Shure SE530 in Review – Hail to the King of this hill
The original Shure E500 set the inner earphone industry ablaze. It was the first consumer-oriented triple-driver balanced armature earphone, and in 2006, it stormed into many eager audio-lover’s hands. Today, the the venerable earphone has been overhauled and re-badged. The SE530 retains its glorious mid-oriented signature sound which is one of the most stunningly presented among all inner earphones. Smoothly detailed, it twists and turns in time with any musical genre, paying homage to all, but favouring none. Today, there are many other triple-driver consumer earphones, but Shure’s striking debut is still one of the best.
Speaker Type: Triple TruAcoustic MicroSpeakers (triple balanced armatures)
Sensitivity (1kHz): 119 dB SPL/mW
Impedance (1kHz): 36 ohm
Frequency Range: 18Hz – 19kHz
Cable Length/with Extension: 18 in. (45cm) / 54 in. (136cm)
Package and Accessories
The usual consumer SE530 package comes with the following goodies: airline adapter, line attenuator (volume control), wax loop, 6,3mm (1/4 inch) adapter, carrying case, and modular cable; mine, however has been around the block a few times and therefore lacks a few things. It is still easy to conclude that Shure’s earphone comes with an assortment of accessories that would make all but Jays’ earphones blush.
A few companies have felt the hard end of the stick here at TMA for providing finger-cutting plastic moulds. Jays, for one, love blood. Shure, on the other hand, do not. The SE530 and all its accessories can be lifted out of the attractive, high-quality packaging after a little gentle wax-on/wax-off exercise.
But digging inside is the fun bit. The SE530, like most high-end products, is supplied with a nice semi-hard carrying case. Unlike Westone and Earsonics’ cases, however, Shure’s case is larger; oblong and thin, it does its job, but fitting it into slim trouser pockets won’t be easy. As a plus, its microfibre lining works to wick away moisture and protect your earphone from the growth of micro-organisms.
After the strangely bereft fit kits from Westone and Earsonics, Shure’s fit feels like a week of Sundays. The included black foams are a unique breed called ‘olives’ by enduring fans which come in a trio of sizes: small, medium and large. They differ from most foams in that they are both washable and durable. The large size should be called ‘gargantuan’ and the medium, like a Burger King Coke, could house my life savings. So, it is nice that a small is also included. Next, are the flex sleeves: silicon single flanges which are as soft as Monster’s Turbine earpieces. Some will find them very comfortable, but others, like me, will find their bulbous angles uncomfortable after only a few minutes. Finally, there are Shure’s legendary triple-flanged silicons – flanges designed as a one-size-fits-all solution. This design is shared in common with Westone, Etymotic and Shure and is simply one of the best. In its raw form, this ear piece may be too long for the majority of users, but don’t despair, it can be trimmed. I happen to enjoy this ear piece after performing the surgery which can be seen in the gallery.
For best isolation, the black foams will probably serve most users best. And, like most small sound tubed inner earphones, the SE530 can isolate very well – to the point that you may miss bus announcements and the arrival at your transfer station. Be careful! As for fit, the SE530 is quite comfortable, but does not sit flush inside the ear like the Westone UM3X and Earsonics SM2. Still, it remains one of the most comfortable earphones these ears have used.
While there isn’t much to complain about on first glance, Shure’s SE530 is an odd beast. Its thick modular cables is the strongest looking of any earphone I have used. Their 91cm length is beefy, has a semblance of strain relief, and can fit into the recessed jack of the iPhone 2G. But, its slick surface is subject to crystalisation when in prolonged contact with sweat and body oils. And, upon closer inspection, the strain reliefs are not melted onto the cable, meaning that they are not properly anchored in order to combat shorts. Finally, the headphone jack plug connects at a straight angle to your source. That means that damage to your DAP is more likely to occur if your player drops, or is yanked from the cable. However, all of this needs to be taken in stride; the modular end of the cable isn’t perfect, but is still a high-quality part and better made than many competitors’ cables.
Moving onto the unit and attached cable, it is easy to see that Shure has again created a solid-looking product. From the Y-Split to the earphone, the cable is strong and the earphone’s housing fits very well. If you like UFOs, this earphone will simply stun you, just not with a death-ray. However, the SE530 has a couple of weak points. Similar to the modular cable, the earphone wire is subject to crystalisation after prolonged use, and as the earphone portion isn’t properly stress-relieved, its connection may be be subject to shorting. Indeed, there are reports of the rubber section breaking.
Those points aside, the SE530 is a well-made product that looks hot. In fact, its shiny surface says ‘bling bling’ in a way that no other high-end earphone does. For the chic audiophile, there may be no better recommendation to beam you up into musical enjoyment.
Since its debut in 2006, the E500 and now, the SE530 have been re-tuning astute ears to audio perfection. Of course, all earphones have a signature sound. Some are treble-focused, providing grit and clarity to upper frequencies. Some do the opposite, amplifying deep resonant bass and atmosphere. Shure’s model is neither. Rather, it is a rather well-balanced earphone which is an easy listen in any genre. Saying that however, where it really shines is with mid frequencies and especially, vocals. It simply gobbles up female and male vocals for a truly sweet human element in vocal genres.
Albums used for testing
Though I have listened to many albums in the course of reviewing these earphones, the below should illustrate a good cross-section of music:
The Phantom of the Opera – Original Canadian Cast Recording – ALAC
Since there simply isn’t a better phantom than Colm Wilkinson and nearly no voice as haunted and betrayed, there is almost no better vocal test. From deep baritones to piercing sopranos, this recording is simply delicious. By the way, the SE530 mostly shines.
MC Solaar – Mach 6 – ALAC
I clearly mean to maintain my opinion that this album is cream of the crop for hip hop. Its variety of speed, instrumentation and good selection of vocalists is refreshing. For musical rap, it doesn’t get better. A warm, bassy, and vocal-focused headphone is great for this album.
Ice Cube – Raw Footage – 256 iTunes AAC
What well-engineered hip-hop album would be replete without its antithesis. While no dud, Ice Cube’s Raw Footage is a simpler rendition of the genre, full of bloomy bass, fewer instruments, and generally simple composition. However, Cube has some good ‘sh*t’ to say and delivers with great pace and impeccable style.
Bruce Dickinson – The Chemical Wedding – 256 iTunes AAC
The sweet spot for heavy metal is when famous stars break off and form splinter bands. Bruce Dickinson’s 5th album is a raw, rusty album among his solo efforts which feels and sounds metal rather than experime[n]tal.
Madeleine Peyroux – Careless Love – 256 iTunes AAC
I can think of no other vocal album that covers so many musical bases without indifference to its inspiration. Madeleine’s lusty voice does love songs, covers, and crossover jazz brilliantly while maintaining a strong, dated approach to singing.
Markus Schulz – Progression – 256 iTunes AAC
Simply put – an album of singles. For the trance fan, there is everything. Melodic, progressive, vocal – Markus’ first album is a show stopper, though I hope he can follow it with something at least as good. Songs like Mainstage and Spilled Cranberries have become benchmarks for me.
The SE530’s triple armature array is fixed with two woofers per earpiece to produce low and mid frequencies, while the last is employed as a tweeter. Some earphones with this arrangement are bottom-heavy, built for foot-tapping and deep shoulder shrugs. The SE530 on the other hand, has a full, rounded bottom, but doesn’t suffer bloomy bass. According to Shure, the SE530 can reach down to 19Hz. I can attest that at 20Hz, a sine wave is quite distinct even when being hacked at by a 5 000Hz and 19 000Hz sound wave.
However, when playing music, extremely low bass, while audible, is recessed in comparison to a mid-low bass. Thus, the SE530 isn’t boomy, but it has greater energy a little higher up. This emphasis is a wonderful companion to jazz, vocal, American hip-hop, and to a lesser extent, trance. Emotive music such as the Braveheart soundtrack and The Phantom of the Opera are good on Shure’s earphone, but not perfect. A more aggressive bass, like that in the Mingo WM-2 suits these emotive genres which heavily rely on atmosphere. There certainly is no lack for bass and I have not felt cheated at all, but bassheads will be disappointed the with quantity of rumbles the SE530 produces.
If there is a smooth king of mids, it might just be the SE530. Aside from the most obvious specimen, vocals, instruments are very well resolved. This earphone has a very detailed midrange, yet keeps things pleasant. A few others may bring midrange details further forward, but the SE530 remains smoother, and in a word, more natural.
Good dynamic earphones excel with the organic vibrations which arise from stringed instruments, but on their heals is the SE530 which offers very sweet stunning strings. Even drums are quite magical, but the SE530 lacks grit. A particularly good listen is Dance Me to the End of Love by Madeleine Peyroux. Electric guitars, certain synthesisers, rainmakers – each sound great, but can lose the gritty definition which is part of the thrill of rock. Thus Bruce Dickinson’s album, while a good listen, simply wasn’t evil enough. Of course, this will really depend on a listener’s taste, but the SE530 emphasises liquid sound presence more than it does instrument’s lucid edges.
That brings me to the best part of Shure’s earphone: vocals. Among balanced armature headphones, the SE530 is simply lush. From MC Solaar to Madeleine Peyroux and even the incredibly doctored vocals in Makus Schulz’ Progression, there isn’t a human voice that sounds off. It isn’t just that the midrange is forward, warm and detailed – Shure added a little magic into the mix. As with strings, midrange detail oozes out; the moisture in a singer’s voice, lips brushing the microphone – those details, whether TMI or not, are lovely additions.
