Shure's sound-isolating earphones are unmistakable with their one-of-a-kind design. From the immense value of the entry-level SE215 earphones all the way up to the high-end clarity of the quad-driver SE846, Shure has established a lineage of impressive sound and fit, complete with that uniquely-shaped module and detachable cable.
And since last year, they've been wireless too. No, not in an Apple AirPods-like, free-floating manner. Instead, Shure's RMCE-BT1 Bluetooth Enabled Remote + Mic Accessory Cable let you swap out the original wired 3.5mm cable for a Bluetooth tether that linked up the earphones with a remote in between, but then connected wirelessly to your device for freedom of movement.
It was a great start, and according to Shure, the unexpected demand for the Bluetooth device convinced them that wireless connectivity was going to be a key part of their future in earphones.
Now Shure is back with the RMCE-BT2 High-Resolution Bluetooth 5 Earphone Communication Cable, and it's more than just a new look and version number: it's been retooled and rebuilt to deliver better performance, especially on the higher-end Shure SE models. Ahead of the launch, we visited Shure's Chicago-area headquarters and downtown offices to try out the RMCE-BT2 cable and find out about their mission in expanding their Bluetooth footprint.
The future of the headphone cable
As innovative as the new RMCE-BT2 cable is, Shure would consider it a minor innovation on its previous effort, the RMCE-BT1. Before, the two earphone connectors were joined by a single cable, which both an in-line remote and a small module hanging off of it. Now, however, the connectors emerge from a larger module with a metal clip and grippy texturing, ensuring that it'll stay put when hooked onto your shirt collar. And the in-line remote is still there on the right cable.
Of course, appearances are deceiving: What's inside is what really counts here, as Shure has redesigned the technology to maximize wireless playback performance.
"The first model was a very efficient, cost-effective model that met Shure's standards for things like reliability, build quality, and functionality," explains Matt Engstrom, Shure's category director for microphones, earphones, headphones, and phono. "For the second generation, we decided to go a little bit deeper on some of the componentry."
The key difference is a dedicated headphone amplifier, which exists separately from the other components. Many wireless headsets use a single chip for the amplifier, antenna, Bluetooth radio, and other components to minimize size and expense. Coming off of the BT1, Shure saw an opportunity to build a higher-end version of its Bluetooth cable and create something that comes closer than ever to duplicating the output of a wired device.
"These days, it's possible to get a very-good quality package all in one. They'll put a Bluetooth radio, they'll put an antenna, they'll put a codec to convert digital to analog, and then they'll put an amplifier all on one chip. And they get pretty good," Engstrom explains. "The performance of them is admirable considering how inexpensive they are and what they do."
"Our products that can connect to these Bluetooth devices offer a very, very high level of performance. And that performance can't necessarily be achieved with an all-in-one solution," he continues. "So we chose to break out some of the critical components, namely the headphone amplifier, as a separate component. And what that headphone amplifier is going to do is provide a more full-range signal and better sound quality with less things like noise and distortion—a much better-matched signal."
Wireless for the discerning ear
For years, audiophiles derided wireless technology—and for good reason. Before better codecs came along, basic Bluetooth wasn't enough for high-resolution music to maintain its integrity during transmission. But, now that we have technology like aptX and AAC, that's a different story.
That said, despite the advanced codecs, you might not be able to tell the difference between the BT1 and BT2. I couldn't tell the difference while wearing Shure's SE535 earphones, which start at $449, using the BT1 ($99) first and then switching the cable over to the BT2 ($149). Honestly, both sounded excellent to me.
But I'm not an audiophile and this isn't a review. (The SE535s cost more than twice as much money than the AirPods and other earbuds and headsets I typically pop onto my head.) For those listeners who demand a high-end audio experience, and who may have spent significant time with Shure's products lodged tightly within their ears, they may notice the subtle enhancements.
But they are subtle, for sure.
"It does take a discerning ear, and for some products, it's not an immediately noticeable difference," says Engstrom. "The more demanding product—in our case, it's the more you spend: the single-driver, the dual-driver, the triple-driver, and the four-driver [models]. As you go up that line, the demands of that product become more substantial, especially up to the four-driver."
"It has an impedance—impedance is the resistance at which the system operates. It's very, very low, and unfortunately you also need an amplifier that's also extremely low-impedance to match that. The amplifier in this new wireless product is optimized for something that has a very demanding specification, like our high-end products. The difference you might notice is a more complete frequency response; the difference you might notice is extremely low noise floor when no music is playing, and a very strong capability to match very complex passages at loud volumes."
In addition to the hardware upgrades, the RMCE-BT2 also adds support for Qualcomm aptX audio codecs (along with AAC and SBC), with three modes available on compatible devices: standard aptX audio, aptX HD, and aptX Low Latency. "[aptX HD] offers a fidelity that's almost matched by cables. You get basically almost as good as a cable with something like HD," says Engstrom. Meanwhile, the Low Latency option is ideal when listening in locations with a lot of other Bluetooth devices around, to reduce any stuttering from congestion. The BT1 only had SBC support, so there are a lot more codec options this time around.
The BT2 also bumps up to Bluetooth 5 with this model, for improved connectivity, and packs in a couple more hours of battery life—it's up to 10 hours, from eight in the previous model.
Shure to continue
Shure's biggest focus is on high-end listening tech, and the RMCE-BT2 only furthers that aim in the wireless space. Your average listener might not notice the aural advantages over the previous BT1 model, but for those Shure listeners who both want to squeeze every bit of added quality out of a device—while also embracing the freedom of Bluetooth connectivity—it may be an upgrade worth investing in.
"We continue to, after more than 20 years in the earphone business, try to improve the audio quality, fit and comfort, and durability," Engstrom affirms. "We make products that have very, very high standards of audio quality, so it only made sense to add this next-generation wireless adapter for our transducer platform."
Rather than release new, dedicated Bluetooth earphones, Shure continues to build upon its proven platform. This ensures that SE earphone owners can listen however they please, easily replace a busted cable or component without trashing the entire device, and enjoy a high-end product for a potentially long stretch of time.
Wireless may still be a new market for Shure, but the RMCE-BT2 High-Resolution Bluetooth 5 Earphone Communication Cable shows that the company is serious about providing a way for new and existing users alike to adapt to the growing demand for wireless connectivity.
"We were surprised at how many people bought our first-generation wireless [connector] last year, and that really helped us decide to double down in this market and come up with a new product," says Engstrom. "I think we're here to stay now."
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