A lot has been written about Shure’s current flagship in-ear phone already, but of course that doesn’t stop us from reviewing them. Maybe we just add a bit more to the confusion surrounding them, seeing how the SE530 are either loved or hated by certain people, and seeing how so many reviews tend to contradict each other about their sonic qualities. One thing is for sure: the SE530 do have many virtues, but they also have their fair share of weaknesses.
Let’s take a closer look at these quite expensive triple armature equipped earphones… No holds barred, for s(h)ure.
- Drivers: triple balanced armature (2x bass, 1x mids/treble)
- Sensitivity: 119 dB SPL/mW
- Impedance: 36 Ohm
- Frequency range: 18 Hz – 19 kHz
- Cable: 50 cm (Y-style), 95 cm extension, 20 cm extension, straight 3.5 mm gold-plated plugs
- Accessories: Push-To-Hear (PTH) unit (incl. AAA battery), inline volume control, airline adapter, 6.3 mm adapter, silicon tips (2x S, 4x M, 2x L, 2x triple flange), foam tips (2x S, 4x M, 2x L), cleaning tool, case, printed manuals
An abundance of accessories comes in the classy aluminum box of the SE530. There’s the usual variety of single flange silicon tips in three sizes, which are thicker and feel like better quality (but maybe a bit less comfortable) than other manufacturer’s thinner offerings. You also get a pair of triple flange tips (which are long enough to tickle your ear drums) and four pairs of Shure’s excellent isolating black “Olive” foam tips.
Two extension cords, 20 and 95 cm respectively, are used to bring the earphones’ fixed 50 cm cable to useful lengths. They’re a bit thicker than cables on most other IEMs and feel pretty solid.
The sturdy oval case, big enough to fit the phones and extension cords in, is cleverly designed so you can simply wrap the cable around four fingers of your hand and stow it away without any additional bending or tangling.
Miscellaneous stuff like the ear wax removal tool, a 6.3 mm adapter for home audio gear, and a two-pronged airline adapter might come in handy as well. The passive inline volume control is not the best, though – it affects the sound in a slightly negative way, or at least attenuates the input signal too much even when turned to the loudest volume level. It might be useful for airline headphone outputs, but I wouldn’t use it with a good audio player.
Of course the most interesting accessory is the Push-To-Hear unit, also known as PTH. It is actually optional, since you can buy the SE530 without PTH – this brings the price of the phones some 40 or 50 dollars down. The function of the PTH is simple: at the push of a button (actually slide) the audio signal gets interrupted and a microphone is activated, letting you hear your surroundings. A limiter is built into the PTH, saving your ears from sudden clicks or pops, and the AAA battery should last for a few months. You can attach it to your trousers with a metal clip. It’s a useful device for short conversations, and it’s a bit faster than yanking the phones out of your ears. The PTH’s microphone is very well tuned for picking up human voices. Of course it’s nothing high-end and hisses quite a bit, but it works perfectly well for telling the lady at the grocery store which kind of potatoes I want to buy, then switching back to the latest Slayer album.
Two things I don’t like much about the PTH are its rather bulky size and the hard to operate slider button. Why not make it a push button, as the name already suggests? Other than that it’s a quite nice device, something that should be useful in many situations.
OK, let’s start this chapter with some rants.
The SE530 housing is made from plastic and fake bronzed/chromed for enhanced tackiness. Why the flagship model of Shure’s earphone line has to look uglier than its un-ostentatious and decent smaller cousins is beyond me. In that price range I’d really like to have a choice of different colors – especially ones that actually match any of my other gear, my glasses, or my clothing. I guess for Siegfried and Roy the bronze color is fine, though.
In my opinion the cables on the SE530 are somewhat of a nuisance. From the earphones to the Y-splitter they’re way too long – maybe they measured a giraffe’s neck? But the overall cable length is too short to use the SE530 with a player in your shirt pocket or an arm band. So you have to add either the 20 cm or 95 cm extensions, neither creating really workable lengths. All this also adds more bulk to the already big connections and splitters. For example, due to its enormous size and weight the Y-splitter tugs at the cables (and thus my ears) if I run it under my jacket or shirt. Overall the cable lengths and the various configuration options are more complicated and bulky than they need to be.
A more simple approach like with the JAYS’ modular cable/plug design would be a much bette
r solution. Make the cable connected to the earphones a little longer, thus omitting the redundant 20 cm extension. Make the Y-splitter smaller and sit higher on the cable. Use a separate 3.5 mm plug on the cable instead of the one molded into the Y-splitter, that way the SE530 would lose some bulk.
