Review: Shure SE420 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. For the purposes of this review, two of the most noteworthy are a comparatively small Swedish company, Jays, which recently released q-JAYS ($179), an extremely impressive double-driver earphone, and Etymotic, which sells the superb $299 MSRP, $179 street price ER-4P.
Clockwise from Bottom Left: Single-Driver Shure SE110 and V-moda Vibe Duo; Double-Driver Jays q-JAYS and Shure SE420
Following up on our earlier reviews of Shure’s lowest-end model SE110 and a competing alternative, v-moda’s Vibe Duo with Control-Playback Functionality, this comparative review looks at Shure’s second most expensive SE-series model, the double-driver SE420 ($350-400), which steps down in price and performance from the amazing SE530, but steps up from the SE110 and its two older brothers, the SE210 and SE310. The main focus of our comparison is Jays’ q-JAYS, which also uses a double-driver design, and serves as a half-priced, tiny, and otherwise highly comparable alternative to the SE420—as shown above, it is physically smaller, in fact, that any other earphone in its class. Both the q-JAYS and SE420 come in your choice of white or black, with two-sectioned black plastic-covered cables.
For those who are unfamiliar with earphone technology, the reason that companies make double-driver earphones is that—like full-sized speakers—even the best single-driver earphones struggle at some point when they’re pushed to replicate the full audio spectrum. So double-driver designs split the work, letting one tiny speaker in each ear handle the highs while the other handles the lows. Engineered properly to work together, the two speakers won’t distort sound as much, resulting in improved fidelity, and they may also be able to reach higher and/or lower than a single driver that’s struggling to cover as much in the middle as possible. That said, truly excellent audio engineers can squeeze a lot of accuracy and range out of a good single-driver design, as Etymotic’s ER-4P has done.
As we noted in the SE110 and Vibe Duo reviews, earphone prices are generally subject to considerable variation, but something confusing has been happening with Shure’s earphone prices recently: announced by Shure at a $349.99 list price, the SE420 today actually appears on the company’s web site for $400. When we asked Shure about this discrepancy, the company suggested that retailers are not permitted to sell the SE420 below $350—a “minimum advertised price”—while the manufacturer’s suggested retail price was $400. The concept of a price floor is designed to guarantee resellers a margin sufficient to cover promotional expenses and profitability, but has the consequence of making the earphones instantly less attractive to consumers than more aggressively or flexibly priced competitors.
That’s what has happened here. Just as would be expected from their double-driver technology, both q-JAYS and the SE420 deliver higher-fidelity sound than most single-driver earphones, and at least a slight bass boost over the best valued single-driver earphones we’ve tested. But whereas the q-JAYS, like the ER-4Ps, can be had for only $179, you’ll have to cough up literally hundreds of dollars more for the SE420. Is there anything in Shure’s package to merit such a price premium?
One differentiator is in pack-ins. The q-JAYS package includes 7 different sets of silicone rubber tips, which are identical to one another except for size, plus four extra filters, two different extension cables, a small zippered leather carrying case, a headphone port splitter, and an airline adapter. Unless you really will use the splitter or airline adapter, the only big positive of this package is that Jays, unlike any other company we’ve seen, includes in its tip collection sizes made for super-small ear canals; we’d describe the smallest of them as baby-sized, except that we’d never want to encourage their use by small children. So, although q-JAYS fit wonderfully in large- and normal-sized ears, these tips also make them suitable for those with smaller ears as well. On the flip side, Jays’ included carrying case is one of the smallest and least impressive we’ve seen for a premium headset, and we wouldn’t be surprised if you wanted to replace it immediately.
Shure’s package is comparatively more deluxe. You get four sets of black foam eartips, three sets of single flange rubber tips, one set of triple flange tips, and a wax cleaner, along with a black carrying case, a volume attenuator, an airline adapter, and a 1/8” jack adapter for use with high-end receivers. Though SE420’s eartips don’t span the range of sizes found in Jays’ collection, the rubber and foam pieces are right-sized for most ears, and we continue to like the Comply-style foam tips Shure is including with the SE-series earphones. They’re comfortable, and dynamically adjust to fit the contours of your ear canal. Most notably, Shure’s carrying case is the same one that comes with the SE530—a slightly nicer, identically semi-hard zipper-closed oval that’s large enough to hold all of the included parts at once, though you’ll be much better off boxing the ones you don’t use and carrying only the earphones inside.
It’s worth pointing out that SE420 does in fact represent a step up in audio performance over its less-expensive single-driver brother, SE310. Our lossless-encoded audio files sounded cleaner through the SE420, particularly in treble, mid-treble, and mid-bass; the SE420 made the same songs sound less compressed, more lifelike, and more detailed. The differences aren’t huge, and average listeners may not even notice them, but they’re there.
Of course, the real question isn’t so much whether Shure can make its $350 earphone better than its somewhat overpriced $250 earphone; rather, it’s whether it can make its $350 earphone better than the q-JAYS and the ER-4P, both of which can be had for less. Thankfully, the answer here is yes, but it’s not as simple as that: while the SE420 is a warmer alternative to the ER-4P, with superior bass range and bass detail, so is q-JAYS. However, SE420 does a little better in the treble and mid-treble department than q-JAYS, which sometimes enables its renditions of audio to possess slightly more apparent depth, depending on the song.
Despite its small comparative omissions in the treble department, q-JAYS is an instantly engrossing earphone. We went back and forth listening to dozens of our favorite songs and test tracks with q-JAYS, the SE420, and the ER-4P, and though we liked the sound from all three of the earphones, there’s no doubt that the $179 q-JAYS is the one that sucks you in the quickest. The tiny in-canal pieces are the easiest to pop into your ears, and like most single-driver earphones, their cables dangle downwards rather than requiring you to run them behind your neck. Once they’re inside, you feel just as sealed off from the world as with the Etymotics, but with a little more bass filling your canals.
By comparison, the SE420s are more of a chore to wear, as their cables virtually demand to be worn behind your neck, and their enclosures look and feel a lot bigger in your ears. However, assuming you’re willing to go through the added trouble to put them on, and pay the premium, they do offer a slightly superior listening experience. We’d categorize them as an ER-4P with additional bass, a little flatter on both ends of the spectrum and not as lively as the E500/SE530, but still capable of revealing details across the spectrum that you wouldn’t hear in any but the best single-driver designs.
So why the sharp difference in our ratings? The answers are simple: pricing and comfort. Except in the treble department, we’d call q-JAYS a slightly superior earphone to the ER-4P—it’s smaller and has better bass at a lower price, unless you shop through Amazon, where Etymotic’s super-low price makes them basically a draw. SE420 steps up a little in sound quality, but is considerably larger, more cumbersome to wear, and more expensive. Because of Shure’s inflexible minimum pricing policy, it costs twice as much as q-JAYS, yet it doesn’t deliver anywhere close to twice the experience. For the price, we think q-JAYS is one of the very best headphone options around right now, and would strongly recommend it even if you can’t find it at a discount; SE420 is a good and still generally recommendable option, but one we’d hold off on unless you can find it a lot cheaper. We’d sooner recommend shopping around for the E500/SE530, which has benefitted considerably from more flexible pricing and delivers more bang for the buck.