Shure In-Ear Series SE215, SE315, SE425, and SE535

This story originally appeared at

Evolution is not like a car wash; it's not some process with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's messy; it makes mistakes; sometimes it moves in a particular direction; sometimes it just goes in circles refining things. Evolution doesn't really know where it's going until it gets there.

Since 1997 Shure has been evolving its line of in-ear headphones. It seems to me they've both run in circles on the ergonomics, and made a bee-line for good sound. Let me explain.

The Battle Ground
The struggle to make a great in-ear monitor has always boiled down to two things: better sound and better fit. Etymotic held the "better sound" spot for a long time, but their ergonomics were (and still are) in need of a little work. You see, Etymotic's ER4 headphones stick straight out of your ears, so you can't lie on your side in bed at night, and the cables stick out and tend to rub on things and whistle in the wind. They sound good, but cable noise can be a problem.

Shure, it seems to me, has really worked hard on figuring out the ergonomics as well as the sound as they evolved their line. The E1, co-developed with Westone, had all the ergonomic comforts of a Lego block. Then, in 2000 Shure introduced the E5, which, to the best of my knowledge, was the first universal-fit in-ear headphone that had a keeper on the cable. The intention here was to route the wires over the top of the ears and then slide the keeper up the cable to secure them at the back of the head.

When I first saw this idea I leapt for joy. I had grown tired of the cable noise problems with the Etymotic ER4, and thought that Shure's method for routing the cable over the ears was the way to go. There was virtually no cable noise, and you could lie on your side in bed with the E5. The only problem was they didn't sound as good to my ears.

A couple years later, the E2 came out with a few refinements: the shape had changed a bit to fit better in the concha of your ear (the little cup around the ear canal); and the cable exited the housing on an angle better matching the angle it needed to go to head up and around your ear. You'll notice on both those products in the photos to the right that the Shure logo is right side up when the cables are going up.

Then something odd happened in 2004, with the introduction of the E3 the sound got better, but the shape completely changed. The logo on the side of the headphones turned over; the nozzle exited the body of the headphones straighter; and the body went white. It was the era of the iPod and it seemed to me that Shure wanted to look cool and ride the wave, but it also seemed to me that they had thrown out the somewhat confusing concept of the cable going over the ears in favor of the more popularly palatable idea of little white earphones you could stick in your ears without thinking too much. Competition was heating up, and you can’t fault them for not wanting to look fugly in the face of it. I’m sure they sold a boatload of E3 cans, but I thought it was an step backward in the ergonomics at the time.

For the next few years Shure seemed to struggle with how to put in their earphones. The keeper remained on the cable, as did their instructions of how to put them on with cable routed over the ears, but they also included instructions on how to use them with cables dangling. The E4c appeared with the Shure logo first one way up, and then the other, and I remember having a chat with Shure representatives where they showed how swapping the left and right earpieces permitted a little better fit with cables dangling.

When the SE210 came out, they had solved the upside-down logo problem (sort of) by printing the logo both ways so it was visible right side up whichever way you put them in. But the other thing that happened was the body style started to change back into the more anatomically correct form factor for insertion with cables routed up and over the ears: the nozzle angled in to the ear canal more; the cable started to angle forward again; and the body of the housing started to fit into the concha more closely. It seems to me they had come to the conclusion that this was the best way to insert them, and that they were starting to make a stand.

Now, with the introduction of the latest SExx5 line of earphones, it seems they have come full circle and are advocating the up-and-over the ears method. I applaud them! The ergonomics of the current line of earphones is outstanding.

I’m going to get back to the Shure SE line in a moment, but I want to finish up my little rant first. You see, while they may have struggled through the thought process for all the world to see, Shure is also the only people (other than custom IEM makers) who’ve really worked hard on the problem. The Etymotic cans sound good, but they still stick straight out from your ears. Most everyone else out there is making in-ear headphones with bodies too large or anatomically incorrect to fit in your ears without discomfort or an insecure fit. The Monster Turbines are not only large, but are metal and heavy in your ear. The Denon in-ears are likewise heavy and large. The new Klipsch in-ears have a large body right at the entrance of the ear canal with ridges on it that hurt your ear after a while. The Woodees, Thinksound, V-moda, even some Sennheiser in-ear headphones seem quite uncomfortable and too large near the ear canal to seal well in the ear. The ubiquitous silicon rubber ball tip usually doesn’t insert far enough into the ear canal, and its shape tends to push it back out. It just doesn’t seem like anyone is really trying to work through the ergonomic issues of in-ear headphones … except Shure.

So, I’m here to rave about Shure’s evolution and having the courage to swim against the tide of “me too” in-ear headphones out there. The iPod created a flood of interest in in-ear headphones, the response from most manufacturers seems a lot more like “let’s make ear jewelery” than “let’s help people connect with their music.” Shure, on the other hand, stuck to their knitting and kept refining their idea of how an in-ear headphone should work, and with this new line nailed it.

Let's take a closer look at the line.

Shure Incorporated
5800 West Touhy Avenue
Niles, IL
(847) 600-2000