Shure SE102 sound-isolating earphones
Shure quality without breaking the bank
Review Using cheap earphones on your expensive MP3 player is as pointless as spending all your money on a triple SLI graphics set-up and using a 14in CRT to watch it all on.
You can argue that to enjoy music, you just need to be able to hear it – and the number of people still using the standard earphones that came with their iPods is testament to this very fact. But it doesn't take much of an investment to gain a significantly better sound.
Shure's SE102: blocks out 90 per cent of outside noise
Shure is a name that is well known in the recording industry, with the SM58 and SM57 microphones being practically the industry standard for vocal and instrument recording. Shure broke into the consumer earphone biz a couple of years back and has been doing pretty well for itself against some stiff competition.
The £40 SE102s are the latest attempt to re-kindle its product line-up. This price is the value-for-money sweetspot beyond which extra cash starts to show diminishing returns.
Much like the rest of the Shure range, the SE102s are “sound isolating”. This is no fancy wave-cancellation technology, but instead involves getting so deep inside your ear canal that no other sound can penetrate. Apparently, this blocks out over 90 per cent of the noise around you, and from our experience, we're inclined to agree.
Our preferred in-the-ear 'phone sleeves are of the foam variety as these tend to conform to your ear canal better than other ones do, making for a more comfortable fit. Shure provides four sets of dome-shaped silicone buds of various sizes. These aren't quite as comfortable, and if you're the type of person that is constantly pulling earphones in and out, they'll soon start to irritate.
Comfort aside, these sleeves are just as good as the foam variety when it comes to sealing out noise. By blocking so much noise out, you can also listen to the music at a lesser volume and still make out the subtleties.
Not much sound leaks out
Equally, the drivers are considerably smaller than traditional in-ear 'phones, so much less noise leaks out. Unlike the iPod owner sitting next to you on the train, blaring out Cradle of Filth through his trademark white earbuds, nobody is any the wiser that you are even listening to music, let alone what poor taste you have.
The 'phones themselves only have an 45cm cable, with the rest of the length being provided by a 90cm extension cord with gold-plated connectors. The cable end is cut away so it fits into a first-generation iPhone. If you're rather clumsy and damage the ends, you can replace the chord instead of the earphones. It also gives you flexibility of buying one of Shure's microphone units for using these with a mobile phone, which saves you constantly having to pull them out of your ears to answer a call.
Shure's two-year warranty is also a good indication of quality, as well as a good fall-back if you happen to work with anyone who uses scissors regularly. Shure bundles a felt bag for carrying the 'phones in, which should protect them from getting snagged if you throw them in a rucksack, or from collecting dirt if they're in your pocket.
So, the big question is: how do they sound? When compared to the iPod earphones, frankly anything sounds good, but we also have a pair of Shure's E4C earphones, which although now superseded, used to retail for around £229 and their astounding quality makes them a good benchmark.
One of the complaints about the E series was the lack of bass, partly due to the use of a single driver. Although the SE102s are also single-driver 'phones, their drivers are considerably larger than the ones in the E4Cs. Shure takes the view that sound reproduction should be as close to the studio as possible and this means not artificially boosting bass as many units do.
Good bass, good highs... but weak in the middle?
The upper end was responsive, but didn't show the clarity of the E4Cs, making it harder to pick out the various different frequencies with an almost distorted sound. The sound is very bright with any 's' sounds being exaggerated, yet with decent bass, which gives the impression of the middle frequencies being drowned out. We couldn't shake the feeling that the sound was incomplete.
The E4C sound is very forward and encapsulating – to the extent that if you closed your eyes, you could imagine the violin player in the corner of the room, or the guitarist soloing away right next to your face. The SE102s have a different sound, somewhat expanded and a little distant.
Comparing the SE102s to earphones that cost four times as much is a little unfair and you can only expect them to come out worse – which they do. But line them up against other earphone pairs in their class, and they impress - the overall quality is certainly better than any in-ear 'phone set we've tried. At forty quid, you can't go wrong - you'd be expected to pay close to £80 for similar quality from other manufacturers.