Review: Shure SE310 Sound Isolating Earphones
Thanks to recent innovations in miniature speaker design, earphone makers have been blessed with an opportunity to do exactly the sort of thing iLounge editors love: offer better-sounding earphones at lower prices. Relatively new earphone companies such as JAYS of Sweden and v-moda have capitalized on these superior drivers, offering them at aggressive $100 prices, leaving larger companies such as Shure with a dilemma: discontinue old mainstays such as the E2c and E3c, or aggressively drop their prices while they're still popular?
With the SE210 ($150) and SE310 ($250) - part of a new lineup of earphones that also includes the SE420 and the superb, recently renamed E500/SE530 - Shure has taken a third path, preserving its old E series lineup and prices while introducing superior technology in the SE series. After testing the SE210 and SE310, it’s our view that educated consumers will most likely gravitate towards the newer and sleeker SEs, which in some cases offer a significant audio performance benefit over prior models, but there are still reasons that some users might prefer older E series models.
Though unfinished SE210 and SE310 prototypes have been circulating for some time, our reviews of these earphones are based entirely on testing of final, packaged production units. In their blister wrap packaging, which is regrettably very harsh on the hands during the opening process, both models come with a really nice reinforced ballistic nylon carrying case and a fit kit highly similar to the ones packaged with the company’s top-of-line E500/SE530 earphones, which we love. You now get four total pairs of black foam sleeves (one small, one large, and two medium), three pairs of rubber single-flanges, one pair of triple-flanges, and a wax cleaning tool. In fit, comfort, and looks, we strongly prefer the new black foam sleeves to Shure’s earlier yellow ones.
As with past Shure models, there’s an in-line cable tension adjuster for the earphones, which can be worn in a traditional hanging-down position, or with the cables over your ears; the adjuster keeps the earpieces taut no matter how they’re worn. And like the E500s, each SE model has a cable that splits off at the middle to let you attach a remote control or Shure’s previously-released Push-to-Hear module, sold separately and discussed further here. The only omissions from the E500/SE530 package are generally ones that won’t be missed: an in-line volume attenuator and a plug adapter for use with older receivers are the two most significant ones, but iPod and iTunes users won’t need either of them.
There’s no doubt that the SE210 is the less flashy of the new designs. With the exception of gloss on the white part of its white and gray body, our review unit evoked the simple look of the matte white and gray E3c rather than the larger, transparent E2c housing - a design that was eye-catching in its day but has since become relatively large and unwieldy by comparison with newer earpieces in its price range. The SE310 instead uses pearlescent white, a ring of chrome, and black plastic for a look that’s classier, but also more oddly shaped - it looks more like a 1950s sci-fi ray gun, and you’d think it’s longer than the SE210, though it’s actually the same size - a couple of millimeters larger than the E3c, and substantially bigger than JAYS’ competing d-JAYS (iLounge rating: A-) and other roughly similar competitors.
As between the Shure offerings, though the materials in the SE310 look nicer, we actually preferred the shape and feel of the less expensive SE210: it fit a little better in our ears, particularly when used with the new black foams, which provide superb external sound isolation so long as you’ve picked the proper size for your ears. These small, comfortable tips have basically eliminated the need for Shure’s larger triple flanges, and reduce the models’ goofiness factor; both versions stick out of your ears a bit more than the E3c and many of the smaller, competing alternatives out there. While we’d call them a step below fashionable, and not as snug or low-profile as d-JAYS, v-moda’s Vibes, or iSkin’s Cerulean X1s, they’re a step or two better than the more Frankensteiny Ultimate Ears designs.
That brings us to our findings on the audio front, which were somewhat surprising. On a largely positive note, the SE210 is a rival in detail - the ability to let you hear sounds that other headphones muffle - for Shure’s earlier E3c model (iLounge rating: B), which has varied from $180 to $200 in price. That’s positive in that the SE210 is less expensive than the E3c, a little more modern-looking, and a bit more versatile. We generally liked the SE210’s sound signature, which is similar to the E3c’s and close to the d-JAYS we prefer these days in this price range. The d-JAYS have slightly better high-end performance and a modestly more dynamic sound, while the SE210 is a hint flatter.
The big shock here is that the SE310, priced $100 more than the SE210, sounds virtually indistinguishable, and by that, we mean that the average listener - and even some sophisticated ones - would be unable to tell the difference between both pairs. Though they use the same drivers, the SE310 is supposed to benefit from superior bass thanks to a tuned bass port; in practice, multiple iLounge listeners could hear no significant difference between them, and certainly not anything worth the $100 premium.
While Shure notes that different listeners may hear things differently - a fact of different ear shapes - we hoped that multiple listeners, or perhaps different eartips, might shed some light on the two units’ differences. On most music, regardless of the eartips, we could hear no difference between their sound. Rarely, on certain songs, the SE310’s bass sounded a hair more defined, but it never sounded “extended” or more bass-rich than the SE210. These are both relatively balanced earphones, without profound bias anywhere in the sound spectrum; both are a little warm, but not overly so. Those seeking ear-flooding bass should consider v-moda’s Vibes a better option at a lower price.
Relative to earphones we’ve previously reviewed, our views on the SE210 and SE310 are these: the SE210 is a nice step up over the slightly less expensive E2c in detail, and roughly equivalent to Shure’s E3c - therefore, it’s a good value for the dollar relative to other Shure products, and particularly the SE310, which in our experience offered little benefit besides cosmetics. Some people may prefer the SE310’s looks enough to pay the premium, the only reason for our limited recommendation of that model; we’d otherwise say that the SE210 is the “sweet spot” offering in Shure’s new lineup, with the E3c offering slight size benefits and a hint of extra treble.
However, when judged against other companies’ comparable offerings, the SE210 isn’t a steal or our top choice. As we’ve noted in multiple reviews over the last month, there are now many very good options at the $100 price level, and at $150, the SE210 isn’t a better earphone for the dollar. The extra value you’re getting is mostly in Shure’s extended fit kit with great black foams, and the carrying case, which are overall the best we’ve seen in this price range, but not features people are generally willing to pay a premium for. What everyone wants is a combination of great sound and great fit for a low price, and while the SE210 and SE310 are nicely balanced, and reasonably comfortable, they could be smaller, and users whose ears fit the d-JAYS will find their sound even more impressive for the dollar. The SE210 is a very good, B+ quality earphone for its $150 asking price; the SE310 is only a better than average one at its $250 premium, and mostly because of cosmetics.