If you polled a group of high-end headphone aficionados to ask which universal-fit in-ear headphones they regarded most highly as performance icons, I’m betting that Shure’s venerable SE530 would appear near the top of the list. Or at least it would have done so until quite recently, given that Shure has now opted to replace its well-loved flagship with the new SE535 ($549), which is the subject of this review. This leads us, of course, to ask several key questions. First, how does the SE535 differ from the SE530, and second, does it sound different and better than its predecessor?
At first glance differences between the SE530 and the SE535 appear subtle, but after you experience the 535 and live with it for a while they come to seem quite significant. First off, the SE535, unlike the original 530, features a detachable, user-replaceable signal cable. Lead wires for the left and right earpieces attach via small, gold-plated, plug-and-socket type connectors. Not only does this arrangement allow users to buy new cables should they ever accidentally break a wire (which, sadly, is surprisingly easy to do with any earphone), but it also allows the earpieces to swivel on the ends of the cables, making it much easier to obtain a comfortable fit. On the old 530’s, the stiff lead wires tended to dictate terms to the user, meaning the headphone felt comfortable for some wearers but rubbed others (quite literally) the wrong way. The SE535, however, comes a lot closer to the ideal of being a true, “one size fits all” design.
The SE535 uses the very same two-way architecture and triple balanced-armature driver array (with two vented bass drivers and one treble driver) as in the SE530, but with one very significant difference. The internal shape and layout of the SE535 earpiece housing, which Shure terms the “acoustic network,” has been substantially revised to allow noticeably more extended treble response and wider perceived soundstaging. On paper these might sound like small changes, but in reality they alter the entire character of the SE535’s midrange and treble response, giving the headphone a notably more spacious, open-sounding and detailed presentation overall. Unlike the original 530, the SE535 comes in two cool new colors: clear or metallic bronze, both very attractive (our samples were the bronze versions). Finally, the SE535’s standard accessory set is somewhat different than the SE530’s.
Put all these changes together and you have an in-ear headphone that does everything the SE530 could do, only better, and that takes meaningful steps forward both sonically and in terms of usability and wearer comfort.
Consider this in-ear headphone if: you seek an in-ear headphone that does everything that made Shure’s original SE530 famous, only better. In the SE535 you’ll find smooth and evenly balanced tonal response (already a strength of the old 530), but in a model that exhibits newfound openness and transparency, greater treble extension, and that produces wider soundstages. What’s more, the new SE535 is significantly more comfortable to wear thanks to new user-replaceable signal cables that plug into the SE535 earpiece assemblies. The SE535’s cables can now swivel on its earpieces, helping to facilitate a comfortable fit—a welcome change.
Look further if: you require a flagship-class in-ear headphone that allows user-configurable bass tuning (in which case you’ll want to check out the Sennheiser IE 8), or if you prefer an in-ear model that offers neutral voicing coupled with almost hyper-precise rendition of low-level sonic details (in which case you’ll want to hear Monster’s Turbine Pro Copper Edition ‘phones). But frankly, the SE535 is so good in so many areas that it belongs on the short list for any serious listener—and for all the right reasons.
Ratings (relative to comparably-priced headphones)
- Tonal Balance: 9.5
- Frequency Extremes: 9.5
- Clarity: 9
- Dynamics: 9
- Comfort/Fit: 10
- Sensitivity: 9
- Value: 9.5
As was the case with the original SE530, the SE535’s greatest strength is its smooth, neutrally-voiced, and natural-sounding tonal balance. But thanks to the SE535’s revamped acoustic network, those bedrock Shure virtues are now coupled with newly improved measures of treble extension, openness and transparency. Together, these qualities give the SE535’s a presentation that is at once engaging and detailed, yet also warm and relaxed. Let me expand on this point for a moment.
The original SE530 was often quite rightly praised for its smoothness and neutrality, but even in its heyday it was possible to find in-ear headphones such as the Etymotics ER-4P that seemed to edge out the then top-of-the-line of Shure ‘phones in terms of sonic purity, focus and clarity. With the SE535, however, that “purity/clarity gap” has essentially been closed (and then some). Without losing any of the strengths that made the SE530 so good, the SE535 now reproduces high-frequency harmonic information and treble transient and textural details much more effectively, yet without—and this is the real stroke of genius here—sounding overtly bright in any way.
