Shure's SE420 earphones sit below the company's flagship SE530 model. They also sit in an awkward spot for potential buyers: "Do I buy these or wait a few weeks and buy the top model?" It's a fair consideration, but consider this: maybe you don't even need the top model. Could you save yourself £100 and still get almost the same performance?
As canalphones, these need stuffing well into your ear to work properly. While a little tricky at first, they're a professionally fitting pair of 'phones and come with a premium fit kit to ensure snugness. The sound-isolation relies on a good seal between the earphone and the ear canal, so getting used to the unusual fit is paramount. Three different-sized pieces of foam, along with silicon flange tip options, are included. The best performance is suggested to come from using the flange tips, but our tests yielded excellent, better results from using the foam. A healthy bit of experimentation is advised if you're undecided.
While sound-isolation won't do anything about the deep rumble of a train or aeroplane (you'll want noise-cancelling headphones for that) it successfully deadened the vast majority of ambient noise in our office, such as talking, keyboards and the air conditioning system. It also silenced a screaming child on the Tube -- something we appreciate as much as oxygen and shoes.
Sound quality is generally very good, thanks to twin drivers in each 'phone: one woofer, one tweeter. A crossover is employed to direct the correct frequencies to the correct drivers. Lows, mids and highs are well balanced, but booming bass and crystal-clear highs are, perhaps fairly, compromised a little too much compared to the model above.
Some powerful drum and bass from Pendulum shook the woofer considerably, though it's a much rawer bass than the beautifully tuned bass of Denon's C700s. Conversely, Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms was very clear, but we felt competing models have done better in terms of pristine clarity for a similar price.
Included is a 6.3mm adaptor, a hard carrying case and an airline adaptor. Also, the excellent quality cable disconnects a third of the way down, so those of you with an iPod Shuffle won't have coils of cable hanging below your neck. The audio cable is gold-plated and great quality, so don't complain that your white iPod earphone connector looks cleaner.
The SE420s offer truly exceptional sound quality over their cheaper siblings, and indeed leaps and bounds over the rubbish you'll get bundled with your portable music player or iPod. But they're still not a patch on the more expensive SE530s, and unless the SE420s push your budget as far as it'll go, consider spending the extra dosh -- it makes a huge difference.
The main area in question is that of the high-end frequencies: cymbals, hi-hats and ambiance in particular. The SE420s add an unusual layer of 'grime' to the high end and, while still clear in the long run, are not as accurate as competing, cheaper models, such as Denon's C700s or, of course, the more expensive Shure SE530s.
The Shure SE420s are exceptionally good earphones compared to Shure's cheaper offerings, and in a different league in terms of quality to all bundled MP3 player headphones. The problem is that they're still £200, and we think Denon's C700s, which retail for £139, are clearer, bassier and warmer.
If, however, you already like Shure's sound and want to move up from a sub-£100 pair, the SE420s will breathe some new life into your music.
Available from AdvancedMP3Players.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield