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The Good The Shure SE420 earphones offer high-quality sound from a dual-driver design. They come with a nice compliment of accessories, and the eartips block out a lot of ambient noise.

The Bad The Shure SE420s are expensive, and are a tad large for earbuds. For such pricey 'buds, the SE420s are also a bit bass-shy. Some people might not like the feel of the earplug-like fit.

The Bottom Line You can't go wrong with Shure's SE420 earphones, despite their high price tag--unless you have the money to buy the SE530s, their more expensive cousins.

CNET Editors' Rating

8.5 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 9.0

When it comes to audio, most people don't spend enough on speakers or headphones. Despite the fact that your headphones are the pieces of the puzzle that actually make the sound that you hear, the vast majority of the people I see around New York City have nasty $10 earbuds hooked up to an iPod or Creative Zen, players which cost hundreds of dollars. If your headphones can't faithfully reproduce the sounds that your music player creates, then you're not getting the most out of your player. A really nice set of headphones, such as Shure's SE420 earphones, can deliver more of the sound that a good music player can produce than the cheap 'buds that often come with one.

Like the other models in Shure's earphone lines, the SE420s are sound-isolating earphones, which means they have a sleeve that slips onto the end of each earbud to block out a large portion of the noise around you, so you can hear your music more clearly. That also means that you don't need to turn up your music to block out that noise and can listen to music at more reasonable, comfortable levels. I can almost hear audiologists the world over cheering right now, but since I have the SE420s in my ears, I only hear my music. Each set of SE420s comes with Shure's Premium Accessories Kit, which includes three sizes of foam and flex sleeves, one pair of one-size-fits-all flanged sleeves, a 3-foot extender cable, an airline adapter, a 1/8- to 1/4-inch adapter, an in-line volume control attachment, and a nice oval case into which you can stuff it all.

Shure's earphones are meant to be worn with the cable strung over your ears, around the back of your head and down your back. This can be strange for some people, but it is ultimately a nice way to wear headphones and can be quite stealthy if you run the cable down the back of a jacket, for example. It also makes it easy to run the cable into a backpack, if you have one with a headphone cable port. The main Y-cable measures 18 inches, so you won't end up with too much dangling cable if you like to keep your player in a bag or wear it strapped to your arm; the extender gives you flexibility if you want a longer run. And Shure uses a thicker cable than do a lot of earbuds, so the cables should stand up to the rigor of normal use. Being a drummer, I'm used to the feel of earplugs, and Shure's foam tips are very comfortable for me. However, some people might find them uncomfortable. The other tips included provide options if you don't like the foam version, but it might be worth trying on the SE420s first to see if you like the feel.

The SE420 earphones' sound comes courtesy of a pair of Shure's TruAcoustic MicroSpeakers (aka drivers) inside each earbud. A tiny crossover inside each earbud separates an audio signal into high and low frequencies, so each driver isn't saddled with reproducing the entire audio frequency range, which can be quite taxing for such a small speaker. All this technical wizardry pays off in the form of amazing sound quality. While the SE420s don't offer nearly as much bass as their bigger, more expensive cousins, the SE530s, they certainly offer more than do most earbuds. Similarly, the SE420s tend to roll off the highest frequencies, so cymbals don't have quite as much shimmer or sizzle as they can with some headphones. However, more important than either of these two facts is the exceptional sound quality from the SE420s. Even when faced with very low frequencies, the earphones don't distort. Instead, they reproduce what they can faithfully, so while the lowest bass registers might not be as loud as with some high-priced earphones, it's still tight, clean, and wonderfully musical. Too often this isn't the case, and that's what makes these earphones worth their expensive price tag.

I have to admit that when I listened to Radiohead's Kid A, my pampered ears did miss some of the low-end I get from the fancy studio monitors I have at home and from my pair of Shure E5cs that I've had for years now--but I was still blown away by the smooth sound of the SE420s' midrange and their ability to cleanly deliver so many different sounds distinctly, so much so that you can pick out each note from a barrage of sound. This lent "Treefingers" all of the hauntingly delicate mood it demands. Likewise, listening to Jerry Garcia's and David Grisman's performance of "Russian Lullaby," from their eponymous album, was a joy. Garcia's guitar and Grisman's mandolin danced deftly with and around each other, each retaining its own space within the mix, while every cascading note jumps forth with all the punch and life that those old codgers infused them with in the first place. I was even able to hear their fingers slide across the strings on the fretboards. It's just too bad 'ol Jer's fingers aren't around to do that anymore.

If you've got the money to spend, you can't go wrong with Shure's SE420 earphones. Bass addicts might complain that the sound doesn't extend to the almost subsonic depths reached by the SE530s or other larger, full-sized headphones. However, if you like your bass tight and clear, and appreciate the smooth, creamy midrange and crisp high-end that the SE420s can deliver, then you'll likely easily overlook the slightly truncated low frequencies. Add to this Shure's two-year warranty and you've got a very appealing offer. Plus, Shure has been known to simply replace a defective product--sometimes even replacing it with a newer model once an old model goes away. Now, you'll have to excuse me as I pick my jaw up off the floor, as I've been letting the SE420s deliver a stunning reproduction of Garcia's and Grisman's "Arabia" as I wrote this final paragraph.

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