Shure Sound Isolating Earphones
Models SE210 and SE310
Price: SE210 is $150 and SE310 is $250
“Developed for THE PROS” is on the packaging. I was excited to hear these little wonders. After all, I’m a PRO, musician that is. And I have not had a very successful history with ear buds (as I like to call them). They never seem to fit my ears correctly. And Shure has made sure (no pun intended) that problem doesn’t happen to me this time.
They included with the phones, as they call them, a nice semi hard zippered carrying case that contains a cable extension for the cord, and a re-sealable plastic baggy with no less than seven pairs of “sleeves,” and a cleaning wand that can be used to dig dirt or wax out of the sleeve you’ll be using most of the time. The phones come with a set of sleeves already installed. That makes eight sets all together. I thought if I couldn’t find the right set of sleeves for me in this selection then I will never be able to enjoy using ear buds. Ever!
The sleeves come in three incarnations: a Soft Flex Sleeve in small, medium, and large, all made from pliable rubber; a Soft Foam Sleeve, which needs to be compressed between your fingers before inserting into the ear canal; and a Triple-Flange Sleeve which has soft rubber flanges ostensibly made to block outside noise while listening.
Any of these would work fine when the sleeve is exactly right for the size of the ear canal. I suppose there’s an average size ear canal and everything revolves around that assumption. I’ve never had an easy time getting ear buds to fit well enough to experience all of the bass frequencies available on any particular recording.
As I tried sleeve size after sleeve size I was resigned to another disappointing experience with this type of listening device. On my last attempt I tried the medium sized foam sleeve. SECRET: After attaching them to the nozzle barb I rolled them between my fingers, reached over my head with my right hand and pulled my left ear from the top, opening the canal as much as I could while gently pushing the phone in with a slight twist as far as it would comfortably go. I wound the chord around my ear from the front. I did the right ear the same way. Lo and behold I actually had some bass response. This was starting to sound like real music, not just the mids and highs.
I used the new Beatles LOVE album as my test music, and iTunes as the player. It sounds so good in my car and on my home stereo (Bose Wave) I could hardly wait to see if I could get the same sonic experience with these new Shure earphones playing from my MacBook. After all the fumbling around and almost wearing out the skin In my ear canal I finally found what I was after. Yeah!
I like the way these phones are not “bass heavy.” The balance of the frequencies is smooth and very listen-able, even at higher volumes. I could hear the tambourine and it didn’t sound brittle. The guitars were present without sounding pushy, and the drums and bass sounded like they belonged together. I could sense the bass drum backing up the cymbals and snare, but never overtaking them.
It seems that today’s music market insists that “bass rules.” Bull hockey! There should be a balance between highs, mids, and lows, and without this blend the music will not sound like it should. Listening to live music in a good listening room is the best musical experience one can get. Any device designed to allow us to hear music is trying to accomplish a facsimile (as close as possible) of that same experience. Cheaper gear will always get you cheaper sound. As the price goes up, so goes the quality. Supposedly. Some manufacturers of ear phones or buds or whatever you want to call them have their own idea of what “quality sound” is. After years in the sound reproduction business Shure has established itself as a company who knows quality and value.
Example: I’ve been using a Shure SM57 microphone for the better part of 25 years while I sing and play drums in the various bands and sessions of which I’ve been a part. I’ve gone through probably four or five SM57′s because of the beating they take in packing up equipment and resetting the stage. And theft. Nobody doesn’t like an SM57 (to borrow from Miss Sara Lee). They’re built so well you could hammer tent posts into the ground with them and still use them that night to sing into. My point is that Shure makes things to last, and to keep sounding good.
The real advantage of these SE-series “buds” is that they’re very portable. Try sticking a set of regular earphones (headphones) into your shirt pocket. Most people can use buds with plus or minus some success. Ear buds will be with us for a long time, and I have no doubt that the industry, especially companies as dedicated to sound as Shure has been, is aware of the downside of the product and are working to correct, if possible, the shortcomings which are inherent in something that has to “fit” correctly before it will perform properly. That’s why they include all the various sleeves in their different sizes and materials.
I didn’t mean to make this review a treatise on the earphone industry. But I could hardly contain my frustration when I know that these little phones should sound great. I just couldn’t get them to fill my ear hole easily. As I said, this time I found the sleeves that work for me. But the comfort factor still cannot be changed for me. Yes, I could hear the bass, mids, and highs. But if I had to wear these things for any length of time, like say, an hour, my ears would be fried. Not from the sound but from the pressure of the phones pushing against my inner ear. For sheer comfort give me regular over the ear head phones any day.