Continuing with the SE530’s penchant for smooth sounds, high frequencies indeed are silken. Even Earsonics’ SM2 has moments of fatigue, a word that hardly enters the vocabulary of Shure’s top of the line earphones. However, high treble notes which sing in cymbals and strings, are polite, making room from their own shimmering compartment for the midrange. For synthetic music such as pop, trance, electronic, and hip-hop, the formula of polite lows and highs works very well. However, rock, metal, some classic, and in the case of Braveheart, some sountracks, are not the best genres to pair with the SE530. Nothing sounds bad, but these genres simply need a little more.
There is no trouble hitting 19Hz, but the SE530 does so reservedly, favouring its squat neighbours and fatigue-free listening. To some, the polite expression of high frequencies may be construed as ‘blunt’, ‘dull’, or perhaps, ‘not detailed’, but I would rather term high fequencies as relaxed. It is true that a relaxed presentation will not present treble details as much as a treble-elevated sound signature, but at the same time, it is less fatiguing and probably a wise decision on Shure’s part. Inner earphones sit so close to the eardrum, blocking out huge portions of outside noise that harsh grating sounds, or otherwise, extroverted highs, can be fatiguing.
That isn’t to say that the SE530 is 100% free of fatigue; there is some, but it is quite low, and in a sea of multi-driver balanced armature inner earphones, it remains one of the easiest to listen to for extended periods of time.
Soundstage and Hiss
The strengths of this earphone lay almost completely in its detailed, yet relaxed sound. Similarly relaxed is the SE530’s 3D stage. It is by no means small, nor static, but it is tighter, focusing instrument renditions into intimate spaces around the ears and, toward the back and front of the head. In this way, a Grado-like, kinship with music is created.
Concerning hiss, the SE530 has a lot to overcome. With a sensitivity of 119 dB, there is a lot of hiss from certain sources. Only the smallest is detectable from the iPod touch 2G, but my Sony 828 which is annoying on a good day is a no-go, and my iPod Nano 1G whispers quite a bit.
Sound in a Nutshell
The theme for this review can be summed up by the word, ‘smooth’. From lowest bass to highest treble, the SE530 is silken, arousing little to no fatigue and strides nicely with any genre. Bass gives space to the midrange where vocals and lusty strings lather a sweet, liquid into a nearly impeccable body of sound. Highs too, while extended and detailed, exist to complement, rather than compete with the midrange. Shure simply built this earphone to sound good with as many genres as possible. Is it perfect with any? No, but it gets close with slower, emotional tunes, and very good with synthetic music. At no time does the SE530 sound bad, but it is this jack-of-all-trades approach which may hold it back for people who prefer less politics and more action in their music.
Out and About
While it has a decent cincher and strong y-split, the SE530, again is too polite. Its beefy cables are heavy, thick and to a certain extent, microphonic. Touch noises rap your eardrums when the cable snags on something, but again, much more politely than say, the Mingo WM-2. In a portable phone, the beefy cable feels out of place, where a thinner wire would be better suited. However, when at home, the SE530’s bulky cable feels like it should be attached to a Grado, or full-sized Sennheiser. Shure claim that their modular design was brought about by carefully study of customer feedback. I’d like to meet those people, introduce Westone’s superior cable system, and see if they would still prefer Shure’s cables.
Isolation is great. Buses, trains, cars – all fade to dull whispers in the background, even at very low volume settings. A problem the SE530 faces is imperfect fit. Though mostly comfortable, the earphones come dislodged more easily than their similarly shaped Westone and Earsonics’ counterparts. Most of this is due to the heavy cables which pull too much on the earphones. A little more investigative work and the SE530 could have been the ultimate earphone.
When Shure’s SE530 was introduced in late 2006, it was the king of two hills: listening comfort, and number of drivers. But, at nearly 500$, even discerning audiophiles had to make serious sacrifices to afford it. In the intervening years, several other triple driver earphones have arrived on the seen, threatening the king, but ultimately, haven’t dislodged him from the throne. The reasons are bare: Shure’s flagship is a stunning earphone which looks and sounds great. Replete with a ‘whack’ of accessories and the optional PTH device, it is veritable warehouse of flanges, sleeves, cables, etc.. In 2009, it can be had for just south of 300$ at Amazon. That my friends is the secret weapon of the King. If you like a polite, mid-oriented sound signature which makes enemies of no genre, you may have found your new liege. Be wary though, build and cable quality is not up to the incredible heights set by Earsonics and Westone.
Had that chink in its armour been mended, the SE530 would certainly deserve every inch of a kiss. Until that happens though, Shure’s top of the line earphone will have to suffer with a Grab.
|Price:||$279.99 – $449.99|
TouchMyApps would like to thank Sama Pro Sound in Seoul, South Korea for supplying box photographs. Without them, this would have only been a headphone review!
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