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Shure, the iconic audio company responsible for supplying microphones for famous musicians since the 1920s and every president since Lyndon B. Johnson, has just debuted its first-ever pair of consumer-focused Bluetooth headphones: the AONIC 50. It may be late to the game, but Shure has nevertheless delivered the best sounding pair of wireless headphones I’ve ever heard.
Comfort and Connectivity
Shure’s wait and see approach has allowed it to sidestep many of the problems that plagued Bluetooth headphones in the past. It supports Bluetooth 5.0, the latest version of the wireless standard that offers stronger connectivity and lower power consumption.
This bet paid off; I’ve regularly gotten more than 20 hours of music playback on a single charge, which is Shure’s quoted battery life, and never experienced any audio dropouts when walking around a room with my phone in a pocket, or on the street.
Anther common issue with over-ear Bluetooth headphones is their size and weight. At .75 pounds, the AONIC 50s are among the heaviest headphones in the market, so it’s something to be aware of. Still, I never felt fatigued, even after a long listening session. The headband and ear cups have ample padding, and feel comfortable on my head. The ear cups completely surround my ears with room to spare, which was another pleasant surprise.
According to Sean Sullivan, the Shure’s Senior Manager of Global Product Management, the product design team worked hard to balance every aspect of the AONIC 50’s design, from their weight, to the force at which they clamp on your head. Every step of the design process forced Shure to optimize comfort and technology without sacrificing audio quality.
The most interesting fact I was told about the AONIC 50’s design process was that Shure auditioned between 100 to 200 different drivers (the piece of a headphone or speaker that creates sound) before settling on the 50mm (millimeter) set it chose. Again, this attention to detail paid off.
I’ve never been more satisfied listening to music on the go than I have been with these headphones. Yes, they’re a little bulky, but that’s what you should expect from over-ear headphones. Over the past couple of months I’ve listened to high-resolution music from TIDAL HiFi, lossy music from Apple Music, and selections from my personal music collection. In each case, the AONIC 50 delivered.
My favorite experience was listening to the TIDAL Master version of Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell. The song has a pretty sparse arrangement, but the headphones revealed so much detail in every instrument and the vocal track that it sounded like a demo recording. This level of aural deconstruction isn’t possible in more dense music, like John Coltrane’s Giant Steps or even Enid by Barenaked Ladies, but the AONIC 50 still delivered a rich and much more dynamic listening experience than many of its competitors.
Even music mastered with heavy amounts of compression, like The Girl I Can’t Forget by Fountains of Wayne sounded easier on the ears without losing an ounce of grit and sharpness; there’s a clarity there that’s the audio equivalent of putting on a pair of glasses.
If there’s a true sweet spot for these headphones, it’s acoustic music with deep bass. One of my reference tracks is Solid Air by John Martyn. You can feel each bass note resonate without losing any fidelity in the vocals, acoustic guitar, or reverb-laden vocals. That said, the headphones makes fun, upbeat music like I Don’t Care by Charli XCX come to life. The synths, drums, and vocals are all audible with the back-beat of a pulsing bass driving the track.
Rather than focusing on making headphones that sound good for people who prefer rock, or primarily listen to hip-hop, Shure made the AONIC 50 for people who truly love music.
Like many audiophile over-ear headphones, the AONIC 50 support active noise cancellation, which uses its microphones to nullify frequencies created by sounds around you. This feature works pretty well, but there’s definitely room for improvement.
Shure stuck all of the noise cancellation settings inside its ShurePlusPlay app (available on iOS and Android). If you open the app with the headphones paired to your phone or tablet, you’ll be able to adjust two settings.
First, you can switch the Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) setting from “normal” to “max.” In my experience, the normal setting works fine at cancelling every day sounds, like an overhead fan, birds chirping, or a car coming down the street. If you’re in a noisy environment, you may want to kick it up to max.
Second, you can choose from one of 11 environmental modes, which allow you to change the sensitivity on the AONIC 50’s microphones to let outside noises in. Turning up the environmental mode will allow more and more sounds to get filtered in, which sounds silly, but makes sense. If you’re wearing the headphones while walking around a city street, you’ll want to hear your music and the car horn beeping at you to get out of the way.
Active Noise Cancellation and environmental mode are two separate features that can’t be used at the same time. You need to choose the appropriate settings for each, and select one by flicking a switch located on the headphones’ right ear cup.
While both Active Noise Cancellation and environmental mode work well, Shure could make them a little less confusing. Adding a light setting to the Active Noise Cancellation option would be great for situations when you only need to block out a subtle (but annoying) sound. Instead of offering 11 incremental environmental modes, it’d be more user-friendly for Shure to offer pre-selected settings that make sense when you’re on the street, in the office, or at home.
You should still be able to fine-tune these settings if you’d like to, but most of us aren’t going to fiddle around to find whether the fifth or sixth setting makes the most sense. Thankfully, both of these changes could come in a future update to Shure’s app, and the AONIC 50’s firmware. Shure confirmed to me that it plans on supporting its headphones for a while, so improvements like these could happen at any time.
Some Drawbacks, But No Dealbreakers
Shure got a lot of things right with the AONIC 50, but they’re not the perfect pair of Bluetooth headphones. A couple of their design choices add just enough friction to be noticeable, like grains of sand in a great tasting oyster.
Like many Bluetooth headphones, the AONIC 50s can be connected to a computer, DAC (digital analog converter), or headphone app with a physical cable. Using them as wired headphones eliminates any Bluetooth audio compression and latency (lag). Oddly, Shure chose to build a 2.5mm audio jack into the AONIC 50 instead of the industry-standard 3.5mm version.
The company bundles a 2.5mm to 3.5mm audio cable with the headphones, but if that breaks, you’re far less likely to have a spare laying around. I was told this decision was made because of space constraints, which I can understand given the larger-than-normal drivers. What’s a little harder to understand is Shure’s decision not to include a 3.5mm (also known as 1/8 inch) to 1/4 inch audio adapter in the box.
Almost every high-end DAC and headphone amp has a 1/4 inch input, so you’ll need to get an additional accessory to connect the AONIC 50s to your other gear. To be clear, if you use a DAC or headphone amp you almost certainly have one or more of these adapters in your home, but it would have been nice for Shure to include every accessory necessary to hear its headphones in the best possible way.
My only other recurring issue happens when the headphones are paired to two devices at the same time. If I walked out of range of one of the devices, the headphones would say “Bluetooth disconnected” even if I was listening to music on the other device. This was particularly jarring when I listened to music or podcasts while walking around my home; the headphones would constantly pair and unpair to my tablet, which was a little annoying. This technical problem may be able to be patched in a software update, and I hope silent pairing and unpairing comes sooner than later.
The Bottom Line: The AONIC 50s Let You Take Audiophile Sound Everywhere
Shure put audio quality first when designing the AONIC 50, and it really shows. Each design decision, good or bad, was done in the service of making sure the headphones sound excellent each and every time you put them on.
The company succeeded, and went above and beyond to make one of the most exciting audio accessories I’ve ever gotten to test. I’ve been able to fully appreciate my favorite songs and happily discover new ones from wherever I am. The AONIC 50s mark a new chapter in Shure’s history, and if it continues on this path, I’m excited to hear what comes next.