Earlier this week we had the wonderful opportunity of speaking with Matt Engstrom. Matt is the Category Manager of Monitoring Products for Shure. We have reviewed quite a few Shure products, and almost all of them Matt has overseen. Headphone lovers get ready, after the jump is a bit of history and truth.
Describe your experience with Shure.
In two weeks I will celebrate my 11th anniversary at Shure. I started in early November 1998. The entire 11 years I have been in the marketing department, starting off as a coordinator working with specialists who were on teams. Then I was a specialist from 2000 to 2005, during that time I worked on a PSM system, PSM200. As part of PSM200 we worked on an earphone called E2, so we designed that from the ground up. After that team was done we kept going, so I got to be the specialist on E3, E4, what became the E500PTH product, SE530, SE420, SE310, SE210. Around the time that all those products came to an end, they promoted me to category manager. I manage the earphone and headphone business at Shure from a product development standpoint and oversee development from a marketing standpoint.
Shure was known for the longest time as a microphone company, when was the decision made to expand into the earphone market?
Microphones were not the original focus, we started as a radio parts company in 1925, the first microphone came shortly thereafter. Microphones have been the mainstay of our almost 85 years now. In the late 1980s early 1990s we first got into wireless microphones – that was taking our microphones, which were seen as very good by musicians, and making them wireless. Since that time both microphones and wireless monitors have been a big part of our business. Personal monitoring or the in-ear monitoring business became important to us in the mid-1990s when we saw customers adapting that technology and that platform and we thought we could bring a great product to the market at a good price. In 1997 we launched our first wireless IEM called the PSM®600, it was an extension of the wireless microphone business. If the technicians and the sound guys had to coordinate frequencies for the wireless microphones, the wireless in-ear monitoring systems ought to work seamlessly. Getting to the in-ear monitoring systems got us into earphones, earphones ultimately led us down the path to headphones.
What was the first earphone introduced that wasn’t part of a wireless system?
We always sold the earphones standalone. So in 1997 the first product we shipped was an earphone called the E1. You could always buy just the earphone on its own or part of an in-ear-monitor system. In fact, in those early days, we sold quite a lot of the earphones, more then we expected with regard to the actual in-ear system (meaning the wireless portion and the earphone.) We always sold more earphones. Overtime we realized it was people buying them for non-stage applications. In 2000, we introduced the E5, which was the first universal-fit dual-driver earphone and that raised some eyebrows. Suddenly we were getting attention from retailers and from publications that hadn’t previously been interested in covering our products or carrying our products.
The E5 was regarded as the best earphone on the market and seemed to be the most popular earphone for musicians. When did the decision occur to abandon a dual-driver headphone and switch to the E500/SE530′s triple-driver?
That was an interesting time. That was 2005 when we began work on what ultimately became the E500/SE530. The E5 had been a very big success, but the E5 had some limitations. It had a big, bulky and formidable? wire, something that the professional market really demands. It was also clear and had a big y-junction (where the cables come together in the middle). So, the E500 development was an attempt to miniaturize and really improve upon the design, not sound wise, but fit wise over the original E5. What we ended up with actually sounded quite a bit different and looked nothing alike. The reason we went to a triple-driver was quite honestly efficiency. The E5 has this big subwoofer in it (if you look through the clear parts you see a big (big) driver and you see a small one, the big one is a subwoofer.) It’s got great low end, great power, great handling, very low distortion and you can get great volume, so it’s wonderful for the stage. We didn’t want to compromise any of the low end when we started working on our new design, but we did want to make it smaller. So one of the acoustic engineers had a great idea, “let’s take two really miniature drives, couple them together.” Therefore, ending up with a smaller enclosure and get an equivalent low end (equivalent bass response). So the move to go to a triple-driver from the dual wasn’t really a razor blade type of battle, it was really an efficiency thing. We wanted equivalent sound but a smaller footprint. So that’s a little bit of history about why we went with a three-driver configuration for the E500.
How large of a factor is the iPod (and iPhone) in the development of your earphones, considering that Shure comes from a professional heritage?
Well, I can’t say that we would have done any products differently than they were done. What I can say is perhaps we wouldn’t have been able to do so many products. The fact that so many more people were interested in upgrading their earbuds around that time (2003-2005) meant that we saw a very big demand for our products when it wasn’t really anticipated. We planned out the line as a professional line and people who don’t perform, (people who aren’t sound engineers, people who aren’t musicians) started buying our products and that was largely because of the iPod. So it had a very big impact on the fact that we brought more products to market. What we designed I still think needed to adhere to the Shure standards, meaning: very tough durability and accuracy with regards to the audio. Meaning that what comes in is what’s supposed to go out – the same type of principle we use for our microphones. We like to capture things accurately and as realistically as possible, so that when you listen to it on the back end, it represents what the artist wanted to be heard.
