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Shure KSE1200 Electrostatic IEM Earphone System Review

The KSE1200 is the Purely Analog Sibling to the KSE1500 IEM


Like its big sibling that comes with a built-in DAC, the Shure KSE1200 Electrostatic Earphone System delivers some of the clearest, most transparent, most detail-rich sound you will ever have the pleasure of hearing.  

Shure dazzled the audio world back in 2016 with the release of the amazing KSE1500 Electrostatic Earphone System. This single driver electrostatic earphone with sound isolating technology is sold with its own dedicated amplifier that includes a DAC. The Shure KSE1500 IEM delivers world-class sound and can be used in a desktop setup on the go. It was truly a game-changer for the audiophile who seeks both the amazing sound of an electrostatic device along with portability and sound isolation to boot.

Two years later, Shure released the purely analog KSE1200. It's very much the same as the KSE1500, but without the DAC. Designed for use in-line with portable music players, the KSE1200 gives listeners an extraordinary amount of transparency, detail, and clarity in their music in a more compact and more affordable package. At $1999, it is priced a thousand dollars less. Having recently reviewed the KSE1500, I was looking forward to the same dazzling sound experience with the KSE1200. I wasn't disappointed. If anything, I fell even more in love with the sound.

PROS:

  • Very low distortion
  • Sound Isolation up to 37dB
  • Up to 12 hours of battery life
  • Amazingly transparent, detailed sound

CONS:

  • Not for bass lovers
  • Special amp required (included)

Overview of Features:

  • Electrostatic technology for Sound Isolating Earphones featuring a single MicroDriver design.
  • Extremely high correlation to the source audio provides the fastest, most accurate transient response on the market.
  • Custom-designed earphone cable specifically isolates each conductor.
  • 4-band Parametric EQ (when used in conjunction with ShurePlus™ Play App) features built-in presets and unlimited user generated custom presets for management of audio playback preferences.
  • Integrated USB rechargeable battery can conveniently charge from standard USB wall charger or computer.
  • Lightweight, ergonomic earphone shape minimizes ear fatigue while comfortable Sound Isolating sleeves block up to 37 dB of ambient noise.
  • Premium Shure fit and finish and construction featuring an elegantly machined black aluminum housing, manufactured to exacting Shure quality standards.

Materials, Quality & Comfort

Because the amplifier with the KSE1200 does not include a DAC, it is smaller than the KSE1500's amplifier. It measures about 3.6in long x 2.3in wide and weight less than half a pound. It's about the size of a pack of cards. The body features machined black aluminum housing, and it looks and feels quite study.

A large, tactile knob on the top left of the amp box is used to turn the unit on and off and for volume control. To turn the unit on, rotate the knob clockwise. To turn it off, rotate counter-clockwise all the way.

Also on the top of the amplifier are a status indicator, 3.5mm input, and earphone output. On the bottom are the DC input and input pad switch. Here you can select 0db or -10dB. The pad attenuates the analog input signal to prevent clipping from high-output audio sources. Enable the pad when the audio meter indicates clipping. Attenuate the source volume if the signal continues to clip with the -10dB pad engaged.

The cable with the KSE1200 deviates from your typical flat and wide electrostatic cable. This cable is round, Kevlar reinforced and connects to the amp via a six-pin Lemo connector.

The earpieces are small, lightweight, and designed to minimize ear fatigue. The housing is plastic, which some might find disappointing. But I found them to be extremely comfortable -- like, I inserted them into my ear canal and then forgot about them. They fit me so well. Design wise, the shells are clear, showcasing the black components underneath.

The KSE1200 comes with three types of sound isolating ear sleeves (aka tips): soft flex sleeves made from rubber, soft foam sleeves, and triple-flange sleeves. I used the soft flex sleeves. It may go without saying, but making sure you are using the tips that fit you best will ensure you get the maximum amount of isolation.

The USB rechargeable lithium ion battery offers 12 hours of playback. Connect the DC input to a computer, external battery, or AC power source using a USB type A to Micro-B cable to charge the battery.


