Shure has a long history of making professional audio products. In the late 1990s, the company introduced its first in-ear monitors for use in live-sound situations (performances, studio work, and the like), and when the company adapted these models for use as consumer-grade headphones in the early 2000s, it helped popularize the in-ear-canal headphone (or canalphone) style. Since then, the audio community has consistently held Shure’s canalphones in high regard. Visit Group test: what are the best headphones?
The company recently updated most of its line, including the £69 SE215 (which features a dynamic, or moving-coil, driver), the £121 SE315 (with a balanced-armature driver), the £168 SE425 (with dual balanced armatures), and the £266 SE535 (with triple balanced armatures). These join the $120 SE115 ( Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice ) and its headset siblings, the one-button SE115M and three-button SE115M+. See all headphone reviews.
I had the chance to put the SE315 ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) through its paces for six weeks. While we normally focus on headphones with an Apple-style inline remote/microphone module, all of Shure’s offering are compatible with the company’s £43 CBL-M+-K-EFS ( Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice ). This awkwardly named accessory, which I also tested, is a replacement cable for the SE215, SE315, SE425, and SE535 that adds headset functionality by including just such a three-button inline remote and microphone.
As mentioned, the SE315 is a canalphone-style model. Headphones with this design typically fit snugly—and relatively deeply—in your ear canals, blocking most external noise and creating a solid acoustic seal to improve bass performance. (Canalbud designs are similar but don’t sit as deep or block as much sound.) The downsides of canalphones (and, to a lesser extent, canalbuds) are that some people find it tricky to get a proper fit; you may hear some microphonic cable noise—bumps and scrapes of the cable that are amplified by the canalphones’ tight coupling with your ear canals; and using them as a headset can be weird due to the occlusion effect of having your ears plugged while talking. (See our primer on in-ear-canal headphones for more details.)
The SE315: Great design…
Shure’s experience in the canalphone market has allowed the company to zero in on a nearly ideal design. The earpieces are irregularly shaped—let’s call them roughly ovular—and made of clear plastic (for the SE315-CL) or black plastic (for the SE315-K, the version I reviewed). The plastic nozzle that routes audio into your ear and hosts the headphone’s eartips is connected to the earpiece’s body at an angle, so the earpiece nestles comfortably within the outer folds of your ear—the earpieces are shaped such that they fit almost flush with the surface of the outer ear. Unlike models that stick straight out of your ear, this makes the SE315 conducive to, say, wearing while resting your head on a pillow.
The SE315’s cable is removable, attaching securely near the front of each earpiece using a micro-miniature coaxial (MMCX) connector with a satisfying “click”—it’s easy to connect and disconnect intentionally, but difficult to disconnect accidentally. The cable can also rotate freely in its socket, which helps with arranging and positioning the cable and prevents kinking. Of course, the fact that the cable is removable means that the most fragile part of the headphones is easy to replace, which should help give the SE315 a long, productive life. It also allows for an easy upgrade to headset functionality (discussed below).
The section of the cable near the earpiece is made of stout memory wire; combined with the connection location, this makes it easy to route the cable over and behind your ear, which reduces microphonic noise. The remainder of the Kevlar-reinforced cable is very thick and sturdy for such a small pair of headphones, and there’s a substantial connector where the left and right sides of the split cable join. The L-shaped, 3.5mm plug is also substantial and includes considerable strain relief. In fact, I found the stock cable a little bulky for portable use, but it was fine for home use, and I ended up using the headset accessory cable when I was on the move.
Shure includes a nylon, zippered carrying case with a mesh pocket and plenty of room for the headphones and accessories. Also included are a cleaning tool for de-gunking the SE315’s nozzles, as well as a variety of eartips. You get the common single-flange, silicone-rubber tips in small, medium, and large sizes—these have thick cores that make for easier attachment to the earpieces. The SE535 also includes a pair of triple-flange, silicone-rubber tips, as well as a pair of cylindrical, yellow-coarse-foam tips. My favorite, though, are Shure’s smooth, black-foam “olive” tips (so-nicknamed because they bear a resemblance to black olives). I find the material every bit as pleasant as Comply’s aftermarket foam tips (my perennial favorite), but Shure’s tips had more variation in size between small, medium, and large, making for a comfortable, easy fit in my extra-large ears. Between SE315’s shape and these tips, the SE315 rivaled the comfort of my custom-eartip Etymotic mc3 ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ).
Speaking of custom tips, the SE315’s box also included a flyer advertising custom tips from Sensaphonics. Like those from ACS, Sensaphonics’ tips are made from soft silicone, which is generally more comfortable and easier to fit than the hard-acrylic used in many custom tips and earpieces. The Sensaphonics tips, which can also be used with the SE215, SE425, and SE535, cost $150 plus audiologist fees; they’re also available at a discount when bundled with some Shure headphones).
…and great sound
I liked the SE315’s sound almost as much as I liked its design. Frequency response was fairly neutral, with low, medium, and high frequencies all nicely balanced, and none dominating. Treble was crisp and clear but not harsh, and midrange was full and detailed. My primary complaint with the SE315’s sound concerned the bass: While the lower frequencies sounded tight and detailed, with excellent overall quality, I would have liked more bass quantity. In particular, the SE315’s bass lacked the presence and impact that most dynamic-driver in-ear headphones offer. This is, however, a common issue with single-balanced-armature headphones like the SE315, and given the design, I was actually impressed by how much bass the SE315 produced.
