Easily one of my traveling staples, my headphones go everywhere with me. Not only for filling my ears with musical enjoyment, but for blocking out the fatiguing sounds of a chicken bus ride that has gone on eight hours too long.
With a dire need for a new set, I opted for the Shure SE425 in-ear monitors . These are the second from the top of the line in Shure’s series of sound isolating in-ear monitors (IEMs). After six months on the road and in my ears, here’s the lowdown on my newest favorite piece of gear.
What Are In-Ear Monitors? (IEMs)
In-ear monitors such as the Shure SE425 actually fit inside of your ear canal. This offers a couple of benefits.
First off, it’s much easier to direct the sound into your ear canal when they are positioned and pointed right in there. Secondly, they block out most of the noise from the environment around you.
This is typically done with foam “tips” or “sleeves” that fit into and fill the ear canal, much like earplugs do.
What You Get: Fit, Accessories & Warranty
These IEMs are often worn with the cable rotating around the top and behind the ear. This keeps them in place, as the fit is very important to the sound quality of these types of earphones.
To customize the fit, Shure includes its “Premium Fit Kit.” This includes a few sets of sound-isolating sleeves to match your preferred fit, along with a carrying case. Everyone has different ears, so you can find the sleeves that are most comfortable for you. The small black soft foam “olives” are my favorite.
The black carrying case is perfect for travel. It’s solid and durable, fits your SE425 IEMs without cramping them, and slides easily into your bag or the seat pocket on a long flight.
You’ll get a two-year limited warranty with your purchase. For the active traveler, it might be a little tricky to get service anywhere in the world given the small size and availability of their product line. That said, my experience dealing with a warranty claim a few years ago went smoothly.
Shure was happy to arrange for replacements to be sent to Canada, even though I was currently in Sweden and had purchased them in New Zealand. Nice one.
The Shure SE425 IEMs feel solid and sturdy enough, but just because they’re expensive, don’t think you can throw them around. Delicate parts make up the insides of these babies, so I’d recommend treating them with care.
The 3.5mm headphone jack is gold-plated and angled. It’s also molded for ease of use, feels solid, and has a good flexible connection to the cable to prevent wear and tear.
Going up the Kevlar-reinforced cable, there’s a splitter leading to the individual buds, and a slidable holder to keep the cables together.
These cables are thinner as they near the buds themselves, and wrap around your ears for a custom fit that keeps the buds in place and cables under control.
With my previous pairs of IEMs, this area of the cable that molds around the ear was prone to breaking. Shure has obviously learned from this, and these cables are not only better made, but replaceable from about $30. You can even buy a replacement set with a microphone and volume control built in.
Finally, the cable meets the buds at a solid, gold-plated connector that rotates 360 degrees. If you purchase a new cable, this is where you attach it. This connection feels very solid despite its ability to rotate, and has never disconnected on me by accident.
And Most Importantly: Sound Quality
One thing I sorely miss while traveling is listening to quality audio with a good set of speakers. The difference between a decent set of headphones/earphones and a great set can be huge. Listening to your favorite songs and hearing things you never heard before is awesome.
The Shure SE425 IEMs sound great thanks to dual microdrivers (tweeter and woofer). They have been tuned for a “flatter” sound that’s more accurate and balanced than the usual bass-heavy approach favored by many headphones these days.
So in terms of sound quality, the Shure SE425 will give you that in spades, but it’s a double-edged sword. Just as with any good piece of audio or video gear, it’s “garbage in, garbage out.”
That means if you’re listening to a high-quality recording in a high-quality file format (FLAC or ALAC in particular), it’s going to sound amazing. On the other hand, if you’re listening to a low bitrate MP3 or audio stream, it won’t sound nearly as good as it could, and perhaps worse than you’re used to.
It also matters where the sound is coming from. My current smartphone is pretty poor for audio, and I can hear that noise at low volumes in particular. My laptop, on the other hand, puts out better quality audio.
I’ve been testing these for nearly six months now, listening to a variety of music from solo piano (Chilly Gonzales) and jazz (Jukka Eskola), to electronic (Global Communication) and pop (Everything but the Girl).
This isn’t some annoying audiophile review so I’ll just leave it at this: everything sounds great, again, as long as the source is good.
For travel, the lightweight SE425 IEMs are great. While the passive noise isolation isn’t on par with active noise cancelation, they’ll still do a good job of blocking out the sound of the crying kid in the seat behind you on the transatlantic flight, or the snoring guy beside you tenting in the Rocky Mountains.
Add phenomenal sound quality to that great noise cancellation, and you have portable audio beauty that literally fits in your pocket.
There is no doubt that these are serious IEMs, and they come with a fairly serious price tag. I’d even venture to say they won’t impress most people out of the box due to that reference-quality audio. Your taste in music, and where you’re getting that music from, will have a lot to do with how much you enjoy these earphones.
With the current trend of headphones being to turn the bass up to 11, some may prefer the sound of the cheaper Shure SE215’s that are tuned for a sound with a bit more bass.
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The Shure SE425 earphones retail for $299, but you’ll usually find them discounted on Amazon.
The Shure SE215 earphones I mentioned as a potential alternative for those just wanting to try out a set of decent IEMs are much cheaper, typically selling for under a hundred dollars.
Main image via Shure, others via author