I suspect that my initial encounter with Shure’s products was hardly an uncommon one. I’d purchased a third-generation Apple iPod before I began my freshman year in college, and the little guy enjoyed near constant use for the next eight semesters. Also seeing use were Apple’s detestable first-generation earbuds -- three pairs of them, no less. After busting through my third set, I resolved to do better for myself. My junior year saw stratospheric highs and Marianas Trench lows, emotionally speaking, and Shure’s SE210s provided a terrific soundtrack for it all. But for all their sonic strengths, my old SE210s had a weakness -- after a year or two of daily use in all kinds of weather, the insulation around the cord would crack, exposing the bare wire underneath, and signaling that the Shures were nearing the end of their life.
Similarly, I’d enjoyed four years of use from Shure’s then-flagship earphones, the SE530s, when, in 2009, I made the galactically poor decision to quit my job and go to grad school. The SE530s proved wonderful companions as I wrote up endless assignments and, during finals, paced my apartment like a lunatic. In fact, they lasted until March or so of this year, when, like the SE210s before them, their cords’ insulation cracked where they go around my ears.
It’s hardly a coincidence, then, that Shure’s latest and greatest in-ear monitor, the SE535, found its way into my review queue.
Hello, old friend
The SE535s ($499 USD) are similar enough to the SE530s that one could be forgiven for thinking that they’re basically the same earphones. Indeed, the brushed-metal box they come in, their convenient zippered carrying case, their Metallic Bronze finish (Clear is also available), all smacked of my aging SE530s. The accessories, too, are identical: a 1/4” adapter, an airline adapter, a volume-control module, a cleaning tool, and no fewer than eight sets of eartips. With small, medium, and large sizes in both contoured foam and soft rubber, along with sets of yellow, non-contoured foam eartips and triple-flanged eartips, any user should be able to find the perfect fit and feel for his or her ears. Already quite familiar with these choices from my time with the SE530s, I sprang for the medium-size eartips of contoured foam.
The SE535s differ from the SE530s primarily in having detachable cables. Unlike almost all other earphones, Shure’s SE models allow the cables to be detached from the 'phones themselves. The entire cable is reinforced with Kevlar, as it is interwoven with the conductors inside the cable jacket from end to end. Extra reinforcement is present in the formable wire section that goes around the ear in order to ensure the integrity of the cable over the life of the earphones. It looks and feels sturdier and more rigid than the rest of the 64”-long cable, and comes pre-curved. It’s also worth mentioning that the connection point between the SE535 and the cable isn’t fixed -- once snapped into place, the cable is free to turn. These design refinements work together to offer greater durability, comfort, and flexibility than the SE530.
I was mildly disappointed to learn that the SE535s’ driver arrangement is identical to that of the SE530s, though perhaps that’s unfair. The SE530s were lovely earphones to listen to, and I never felt they were particularly lacking in one sense or another. The three drivers -- one tweeter, two vented woofers -- are of the balanced-armature variety. The earpieces themselves, however, are not the same as the SE530s’. The SE535s’ earpieces are more slender and less bulbous than their forebears. They’ve also been substantially revised to permit greater high-frequency extension and better soundstaging. I was initially skeptical on this front, but withheld judgment until I’d logged some listening time with them.
The three-driver design is specified as having a frequency range of 18Hz-19kHz, a sensitivity at 1kHz of 119dB SPL/mW, and an impedance at 1kHz of 36 ohms. In theory, then, the SE535s should be a full-range design that’s easy to drive, even by something as anemic as a smartphone or tablet. A dedicated headphone amplifier or digital-to-analog converter is definitely not needed to appreciate the virtues of the SE535s, though one or both of those would certainly help them shine their brightest.
The Shures have a feel worthy of their asking price. The Kevlar-reinforced cable should have no trouble lasting years longer than my SE530s, and because the wires come pre-curved to fit the ears, my suspicion is that their insulation won’t crack with normal use, as happened with my earlier Shure SEs. Similarly, the connections between the cables and the earpieces, despite spinning free at the connection point, felt quite solid.
The SE535s were very comfortable. I spent hour after hour at work with them in, five days a week, and rarely felt any discomfort. The soft, contoured foam eartips didn’t chafe my ears, even during repeated and long listening sessions, and provided up to 37dB -- according to Shure -- of sound isolation from my surroundings. My only gripe with the SE535s is that Shure doesn’t offer a microphone or music-control function on their included cable. Given the prevalence of smartphones, it seems a bit much for Shure to ask $50 for their Music Phone Accessory Cable, which addresses this deficiency.
Use and listening
While the SE535s felt perfectly comfortable in my ears right out of the box, it took some time for them to conform to the shapes of my ears. And the cables’ pre-curved sections never perfectly fit around my ears, as had my SE530s. Still, so small a sacrifice is worth it, given that the SE535s should last significantly longer.
I’m not sure how others will use the SE535s, but I imagine that most under the age of 35 will use them on the go, as I did. The Shures saw use on my jaunts around town here in Philadelphia, on a jog or two, at work, and definitely as I lay in bed watching Netflix. In each instance, their companion was my Apple iPhone 5, and the pairing worked well. While I haven’t had the pleasure of using noise-canceling headphones, I very much appreciated the amount of isolation the SE535s offered. They cut out a great deal of external noise, and would make solid companions on an airplane.
Those who haven’t experienced in-ear headphones -- as opposed to earbuds or supra-aural (over-the-ear) 'phones -- might find the experience a little weird. Cerebral is the word I’d choose -- the sound seems to appear from so deep inside the head that it’s almost as if you’re thinking the music rather than hearing it. It may not be for everyone, but having transitioned from Grado’s supra-aural SR125s and Apple’s stupid earbuds in the mid-2000s, I refuse to go back. If you’re dubious, you shouldn’t be. Different doesn’t mean worse, and in the case of the Shure SE535s, it will in many ways mean better.
