Review: Shure SE110 Sound Isolating Earphones
Shure makes what we strongly feel are the greatest in-canal earphones available today: the SE530, also known as the E500. Since that exclusive, triple-driver model carries a $500 MSRP -- discounted more than occasionally to as little as $250 -- it's no shock that the bulk of Shure's sales come from lower-priced models, where it competes against dozens of other companies. One of the most noteworthy is a comparatively small Swedish company, Jays, which late last year pushed the price and performance envelope with a $99 single-driver model called d-JAYS, and late this year released q-JAYS, a smaller but more powerful double-driver model for $179. Another competitor, Los Angeles-based v-moda, has released a series of $100 single-driver Vibe earphones, most recently including the iPod- and iPhone-compatible, microphone-equipped Vibe Duo and its slightly updated successor, Vibe Duo with Control-Playback Functionality ($101).
Clockwise from Bottom Left: Single-Driver Shure SE110 and V-moda Vibe Duo; Double-Driver Jays q-JAYS and Shure SE420
Today, we’re reviewing four pairs of earphones: Shure’s recently released SE110 ($100-120) is the company’s entry-level single-driver solution, while its SE420 ($350-$400) is a double-driver earphone designed to be a step down from the SE530, but a big step up from the SE110 and its two older brothers, the SE210 and SE310. We’re also looking briefly at v-moda’s single-driver Vibe Duo with Control-Playback Functionality as an alternative to the SE110, and Jays’ double-driver q-JAYS as an alternative to the SE420.
It’s worth mentioning up front that while the prices of earphones we review are typically subject to considerable variation, as is evident from the E500/SE530’s occasional 50% off sales, something confusing has been happening with Shure’s earphone prices recently. Announced by Shure at a $99.99 list price, the SE110 actually appears on the company’s web site for $120. When we inquired about the discrepancy, the company told us that retailers are not permitted to sell the SE110 for less than $99.99—a “minimum advertised price”—and the SE420 appears to be subject to similar constraints, with an MSRP of $400 and a minimum advertised price of $349.99. These price floors are typically designed to guarantee resellers a margin sufficient to promote certain products over others, but have the consequence of making the earphones instantly less attractive than more aggressively or flexibly priced competitors.
Put next to the latest Vibe Duo, SE110 is the first victim of this pricing strategy. For the same price or less—$85-90 in street pricing—Vibe Duo delivers a comparatively aggressive package: highly attractive two-tone metal earbuds, an in-line microphone with a control button, fabric cables, a plastic shirt clip, a slim black carrying case, and six total sets of silicone rubber eartips. The earbuds are identical to the ones in the original Vibe Duo, chrome and black in color, and the microphone sounds the same, but it’s in a larger housing with the new in-line button, which lets you pause an iPhone’s current music, resume playback, or start and end phone calls. iPod users can pick between this mic-equipped Vibe Duo or the mic-less but otherwise similar Vibe for the same price; currently, only the Vibe Duo fits iPhone’s recessed headphone port.
Whereas v-moda treats its Vibes as the high end of its current line-up, giving them the smallest bodies and best features it can build, Shure seems to have gone out of its way to make the SE110 seem like a low-end offering. Sold in black or white plastic versions, SE110 is physically bigger and chunkier than Shure’s similarly single-drivered SE210 and SE310, and much bigger than than the Vibes and both of Jays’ earphones. It’s also the only SE-series earphone to come with a cheap-looking soft carrying case, which markedly contrasts with the really nice hard-reinforced ones that are included with the rest of the family; a simple carabiner hook attached to the case’s side is its only arguable improvement. And the sound? We’ll get to that in a moment.
There are only two things that the SE110 has that most of its competitors, including the ones mentioned above, lack. First, like the other SE-series earphones, Shure packages these with its newer Comply-style coated foam tips, as well as older rubber tips, and a cleaning tool. When combined with Shure’s earlier earphones, we have really loved these new foam tips, which offer a great combination of isolation and comfort. Here, it’s worth noting that the tips alone are nearly as large as the bodies of the Vibes and q-JAYS, and make the already bulky SE110s even bigger. Unlike the Vibes, with are easy to wear in the ear with cables dangling down, the SE110s can be worn loosely that way, but feel and look better if you wrap the cables around the backs of your ears. Some users don’t like this; consequently, few other single-driver earphones these days are designed this way.
Additionally, Shure includes a two-piece cable that can be split at the 1/3 mark for use with the company’s microphone-equipped $40 microphone-equipped MPA music phone adapters and $60 PTH Push-to-Hear accessory, should you want to buy them separately. SE110’s extension cable, unlike its predecessors, is both iPod- and iPhone-compatible, though it only allows you to hear the iPhone’s audio and doesn’t let you talk, control music, or take calls; you’ll need Shure’s MPA-3c for that.
In terms of sound quality, the question that most users ask about $100 earphones is this: how do they sound by comparison with Apple’s current iPod and iPhone pack-ins? With the Shure SE110, the answer is surprising: apart from the added isolation you get from the foam or rubber tips, they’re not better. Though some users knock Apple’s earbuds for their size and shape, their sound is impressively balanced for a low-priced earphone, now with equal parts treble, midrange, and bass; they lack more for clarity, isolation, and universal fit than anything else. By comparison, SE110 is a very mid- and bass-skewed earpiece, with a flatter, less dynamic presentation of audio; assuming that they fit your ears, Apple’s earbuds actually sound better on both the highs and the lows, particularly the highs, making music sparkle and come to life.
The comparative absence of treble is also one of two sonic differentiators between the SE110 and the more expensive SE210 and SE310 models; the other is airiness or openness—that “I’m actually there” sense you get when listening to a song through good earphones. Though none of these models is superb in presenting a wide, believable soundstage, the SE110’s audio presentation is comparatively more compressed, “in your head,” and shallow. Distortion is as easy to hear as in Apple’s freebies, and moreso than in the SE210.
What v-moda’s new Vibe Duo offers, by contrast, isn’t balance or overall clarity: as with Vibe, the value here is in style, size, extra features, and dramatically enhanced bass presence. SE110 may be a mid- and bass-focused earphone, but it’s not really impressive in either of those regards; Vibe Duo is physically smaller, more comfortable, and surprisingly powerful in the bass department—overpoweringly so in our view, but great for bassheads who revel in both low-end presence and detail. We’ve discussed this sound signature, and how it’s affected by different silicone ear tips, in our prior reviews; it suffices to say that though we’re not in love with how Duo presents music, at least it’s an interesting take—something we can’t say about the SE110.
The real value in Vibe Duo relative to the SE110 comes from v-moda’s extras. If both were sold for the same $100 price, Duo’s more interesting sonic presentation, superior metal styling, and smaller size would all be strong reasons to prefer it, but when you factor in its built-in microphone and iPhone controls, features that Shure sells in a separate cable for $40, the value equation is even more tilted in v-moda’s favor. Add to that the fact that callers describe Vibe Duo’s microphone as apparently closer to your mouth—which it actually is—and better-sounding overall than Shure’s MPA-3c. Then factor in Vibe Duo’s street price advantage. All the factors add up to a comparative slam dunk for v-moda, assuming that you’re a fan of bass-heavy earphones.
Overall, the latest Vibe Duo retains its prior general recommendation and B+ rating, based on its cool styling, nice frills, and reasonable pricing, while the Shure SE110 falls sort of our recommendation levels based on what we feel to be relatively unimpressive sound, size, and features for the price. If you’re a fan of Shure products, we’d advise you to look upmarket to the SE210 instead; otherwise, consider less expensive and better-performing options such as Jays’ d-JAYS and the Vibes.