Since its conception 4 years ago, the Shure KSE1500 earphones were a breakthrough product featuring electrostatic drivers in a portable form factor. This type of technology is hard to achieve let alone in such small dimensions. However, Shure have managed the seemingly impossible with 7 years of rigorous development as well as a committed team on their side. The initial KSE1500s earphone came bundled with the KSA1500 USB amplifier and an inbuilt DAC. The KSE1500 system featured a 4-band parametric EQ and enhanced audio control. However, Shure have quickly learnt that many audiophiles prefer the use of their own DAC systems as well as the convenience of superior portability. Hence, the Shure KSE1200 system was devised comprising the original Shure KSE1500 earphones alongside an all-new more compact high-voltage amplifier.
Like the Shure KSE1500 system, the Shure KSE1200s offer the same electrostatic sound signature with the absolute highest levels of detail and isolation. Shure have gone as far as saying that their electrostatic earphones represent ‘the pinnacle of their achievements’ – a sign of immense self-pride given their near 100 years of trading history. The Shure KSE1200 retails for $1999 which places it as a high-end product in the world of personal audio.
The Box & Accessories
The Shure KSE1200 arrives in a professional-grade black sleeve box bearing a cut out graphic of the Shure KSE1500 in-ear monitors and KSE1200 amplifier. The unboxing experience is very polished with a foam insert housing the earphones themselves, the amplifier and a square zipper pouch.
Also included are an assorted array of earphone tips, clip, 6 inch male to male 3.5 mm cable, 36 inch male to male 3.5mm cable, 6.35 mm to 3.5 mm stereo adapter, rubber amp security bands and a USB cable (Type A to Micro-B).
The earphones connect to the amplifier via a proprietary 6-pin LEMO connector which prevents accidental connection into different sound sources. Overall, the packaging and accessories have been well thought out and constitutes what may be expected from a high-end product.
The Design & Build
The housings of the Shure KSE1500 earphones stay true to the Shure lineage with their domed plastic shell exteriors. The outer aspect contains a concentric metal ring design with the Shure logo whereas the rear portion displays the KSE1500 branding amidst a black compact shell. While the design is very minimalist and precisely engineered, I did find the Shure SE846 to be slightly more intriguing in aesthetics with its multi-component display. However, both earphones share an equally robust and well-built design.
The accompanying KSE1200 amplifier is elegantly machined from black anodized aluminum and weighs in at 155 grams. On the top of the device, there is a potentiometer with a good tactile click when the device is switched on and the good amount of resistance when rotated. Next door, the amplifier houses the status indicator signifying battery life and two connections (a line audio input and earphone output). At the bottom of the device, there is a DC input to allow for charging using the provided USB type A to Micro B cable and an input pad switch (0 dB or – 10 dB) which prevents clipping from high output audio sources. The amplifier has a decent battery life up to 12 hours and requires up to 3 hours for a full charge with a 1A charger.
There is no getting around it – the electrostatic design is notoriously difficult to recreate – especially where earphone dimensions are brought into the play. However, done right it can extremely rewarding owing to the sonic qualities of an electrostatic drivers; low distortion, true to source sound and impeccable speed.
The KSE1500 makes use of a two conductive metal black plates that surround a virtually weightless diaphragm amidst an electrostatic field. High DC voltage can be used to polarize the diaphragm with rapid oscillations creating sound waves that we hear as high-end audio. Since the electrostatic design responds so rapidly to transmission of signal, it evades the noise and distortion generated from balanced-armature cross-over designs. Our article on electrostatic drivers and different type of driver designs can be seen here.
The KSE1200 amplifier is a pure analog headphone amplifier which strips back the parametric EQ options and in-built DAC that the former KSE1500 system possessed.
The Fit & Isolation
The KSE1500 earphones are very ergonomically designed with the rear plastic shell resting neatly against the conchae of the ear. The over-ear memory cable aids in delivering a secure and deep isolated fit. It is clear to see that Shure have refined and perfected sound-isolating earphones given that a portion of their customer base is stage musicians and music professionals.
Isolation levels, as a result, are beyond average and can even be improved with the provided double and triple-flanged tips.
The cable is a custom braid design made from Kevlar designed for enhanced optimal transmission from each conductor. The only critique would be that while high in quality, the cable does feel slightly heavy. However, the weight can be offset with some slack and the shirt clip provided.
