In just about any product line other than Shure’s, the SE420 in-ear headphones would be a flagship product (and then some). But as things stand, the SE420s are Shure’s next to the top-of-the-line models, slotted into the range just below the mighty $450-$500 SE530s (which were the best overall performers in Playback’s first “Killer Earbud” survey). Even so, the SE420s credentials are impressive; it is a two-way design (meaning it has separate, miniature woofer and tweeter elements) that promises “defined lows, mids, and highs.” Does it deliver them? Read on.
The SE420s just might offer the most “textbook perfect” neutral tonal balance of any of the headphones in our survey (though they would have stiff competition from several models in this group). In fact, smooth, evenly balanced frequency response is arguably the SE420s’ best and most defining characteristic. Not surprisingly (given the significant price difference between the models), the SE420 offers significantly more detail than the SE110 (also reviewed in this survey), and much better tonal balance than the SE310 (reviewed in our first “Killer Earbud” survey). At first blush the SE420 seems reasonably revealing, right up until you compare it side-by-side either to Shure’s own SE530 or to other manufacturer’s best models in the $300 range. Then it suddenly becomes apparent that while the SE420 offers good (maybe even very good) levels of detail and sonic nuance, if falls well short of true greatness.
To appreciate the benefits of the SE420s’ wonderfully even voicing, I put on the late Eva Cassidy’s performance of “Stormy Monday” from Live at Blues Alley [Blix Street]—a live electric blues recording that can sound a little thin or shrill through some earbuds but that sounded robust, full-bodied and surprisingly smooth through the Shures. But if this track reveals some of the benefits of the SE420s, it also exposes their shortcomings. Normally, this Cassidy recording should sound intensely alive and realistic. For example, you should be able to hear crystal clear reverb tails on Cassidy’s voice, hall echoes that reveal the size and acoustics of the club, and the unmistakable “grunt” of muscular guitar and bass amps at work. But through the SE420s those sonic details, though present to some degree, were not as clear, explicit, or fully developed as they should have been. In short, the SE420s sounded ever-so-slightly out of focus.
The SE420s are moderately lightweight earbuds whose earpiece cables can be worn straight down in front or looped up and over your ears. I felt the bodies of the earbuds were large enough to make over-the-ear cable routing desirable, though I realize not all listeners find over-the-ear cable routing comfortable. It’s easy to get a good seal with the SE420s thanks to Shure’s excellent “Premium Fit Kit,” described under “Accessories,” above.
The SE420s offer smooth, neutral tonal balance, and a good though not quite great measure of detail and nuance. It’s been said that the great is the enemy of the good, and sadly, it’s true. So, if you can afford the already good SE420s, may we suggest that you dig a little deeper to spring for Shure’s truly great SE530s?