Shure SE310 in-ear headphones

I got early into personal stereos. I lost my driving license for a while in the mid-1970s—something about a stop sign and "failure to observe"—so I used to take the train to a regular bass-playing gig I had in Brighton, on England's south coast. Not only did I conclude that any audio magazine worth its cover price had to have enough meat in it to last the two-hour journey and back again, I also built myself an op-amp–based, battery-powered amplifier to drive a pair of RadioShack headphones. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and my only source was a mono cassette recorder. Inside-the-head mono is as mono desperately does, so once I got my license back, it was back to the car and stereo FM radio. It wasn't until a) I moved to New York City to become a strap-hanging commuter and b) bought a 2003-vintage 30GB iPod (which I still use) that music on the move again began to play a major role in my listening.

These days, of course, headphones no longer need to perch on the user's cranium like my old RadioShacks, and have shrunk into the listener's ears. I reviewed Shure's neat little Shure E3c earphones in May 2004, and once I'd obtained a pair of foam tips that would fit in my jumbo-sized ear canals, the Shures were my daily traveling companions for several months. The small tube around which fit the foam tip proved fragile, however, and after I broke one off while replacing a wax-grunged tip, I used the dual-armature Ultimate Ears UE-5c, which I reviewed in December 2004.

The big benefit of the Ultimates was that they were built on molded inserts that conformed exactly to the shape of my inner ear. Not only did this result in superb low-frequency extension and weight, it also endowed the 'phones with excellent isolation from noise, particularly after the molded insert had warmed up to body temperature and slightly expanded.

But after five years of almost daily use, the leads of the UE-5s had frayed, so while I set about getting replacement wires I decided to review a contender for the in-ear monitor stakes that cost about half the UE-5c's $550: the Shure SE310 ($299.99).

Shure SE310
Wes Phillips was well impressed by Shure's top-of-the-line SE530 ($449) when he reviewed it in December 2007, writing that the SE530 was "sonically well balanced, having both extended bass and a smooth, soaring top end." The SE310 resembles the '530, but has only a single balanced-armature drive-unit compared with the more expensive model's three. To extend and reinforce the low frequencies, the SE310 features what Shure calls a Tuned BassPort.

The SE310's cable is only 18" long, but this is perfect for short-pocket use, and a 3' extension cable is included in the price. The 3.5mm plug is straight—again, I would have a preferred a right-angle type, which puts less strain on the iPod jack—but with the short cable, this does allow for neat cable dressing. The SE310 is supplied with three sizes of silicone sleeves. The largest ones well suited my ears, and while the SE310 doesn't offer as much sound isolation as the molded Ultimate Ears, it did offer enough to be useful on the subway.

Sound
The Shure has a high specified sensitivity, but actually produced a similar playback level to the Phiaton PS 200 with the same volume-control setting. More important, while it sounded dull in direct comparison with the PS 200, the SE310's treble was in much better balance with its midrange. Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire," from the 26-disc sampler Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century, which had pushed me over the edge with the Phiaton still sounded bright, but I could now distinguish treble details such as the presence-band equalization used on the bass guitar. In comparison with the UE-5c, the Shure's top octave was a little suppressed, but there was still enough high-frequency energy present overall. And the midrange was both clean and better fleshed out than the Phiaton's. The voices on While You Are Alive, a CD I recently engineered of Cantus singing modern works for male-voice choir (Cantus CTS-1208), had a natural balance of throat and chest tones.

I could get relatively well-extended low frequencies when I used the largest silicone sleeves. At a sensible listening level, the 1/3-octave warble tones from Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH016-2) audibly extended to the 40Hz band, with good preservation of LF detail, such as on "Come When I Call," from the blues-trio section of John Mayer's Where the Light Is: Live in Los Angeles (DVD, Columbia 88697 22721-9), in which bassist Pino Palladino plays with the fleshy heel of his right thumb pressed against the bridge of his Precision Bass. The SE310 reproduced the resultant damped sound, which is well suited to the walking bass line, with no upper-bass excess or boominess—the Achilles' heel of the Westone 3 in-ear 'phones reviewed by Jim Austin elsewhere in this issue. There also didn't seem to be quite as much distortion noticeable on the LF section of the stepped toneburst track on Editor's Choice as with the Phiaton PS 200s, but that may have been a function of the latter's greater suppression of the fundamentals.

Summing Up
Throughout my listening notes, I used the word balance to describe the Shure's sound. And balance is what the Shure SE310 is about. There are headphones that go deeper in the bass, play louder with lower distortion in the upper midrange, and have a more extended top octave—but none do all of that at once without costing a lot more than the Shure. For $299.99, the SE310 is my go-to, fit'n'forget in-ear earphone for everyday listening.

COMPANY INFO
Shure Inc.
5800 West Touhy Avenue
Niles, IL 60714-4608
(800) 257-4873
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