First Listen: Shure SE215 IEM Review

September 20, 2016

If you frequent this blog or The Sound Apprentice Instagram, you know that I’m a fan of Shure headphones. So it should come as no surprise that I intervened with a set of Shure in-ear monitors (IEMs) when I found out that my dear friend who loves everything music has been “blowing” cheap earbuds like crazy (and probably going deaf at the same time). Enter the Shure SE215-CL Sound Isolating Earphones.

To me, with its inviting Shure house sound and moderate price of entry ($99 MSRP), the SE215 is a no-brainer. Performance-wise, you get a lot of bang for the buck, which is why I have no qualms recommending this IEM to friends that really want to enjoy their music, the veteran audiophile that’s only a passing IEM user, or the beginner audiophile that’s looking to step up to hi-fi sound without the high-end price tag (while still getting near pro-level build quality). After all, the SE215 evolved out Shure’s line of professional monitoring products that are used by some of the most acclaimed musicians around the world.

Unboxing

Like most IEMs and earphones in this price range, the SE215 arrives in a minimalist no frills box and inner plastic tray that displays the IEMs while keeping the accessories securely in place. It's nothing fancy, but at this price point, I wouldn’t expect anything more. Despite the cheap packaging, when you first handle the SE215 I am certain you will be impressed. The styling, fit and finish of the SE215 is very pleasing, particularly the clear models that let you see the inner workings. It’s a solid IEM with a detachable high-quality cable with gold-plated connectors, a feature not often found among the majority of Shure’s consumer-level competitors.

Accessories

The SE215 comes with a reasonable assortment of accessories. I say reasonable, because even with bargain-price Brainwavz offerings (see my XF-200 review) and entry-level Westone earphones (see my ADV Beta review) you get a few more accessories and a wider assortment of tips. But let’s focus on what you do get. The SE215 comes with a soft zippered case, a small cleaning tool, and 6 sets of Sensaphonics sound-isolating ear tips (S, M, L in flexible silicone and foam). I personally would prefer a hard case to be included, as well as a shirt clip, a 1/4” jack adapter and some spare tips, but maybe that’s nitpicking.

Fit and Finish

Accessories may not be the SE215’s strongest suit, but performance is. Shure packs a lot of bang for the buck in the fit, finish and sound of the dynamic SE215.

The SE215 is considered a universal-fit IEM, meaning that it’s intended to sit comfortably in the ears of most users to ensure good stability and sound isolation. I find the shape to fit well in my ear, and the low-profile nozzle and light weight helps with comfort quite a bit. My ears are very sensitive to earphones and IEMs, but I was able to wear these throughout most of my workday without ever feeling a real need to take a break from them.

I particularly like their over-the-ear cable routing, which moves the cable away from my face and chin so I don’t get snagged up as easily. What’s more, the portion of the cable that wraps over the ear has a flexible wire inside that allows you to bend and twist it to your liking, offering increased stability and a custom fit. The fact that the cable connector at the IEM swivels 360 degrees also helps with insertion and removal from the ear. Just a further note on the cable—I think it’s one of the nicer IEM/earphone cables I have experienced to date. Being detachable/replaceable is a huge plus, and the heavier gauge, braided internal shielding, and gold-plated connectors and termination exude quality and lead me to believe that it'll hold up to some abuse without fail. Some may complain that it’s not as flexible as others, but it seems to loosen up a bit with use.

Moving on, the ear tips come in two options: Foam or silicone. Then you decide which of the three sizes fit best. As with most earphones/IEMs, tip selection is critical. I strongly recommend taking the time to test the different sizes to determine which tip fits best—emphasis on “best” and not just one that “fits”—because the audio quality, comfort, and noise isolation improve greatly when the ideal tip is used. (For me, the medium foam tips worked best and offered better sound quality, bass impact, and isolation over the silicone version.) The foam Sensaphonics tip is similar in look and feel to a traditional foam earplug. These particular tips claim that they block out 37 dB of ambient noise. I think they perform better than the Comply foam tips that I've previously tested with Brainwavz earphones. This makes the foam option on the SE215 great for commuting, noisy offices or use in professional music environments. For me, the silicone tips didn’t offer the same level of comfort or sound quality (I think the highs were more emphasized and the bass a little less controlled), but your results may vary.

