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)
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.