1500s’ sound, for all of its detail and definition, a little anaemic. The bass is present and precise, but there’s just not enough of it for me; I never feel the subterranean rumble of something like V-Moda’s M100 over-ears or Fender’s FXA7 in-ears. What does distortion have to do with that? Well, the dirty little shortcut to creating a vast quantity of bass is to mix in some distortion. Everyone does it, even Sennheiser with its flagship HD 800 S; its primary enhancement over the original HD 800 was to rein in the high frequencies and gently up the bass with the help — or hindrance, depending on your perspective — of some distortion. My conclusion about those headphones was that they really bridged the gap between technical excellence and listening pleasure. As the Shure KSE1500s stand today, I’d put them closer to the original, leaner-sounding HD 800, including the slight susceptibility to sibilance.
If I sound undecided about Shure’s in-ear electrostats, that’s because I am. On occasions, I find myself transfixed by their sensational detail and realism, and going back to other, simpler headphones makes me appreciate just how smooth and unerring the KSE1500s are. But that’s not a universal feeling; electronic music doesn’t benefit nearly as much from all this faithful accuracy as acoustic or vocal compositions. I know for sure that I’ll never fall in love with the KSE1500s the way I did with Audeze’s iSine 20. Those planar magnetic in-ears are almost as exotic as Shure’s, and I’ve seen graphs showing they have even lower distortion, but the real difference is that Audeze hits my bass button with aplomb. Then again, the Audezes leak sound out to a degree that makes them unusable in public spaces, whereas the Shures are practically silent to anyone nearby even when I’m running them at a high volume.
Shure provides a parametric EQ for me to tweak the sound, which includes a Low Boost preset to bump up the bass, but its effect is to actually push back the mids and highs, making everything sound as if it’s underwater. I’d imagine most people who spend so much on a pair of headphones would indeed maximize the benefit of the bundled digital-to-analog converter, however I review headphones on their default setting and don’t really trust myself to tune them better than the ingenious engineers who put all this technology together.
Comfort is another area where the Shures are both excellent and a little annoying. The buds themselves are super light, the choice of tips is the broadest I’ve yet seen, and once you find the right fit you could wear them for days without discomfort. Usually, in-ear headphones of this price and technology tier are overburdened with multiple sound drivers or, as in Audeze’s case, a huge 30mm planar magnetic diaphragm, and so wearing them for hours isn’t too pleasurable. But Shure shifts most of that complexity off into the amplifier, and so the headphones themselves are close to perfect. The issue is that the amp still exists, and as portable as it may be, it’s still quite a chunky thing to tote around in addition to my ever-present smartphone. And if I forget to disable the charging option, any time I plug the amp into my phone, it decimates my phone’s battery before I even know what’s happened (when it isn't leeching power from its source device, the amp's battery should last for several hours, depending on volume level). This, together with the dear price that makes them ill-suited for casual use, ultimately led me to treat the KSE1500s as a desktop system, listening to them primarily when I’m in front of my PC.
There’s no doubting Shure’s technical accomplishment with the KSE1500s. These headphones are a major step forward in miniaturizing complex tech, and that deserves to be celebrated just by itself. But the KSE1500s are going to be too cool and clinical for most people. They are so different from the stuff we’re all used to hearing that they feel alien, and not in an immediately charming way. I’d forgive that from a pair of $300 headphones, maybe, but at a dollar shy of $3,000, the KSE1500s are basically a non-starter for the vast majority of listeners.
Electrostatic headphones are a niche within a niche, and although Shure has made them vastly more portable than usual, it hasn't really addressed the biggest stumbling blocks to wider adoption. If you demand exquisite sound from your in-ear headphones and don’t mind an alien look, I’d point you in the direction of the more attainable $549 Audeze iSine 20s. To my uncultured ear, they simply sound better than the KSE1500s — or any other in-ear headphones I’ve heard so far. But if your quest is to discover just how deep the audiophile rabbit hole goes, Shure’s KSE1500s are a worthy goal to aim for. They dig deep into the realm of absolutist sonic realism, and they’re unlikely to disappoint true purists.
Photography by Vlad Savov