And now, since I found the sleeves that work for me, I will give the SE 210′s and SE310′s a spin.
The first thing I did was find the right sleeves for the SE310′s, remove the ones already on the unit and put on my personal favorites. Again, it was not easy getting the factory installed sleeves off of the stems. It seems as though there is some kind of glue holding the sleeves on. I had to twist and pull gently lest I rip the sleeve right off the stem. But once I got the new sleeves on I was ready to rock. That made a nice tight seal and the phones sounded like I think Shure wanted them to.
Both sets had smooth highs. Not brittle. There was a nice transition between lows and mids. Not honky at all. The bass in both units was substantial without being obnoxious. Keeping the buds in place is the key to gaining access to all the frequencies available. The 310′s are bit more beefy, but both units, when fit properly in the ear canal, sound terrific.
The challenging aspect of reviewing these two closely related products is A/B-ing them. Listen to set A. Remove set A and insert set B. Listen to set B. Remove. Replace with set A. Ad nauseam, until the whole process becomes a crap-shoot with almost no discernible differences. But wait, there ARE differences: SE210′s are a full spectrum set of earphones which can, when fit into the ear canal tightly, reproduce your music with very accurate sound. The highs are not brittle, the mids are solid with no hint of boxiness or that “canned” effect. The bass is satisfactory with a pleasant warmth and depth without being obtrusive and bulky. The SE310′s are more of the same but with a little more separation in the bass. Nothing earth shattering, but to a true audiophile it could make all the difference in the world. To me it’s not that important because both sets sound very balanced and warm.
Along with the set of ear phones Shure has included a very plain and simple set of instructions for using the phones and the extra sleeves which are included in the fit kit. In the SE210 package the fit kit, carrying case, and instructions were included. The instructions are in pictures and text giving the user a clear understanding of what’s included and practical suggestions on how best to use the phones and all of the accessories.
In the SE310 kit, however, there is included not only the instructions and fit kit with the same accessories as the SE210′s, but also additional pamphlets warning the new user (consumer) that certain decibel levels of listening can be dangerous and damage the ear (hearing) permanently.
The yellow pamphlet contains the WARNING! in no less than eleven languages. That includes English, French, German, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and several Asian languages with which I am not familiar. If that doesn’t cover their butts I don’t know what will.
The white pamphlet, which contains the limited warranty, is in only nine languages. I don’t know if that’s because two, I don’t know which, nationalities will have no warranty, or they just ran out of paper. Strange, to say the least. The warranty gives the purchaser two years from the date of purchase for the ear phones to be free of defects and workmanship. There are, of course, the usual litany of disclaimers about misuse of the product, intent, and unauthorized repair.
The WARNING pamphlet is much more interesting in that Shure prints out a list of maximum time exposures to particular sound pressure levels before hearing damage may occur.
For example, the first guideline is: 90 dB SPL @ 8 hours. That means that one can endure, with the ear phones placed properly in the ear, 90 decibels of sound for approximately eight hours before damage may occur. The next guideline is: 95 dB SPL @ 4 hours, and continues to 120 dB SPL— Avoid or Damage May Occur.
These warnings are not for fun. They are Shure’s way of not only covering themselves lest they be sued by some idiot running these phones at ridiculous volume levels, but they are trying to keep the user from losing their hearing, or getting tinitus, a ringing in the ears which, when chronic, does not go away and for which there is no known cure. These phones are a quality product and can take a lot of power before they distort. If you abuse them, and yourself, by playing them too loudly, you may lose some of what music makes us love so much: the ability to hear.
The construction on these phones is substantial. Like most Shure products these phones are built to last. The cords and ends are quality molded to take the stresses and strains of every day use.
I’ve enjoyed listening to these two new earphones from Shure and trying to compare them. I suppose if you put these two units on a scope to quantify all the sonic aspects of each one there would certainly be mathematical differences which can be “sold” as beneficial or detrimental. But the difference between the two phones is miniscule to my ears.
The $100 price difference between the SE210′s and SE310′s may not stop a true audiophile from spending more to get a little more. But for my money the value is arguable, at least from this musician’s point of view. If someone were to give me my choice, I’d have to go with the SE310′s. But if I had a budget to stay with the SE210′s would give me great service and there would be no looking back.
I must insert a Post Script here having to do with the packaging. It took me all the strength I had in my hands and then some to get the package open. I could have just cut it up with a sharp utility knife, but I was trying to keep the package in one piece if I could. The companies using this type of plastic sealed packaging would do well to find a way for the customer to get to their product without having to shred the packaging to bits.