Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Shure SE215 Headphones

Lowdown: In-ear headphones with a twist.
Having recently went through the ordeal of some very long flights, so long it became intolerable, made we more determined than ever to put my fist on the table and say never again! Never again will I tolerate the noisy airplane environment without taking active measures to avoid it!
The question turned into the how department. Noise cancelling headphones can be effective (the Bose are certainly reported to be), but their sound quality tends for the mediocre; I would feel stupid forking out so much money (Bose's sell for $300) for something that I rarely need, regardless of how badly I need it when I do fly. Fully enclosed headphones are nice, but their sealing’s effectiveness is not enough to make one’s day on board of an airplane. And in-ear headphones? They keep falling off! Or do they? Shure’s ones are different, and with the SE215 model selling for $100 I decided they were worthy enough of me having a go. I’m happy I did.
The most obvious feature of the SE215s, as well as the other three in-ear headphones in Shure’s series, is their construction. The SE215s consist of replaceable rubber ear plug tubes that you play with using your fingers in order to shrink them a bit, then stick them in your ear where they gradually expand to form a tighter fit and provide sealing. These rubber tubes are connected to the headphones themselves, which reside in your ear’s cavity and are therefore of this weird shape. Then there is a wire that you need to wrap around your ear, a wire that leads all the way to the headphone jack (no microphone or volume control for your smartphone are provided).
It is therefore no wonder it took me a while to put the headphones on. It is also no wonder at all it took numerous attempts till I was able to put the headphones on and actually be convinced that I put them on properly, with them secured tightly around my ears and without wires forming some sort of a modern art impression around and on top of my head. I actually had to use a wonder of modern technology, my smartphone’s front facing camera, to help with this learning process (yes, I know, a mirror would have worked just the same). Even then there have been doubts on whether I was using the right size ear plugs, but luckily these are replaceable and Shure provides several sizes to try with the headphones.
I do have to add that I am still dealing with a sort of a rite every time I want to put my SE215s on. Sure, I know the technique and I don’t need a mirror anymore, but telling which of the two earpieces needs to go into which ear is not that trivial an affair. It could probably escalate to nightmare levels for those of us who are far sighted.
Want the positive side of this take of ergonomics? These Shures don’t fall off.
Once I did manage to put the SE215s on, the first thing I noticed about them is that they’re loud. Much louder than my default headphones, the open back Grado SR80i, and even louder than the sealed AKG K-450 I occasionally borrow from my wife. Allow me to add I do not necessarily consider loudness a virtue; I was born fully capable of reaching my player’s volume knob. If anything, being overly loud could be a disadvantage when I find that even the quietest possible volume setting is too loud for me to use (which does happen from time to time, especially at work). Take the loudness whichever way you, though: it is an important characteristic of these headphones. Remember, though: When comparing headphones and speakers, we tend to think the louder ones are the better ones. We are easily fooled!
The second thing I noticed about the Shures is just how quiet they made the world around me. Wearing them reminded me of wearing earplugs for shooting: they SE215 conspire to truly separate me from the world around me. As far as I could tell they work much better than noise cancelling headphones, with the added bonus of not only blocking noise away but doing so without damaging sonics. I haven’t tried them on board of planes, but I can attest to the SE215s allowing me to enjoy audiophile recordings properly on board trains, at train stations, and in busy streets. Sure, if you take them to a football stadium you shouldn’t expect an uninterrupted session with Bach by your side, but they work well enough to require heightened awareness when attempting daredevil acts such as crossing a road. Actually, they separated me so well from the world that if I wear them while walking I could hear the insides of my body at work: the inside noise of my feet walking, my heart beats, and – annoyingly so – the headphone’s wires rubbing against my clothes. The latter can be easily sorted, the former – probably not.
The third thing I noticed was the sound. And it was good and I was happy! The SE215s are proper headphones for the audiophile on a budget, not the fashion statement crap that passes for headphones with most of the crowds. Comparing them to my Grados again, the SE215s sport much stronger bass and lesser treble. That, however, is not a problem at all for me: the Grados do have thin bass as well as a well established reputation for being overly bright. Between the two, I would say the Shures deliver an experience that is much more like that of listening to normal speakers while the Grados deliver a "headphone experience". The Shures are also much easily driven by my iPhone 5, whereas the Grados cause it to struggle all too often. On the other hand, soundstage wise the Grados are the clear winner, probably through the aid of their bright nature: while the Shures make it sound as if the music is playing in your head, the Grados allow the music to express itself outside the head, too. I do have to note the Shures are very sensitive to how well you stuck them down your ear; better placement means significantly better sound.
I would say the Grados are still the best headphones I know for $100 or less, but I would also say the Shure SE215 are just as good and are well worth buying to serve at noisy environments. Not to mention the Grados' poor portability. The Shures are less comfortable when sitting down, though: at the office, for example, being interrupted by a phone call or such requires going through the whole ritual of sticking the headphone back in afterwards. Not to mention toilet breaks. The Grados, or any other normal headphones? Just take them out and put them back on.
Being that I am perfectly happy with the Shure SE215s’ musical capabilities given their $100 price tag, I will end this review stating that I do have a single reservation with recommending them. It is simple: If the SE215 is such a fine model, should I have spent $315 to put my hands on Shure’s top model in-ear headphone, the SE535, instead? Sadly, because of the personal nature using such headphones involves (as in, sticking them into the ear, with all the goo and stuff that’s in there), I have been unable to test the SE535 and witness their claim to fame. Thus until I have north of $300 to throw away I’d have to settle with the SE215s. I can live with that.
Overall: Fine musical performers if a bit cumbersome; most importantly, nothing can equal them in value for money if used at noisy environments. 4 out of 5 stars.

Image: Shure

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