Rather than going for a huge increase in treble output, which could easily have done more harm than good, Shure wisely opted to go for a judicious, incremental improvement in the SE535—essentially taking what was already a very strong design and making it better. I think many listeners will appreciate the “first, do no harm” decisions that Shure’s engineers have made in creating the SE535.
While fans of detail and definition might, and I admit I am one, might still wish for a bit more transient speed, more tightly defined treble textures, and even greater high-frequency extension, the fact is that the new SE535 offers significantly expanded performance envelopes in all three areas, so that to go further might be to risk taking things over the top.
To appreciate the SE535’s overall balance and smooth frequency response, listen to it on a wide-range orchestral piece such as the Gordon Getty’s “Plump Jack Overture” from Orchestral Works by Gordon Getty [Sir Neville Mariner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Pentatone SACD]. This composition is roughly twelve minutes long, but in that brief span of time it provides a delightful and quite athletic orchestral workout that is a tough test for any headphone. The “Plump Jack Overture” (the title is an allusion to the Shakespearian character Falstaff) starts with an abrupt series of concert bass drum thwacks counterbalanced with low brass and low woodwind outbursts, with angular string passages adding commentary up above. The opening section is a real head-turner provided your headphones are up to the task, which the SE535’s most certainly are.
First, they do of fine job of capturing the weight and slam of the massive bass drum thwacks without breaking a sweat. Next, they do an unusually convincing job with the low brass and low woodwind instruments—instruments that pose problems for many headphones, some of which have trouble rendering their deep, throaty, full-bodied sonorities. But instead, the SE535 seemed almost to revel in handling the sound of these instruments, giving them the full, rich, round tonality they require.
But apart from handling these “power” instruments well, the SE535 can turn on a dime to exhibit great clarity and delicacy when required. At one point, for example, Getty’s dramatic orchestration calls for a simple chime to sound, and the SE535’s nailed its ringing overtones with a just-right touch of lingering shimmer that seems to float on the air for a delicious few seconds. Similarly, the SE535’s showed real finesse later in the overture as they caught the incisive yet never edgy or strident sound of rapid violin bowing changes, and the delicate ripple of trilled flute passages.
My point is that the SE535 is a very well-rounded performer that is rarely if ever caught off guard, whether the music calls for big explosive dynamics, powerful yet also tuneful mid- and low-frequency sounds, or delicate treble details. This refined, “do-all” quality is a big part of the appeal of Shure’s new flagship model.
Let me compare the SE535 versus two of its closest competitors: the Monster Turbine Pro Copper Edition and Sennheiser IE 8.
Shure SE535 vs. Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Edition
- The MSRP of the Shure is $549, while the Copper Editions retail for significantly less—$399.99.
- Like its predecessor the SE530, the SE535 is a two-way, three-driver design, whereas the Copper Editions feature a single, high-performance, full-range balanced armature driver. Shure proponents argue that the three-driver design allows for driver specialization/optimization by frequency range, where Turbine Pro Copper Edition adherents contend that its single-driver design eliminates any possibility of driver-to-driver textural discontinuities. That said I felt the SE535 did an excellent job of integrating the output of its multiple driver array.
- In terms of tonal balance the two models are fairly evenly matched, though there are some differences worth noting. In general, the Shure tends to sound slightly warmer through the midrange and a touch more full-bodied in the mid-bass, with highs that sound natural and clear—though not overly prominent. In contrast, the Copper Editions are slightly leaner-sounding through the midrange and mid-bass, but offer even better extension at both frequency extremes—especially in the upper treble region, where the Monsters can sound exceptionally lifelike (at least on good recordings).
- On the whole, the Shure emphasizes a smooth, natural sound blessed with generous, though not necessarily class-leading, amounts of sonic detail. As mentioned under SONIC CHARACTER, above, these qualities give the SE535’s a presentation that is at once engaging and yet relaxed. By comparison, the Monster tends to be more assertive and “up front” in reproducing subtle transient sounds and low-level details.