Performance

Speaking of results, that’s probably what you're really here to find out about. As I opened with, the SE215 has a very inviting sound. If you’re familiar with Shure’s SH840 (see my review) or SH1540 headphones (see my review), I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to hear that the SE215 isn’t too far off in its overall sonic signature. It’s got that traditional Shure house sound—warm, a bit dark, a bit forward in presentation at times, with highs that roll off well before ever getting sibilant or harsh. In other words, it’s just really easy to listen to. 

The SE215’s sonic signature falls somewhere right between the SRH840 and SRH1540, and it also reminds me a bit of Sennheiser’s famed HD650. With the SE215 you get a clean, rich midrange that emphasizes the twang of tom toms and acoustic guitar strings and puts your favorite vocalist front and center. Mids are where I’ve always thought that Shure shines. For an IEM, I find the mids to be fairly smooth and full-bodied with enough texture and air to get my ears really immersed in the music. No, you’re not going to get the same 3-D soundstage of a full-sized headphone, but the SE215 doesn’t disappoint with its ability to position instruments in space. I also think it does a good job of handling music with lots of layers, like much of Moderat’s album III.

If you’re like me and use the SRH1540 at work all day and then switch over to the SE215 for the commute home, the transition will be relatively seamless. The treble of the SE215 is certainly rolled back a bit and the soundstage compresses in comparison, but the mids and bass are very similar.

About that bass, the SE215 delivers fairly weighty bass with ease, depending on your source. When spinning tracks off of my Spotify Electric Vibes playlist I find that my Droid Turbo delivers a pretty full bodied performance, maybe a bit sloppy in the sub-bass at times, but certainly well via a smartphone. With a Hidizs AP-100 DAP my buddy at CTC Audio hooked me up with, I found I needed to tinker with the EQing quite a bit. I don’t know what it is about the AP-100, but I’ve never been happy with it with any earphones/IEMs, so I am just chalking this up as the Hidizs’ fault. The SE215 really comes to life when hooked up to my ALO Audio The Island headphone amp/DAC. This sweet little desktop unit has the SE215s absolutely singing. So despite the SE215’s 20-ohm rating that should help it sound good out of most devices, using a dedicated DAC/amp definitely takes it to a higher level.

While it’s undeniable that the SE215 has a bass hump that bleeds into the midrange, it manages to do so smoothly enough that the overall sound of the IEM isn’t too dark or bloated. In fact, it’s not the bass at fault as much as the treble (to some).

One thing I can’t live with is peaky, edgy treble—especially in an IEM. The SE215 doesn’t have that, not even close (unless you listen to terribly recorded music or don’t put them in your ears right). The SE215’s treble is admittedly dark and relaxed compared to many earphones/IEMs, and that’s part of why I like it so much. Sure, the soundstage closes in when there isn’t enough sparkle in the highs, but much like the SRH1540, I think the SE215 manages to strike a nice balance between the dark and the bright. The SE215 has pleasing, grain-free treble that’s not the least bit fatiguing during long listening sessions, even with the volume cranked up. Detail retrieval is compromised, but still good. All in all, it’s just a very easy IEM to listen to and enjoy.

Bottom Line

Overall, I really like the SE215. It’s easily the best of the earphones/IEMs I have owned to date. No, it won’t replace my preference for obnoxiously big headphones, but it takes what I liked about a lot of my headphones and packages it into a totally portable unit that I can toss into my work and travel bags without worry. 

While the Shure SE215 isn’t a glitzy newcomer to the portable audio world, it’s a no-nonsense IEM that simply sounds damn good. Shure consistently puts out quality products that I think go underrated in the audiophile world. Yeah, the SE215 could be more neutral, and maybe a bit more refined, but to Hell with that. The SE215 has sound you can be Shure of. Get it? Shure’s signature house sound is safe, it’s easy on the ears, and it performs well with a wide range of music. So do yourself a favor and spend a few extra Andrew Jacksons and get yourself a pair of the high quality SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones. As my buddy Phil says, “For everyday bangers, the 215s are perfect. The best hundo you can spend on earphones.”

Insider tip: While the SE215 retails new for around $99 on Amazon, new open-box, refurbished and used sets can sometimes be had for around $60-80 on eBay and audio forums like Head-Fi.org.

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