Review: Shure SE115m+ Sound Isolating Headset
When Apple released late 2008 iPods with hardware support for new three-button remote controls and microphones, there wasn't exactly a clamor in the headphone industry to create new headsets just for these devices; in fact, virtually no one seemed to care. Companies only started to jump on board after Apple released the third-generation iPod shuffle, which came with and literally couldn't be used fully without one of these volume- and track-controlling remotes -- the third-party support was ironic in that shuffle buyers have historically been the least interested in buying accessories, making the prospect of developing headsets just for that iPod a very risky business proposition. Wisely hedging their bets, Belkin, Scosche, and Ozaki instead came up with remote control adapters for existing headsets, each priced at or around $20; over the last month or so, a handful of other companies have brought to market remote-laden headsets that add both remotes and microphones to not only the shuffle, but any recent iPod and the iPhone 3GS. Shure is the latest to join the club, with SE115m+ ($120, aka SE115m Plus), which adds an oversized remote and mic unit onto the right earbud cable of the company's previously-released $100 model SE115.
There’s some good news and bad news to share with SE115m+, so we’ll start with the good parts first. In keeping with recent Shure low-end earphone traditions, SE115m+ comes stocked with a number of additional items—six sets of foam and rubber eartips in various sizes, a cleaning tool, and a carrying case with a hook. We’re big fans of the foam eartips Shure is using, which we’ve previously noted are amongst the most comfortable and ambient noise-isolating tips people can find nowadays, and are now made for small, medium, and large ear canals. The carrying case is one of Shure’s least expensive-looking and feeling, but then, the SE115m+ remains firmly in the budget category by the company’s standards.
That said, this package is overall a step up in frills from last year’s SE102MPA, a cobbled-together pair of rebranded Shure E2c earphones with a MPA3c microphone unit, bundled with a drawstring carrying bag and no foam tips. By contrast with that low-achiever, SE115m+ seems like an upgrade: for the same $120 price, simply waiting a year resulted in a sleeker pair of earphones and a considerably smaller microphone unit, plus the addition of in-line volume controls to what was previously just a play/pause/call button. As with Apple’s own headphones, SE115m+ boasts full compatibility with the iPhone 3GS and 2009 iPod touch’s Voice Control feature, as well as the iPod shuffle’s VoiceOver, activated by holding down the center of the remote’s three buttons.
One other benefit of the SE115m+ won’t be obvious to users for a number of months, but it’s there: a two-year warranty. Normally, we don’t focus too much on the warranties of earphones, but we’ve received credible reports that the wiring on three-button remote-laden headsets is likely to be more of a concern for users than on prior iPod- and iPhone-ready earphones, due to an increase in the number of separate wires now being stuffed into the same-sized cables as before, and a commensurate thinning of the individual wires, leading to a greater chance of wire damage. Unfortunately, apart from waiting months for a specific headset to fail or continue to work, there’s little way for us to test the long-term resilience of products with this concern, but Shure’s warranty offers better peace of mind than most of the companies in the marketplace.
So that’s the good news. The bad news is that we weren’t especially pleased with SE115m+‘s design or sonic performance. Start with the design of the remote and microphone box, which is twice as thick, twice as wide, and more than twice as long as Apple’s when its strain reliefs are taken into consideration, without improving on the feel of the buttons or the quality of the microphone. Callers told us that they heard some static in the signal when we used SE115m+‘s mic for iPhone calls, with none evident using the iPhone as a handset, and noticeably less when using Apple’s earphones. The audio was treble-boosted for intelligibility, but not great overall, though the buttons worked as expected for calls, track changes, volume, and to initiate Voice Control or VoiceOver on supported devices.
A bigger issue with design was the location of the large remote and mic box. SE115m+ otherwise preserves the design of Shure’s past earphones, which the company continues to design with cables that are supposed to run over and behind your ears rather than straight down from them. Wearing SE115m+ in the standard way places the remote and microphone box in an even more awkward position to access the controls than with Apple’s own headsets, and the box is even more conspicuous near your mouth. Wearing the earphones with cables dangling downwards is possible and recommendable for easier access to the controls. Some companies have separated the microphone and remote components from one another on iPhone-compatible headsets, and perhaps an approach like this might benefit Shure in the future.
We were more surprised that the sound quality of the SE115m+ earphones fell significantly below our expectations. All of iLounge’s editors tested the original SE115 model back in January of this year and really liked the sound, but for whatever reason, SE115m+‘s audio sounds flat—weak in treble, with little apparent range, and unspectacular definition. We don’t feel totally comfortable comparing the SE115m+ against preceding one-button remote and mic headsets such as Etymotic’s hf2, as Shure’s three-button remote does add additional functionality, but it suffices to say that there are many such headsets that we’d pick first on overall sound quality and detail, and hf2’s one of them. Believe it or not, Apple’s $29 stock Earphones with Remote and Mic actually sounded significantly better to us than SE115m+, with only two caveats: they provide no noise isolation, and in some ears will sound considerably different than they do in ours. Users who have problems hearing bass from Apple’s earphones will certainly hear more of it in SE115m+, but the high-end of the spectrum and midrange are not rendered especially well with Shure’s design.
Between the earphones, microphone, and oversized remote, SE115m+ merits only our limited recommendation: this is a fine pair of starter noise-isolating earphones for those who really need in-line three-button remote and microphone functionality, but we wouldn’t rush out to buy this particular model for $120. That sort of asking price demands more than just modest satisfaction or middling performance, and our impression is that Shure has some additional work left to do before it finds the right package for iPod and iPhone remote and mic purposes.