My final nitpicking seems like some superficial cosmetic issue, but it actually has serious economical undertones: the “iPhone compatible” 3.5 mm plug. Great, the SE530 plug works with a rather sub-par sounding player (that doesn’t need phones like the SE530 anyway) where the designers felt the need to make the headphone jack incompatible with each and every 3.5 mm phone plug available on the market. Instead of protesting against these tactics by Apple, most headphone companies caved in and released new versions of their phones with “iPhone compatible” plugs. Some companies like Sennheiser with their CX-series phones got it right, but the Shure’s recessed plug just looks downright awful connected to any other player besides the iPhone. Shure catered to a very small percentage of mobile phones and totally forgot about the majority of portable players out there. (see photo)
OK, now that I got all that off my chest, here are finally the positive points of the SE530’s design.
The cables – despite their awkward lengths – feel very sturdy. The strain relief implementation on the plugs also looks like it can take a beating, nothing that breaks easily. Cable noises transmitted to the ears are very low, both due to the over-the-ear design of the housing and probably due to the choice of the cable sleeving material as well.
The earphones themselves are very comfortable, even for lengthy listening sessions. Their form factor is quite ergonomic; they fit my ears really well. The SE530 don’t stick out as much as, for example, Ultimate Ear’s Super.Fi series, and I have no problems using them even while sleeping. Yes, the SE530 are comparatively big phones, but due to their cleverly designed housing they don’t feel or look that way.
“Triple TruAcoustic Micro-Speakers” (or whatever flowery name Shure’s marketing department came up with) means the SE530 are equipped with three balanced armature speakers per earphone. One armature handles the midrange and treble, while the two other ones are busy generating the bass frequencies – or at least try to. The generous specs of a frequency response from 18 Hz to 19 kHz are quite euphemistic, to say the least. Read more about that in the next chapter.
The SE530 have an extremely high sensitivity of 119 dB/mW, which means they’re really loud on most portable players despite their somewhat high impedance of 36 Ohm. The downside to this is that they tend to hiss with many portable players. With my Cowon D2 or Sansa Clip they are noisier than any other phones – even the quite hiss-prone Sennheiser CX 300 (16 Ohm, 112 dB/mW) are much less noisy than the SE530.
This seems to be a contradictory issue: some people swear their SE530 don’t hiss with their Cowon D2, while mine sounds like there’s an “Ocean Sounds” relaxation CD playing in the background. Either my Shures or my Cowon are faulty – or these other people don’t hear very well. So even if these phones work with the wimpiest players available, they don’t sound their best on many of them. On some other players like my Cowon iAudio X5 or Samsung YP-U1 they behave a lot better, though.
One way to fix this issue is by using a dedicated portable headphone amp, like the Corda XXS, RSA Predator, or HeadAmp Pico. If you dropped the dough for a pair of SE530, affording an amp should probably be no biggie. On a side note, they even hum (but don’t hiss) with my Woo Audio 6 desktop tube amp – an amp which is otherwise totally “black” and works perfectly well for any phone, no matter what sensitivity or impedance. The SE530 are the only phones that don’t like this amp, which is a bit weird. Then again, they really like my portable Corda Headsix amp and are very well behaved and virtually hiss-free on that one. That’s fine with me, since that’s where I use them the most – in my portable setup, not on my home rig.
Another curious thing is that the SE530 require some “burn in” time, a behavior which is usually found in dynamic driver phones, not in armature equipped ones. Mine sounded quite muddy and undefined right out of the box, but they settled down to their final sound signature in about half an hour.
Isolation from outside noise is one of the strong points of these Shures. With the thicker than usual silicon tips isolation is already a bit better than with many other universal-fit IEMs. With the black “Olive” foam tips however isolation becomes really outstanding. A few days ago I was listening at moderate volume levels, not loud at all, in the subway station – and I absolutely did not notice the train’s arrival in the station. So beware, the foam tips should be used with caution in public places – they’re serious noise blockers. Personally, I love my phones to have near-total isolation in most situations, and the SE530’s foam tips are almost as good as it gets for non-custom IEMs.
[I love these phones for their isolation and never get on an airplane without them. In flight I can put the volume on very minimal and still not realize I am on an airplane as I doze off for a nap. I feel really sorry for those suckers that paid $500 for their Bose noise isolating phones. The SE530s are the absolute best headphone for flying or general nose isolation, period. - Grahm]
The bass is quite fine on the SE530, it’s clean and fast, but it doesn’t really extend all too well to the lowest octave. Around 40-50 Hz is where they still perform well, but below that it’s all quite rolled off. Comparable phones like the Future Sonics Atrio or JAYS q-JAYS go deeper than the SE530, are less recessed, and deliver more sub-bass impact. The amusing thing is that the q-JAYS have one teensy micro-armature for the bass, while the SE530 have two regular sized ones – and the q-JAYS have at least the same bass quality and quantity, but extend to the very bottom of the lowest octave… On the positive side, the SE530’s bass isn’t muddy at all and doesn’t veil midrange frequencies. It’s a good bass for most kinds of acoustic music, but real bassheads might have to look elsewhere for earth shattering quantities. “Visceral” is not what describes the SE530’s bass – don’t let the other reviews on the net fool you. All in all, the SE530’s bass is very homogeneous; it integrates itself seamlessly with the midrange, contrary to many other earphones where an overly strong bass might feel detached from the rest of the music.