There is no doubt about it – the KSE1200 belongs to the world-class leagues of resolution and precision. To this extent, the KSE1200 is comparable to the ultra-resolving 64 Audio Tia Fourte. However, where the Tia Fourte is more forthright with its micro-detail and separation, the KSE1200 has more effortless incisiveness. Interestingly, the KSE1200 is devoid of tonal coloration which does make it versatile across a subset of genres.
The KSE1200 delivers some of the most resolute, precise and transparent bass I have come across in an in-ear monitor. There is excellent decay speed and the low-end is brimmed with textural articulacy. However, not all users will appreciate the inherent limitations of the electrostatic design. For example, while low frequencies are displayed with impeccable resolution – a lot leaves to be desired where authority, slam and palpable impact are concerned. The KSE1200 will not entertain the same quantity of bass as the Campfire Audio Solaris 2020 nor the 64 Audio Tia Trio. However, this is clearly a reference audiophiles’ IEM where a neutral signature, mid over sub-bass bias and low levels of distortion are favored.
Akin to the bass, the mids of the KSE1200 follow a resolute, transparent and detailed sound. Notes are on the short sustain and have a seemingly ethereal quality within the overall soundscape. Each reverberation, cue and nuance is highlighted with graceful prowess and this is a recurrent theme with the KSE1200. While separation and spatial cues are well-defined, the KSE1200 manages to avoid artificial or exaggerated imaging. One caveat is that the midrange’s tonal character is not the most natural. Sometimes, notes do sway towards the leaner side and do not have the most emotive quality tone. However, the KSE1200 adapts well to a plethora of tracks bringing a good dose of transparency, engagement and neutrality.
Electrostatic designs are known for their superb treble and the KSE1200 is no exception. Each cymbal crash and micro-detail is highlighted with precision, speed and ease. The KSE1200 will render sibilance and artifact in sub-optimally mastered tracks – however, it does so without being grating or piercing in nature. Again, the ethereal nature coupled with the separation adds to an impressive listening experience.
The Soundstage & Imaging
The soundstage of the KSE1200 is beyond average but not the largest in terms of width. Separation and spatial localization of sonic cues are outstanding with the system highlighting details in a pin-point fashion.
64 Audio Tia Fourte
The Shure KSE1200 and the Tia Fourte are the IEM kings of micro-detail, resolution and separation. However, as mentioned, they get the job done in different ways. While the Shure KSE1200 is truer to source in its delineation of sound and achieves so through startingly responsiveness, the Tia Fourte uses open bore balanced-armature technology for top-end detail. The Fourte has more holographic staging and frank detailing while the KSE1200 is less fatiguing by way of comparison.
64 Audio U18t (w/ M15 module)
The 64 Audio U18t achieves much of the resolution of the Tia Fourte with a more neutral take on presentation. Compared to Shure’s KSE1200, the midrange of the U18t has more weight and a bass which is north of neutral. While the U18t does retain a sense of ‘fun’ and engagement, the KSE1200 is more real in its presentation and devoid of any added coloration. Again, both IEMs have great levels of detailing with the KSE1200 achieving much higher levels of coherence and neutrality.
Campfire Audio Andromeda 2020
The Campfire Audio Andromeda 2020 are more mid-centric with a good sense of rhythmic engagement – there is a slight u-shaped imposition to its sound. The Shure KSE1200 has a more neutral emphasis with better micro-detailing and realistic sense of scale. The treble of the KSE1200 is also more extensive with shorter decay.
The Shure KSE1200 system featuring the Shure KSE1500 earphones are a technological marvel with electrostatic technology brought closer to the masses. As it stands, the earphones are still the world’s only fully electrostatic monitors with a compact high-voltage energizer amp. Yes, the latest trend in high-end earphones are Sonion’s e-tweeters for high frequency sound. However, these are hybrid monitors with electret tweeters for higher frequencies and their own mini-transformers (by no means the full electrostat experience). With the Shure KSE1200, users are greeted to a neutral take on an ultra-transparent and resolving sound signature. As it is a single-driver design, the KSE1200 is incredibly coherent across the board. With world-class levels of technicalities and innovation, the Shure KSE1200 undeniably deserves a seat in our best IEMs list. For the discerning audiophile then, these are a highly recommended purchase.
- Highest fidelity due to almost massless diaphragm
- Kevlar-reinforced cable for a long service life
- Up to 37 dB external damping
- Lemo connector
- Frequency range: 10 – 50,000 Hz
- Maximum level: 113 dB
- Weight earphones: 44 g