Pros: Details are plentiful, especially in the mids
Cons: Treble Roll-Off, Bass lacks punch, price vs. sound quality
I was looking for an excellent universal IEM with multiple drivers to fit my portable listening needs. Ideally, I would have my beloved LCD-2's in a portable package. I have become addicted to the effortless brightness of those headphones and their versatility. I'm sad that I can't wear them all the time, which is why I need something portable.
I have listened to and enjoyed many low end IEMs (including a sub $100 set of Shures) since my first pair of IEMs (Etymotic ER-4P's) were destroyed, but none of them were able to completely satisfy my needs. Towards that end, I had been eyeing custom molded IEMs, but I'm always too impatient and decided to try the upper range universal fit IEMs before trekking to the summit.
The SE535 came highly recommended on many sites, including this one. I wanted the clear ones, but they weren't available in a timely manner (again, impatient) and I was able to get the special editions for only about $20 more than what I would have paid for the bronze or clear versions
The resolution of these IEMs are immediately apparent as is their comfort and build quality.
Up to this point, these were the most comfortable IEMs I've used. The construction of the driver housings are top notch and the detachable cable is an important detail. The cable connections rotate freely, allowing for multiple fitting styles, but it makes them more fidgetty to insert and keep in the right spot, sometimes requiring two hands to adjust them.
I tried most of the included tips (which are mixed up in the same baggy), but none of them were as comfortable as the Complys I bought along with the 535's. The fake Comply's came closest, but they have a thick plastic wax guard that altered the sound signature for the worse. As comfortable as these are, they still made my ears slightly sore after long listening periods, plus they required adjustments fairly often. I will put up with a lot of pain to hear the highest quality sound and, fortunately, these deliver their sound quality without much discomfort.
The included grey cord is too short, but it isn't very microphonic. The splitter is kind of clunky and it is terminates in a very chunky plug. It looks like it's getting ready for an 1/4" jack.
These IEMs are easy to drive, but they don't play well with poorer sources. I originally planned for them to be connected to my phone through the FiiO E-18 Kunlun (which didn't work out so well). I also used them with my Headroom Portable Desktop. I listened to all styles and qualities of music and the SE535 again were not well matched with some songs, even within the same genre.
Since I will primarily use these in a portable setting, my in depth listening was done with the FiiO X5 (which replaced my Kunlun), using FLAC files from ripped CDs and high resolution sources. I did compare with a couple higher end amps and DACs, but the results didn't vary enough to be noteworthy. I will write out my listening notes at the end of this review.
Overall sound quality is abundantly detailed. These are very revealing, very analytical IEMs. Unfortunately, they are also cold and quite lifeless. They don't sound good with large dynamic ranges either. They sound uneven at lower volumes and tend to be too harsh at high volumes.
The bass end is fast and defined, but is usually hollow and lacking impact whatsoever. There isn't much extension to speak of either. The SE535's don't seem to pull out much texture in the recordings, so while the detail of each note is reproduced, the feel of the instrument is behind the note is sometimes lost.
Mids are the sweet spot for these little guys, but there's a noticeable hump in the upper mids, which correlates to vocals and tends to exacerbate any bloat found at those frequencies in the recordings. The most detail and resolution is found in the midrange, but there isn't much warmth to speak of. Speed is again very quick and there is a little more room for the decay than in the higher frequencies.
Highs are rolled off. The details are there, but they tend to become absorbed by the lower ranges once the roll-off begins. You won't find any warmth here either, just more analytic coldness. The highs are bright, but not particularly airy and they can become very harsh at the peaks. Cymbals, especially, attack very well, but the decay tends disappear too quickly.
Overall, the Shure SE535LTD IEMs are not all that musical. They become fatiguing with their cold edginess and analytical nature. They might be considered neutral, but they don't pair well with enough sources or genres for my tastes. The best qualities that they have are the fit and comfort, their speed and their clarity. I do feel that the might be too fast for their own good, however. The attacks are great, but there isn't any decay and they don't seem to allow for the textures of the instruments to shine. It's like the notes are always trying to get out of each other's way. As it stands, they are remarkably detailed, but they leave me wanting a more lifelike representation of my music.
For $500, I can be analytical right back. These are very detailed IEMs, but the resolution alone isn't worth the money when they aren't a thoroughly enjoyable listen.
Personal note: I was able to buy a different brand of IEM in the same range and try for a better sound signature while still being able to compare them. My previous daily use IEM was the Audiofly AF78's, which are a hybrid design. I got them about 6 months prior for 1/5th the price of the Shures. While they have a few issues of their own and they can't stand up to the SE535's in the detail department, they did have abundant texture, comparatively, and warm musicality, which I had been missing.
I ultimately went with Audiofly's new 4 driver AF180's for the head-to-head test. These also retail at the same price as the 3 driver SE535's and I will compare these two universal IEMs below. Spoiler: I will be keeping the AF180's and I'll have to do something I've never done before since I entered this hobby: send something back.
Good-bye, Shure SE535LTD! May you find a home in someone else's ears.
Side by side comparison (Click to show)