Midrange frequencies are what the Shures do best. The mids are forward, precise, fast, and punchy. Picking single instruments out of a mix is easy with the SE530; they’re clearer and more detailed than many other IEMs I heard. They have a remarkable attack speed – rimshots, guitar plucking, and similar material sounds better than on most other earphones. The mids are also great with very dense audio material, such as orchestral pieces or soundtracks. Where many other IEMs (especially ones with balanced armature drivers) often fail and sound compressed or muddy, the SE530 perform without breaking a sweat. If “perfect” mids are what you’re craving in a phone, then these Shures should be on top of your list.
What I said about the bass can be applied to the treble as well. The SE530 are quite rolled off in the highest octaves. They’re not exactly lacking detail in the upper frequencies, but it’s all a bit subdued and in the background. The positive thing about such a sound signature might be that it prevents listening fatigue, going easy on your ears for lengthy listening sessions. However, if you’re used to bright phones like the q-JAYS or Ultrasone HFI-780, you might miss a bit of treble sparkle when switching to the SE530. On the other hand
, the SE530 might be perfect for people sensitive to large amounts of treble energy. Personally, I’d love them to be a bit less “mellow” and “laid back” sounding, though.
Despite the recessed treble these Shures can still be seen as a reference for tonal clarity and precision. Every dynamic driver earphone I know sounds muddier and more veiled in comparison, and even some balanced armature phones like the Etymotic ER-6 cannot reach the SE530’s level of detailedness throughout the whole audible frequency range.
Soundstage/headstage is very good on the SE530, considering they’re in-ear phones. Of course the sound doesn’t expand in all three dimensions, but well mastered recordings can extend quite wide to the left and right of your head. The Shures are more or less on par with earphones like the V-Moda Vibe, MylarOne X3i, or other IEMs that sport an impressive soundstage despite their small size.
I like these phones for most variants of rock music, soundtracks and classical music, some jazz – for electronic music of any kind, heavy metal, or dub/reggae I certainly prefer other ones. Same goes for critical listening, mixing or mastering – the SE530 just don’t have quite the treble and sub-bass energy to display the last bit of detail in the extremes of the audible frequency spectrum. They’re just too “nice” for these special needs, despite their outstanding clarity. I assume they would be fine for on-stage monitoring in a concert situation, since there’s so little fatigue and high isolation with them – but since I’m a bass guitar player I use my ground-shaking Atrio M5 on stage…
The Shure SE530 are a slightly contradictory mix of features and qualities. Some of their strong points are usually found in dynamic driver earphones, not in balanced armature ones: good sound at low volume, good sound with dense orchestral works, good soundstage, low fatigue, and so on. Most other balanced armature phones I know don’t excel regarding these issues, the SE530 are rather special in that matter. Where the Shures clearly surpass most dynamic driver in-ear phones is their excellent clarity, precision, and “snappiness”.
Their weak points are in the extremes of the audible frequency spectrum. They neither provide brain-liquefying sub-bass below 40-50 Hz, nor overly sparkly treble. However, they’re certainly not terrible, compared to many other earphones – it’s just that one would expect a phone in this price range to be more or less “perfect”. Nevertheless, in the mids, the most important frequency range, the SE530 do everything well – and I mean seriously well. This being said, sound quality of course is a very personal matter. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, as the saying goes… If you’re not into frequency extremes, the SE530 are very fine.
The SE530 are neither overly analytic nor overly “fun” sounding phones – I would say they’re “polite”, but they’re certainly not boring. They sound fine for most applications, but they’re quite picky about their source. They don’t really like many portable players, so a headphone amp should be used to get the most out of them.
There’s a lot wrong with the awkward cable lengths, unappealing “iPhone” plugs, and tacky bronze color of the SE530 – but the important design and construction decisions were done right. The phones are ergonomic and feel fine in my ears, they have great isolation, and the cables transfers little noise. The PTH unit might not be worth an extra $50 for some people, but it works reasonably well.
Are they worth the manufacturer suggested retail price of almost $500? No, certainly not. Are they worth their real-world retail price of around $300? Yes, they might be worth it – depending on your music taste, sonic preferences, and so on. Provided you also have an excellent source and/or amp.
Yes, I have been more critical than usual in this review – but considering the price of these phones and the hype surrounding them I saw no other choice… In my opinion they’re definitely great, but not that great.
- Excellent midrange, fast attack, great clarity and precision, good soundstage
- Non-fatiguing, good sound at low volumes, “mellow, laid back”
- Excellent isolation with foam tips
- Very little cable noise, over-the-ear design
- Comfortable and ergonomic
- Treble and sub-bass are a little rolled off
- Hisses with many portable players (an amp can fix that)
- Cheap blingy design, no choice of alternative colors
- Awkward modular cable, huge Y-splitter, unappealing “iPhone” connectors