The KSE1500 is world first In Ear Isolated Electrostat. Its not the first portable or earphone electrostat but definitely the first isolated one. Coming in at USD$2999, it cost a lot for in-ear monitor. The biggest question is: IS IT WORTH IT?
The KSE1500 comes with everything and the kitchen sink. The main unit and earphones, 5 Cables, wall charger, cleaning cloth, case for both the amp/dac unit and the earphones. Theres really nothing to complain about what is given except Shures should have just design a special pelican case that can hold both the amp and earphone together with a custom partitioned foam.
The amp/dac is really well built. Comes with its very own LCD screen that’s clear and bright even in the day. The amp is solidly built. The connectors used for the Shures are LEMO 0B connectors. This are dust proof connectors that can survive quite some abuse and cost a good amount too. The earphones themselves have non replaceable cables. At first I thought it may be a problem but looking at the connectors, the kevlar cables, the thickness of them, I think its not going to give way anytime. Which brings to the final buds themselves. I wonder what Shures was thinking cause sadly the buds looks and feels cheap. The left and right buds moldings are actually slightly different, with one side have fine lines on it while the other can be seen with the driver touching the outer shell. To summarise, the buds don’t look like they are worthy of a 1k IEM and this is a $2999 system. The buds are fully sealed and very light so I doubt they will get damage but definitely the premium feel could have been achieved just to pamper the buyer.
Usage and Comfort:
The connection is straight forward as the connectors are grooved. The connector is well secured and cannot be pulled apart without releasing the catch. The amp operation initially can be awkward and requires some help or the manual to understand the basic usage. Once you get pass that stage, its straight forward. The LCD shows the input volumes and aim is to keep them from clipping. The screen also shows the volume which can be changed by the knob on the top left of the amp. The knob is nice but the steps are quite sad. Shures actually thought 25 steps are enough for volume.
The amp has some additional function. It has a build in equalizer that actually works with minimum distortion to the sound. I use it quite often to get the music taste I want which I will touch on in the later sound quality section. The equalizer is a 4 point parametric with various choices and +-6DB setting. It has 5 build in presets and 4 additional user defined ones. Sadly you cant rename them so memorisation of which setting you did up will be needed.
The other options are setting of input volume reduction especially for high output dacs like the chord or AK players. The last item in the menu is the utilities to set things such as charge while using, battery report, lcd brightness.
The earbuds are easy to fit and comfortable. Being a 1 driver earbud, its small, light and can fit into most ears. The recommended were the foam tips and base on my personal usage its true. It also removes the most ambient noise. Shures claim 37 db reduction and I don’t think its that far off, definitely a better fit then my Lyras with complys.
The amp unit comes with a leather pouch and like every other amp you can choose to strap it to your player. The pouch has the ability to hook the amp through a belt or bag which is a nice touch but that will need a long interconnect cable which Shures actually provided (there is a shot 20cm and a long 1m long one)
For 3k USD it should sound like the best ever thing right? The answer to this: Subjective.
To start off I need a disclaimer, I never tried Layla. I tried most things below 2k USD, anywhere from the Shures SE215 to the UM Legend and JH Roxxane. So where do the Shures stand?
Compared to most earphones below the 1k USD, there is no fight. From the 1-2k USD mark, preference and genre of music plays a very large part to where the Shures stand. So lets start with the basic parameters of treble, vocals, bass, and sound stage followed by the characteristic of the sound which will cover the rest.
Liberi Fatali: Distance World from Final Fantasy
Hello: Adele 25
Powder Snow: Suara
Sometime When we Touch: Susan Wong
Hotel California: Eagles, Hell Freezes Over
Gate: Kisada Kyodan and The Rockets
Treble: Very good extension and smooth. The bells in Powder Snow can be heard very clearly with the “Ting” that’s extremely realistic. This is one of the greatest magic in KSE1500, guitars, bells, violins, all sound extremely realistic with almost no coloration. Its like hearing the real instruments themselves with great realism. Theres no harshness in the treble though some may find it bright as its reproduces everything. Also due to the treble extension and prominence, it adds a effect of airyiness in the sound which I will elaborate in the later section.
Vocals: Vocals are very strong. Both for female and male, they sound just right with a lot of air and smoothness. I especially love female vocals by Susan Wong and Suara on the KSE1500. Adele sounds magical too especially on the track Hello. The vocals are a little laid back by default compared to say my Lyra or UM Mage. They have a smoothness that’s unmatched on any IEM I tried so far.
Bass: This is where the KSE1500 is both good and bad. The bass is tight, fast and punchy when needed. However it lacks the slam and the boom. You will not get the shake in the ear feeling that some of the BA or Dynamic can give you. You also cant get the boom and decay like those of the Dynamic similar to the Lyra. What you get is extremely tight bass with no delay. This does mean it comes and go really fast, does not affect any other sound in the spectrum and respond very well to tracks that have a lot of fast beat. The KSE1500 do go deep, but you wont get the rumble like a dynamic IEM. If you want the impact, rumble and the boom, get something else. Else the KSE1500 is just right.
Soundstage: The KSE1500 has a soundstage that’s wide but not the widest of IEM. I couldn’t put a finger on the exact size but it’s a IEM scale sound stage so don’t expect open can stax like stage. It does have very good separation and depth. The requirement though is you must get the best sealing else things start getting muddle up which is the case with silicon tips I tried initially.
Characteristic: The KSE1500 is extremely neutral. High clarity, High details, everything just feels right, nothing feels overly emphasized as a whole. This lead to a sound that’s soo clean that sterile maybe the word to use. Its transient response is fast, nothing gets muddle up even in the most complex track with bass and guitar all mixed together. I quote a friend: “Listening to the KSE1500 feels like listening to the pure music in a sound proof room”. There is no distortion, no coloration, just pure music that feels like how it originally is. Which lead to the biggest issue of the KSE1500: ITS BORING! In a recent gathering of 8 of my friends, some audiophile and some casual listeners, those that did not like it biggest complain was its just boring after a while. The sound feels in your face,:clear and correct with no wow or spectacular factor. This can be rectified in EQ, my favourtie being the vocal boost, to bring the qualities that you prefer up front. The KSE1500 equalizer is very good, almost no distortion and the earphones respond very well to them. Somethings can never be rectified such as a warmness of sound and increasing the bass impact, at least not with the build in EQ or those on most devices.
How can we be talking about value for the world most expensive IEM? Or is it really? $2999 you are getting a earphone AND a amp/dac. Now lets look at top of the range IEM such as the Siren series on Nobel K10, couple them with a decent amp and you will probably break the $2999 mark easily. Lets not forget the KSE1500 is working at 100% potential due to a whole system design while for most IEM, you will probably need to hunt for the most synergy amp which can cost anywhere from few hundreds to thousands. You also get a DAC which may not be the greatest but definitely a step up from your mobile phones and entry DAPS.
So where does all this leave the KSE1500. Is it the GREATEST? The answer for me is YES, a true TOTL, flaghip of flagships. But to many others it will be no. Its probably 1-2k good but 3k probably not unless you are into its sound signature. The KSE1500 excels in clarity, detail, transcient response, and seperation. Bass is good but probably not the quantity some wants them to be. Nethier is its soundstage the widest ever. So before you make a purchase on the KSE1500 or any othe TOTL iem, make sure you can audition it or comes with a return policy.
And for me, Im loving it everyday more then the previous. It has reached a point that my HE500 no longer sounds right and my Lyra is actually muddy even through a Chord Mojo.