Earlier this year you introduced three new headphones, why the decision to go into the headphone market as opposed to just remaining in the earphone market?
I’ll flip the question around and say, “why didn’t we do one for so long?” because on our side of the fence that was the thing that we heard the most. For a long time it was “when” we did a headphone not “if.” Though, we always portrayed outwardly that we weren’t going to do a headphone. As we debated it, we didn’t do one for a long time because we felt very strong and very passionate about the in-ear monitor market, about the professionals – the folks that use these for tools of their trade. (These are tools that help people to get jobs done and that job is performance) In the past two and a half years we have designed a lot of products aimed at mid-tier musicians, garage bands – folks that probably won’t earn a ton of money making music, but will spend money making music. So, we decided to make some really high quality affordable products, such as the PG line of products and some lower-cost condenser microphones for home studios. Along the time that we were developing those is when we tho ught it would be best to come out with studio-minded over-the-ear headphones.
I think that the jump from us being primarily a live-stage and pro-faced company to more people hearing about us because of our earphone line – we decided to diversify. Fortunately, we have some great acoustic engineers who were able to come out with headphones and it made sense because we no longer have to educate folks about what isolating earphones are. For ten years our battle was: let’s teach people about what isolation is, why it’s important and what it does for your experience when you listen to music with isolation – if you are on a bus, a plane or a train, sometimes working out at the gym and sometimes even at home when you don’t want to make a lot of noise. For years we touted the virtues of isolation. We are convinced that a lot of the people we would like to sell products to now know about isolation, they now know who Shure is. We have been able to bring some of our pro heritage to that realm – so we don’t need to educate people about the merits of isolation and we thought we could bring a very competitive headphone line out and now its not choosing platform, it’s choosing the right tool for the job.
What do you say to someone, when they ask you why they should purchase a pair of Shure earphones as opposed to a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphone?
Well first and foremost isn’t it great that we live in a day of age where people have these great choices. Form-factor, our earphones break down to a very small little carrying pouch that fits in a briefcase very easily. Even the most compact of noise-cancellation headphones have a much larger carrying case. When it comes to sound quality, everything is subjective; but, the facts are noise-cancelation: requires a battery, it induces artifacts into music, many people won’t hear those artifacts, so it’s probably not a factor for a lot of folks. But purists, anyone who is really concerned with the accuracy of their signal, would probably never chose anything with an active circuitry geared towards cancellation and that’s the market that we really cater to. To spend more, you are getting a much smaller form factor, hopefully a much superior audio quality, I cannot really speak to the build quality as a real reason, but with any Shure product you are going to be backed by a pretty robust warranty period and a great service experience if there are any problems.
Describe the vision behind each of the three headphone models you have introduced. (SRH240, SRH440, SRH840)
Fortunately, (we have) years of observing the market, years of customer comments, a lot of contact globally. With regard to pricing, a lot of what we do is based on our competitive benchmarks, what consumers are willing to pay and what price points move. Honestly, the $100 headphone is like the $100 microphone, we sell an SM58® for $100 and there are certainly a lot of other microphones available at higher and lower price points. People are comfortable spending $100 on a brand that they know and a brand that they are comfortable in and it’s the same with the headphone. We found that if we could make a very good headphone for $100 we would be very successful.
Acoustically and sound quality wise when you go from the (SRH)240 to 440 to 840, I like to think of it as building on an idea. Whereas the 240 is a great low to high headphone. decent low end, great midrange, very accurate and a nice high end extension. When you move up to a 440, you get a slightly more robust build. It’s a bigger headphone, you have got a detachable cable and a little bit more padding on the headphone. Along with that, you get a slightly better low end response in a 440 and possibly a little bit more high end frequency extension and a very nice sweet midrange in a 440. The 840 – a pinnacle. A little bit more low frequency extension, perhaps a little bit of enhanced bass as well and then a high frequency extension.
To my ears, as a sound guy, as a musician, all things that I do on a regular basis – I use a 440 the most. I find it to be very forgiving, a very accurate headphone. If I am going to monitor a band playing live on stage, I find that the 440 does a really great job tracking to what my PA might sound like, and likewise if I am mixing in a studio and need a quick headphone reference, I find the 440 to be a really nice choice for me and my ears. We have had a wonderful amount of comments on the SRH840 for all sorts of applications whether it be performing music or just listening to music on the side. So the 840 definitely gets the marks for having the most extension and having a pretty nice set of pads on it. The 840 pads are very soft. So you get a little bit better isolation, perhaps a little better comfort as well.