- Relative to the SE530, the SE535 has taken significant steps forward in terms of improving treble extension, openness and transparency. Even so, critical listeners may find the Copper Editions enjoy a narrow but clear-cut edge in terms of retrieving fine layers of low-level detail. Note, however, that the sound of the Copper Editions tends to be a double-edged sword of sorts. Some listeners enjoy the sense of heightened resolution and focus the Monsters convey, while others feel strongly that the Copper Editions impart almost “too much information” and thus tend to impose an undesirably intense listening experience. For those uncomfortable with the sound of the Copper Editions, the SE535 offers what some listeners will likely consider a more livable compromise between smoothness and warmth, on the one hand, and the ability to deliver still quite generous amounts of detail and resolution on the other.
- Both headphones are compact and comfortable, and both come with an unusually broad and useful array of eartips. In the past, I would have said the Copper Editions were noticeably more comfortable than the original SE530s. Now, thanks to the SE535’s new detachable/swiveling cabling arrangement, I’d call the comfort factor contest a draw.
- The SE535’s carry Shure’s excellent 2 year warranty, but the Turbine Pro Copper Editions carry Monster’s unbeatable “lifetime” warranty, which provides one-time free replacement of the phones “even if YOU break them.”
Shure SE535 vs. Sennheiser IE 8
- The MSRP of the Shure SE535 is $549, while the Sennheiser IE 8’s retail for $449.95.
- The IE 8 offers a user adjustable “sound tuning” feature, where the SE535’s do not. Some listeners might question whether adjustable sound tuning is really a useful feature in the first place, given that the IE 8’s—when heard in a quiet environment—tend to sound best with their bass controls set in the “Flat” position. However, if you do much listening in environments where there is a lot of low-frequency noise present, you’ll come to appreciate the fact that the IE 8’s allow you to temporarily dial-up their bass balance to help overcome background noise.
- Tonal balance for the IE 8’s and SE535’s is similar (at least when the IE 8’s bass tuning control is set in the “Flat” position), though the SE535 offers a somewhat smoother and more coherent sound overall. In comparison, the highs of the IE 8 tend to sound extremely extended, but also a tiny bit “dry” or “wiry.” In contrast, the SE535’s highs consistently sound revealing, yet silky smooth.
- Both headphones offer an excellent array of eartips, though you may find you need to do considerable trial-and-error experimentation with either model to find out which eartips work best for you.
- On the whole, the SE535 is easier to fit and more comfortable for very long listening sessions than the somewhat more awkwardly shaped IE 8’s. Again, the SE535’s new signal cable design works wonders here.
Shure’s SE535’s arrive in a brushed aluminum packing case which contains the earphones themselves, plus a plethora of accessories. Specifically, the SE535 comes with:
- A sturdy, fabric covered clamshell-type case with a zipper closure;
- A variety of eartips (or “sleeves,” as Shure calls them) including one pair of cylindrical compressible foam sleeves, three pairs of bell-shaped “Soft Foam” sleeves (sizes S, M and L), three pairs of pliable rubber “Soft Flex” sleeves (sizes S, M, and L), and one pair of triple-flange sleeves;
- An airline adapter;
- A mini-jack-to-1/4-inch-phone plug adapter,
- An inline volume control, and
- A cleaning tool.
The SE535’s are compact and easy to position for a good fit, and their swiveling, detachable signal cables make them much more comfortable than the original SE530’s.
Building upon the rock-solid platform of Shure’s classic SE530 in-ear headphone, the new SE535 takes subtle yet sonically significant steps forward in terms of improved openness, treble extension, transparency and soundstaging. It is also much more comfortable to wear and offers the convenience of user replaceable signal cables (meaning you won’t be out of action for long even if—heaven forbid—you should happen to break a cable, which happens from time to time). In short, the SE535 is nothing less than a flagship reborn, and as such I count it as a surefire winner.
SPECS & PRICING
Shure SE535 In-Ear Headphones
Type: 2-way, triple balanced-armature-type drivers (two vented bass drivers, one treble driver)
Accessories: See above
Frequency response: 18Hz – 19 kHz
Weight: 1 oz.
Impedance: 36 Ohms
Warranty: 2 years, parts and labor