When my grandson started playing, my eyes teared up, and I started weeping.
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Puro ear canal earbud
Photo by Al Fasoldt. Copyright © 2015 Al Fasoldt. All rights reserved.

NEW PURO 500IE EARBUDS (in-ear monitors) on my dining room table in our cross-country RV look like miniature technical instruments. In a sense, that's actually what they are. I tested two of the first to leave the assembly line. They come with a protective bag.

Sound that can bring you to tears

June 21, 2015

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2015, Al Fasoldt

To find out how good -- or bad -- an audio component is, you get out all your test equipment and spend an hour testing it in various ways, watching waveforms and signal permutations and all sorts of things like impedences and rocketology paranoodles.

How wrong.

You listen.

You simply listen.

I didn't even have my test equipment handy -- I left it all home -- when my daughter-in-law pointed to a small box with a shipping label on it and told me it was mine. We had arrived in Seattle for my granddaughter's high school graduation, and the fine folks who represent Puro Sound Labs had had to reroute the shipment from Countless Pines in Baldwinsville to a hill in Washington's big city. They had sent their new Puro 500IE in-ear monitors, usually referred to as IEMs. They list for $199.99, in the lower part of the price range for top-quality IEMs. (Some sell for three times that.)

So, naturally, I ripped it open to try them out. Right?

Wrong again.

Didn't I tell you we were in Seattle for a graduation? For the big day, then a party, then time with all the kids and grandkids and great this-and-that? Grandparents will tell you any time you ask: There is nothing that can come between you and your grandchildren's graduation. Not a thing.

So it wasn't until a week after the big day that I looked inside the box. I saw two miniature Shure studio microphones. Or, no, two fancy control sensors for a nuclear test facility. Or, no, the coolest looking earbuds I had ever seen.

By this time we were camping in the Cascades with my son David's family. His son, Porter, is a guitarist and folk singer. Earlier that week, I had given Porter my prized Martin dreadnaught guitar made a quarter of a century ago, from my days as a singer and not-ready-for-primetime song writer. That gave Porter a chance to sing and strum and me a chance to make some on-location recordings with my big studio-grade stereo mike. (It's USB powered, so it's ideal for recording at any location on earth. In this case, Porter sat beside the forest picnic table where I placed the mike.)

The recording device I used was an Acer Android tablet -- a big one, dwarfing my iPad -- with the microphone plugged into the Acer's full-size USB jack. I used special USB recording software designed solely for Android tablets with full USB capabilities. The software supplies any missing USB drivers and is tested against standard USB audio devices. It has very low distortion and a dynamic range 30 dB beyond the range of the regular audio circuitry found in tablets and most computers.

So there I was, playing audio engineer, about to make a live recording in the woods overlooking Lake Wenatchee, Washington, with those cool earbuds as my monitors. You must never make a serious audio recording without monitors, preferably the kind that fit into your ears (or cover your ears tightly) and block most of the outside sound. I put the Puro earbuds into place -- they fit snugly into the ear canal on each side, with a choice of different size ear tips, and almost totally shut out environmental sounds -- and plugged them into the mike's monitoring output jack. (That way, I was monitoring the microphone, not the subsequent part of the audio chain.)

When Porter started playing, my eyes teared up, and I started weeping. Not because here he was, my own grandson, playing exquisitely on one of the finest acoustic guitars ever made, and there I was to hear it, in all its acoustic glory. Not because I was happy. I was ecstatically happy, in fact, but that wasn't what was coaxing my tears.

I was reacting as I've done only a dozen or so times in my life as an audio critic and passionate music lover. The sound I was hearing through the Puro 500s seemed to leave me defenseless; I was captured by a magic most people never experience -- the triumph of raw, unfettered sound, untouched by limiters and processing, conveyed to my ears with an almost unapproachable purity, no matter how quiet or loud the sound.

As far as I can tell, based on memory and not on specs, the Puro IEMs are simply the best audio playback devices I have ever heard.

Unlike most IEM earbuds, the Puro 500s sound natural at any volume. This might not matter when I'm listening to commercial recordings, but it is absolutely essential when monitoring for a master recording. I want to hear both the breathing of a string when it is first touched and its resonant bite when it is released. I want to experience everything the microphone hears.

And that's just what was happening in the forest that day. Recording engineers cannot get levels right if they assume they've seen the highest sound peaks in the 20 seconds performers spend banging and yelling for level checks. So I miked my grandson 15 dB lower than what should have been safe. What amazed me was how the Puro IEMs withstood the explosive transient levels that streamed into the recorder; the Puros were tapping the raw output of the mike, before the USB chain, and they transmitted every exuberant guitar chord, every shouted crescendo and every zephyr of air drawn in at the end of a phrase.

In terms of dynamic range -- the difference in loudness between the quietest possible sounds and the loudest undistorted output -- the Puro 500IE monitors are in rare company. The only contender for the range of the Puros would be my Koss Pro-4AA over-the-ear headphones, a triumph of 1970s design prowess masquerading as instruments of skull torture. I tosssed them out years ago when my head developed an oblong shape from the pressure of the earcups. (And I'm only half kidding.)

Unlike early every other earbuds and IEMs I've listened to, the Puros need no low-bass boost whatsoever -- they'll tingle your toes with the lowest organ pedal bass notes and surprise you with how deep a synthesizer can go -- and they're likely to be ideal for studio monitoring of choral and organ works. The upper range from about 4 kHz on up seemed too bright, and I eventually tamed it with a 3 to 4 dB cut at those frequencies. (Monitors, whether personal ones like the Puros or speakers like the JBL models I often use, are generally "hot" at high frequencies to highlight any distortion. It's possible that Puro designed this bump in response for such use.)

The Puro 500s are comfortable enough to wear for hours, fit tightly enough to stay in your ears while playing catch-the-woobie with your dog (don't ask how I know this) and look like something worn on the Space Shuttle. My only real complaint concerns the cable; after enjoying earbud cables that are made from thicker-than-usual tangle-proof plastic, I'm not a fan of the old kind. If Puro's engineers changed the cable design, these new earbuds might be as close to flawless as any transducers you can buy.

Al Fasoldt is a retired technology writer for The Post Standard newspaper in Syracuse, New York. His landmark column, Technofile, is the world's longest running online tech column. Read any of the thousands of current and previous columns at technofileonline.com.