And the SRH840 pads can be placed on the SRH440?
I put 840 pads on my 440s. I find it’s the best of both worlds: best comfort, best isolation and by using the 840 pads on the 440 it actually increases the low end a tad, not a ton. Not to make it too booming and it adds a nice little detail to the low end.
What has been like as your company diversified from a professional company to having to deal with a consumer market?
It’s been very interesting to watch both markets and learn about the differences and the nuances of each. It’s a little bit different. In the pro market we tend to go out, we go back stage, we listen and we work with the technicians – the folks that make the show happen. With the non-pro group (the consumer group) we probably talk to the retailers as much as we talk to the customers and the end-users; but, a lot of what we end up designing into products is based directly on requirements gathered from talking to customers. We try to let our customers lead us to design the products, so that we are doing what they asked us.
What does the future hold for Shure, are we going to see Shure expand to the professional monitoring market in terms of speakers?
Well, I can never say “never.” It’s tough for me to say what we will and won’t do in the future, but as for right now we are enjoying the success of the earphone line. We are very excited for the launch of the headphones, to us it’s still a new launch even though we started showing them off six months ago – that’s been fun. I can tell you about two new exciting things that are coming out. One is the SRH750DJ. Pretty excited about that, it won’t be shipping for a couple more weeks now, but information about that is starting to get out. It’s got some advantages over the current line for DJs: 90-degree swivel cups, 50mm drivers for a very (very) high power capability. A lot of DJ mixers have very high outputs and the common complaint we heard was drivers burning up over time or wearing out and so we designed our drivers in our DJ model to be able to take a pounding and keep coming back. Also, very recently is a product specifically designed for the iPhone and new iPods called the SE115m+. It has the volume control for the new iPods and iPhone 3GS and that will be out through Apple exclusively through the end of the year.
What’s the craziest prototype that you have seen in the labs? Any seven-driver headphones?
Well, we have never done anything that crazy. Believe it or not we are more of a “less is more” type of company. The fact that we do have a triple driver headphone, again we did that for size reasons, more then acoustics. Though we do know of some competitive models that just have an amazing amount of speakers in each side. We have seen some off-the-wall accessory idea come out of our acoustics lab, but none really jump out – we might be a little bit boring in that regard.
You mentioned before you use the SRH440s for monitoring, what other Shure products do you use on a daily basis?
My entire mantra is accuracy and honesty and I have always thought that the E4 (now the SCL4 and sort of a little brother to the SE310) was a sweet spot in our line. The SE310, E4, E4c, SCL4 all have the same driver platform. It’s one engine, they all look a little bit different, but they sound similar. It’s a single driver and it’s vented so it gets you a great low end, but it’s an accurate low-end. I find that when I mix on products that have a lot of coloration the mixes are very bad. They are either lacking in certain areas or they are way too emphasized in some areas. So I want something that isn’t emphasized in any areas, I want something that is as accurate as possible. That’s the one I like the most. It’s done me very well, I have mixed a lot of projects for a lot of bands and those have been the most consistent over the years. I remember the first prototype back in the year 2004, about a year before we brought it out to market. I hung on to those for dear life – I didn’t give them away to anyone for more than a day or two because I knew we had something special with that.
Shure obviously is used by plenty of very popular musicians. Who has been the coolest person to meet while working for Shure?
My fourteen-year-old niece would kill me if I didn’t mention when I got to meet Kelly Clarkson, she thought that was the coolest. The guys from Gwar, that was hilarious. Alice in Chains was at our booth last year, nice to meet Jerry Cantrell he was nice. It’s easy to get star struck if you pay attention, but we try not to do that much. The artists, when they deal with us, they don’t feel like they are dealing with fans, they feel like they are dealing with colleagues.
We really enjoyed speaking with Matt. He loves what he does and you can tell that he loves working for Shure. All of the people that we have worked with have been a pleasure to deal with and all of them know what they are talking about. The most important thing Matt said in our opinion (besides agreeing that the E4s might be the greatest earphone ever made, seriously, these things are as neutral as they come) was regarding sound, it’s all subjective. Remember, no matter what we or anyone else tells you, it’s all about what you like, but it’s hard to argue with a company who believes in being as accurate as possible. We have owned most of the Shure products that were discussed above and we can say that the Shure standard is really the gold standard. They might be boring, but they are the best. (They might also be crazy, go try and find flaws with the E5) We’d like to thank everyone we’ve dealt with at Shure: Chris, Davida and Matt for their time and for the wonderful work they do for an amazing company.