With other single-balanced-armature designs, such as the £40 MEElectronics A151 ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ), I’ve found the sound balanced and pleasant but too polite. The A151, for example, didn’t demand my attention the way more dynamic and detailed headphones do, and the SE315 represents a substantial improvement, presenting audio that’s more involving and dynamic—as you’d expect, given the price difference. At the same time, the SE315 doesn’t match the best headphones I’ve heard, which manage more bass impact, as well as more detail in the midrange and high frequencies, and make instruments sound even more realistic and natural, give more drive to the music, and are overall more immersive.
I also compared the SE315 to the aforementioned £60 Etymotic mc3 canalphone-style headset, which isn’t a balanced armature design, but sounds like one. The mc3’s midrange and high-frequency performance approaches the SE315’s, but provides even less bass impact; I strongly preferred the SE315’s richer bass balance. The £133 Futuresonics Atrio ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) is a similarly priced canalphone with a very different design that uses a dynamic driver and emphasizes bass performance. Unsurprisingly, the Atrio offers significantly more low-frequency volume, while still offering high-quality bass, but the SE315’s bass is better controlled. The Atrio’s midrange performance is rich, and sounds almost as good as the SE315’s, but the Atrio’s treble response sounds thin and harsh in comparison. In other words, both the mc3 and Atrio approach the SE315 in some areas, but neither can match it overall.
If the SE315 fits your budget, and you’re not too picky about bass quantity, you’ll surely find its performance very satisfying. However, it’s worth noting that SE315 is the middle child in the company’s lineup. While I haven’t tested the other models, the less-expensive SE215 should have more bass due to its dynamic drivers, but it likely doesn’t match the midrange and high-frequency performance of the SE315’s balanced armatures. The extra money for the SE425 should buy you better bass and dynamics, given that model’s dual drivers, with increases in midrange and high-frequency performance, as well. The top-of-the-line SE535 is substantially more expensive than the SE315, but Shure’s 500 series has a reputation as being among the best universal-fit canalphones on the market.
The SE315’s removable cable enables an easy upgrade to headset functionality. The company’s CBL-M+-K-EFS accessory cable (which I’ll just refer to as the CBL for the sake of both my writing and your reading) is a replacement cable with an inline, Apple-style, three-button remote and microphone module. Those buttons cover volume up, volume down, and play/pause/send/end.
The CBL begins with the same snap-on connectors as the SE315’s stock cable, but these are attached to thinner (but still Kevlar-reinforced) cable that I found more conducive to portable use than the heavy-duty stock cable. The CBL does lack the aforementioned memory wire near the earpieces, which makes dressing the cable over/behind your ear more difficult—a curious omission. It’s also missing the stock cable’s slider to cinch the split cable behind your head—I’m assuming because doing so would negatively affect the position of the inline microphone.
The section of the split cable going to the right earpiece hosts the remote/microphone module, which is noticeably larger than the inline module on most other headphones I’ve tested. Ideally this would be smaller, but the large buttons were easier to locate than with most other models, and the buttons have a satisfying action. Oddly, the side of the cable hosting the inline module was roughly an inch longer than the non-module side. A Shure representative told me this difference was within tolerance, though the representative also said that the company would replace the CBL in more extreme situations (which was the case with a Macworld reader who reported that his cable was replaced for a 2-inch difference). Despite being within specification, the discrepancy between cable lengths struck me as sloppy, as I’ve not seen that much difference with other canalphones and canalbuds. The only other change in design between the SE315’s stock cable and the CBL is the latter’s lower-profile, 45-degree-angle plug, which should be compatible with a greater range of iPhone and iPod cases than the chunky plug on the stock cable.
In my testing of the CBL’s microphone, people on the other end of calls said my voice sounded somewhat harsh and lacked richness—the CBL fell short of the iPhone 4’s internal microphone and the best headset microphones I’ve heard, but it’s satisfactory for phone calls. Overall, the CBL does a fine job of transforming the SE315 from headphones to headset. At $60, it’s pricey, but it’s an elegant solution, and I like the option to buy the SE315 and upgrade to headset functionality later, rather than having to commit to a single version of the product up front. If you like the SE315 as much as I do, you’ll primarily be pleased that you don’t have to forego headset functionality to enjoy it.
The SE315’s design and ergonomics are as good as it gets for in-ear-canal headphones without stepping up to custom models. The SE315’s sound quality is almost as good as its design, with a neutral balance and great detail, missing only some bass impact and the superior amount of detail found in the best offerings on the market. At £121, the design and sound quality come at a bit of a premium, but I found street prices for both the SE315 and its siblings to be significantly lower, with enough variation that it’s worth checking out current prices before you decide which model offers the best value for you. The £43 upgrade to headset functionality offered by the CBL-M+-K-EFS accessory cable is a great option, but not an inexpensive one. Together, the SE315 and CBL-M+-K-EFS make a great headset with excellent ergonomics and sound quality, albeit one that doesn’t come cheap.
R. Matthew Ward lives in St. Louis and enjoys the finer things in life: food, drink, Apple products, and well-reproduced music. You can find his thoughts on these and other subjects on his personal blog.