About the Amplifier and Electrostatic Driver Technology

Credit: www.diyaudioheaven.wordpress.com

 

Electrostatic drivers differ from other driver types (dynamic, balanced armature, planar magnetic) in that they use the principle of static electricity as opposed to electromagnetism.

Electrostatic drivers contain an extremely thin, nearly weightless diaphragm suspended between two metal plates called stators; these plates are perforated to allow airflow. One plate is positively charged and the other is negatively charged. An electric field is created when a sound signal is applied to the plates. The electric field draws and repels the diaphragm to and from the plates.

Vibrations occur as the diaphragm pushes and pulls against the plates, and air is pushed through the perforations. This, coupled with the continuously charged electrical signal driving the diaphragm, produces sound waves.

Electrostatic drivers differ from other driver types in that the diaphragm is the only moving part in the equation. In fact, it can be lighter that the air it is displacing! They are known for producing sound that is clear, fast, detailed, and tight. Their excellent transient response and low distortion make them ideal for critical listening. They are all about subtlety, finesse, and precision vs. impact and emotiveness. Many people enjoy them with classical, jazz, acoustic rock, blues, and other genres where nuance and subtlety abound.    

Like the KSE1500, the KSE1200 can only be used with the high-voltage amplifier box that comes with it. But why do these earphones need a special amplifier? Because electrostatic earphones and headphones have special power requirements that make them incompatible with other headphone amps. Whereas ordinary earphones are plugged directly into the music source, electrostatic earphones require a dedicated high-voltage amplifier to "excite" or charge the driver. The bias voltage for the KSE1200 is 200 v.

Because the amplifier with the KSE1200 does not include a DAC, it is smaller than the KSE1500's amplifier. The amplifier circuitry in the KSE1200 has been redesigned and optimized for analog input, resulting in a lower noise floor. You don't get the digital four-band EQ that's offered within the KSE1500's DAC, but it is available through the ShurePlus PLAY smartphone app for iOS and Android.


Sound Quality

I listened to the KSE1200 connected to my iPhone 6 with the analog out into the KSE1200 (streaming through Qobuz). I also connected the KSE1200 to the Astell&Kern SP1000 DAP.  

Can violins sound like silk? After listening to the KSE1200, I am convinced they can. I came to this conclusion after listening to Pachelbel's Canon in D for strings. I had to warm up a bit after I listened, because this piece gave me some serious chills. But then I immediately hit play again. The violins had a silky sweetness that was almost hypnotic.

The KSE1200 is all about realism, detail, and finesse. These earphones will please the listener who has a taste for the finer things, so to speak. You will find yourself noticing and appreciating individual elements of your music -- the quality of a drum hit, the nuance in a singer's voice, the way the piano keys sound -- but never to the point of losing the big picture. In other words, songs did not lose their cohesiveness.

Violinists in an orchestra

Credit: Larisa Birta/Unsplash.com

On Elton John's "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy," I was really taken with the timbre of the acoustic guitar and the breadth and depth of Elton's vocals. The sound is just so pure, really, with nothing extra. The plucking of the guitar strings is over-the-top pleasurable. The "rattlesnake" sound effect is quite visceral. The bassline lends a touch of fullness, but not in a way that clouds the sound. Likewise, the drums are polite and present enough to add impact, but they're not the main event.

For another vocal test, I listened to Sarah Jaffe's "Clementine." Jaffe sings with what I describe as a seductive, nasally whine that sounds a bit like she has glue in her throat. Needless to say, she's got a unique voice. If you're into vocals and you favor nuance and texture over smoothness, the KSE1200 will do you well.

Listening to some rock tracks, I found that the bass was punchy but that the sound wasn't quite full enough for my taste. Electric guitars sounded too pure, almost -- lacking the distortion that makes hard rock tracks satisfying. Some people might like sound, but I suspect most listeners wouldn't opt to use an electrostatic headphone or earphone to listen to rock or other bassier genres.