I say better because the Shures are nearly the complete package. Without question, the hallmark of their sound was the midrange, that part of the audioband that, I’ve found, can make or break a loudspeaker. A speaker that errs a little on the sharp, edgy side in the midrange can grate with extended listening. Too smooth, and voices become uninteresting, desensitized facsimiles of themselves. Worst of all, to my ears, are speakers that give the midrange a syrupy richness. This sort of editorializing is criminal to a fiend of neutrality such as myself. Achieving a musical neutrality is a huge challenge, but Shure has nailed it with the SE530s.
The sonic tapestry that is Moby’s landmark album Play (16-bit/44.1kHz ALAC, V2) is testament to this. “The Sky Is Broken” features the Harlem native murmuring over what sounds like an old motion-picture machine, a simple drum rhythm riding shotgun. It’s at once intimate, raw, and new, in an old-fashioned sort of way. The recording has a lot of character and detail to offer, but Moby’s voice sounded wickedly pure through the SE535s, stealing my attention. The sound had all the microdetail a $499 pair of earphones should deliver, but was also palpable in its dimensionality and, most important, full of the vibrance that makes well-recorded voices a joy to listen to. It was neither overly warm nor clinical. And I can’t overstate how nonfatiguing all of this was to listen to: It was as easy and convincing a reproduction of Play as that produced by my current reference loudspeakers, the KEF R900s ($5000/pair).
It wasn’t just the SE535s’ midrange that was responsible for this, however. Earphones’ tiny drivers have difficulty reproducing deep bass, but the SE535s’ dual bass drivers ensured that there was more than enough to satisfy even a bass addict like me. “Hold My Liquor,” from Kanye West’s Yeezus (16/44.1 ALAC, Roc-A-Fella), has some of the deepest, most propulsive bass in my music collection, but the Shures were unfazed by the challenge of keeping up. They offered both extension and tightness when handling the synthesizers, qualities that are often independent of one another. Played through Benchmark Media Systems’ DAC2 HGC, a terrific D/A converter with a built-in headphone amplifier, this track’s bass was downright sublime through the SE535s, with excellent articulation. Not once did I yearn for anything more than what the Shures were giving me. I suppose some might find the Shures’ bass mildly overripe, but I found this more a boon than something to object to.
While I mention the treble last, it was perhaps the most significant. My old SE530s had a somewhat subdued top end that made soundscapes sound closed in and turned down, and stripped a minute amount of luster from every recording. In comparison, the SE535s, with their revised earpieces, sounded more lively, building on the SE530s’ perfect smoothness in the upper octaves by overlaying on the top end a lightly crystalline quality -- as I heard with “Call Your Girlfriend,” from Robyn’s Body Talk (16/44.1 ALAC, Cherrytree/Interscope). Her voice sounded too sedate, too dulled through my SE530s; through the SE535s, she sounded more vigorous.
In and of itself, the SE535s didn’t alter the treble to the point where it became hard or edgy, but it certainly gave performances a more dynamic feel. The effect was subtle enough not to fundamentally alter the character of the sound on which Shure has built its reputation. The US company could have further emphasized the SE535s’ treble to give it that glassy, tinkling sound that less accomplished competitors use to compensate for a lack of resolving ability, and that some consumers seem to prefer. But they haven’t.
A corollary of increased treble response is a greater sense of space and depth, an effect certainly achieved by the SE535s. While still sounding as deeply “cerebral” as the SE530s, the SE535s seemed to cast a more open, slightly less veiled listening window.
While it should go without saying that the ideal is to use the SE535s to listen to top-quality, lossless recordings, I very much appreciated how the Shures handled my collection of lossy mashups. The White Panda’s Bearly Legal (320kbps MP3, The White Panda) was one such example. Bryan Adams on top of Swedish House Mafia? 50 Cent and Michael Jackson? No Doubt combined with Tritonal? Oh yes. Despite the highly compressed nature of this mixtape, high-quality earphones such as these can still make it all quite entertaining. No need to be a snob here. I ran the gamut with the SE535s, from 64kbps podcasts of NPR's "Car Talk" on up to 24/96 FLAC files of Mozart and Beethoven, handling everything with ease. The golden midrange of the Shures was so lucid that it helped even garbage sound its best.
Some might scoff at spending more on a pair of earphones than on the smartphone or tablet you’re driving them with, but if you care at all about sound quality, the investment can be a good one. Shure’s SE535s are remarkably coherent, and supremely pleasing to listen to for hours on end. Their full-range sound is bound to please the great majority of listeners, and their included accoutrements ensure that they’re prepared for most any partnered device and pair of ears. Whether used casually, as I mostly did, or with a dedicated headphone amplifier and D/A converter, these earphones excelled. How folks fall for headphones from Beats By Dre when products like these exist, I don’t know, but they’re really missing out. Don’t make their mistake. Spending $499 for earphones this accomplished, and that you’ll likely use every day for years, has to be good value, don’t you think? I have -- and yes, I still think so.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Earphones -- Shure SE530
- Integrated / headphone amplifiers -- Arcam A19, Benchmark DAC2 HGC
- Sources -- Apple MacBook Pro running Songbird and iTunes, Arcam rLink
- USB cables -- Nordost Blue Heaven LS
Shure SE535 Earphones
Price: $499 USD per pair.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
5800 W. Touhy Avenue
Niles, IL 60714-4608
Phone: (847) 600-2000
Fax: (847) 600-1212