"He Wears Black and Has a Beard"

Review: Shure SE215

Toby Roworth

Feb 20, 2013


A couple of weeks back I finally decided to invest in some new headphones. My overears have served me well, but were becoming a hassle whilst commuting.
Shure's SE range of headphones generally seem well received, so I took a look into the range. The triple-driver SE535s are the headline act - with a very decent low-end response they are professional IEMs suitable for the whole band. At £320 they seemed a little too pricey for the moment though.
The bottom end of the range are the SE215s, with a single driver, like normal earphones. They had some pretty good reviews, so at £75 I gave them a try for two reasons:
My full review is quite in-depth, do I've summarised it here:

The Short Review

Quite good, but I can see why you'd spend £320 on the 535s.

The Full Review


Ergonomics

The actual in-ear part is swappable, and comes with a variety of sleeves in both foam and rubber and three sizes. The foam is snug, and I much preferred it to the rubber, which felt a bit insecure.
The first hour or so was approaching uncomfortable, but never got there. The foam felt very secure, and formed that all important tight seal, which takes getting used to.
The first week after that they began to settle in, and they felt similar to a tight hug - they were very noticeably there, but I didn't resent it, I embraced it!
Now I hardly notice they're there, and happily chuck them in for hours at a time.
The body fits nicely in my ear, and can hardly be felt most of the time. It seems most of the (feather)weight is supported by the sleeves, so this is unsurprising.
The wirefit part effectively secures the body from going walkies and helps route the cable more discreetly. Routing the cable behind my back and down my back id quite subtle, and leaves annoying bits of cable from my going where they shouldn't. All is not perfect here though - the wire retains a bit too much spring, so has a habit of coming away from behind my ear. This might just need me to form the wire more accurately though.
The final, and biggest, problem is that they sometimes get tangled in my hair. Quite how this happens I don't know, but once they're tied up they try their best to stay there!

Aesthetics

I bought the clear model, so they would look fairly discreet if I ever used them as IEMs on stage.
From what I can see in the mirror they are quite subtle, probably moreso than most cheap black earbuds, and I've been approached a few times by people who only cotton on slowly that I can't hear them, which suggests they are invisible!
The connector at the other end of the cable doesn't look quite so great though, being based around its moulded (read useless) strain relief.

Sound Isolation

Sold as " sound isolating" earphones, you'd hope these block out the phonecalls of assorted tiff-raff on the tube. Note they they aren't noise cancelling, as that sucks for many reasons.
Having tested a pair of noise cancelling headphones at a Bose shop and being very disappointed because my closed-back over-ears did just as well without needing batteries or mucking around with the audio signal coming from my device of choice, the bar was fairly low.
The SE215s flew way over it, leaving me with absolutely no idea what's going on around me - this us referred to as "bliss" when commuting.
Of course isolation works two ways, just like a one-way mirror. We're all provably used to that guy on the train who's crappy Apple earbuds broadcast alternative punk rap to all on the carriage. I wonder if he'd actually hear more of his music if he put them in with the speakers pointing outwards!
After pushing them as hard as my phone (and my valuable ears) would let me my colleague couldn't hear a thing, despite me playing "Go engineering", a song he despises greatly. So it would seem no-one on the tube will be getting upset with my music choice.

Use as IEMs

I tried these out for bass monitoring at church on Sunday and had very good results overall.
As mentioned below, the low frequency response isn't great, but I could hear myself more than adequately, along with the rest of the band. Having a mixer meant I could do some stereo monitoring, which is quite useful, as it provides separation between the band and my bass.
So full marks for the 215s. Fewer marks for in-ear as a monitoring technique though, as the lack of ambiant noise means you're relying on the sound guy to give you everything you need to hear, and when that doesn't happen you're dead in the water. The lack of bass amp also made it hard fir the rest of the band to hear me, and meant the bass amp couldn't supplement front of house's megre Lf output.

Sound: Dynamics

There's something to he said for any headphones that add new bits to your music. It would seem that the low inertia of a tiny little driver lets it reproduce the tiny little subtle bits of music incredibly well.
I listened to a wide range of music whilst testing them, including one if Soul Survivor's live albums. Such is the clarity of the sound that you can make out the audience/crowd/congregation talking/praying/singing during the quieter bits, something I've never heard in the CD before.
The same goes for subtle backing vocals and reverbs in Sabaton's music. As a power metal band, the focus is mostly on the guitars, but yet you can still hear the very slight presence of backing vocals and choruses. Bit, rather nicely, you also hear the last subtle notes of a reverb, making the last few seconds of a track worthwhile.
The bass, although lacking, is almost, but not quite, punchy.

Sound: Frequency Response

This is where the 215s fall down, in short!
It doesn't take pink noise yo realise what's going in here - too much high, and not enough low.
But thanks to my handy XLR pink noise generator from some really cool Germans, I can use oink noise to listen into what's going on. Pink noise should he perceived as noise of equal volume at all frequencies. The 215s make it sound like white noise, which gets louder by 3dB/octave as it gets higher. This remains quite obvious in real program material.
In real life, this means the bass is lacking - sometimes it comes through alright (but only "alright"), and sometimes I just wish for so much more. Thankfully they didn't just chuck a peak into the frequency response like Dr "boost at 80Hz" Dre. This is to be expected in tiny little headphones though, which is why the 535s would be amazing, should they have the bass response they claim.
High end is quite the opposite - there's a bit too much, so the vocals can start to sound a little hissy. This gets less noticeable after a couple of weeks, but the problem doesn't go away completely.

Sound: Program

Distorted guitars sound pretty good, which is nice for some metal. Unfortunately the soundstage of metal us so busy and muddled that it often doesn't matter. I've had some really nice experiences listening to Sabaton, but an equal number of disappointments - 7/10 for power metal.
Drums, on there own, without too much surrounding mud, sound nice, although the lower drums are held up by their Hf components, which is cheating. This is quite nice on some of Nightwish's music, where the drums occasionally form the key part of the mix. Symphonic Power Metal generally sounds alright, but would benefit from much more bass - 8/10.
Classical music like film soundtracks sound good, but can really bring out how harsh that top end can get, so only get 6/10. Disney sounds quite good though, as the simple vocals cone through cleanly - 8/10 for manly music.
Muse sound pretty rubbish, as their bass parts are amazing and just don't come through enough - 3/10.
Classic rock sounds great, no bones about it - 9/10

Conclusion

The Shure's SE215s are really quite nice, and make a welcome replacement of my old headphones, and are worth their £75 price tag.
However, if the SE535s bring a flat frequency response that continues deep down into a few tens of hertz then I can see why you'd spend the extra £250.
I bought these headphones in the hope that they'd either be as good as their reviews, so I wouldn't ever want to spends £300 on headphones, or that they'd show enough promise to persuade me Shure could pull off expensive headphones. Unfortunately for future-Toby's bank balance the latter is true!