If you happen to have audiophile friends, you’ve probably witnessed their excitement when the conversation turns to electrostatic speakers or headphones: “They’re amazing! They’re unlike anything you’ve heard before! You’ll never listen to regular earphones again!”
Long confined to high-end home listening, electrostatic headphones (or loudspeakers) are renowned for their extremely low distortion, unmatched clarity and impressive detail. Fortunately, this technology has finally been given license to roam with the release of the portable Shure KSE1500 Electrostatic Earphone System. It was no easy feat fitting the necessary components into a tiny pair of earphones.
But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s how Ryan Waniata from the online magazine Digital Trends describes it: “Shure has created something extraordinary in the KSE1500. That’s because the company decided to forego traditional in-ear driver designs for the complex (and downright vexing) technological challenge of micro-sizing electrostatic transduction.”
What’s the Difference?
Electrostatic headphones use an entirely different principle for generating sound than traditional speakers. Electrostatic drivers have an extremely thin membrane sandwiched between two electrified plates. Weighing next to nothing and suspended within an electrostatic field, this diaphragm moves effortlessly to create the sound waves we hear.
Though it requires a highly amplified signal, electrostatic technology offers several advantages over both dynamic (your average cone loudspeakers) and the so-called balanced armature drivers found in many in-ear monitors.
Different than a traditional diaphragm, which has a lot more mass and several mechanical components, an electrostatic setup has no moving parts other than the diaphragm itself. The surface of the nearly massless diaphragm is supplied with a constant 200V DC bias charge, which allows the entire diaphragm to be uniformly excited by the electrostatic field. Because of this, electrostatic earphones avoid the distortions commonly created by the mechanical performance of a standard dynamic driver or balanced armature driver, which have diaphragms driven from a localized fixed mechanical component.
The physical properties of the electrostatic diaphragm allow a single driver to reproduce a very wide frequency range. Earphones using dynamic or balanced armature systems often require more than one driver to reproduce a desired frequency response. Though multi-driver systems are quite common these days, they can cause issues with phase, resulting in unwanted deviations in the frequency response. Though there are many great sounding multi-driver earphones, the simplicity of the single driver ensures electrostatic earphones have no phase-related filtering or other acoustic distortions.
“The combination of clean lows, a palpably natural, transparent midrange, and – especially for in-ear headphones – extended highs makes it a winner,” writes John Atkinson for Stereophile magazine about the electrostatics from Shure.
An electrostatic earphone diaphragm has almost no mass. As such, it can move incredibly quickly relative to other heavier, mechanically driven diaphragms. This produces a response that simply can’t be achieved by any other traditional type of speaker and results in musical reproduction with unmatched clarity and detail.
“You can isolate any instrument, performer or minute detail you chose,” noted John Sciacca in his KSE1500 review for AV trade publication Residential Systems. “I can’t tell you how often I would be listening with my eyes closed and I’d catch myself ‘looking’ in the direction of a performer I wanted to focus on.”
Electrostatic technology is also the most accurate way to reproduce music. The KSE1500 earphones reproduce musical information without accentuating any particular frequency band. This can be both good and bad, of course. A great recording will sound absolutely brilliant; you’ll finally hear music how it was intended to sound. But this unparalleled level of clarity and details can also unveil the not-so-perfect aspects of sub-par recordings and audio sources.
“What makes Shure’s [electrostatic earphones] so special is their ability to surprise you with newly discovered dimensions of your music library in each and every listening session,” writes Paul Strauss from the website Technabob.
Worth the Effort
It took Shure eight years to perfect the KSE1500 Electrostatic Earphone System. But when you consider the listening experience offered, it’s no surprise that many audiophiles regard them as the ultimate reference for audio. They provide unrivaled accuracy, clarity and detail. Hearing really is believing!
The KSE1500 Electrostatic Earphone System, featuring Sound Isolating™ earphones and a matched DAC
amplifier, is designed for portable media players and is compatible with Mac, PC, iOS and Android devices.