Wanting to explore more vocals, I cued up Joan Baez's "Diamonds and Rust." The vocal diction here was just insane. Now, this is a track that is so emotionally harrowing and haunting you might actually want a sort of haze or muddying of the sound to mute some of the impact. There is no such effect listening to this song on the KSE1200; you get exactly what Joan Baez is giving you. In fact, there's a line in the song that highlights this feeling: "Cause I need some of that vagueness now it's all come back to clearly..." The bottom line? This was the clearest, purest presentation that I've ever heard.

Noise isolation on the KSE1200 is no joke. It's like listening to music in a soundproof chamber. All of the ambient noises that can seep in and cloud your listening experience are absent: background conversations, cars driving by, a colleague typing. The lack of outside noise only serves to amplify the pure nature of the sound on the KSE1200. When I first encountered this with the KSE1500, I found it almost startling, but I grew to appreciate it with the KSE1200. It's incredibly easy to become completely transfixed by and immersed in your music.

Test tracks:

  • "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy" - Elton John

  • Pachelbel's Canon in D Major - Orchestre de Chambre Jean-Francois Paillard

  • "Clementine" - Sarah Jaffe

  • "Diamonds and Rust" - Joan Baez

  • "Hang On to Yourself" - David Bowie


Soundstage on the KSE1200 is about average for an IEM. Well, that's width and depth. I actually found a nice amount of height on many of the tracks I listened to, meaning that I perceived the sound to occupy various points along an imaginary vertical axis starting above and running through my head. This was a nice treat for my ears, as I find the sense of auditory height to be quite pleasing.

Instrument separation is phenomenal. Never once did I have any difficulty deciphering individual sounds, even, in the most frenetic of compositions. As I mentioned earlier, though, this level of separation did not detract from the cohesiveness of my music.


The Verdict

Get ready to be blown away by the transparent, detailed, natural sound of the Shure KSE1200 electrostatic earphone. If you are looking for clarity and fast-accurate sound along with sound isolating technology and the ease of portability, you're in for a treat. Connect the KSE1200 to your phone or a portable DAP for at two-device portable solution. You can also opt to throw a portable DAC into the mix. Some may find that too cumbersome for taking on the go, but it's not out of the question. The KSE1200 is not for bassheads or for people looking for a warm, fun, or V-shaped sound. But for those who covet a revealing sound that hands you all of the details, the KSE1200 is hi-fi at its finest. I recommend it for listening to classical, jazz, acoustic rock, blues, folk, or country music.

Specifications

Kit specifications

Bias Voltage: 200 V

DC Output Voltage: ±200 V, max.

Output Current: ≤ 1 mA

Sound Isolation: ≤ 37 dB

amplifier specifications

Signal-to-Noise Ratio: up to 107 dB A-weighted

Adjustable Gain Range: -40 dB to +60 dB

Line-In Input: 3.5 mm (1/8")

USB Input USB Micro-B Receptacle, DC input Housing Black Anodized Aluminum

Net Weight: 155.0 g (5.47oz.)

Dimensions: 93 x 59 x 21 mm H x W x D

earphone specifications

Transducer Type: Electrostatic

Connector Type: Lemo Connector

Frequency Response: 10 Hz to 50 kHz

Maximum SPL: 1 kHz at 3% THD 113 dB SPL

Net Weight: 44.0 g (1.55 oz.) KSA1200

bettery specifications

Battery Type: Rechargeable Li-Ion

Nominal Voltage: 3.6 V DC

Battery Life: Up to 12 hours

Charging Requirements: USB-powered: 5 V/0.5 A to 1 A Shure Incorporated 11/12

Charging Time: Up to 3 hours to full charge with 1A charger


What's in the Box

1 - 3.5mm (1/8” ) Cable 15.2 cm (6")

1 - 3.5mm (1/8” ) Cable 92 cm (36")

1 - 6.3mm (¼”) adapter

1 - Cable Clip

2 - Security Bands


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