In the Field with the Shure KSE1200 Electrostatic Earphones

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In the time I’ve been at B&H, I’ve been lucky enough to review many types of earphones from different manufacturers. Growing from my experience in Pro Audio, earphones are a bit of a passion of mine, because they are the crossroads between my love for audio and my love for consumer tech, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Shure’s new KSE1200 Electrostatic Earphones. The KSE1200s are essentially the same earphones as their bigger (and pricier) sibling, the KSE1500s, with the most noticeable difference being the 1200’s lack of a DAC.

Shure KSE1200 Sound-Isolating Electrostatic Earphone Amplifier System

To understand what’s special about these earphones, first we need to talk a bit of earphone tech. The overwhelming majority of earphones employ dynamic drivers to reproduce sound. In basic terms, dynamic drivers consist of a magnet, a diaphragm, and a voice coil that is attached to the diaphragm. The voice coil is magnetized due to its proximity to the magnet, so when it is supplied with current, it will move in a magnetic field in response to that current. The diaphragm moves, too, because it’s attached to the voice coil, and it moves air, creating the sound. Dynamic drivers are relatively cheaper to make (which is why they make up so much of the headphone market), but without proper engineering, they can distort at increased volumes.

Electrostatic earphones operate on a much different principle, and are quite complex to make. Accordingly, they are rare in the market and tend to be cost prohibitive for many (the KSE1200s are no exception). In electrostatic earphones, a statically charged thin sheet sits between two conductive plates (one positively charged, one negatively), and acts as the diaphragm. Signal hits the conductive plates, which push and pull the diaphragm, creating sound. The result is sound reproduction that is incredibly accurate, balanced, and distortion free.

Due to the nature of their principle of operation, electrostatic earphones require a dedicated amplifier (which comes included in the case of the KSE1200s), and the earphones themselves are often very large. The KSE1200s buck that trend with their in-ear monitor size, and are more in line, size-wise, with the company’s popular SE line of earphones than the bulky, over-ear and open-backed styles in which electrostatic earphones normally come.

Shure SE215 Sound-Isolating In-Ear Stereo Earphones

The product comes boxed with the attention to detail you might expect for such a high-end system. Included are the earphones themselves; the portable, rechargeable amplifier; two 3.5mm line-in cables (one short, one long); quality rubber bands for strapping the amplifier to your portable device; and a ¼" headphone adapter. Naturally, Shure provides several rubber and foam ear-tip options.

Getting started with the KSE1200s is relatively straightforward. Since the earphones connect to the amplifier via a 6-pin LEMO connector, you are, ahem, sure to not accidentally plug them directly into any sound source. When taking a line-in source and hitting a portable amplifier, you do always have to get the gain staging just right (balancing the right amount of volume from your source and the amount of volume from the amplifier). The KSE1200s are no different here.

I tried them with both my Dangerous Source, at home, and my iPhone 8 Plus (with dongle!), and found some interestingly different results between the two that speak to the fidelity of the KSE1200s. Across the board, the earphones are impressively consistent, and that is to say, they are accurate and revealing in a way I have never experienced with a pair of in-ear earphones before.

Dangerous Music SOURCE Digital/Analog Monitoring Device

You might expect the KSE1200s to provide some sort of transcendent improvement on all that you listen to through them, but the game with electrostatics is accuracy and clarity, which, depending on the music, doesn’t always translate to sweetening the audio. These earphones are perhaps some of the most truthful and neutral I have ever heard, and with that comes a list of pros and cons.

These earphones reveal; sonic flaws seemed more apparent in tracks that had them. In general, they performed better with tracks coming out of the Dangerous Source than my iPhone. Sure, this is an admittedly obvious conclusion, but one that speaks to the level of transparency of which these earphones are capable. Depending on the track (and especially on older material that present some tape hiss), I found I needed to adjust the gain staging between my iPhone and the amp a few times, but ultimately landed on having my iPhone’s volume set just north of 50%, and the amplifier doing the heavier lifting at about ¾ of the way dimed.

Regardless of what I had them connected to, they created an impressive sound stage, offering a wide stereo field, and crisp and pronounced frequency separation. As is expected with electrostatic drivers, the bass reproduction is very balanced, where it presented those lower frequencies well, but lacked any sense of thump or impact that those accustomed to over-ear dynamic headphones might expect to hear (these are not the pair of earphones to play your EDM mix back on). I gave them trial runs with Beck’s Morning Phase, and found them to reveal the depth of the reverb on his voice beautifully, even to the point of noticing the tail of the reverb seem to be present longer than in other earphones. The sizzle on the crash of Nina Simone’s Sinnerman is rounded and pleasant, while I’ve experienced it as harsh on other earphones.

A distinct challenge Shure faces with the KSE1200s is taking the normally clunky form factor of electrostatic earphones and making them amenable to life on the go. While they absolutely nail this challenge regarding the size of the earphones (they are as light and comfortable as their range of in-ear monitors), they still do fall victim to electrostatics’ need for an amplifier. Even though it’s compact (much smaller than my Plus-sized iPhone), it’s a consideration for those who prefer to travel light. It’s been my experience with high-end audiophile gear that it performs better in more controlled environments like home or the office than the noisy chaos of my subway commute.

Just the Facts

  • Incredibly accurate and balanced reproduction
  • Comfortable fit
  • No hyped bass response
  • Requires rechargeable amplifier
  • Analog Line-Input Only (No DAC)

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