One of my favorite hobbies as a grown-up adult is researching the living daylights out of every purchase I make. From a pocket knife I use primarily for opening Amazon boxes to the TV I spend hours a day staring at, I try to make the most educated purchase and get the biggest bang-for-buck out of everything I buy. One of my best purchases by far, though, has been my Shure SE215 earbuds. Most of my previous earbuds had been of the Target whatever’s-in-stock variety, but after tearing through another pair I’d finally had it with junk earbuds getting torn up. I put the SE215s on my Christmas list in 2011 and they became my main listening hardware both at home and away from the house.
It was a thrill, then, when that same company invited me out to be one of a small group of audio fans to preview some new equipment and see where the magic happens, so to speak.
Shure has offices all over the world, but the main headquarters is just outside Chicago in Niles, Illinois. Shure bussed us out from Chicago to their HQ early in the morning. After a quick primer from Shure president Christine Schyvinck, we got on the way to see where the company’s specialists build their equipment.
The most exciting part of this – from a purely experiential perspective – was the chance to step into Shure’s anechoic chamber. If you haven’t run into one of these before, an anechoic chamber is a room designed specifically to absorb and attenuate sound. In these chambers, the functional floor floats feet above the bottom of the chamber. All six surfaces of the room are covered in huge foam shapes – usually triangles – that suck up sound like sponges.
Our human ears (well, my human ears, I’m not going to make any assumptions about you) naturally filter out a lot of the ambient noise that surrounds us. Any time we make a noise, the sound waves bounce around the room. It’s how simulated surround sound works. If you’ve ever moved into a new apartment or house, you’ve probably noticed how weird it sounds before you move all your stuff in and fill the place up.
An anechoic chamber is that – a room full of sound-absorbing stuff – dialed to the absolute maximum. Shure’s headquarters houses two separate chambers for designing and testing microphones. These chambers rest on floating foundations separate from the rest of the building, isolating them from the general vibration of the building and from the nearby railroad tracks that would surely corrupt any sound tests the company’s engineers do when calibrating the company’s high-end mics.
Standing in one, even with other people, is supremely strange. Even with six people in the room at once, I started to immediately pick up on other noises. The faint ringing in my ears was almost immediately deafening, and I could hear all kinds of gross body noises that are normally too quiet to hear. Swallowing, jaw movements, stomach rumbling – these noises suddenly sound loud. I didn’t get to sit in the room in the dark, but those who have describe the experience as causing disorientation, panic attacks, and even aural hallucinations.
That the room looks distinctly otherworldly with all those sharp points sticking out of the walls certainly doesn’t help.
The closest sensation I’ve ever experienced to this was the first time I tried on genuinely good noise-canceling headphones in a public space and then took them off. It barely compares, but both gave me the same sensation when I stepped out of the room/took off the headphones: the world is really loud. Even a still forest before sunrise has countless sources of noise and things to reflect off of, but an anechoic chamber absorbs almost all of it.
Built to Last
The other fascinating area of the headquarters was the quality-assurance area. My personal experience with Shure equipment anecdotally proves that it makes durable gear, but seeing what the team puts its gear through really proved it. Shure has been making audio equipment since before the Great Depression. Their mics and headsets have delivered presidential speeches and rock music iconic enough to put it on U.S. stamps. They’ve been on the battlefield and even up into space.
In other words, Shure gear has been subjected to the worst conditions possible and come out the other side still working. At Shure, there are people whose job it is to drop mics. Only they don’t just drop them, they slam them to the ground repeatedly with machines designed to beat the hell out of some very expensive microphones. Across the room, there’s a wall of twisting motors with wiring strung between them. These motors flex and twist the wires used in Shure gear countless times to make sure the wire isn’t going to wear down under heavy use.
As I hinted at before, humans are wet and squishy, so another test is the ‘sweat test.’ One of the guys I talked to accidentally ran his SE215s through the wash after a 4th of July party, and they came out still kicking. But in the office, Shure’s QA engineers have a sealed chamber that they mount microphones and listening devices in. In this the chamber, the products are they’re subjected to some truly rank artificial sweat, applied by machine one drip after another for weeks at a time. If you ever have the chance to smell artificial sweat, don’t.
While Shure can’t reasonably account for every situation, they test for as many as they can. There’s a section with a dropped ceiling and fluorescent lights to simulate an office environment for business-focused gear, while the stuff that gets used in concerts can be put into close proximity to a huge wall of LEDs, which have historically wreaked havoc on wireless audio.
It’s only in the last 20 years or so that the company has been making equipment aimed at the everyday consumer, but after seeing what even consumer-grade Shure gear goes through before it hits manufacturing, I’m not surprised at how well they hold up. that I’ve been able to beat the hell out of my earbuds, taking them into below-zero weather every day for months (because that’s what life in Minnesota is like), jamming them into my backpack day after day, and generally mistreating them, only to have them still sound pretty great after all that.
To top it off, I’d remembered to bring my SE215s with me. In a quiet moment between checking out different earbuds at the downtown Chicago office, I got a chance to show them to one of Shure’s product managers. Immediately, he could tell how old they were with just a glance.
To be sure, though, he flipped on his phone’s flashlight, and held the tiny bud up close to his eye, and peered through its translucent casing, confirming that I’d indeed grabbed a pair of first-run earbuds in what is now a long-running product line. “This is what it’s all about,” he’d said. About making sturdy, durable products that people carry with them. In a room with earbuds that retail for $800, $1,200, and $2,500, getting to talk about my seven-year-old headphones might’ve been the highlight.
I haven’t been lucky enough to tour any other audio facilities just yet, but Shure’s history and process left an impression on me that makes me feel like my long-standing affection for the company is earned.
Disclaimer: Shure paid for travel and accommodations to preview this product and tour the Shure headquarters, and we received the RMCE-BT2 adapter along with a pair of Shure SE53s (which will be reviewed separately).
All images are copyrighted works of Shure Incorporated, used with permission.