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Shure SE-420 vs SE-425 (long)

post #1 of 17
Thread Starter 

Back at CanJam '08 I made it my business to listen to every universal IEM in the house. Out of all of them, I liked the sound of the Shure SE-420s best. Since then, there have been so many new IEMs introduced it's impossible to listen to them all. This one or that one has sounded promising, but the 420s have remained my favorites. Many people love the Shure SE-530s, but I found the 420s more engaging. I thought the 530s were a bit "wowsier" than reality. And the 420s were significantly cheaper, which made them the bargain of the century, more or less.

At this year's CanJam, Matt Engstrom from Shure introduced the follow-on SE-425 and SE-535 models. As it happened, I ended up winning the 425s in the raffle (Actually, I won the 535s and immtbiker won the 425s and we swapped.) Thus, I have both the 420s and 425s and the opportunity to compare them.

So, are the 425s better than the 420s? Are they still a giant bargain?

For the impatient: Yes, I think most people will find the changes in the 425's sound an improvement (and the ergonomics are better, too) and yes, they're still a stone bargain.

Some disclaimers are in order. We're talking about my ears and my tastes here. These are headphones. What's more they're IEMs. The chances that they'll sound the same in your ears as they do in mine aren't all that great. Factor in how you and I hear what what we like and dislike and we're in major your-mileage-may-vary-territory. The record shows that I have been a recidivist fanboy for Shure products. That's not likely to change in the next few paragraphs. And while I feel OK about talking about what these cans sound like in general terms, I can't specifically compare them to any current competitive models because I don't have any at hand. Months-old meet impressions aren't really up to the task.  

First off - these things need a lot of break-in. We're talking K-701 style break in. Wrap them in a towel and put them in a mason jar and leave them there playing a latin disco station for a good healthy two weeks. Unlike the 701s, which sounded crappy out of the box and slowing improved over about a trillion hours of break-in, these cans will sound very promising but a little steely out of the box. You'll think they need a few hours to bed in, so you pull them out and listen to them every 24 hours or so. At some intervals they'll sound great - toe tap city. Then the next day they'll be thin and ugly and make your blood run cold. Just let them cook for a couple weeks and save yourself the stress. (and maybe the mistake of sending them back) You have been warned. I know that somebody else posted that he thought that the 535s didn't need any break-in. Mileage varies.....

It was the 420's midrange that first attracted me. The 420s sound involving and nuanced in the mids. There's an intimacy with the music that lets disbelief fade away. If everything is right, you can find yourself in the world the musicians created instead of the one you're sitting in. If the world you're sitting in happens to be, say, a coach seat on Spirit, the illusion of being somewhere else starts looking pretty important. Then, the rest of the 420s don't take away what the midrange giveth. They're tonally honest, pretty resolving and well balanced. In the broadest way, they're a little like the 701s, now that I think about it. 

The 425s are clearly the 420s' brothers. They sound more alike than different. When we talk about differences, we talking about relative differences, and not huge ones.

On first listen, the 425s will sound more extended in both high and low frequencies that their predecessors. They'll sound a little lighter balanced, given their bigger, airier top end. Bass seems tighter and deeper. After a while I came to the conclusion that indeed, the top is more extended and certainly the top couple octaves perform better. But I don't really think the bottom digs deeper or is any bigger. 

I hate it when somebody makes a peusdo-objective statement (usually guessed at) and then ascribes some subjective impression to it. In this case though, I don't think it's too far out in left field to think that improved treble performance often squares up the shoulders of bass performance. Transients are chocked full of high frequency energy and bass instruments are as much about the leading edges of notes as they are about the fundamental body that follows. 

The 420s had nice full, competent bass. The 425s sound better (pretty impressive, really) in that region, but they're not game-changers. If super bass is what you're after, you'll have to look elsewhere and you'll have to pay for the privilege - either by giving up some believability in the sound or by shelling out more bucks - or both. All that said, these little cans can move some air. The car door slamming effect in Jackson Browne's 'The Late Show' will make the 425s physically jump in your ears.

The 425s will convey more of sense of air and space than the 420s. And the for that matter most of the IEMs I've heard. You'll hear more distinctly the air and the metal in horns, like Scott Hamilton's saxophone on "Scott Hamilton Plays Ballads" The sound of brush works moves on the brush sound continuum more toward brushes on drums and cymbals and less like white noisy cleaning-your-bathroom-tile brushes. (The Hamilton disk or about any other jazz recording).

The high hat on the Cowboy Junkies' "Whites off Earth Now" sounds more like two separate cymbals ringing against each other and less like a "thunk" than it does through the 420s. I heard more of how drums were struck throughout that disk. Drums on the Springsteen tune 'State Trooper' on that disk were a bit ill defined through the 420s,compared to the 425s. With the 425s I could hear more into the acoustic space of the recording. There's a papery coloration to Margo Timmons' voice, particularly in 'Shining moon', the first track. Through the 425s I was able to hear that some of that comes from the acoustic and some from the choice of microphone and electronics (the Ambisonic wasn't ever intended to be a vocal mic, AFAIK. The early 16/48 digital recorder could be an actor here, too)

Intelligibility of vocals is outstanding with both these earphones. And better with the 425s. Vocals that are doubled or in unison will feel more real, more human. Try Norah Jones' "Come Away with Me".

The top octave or so is quite nice and quite a lot more in evidence than on the 420s. There is definitely more extension in that direction. The Opening bells in 'Joan of Arc' from Jennifer Warnes' "Famous Blue Raincoat" (The 20th anniversary CD) sound pretty much like bells through the 425s. (As good as I've heard from digital, actually. I didn't listen to the LP with these phones. The bells on the LP are more bell-like) I don't claim to be able to hear much of the harmonics of those things, but headphones that don't resolve well in the high frequencies make a timberal hash of them. On headphones that roll off on top, the first appearance of the bells simply isn't there at all.

I called the 420s tonally honest. So are the 425s. They too remind me of of what I like in the 701s. The over-warm, golden-hued coloration that I sometimes like and often detest isn't there, but they aren't clinical either. And remember, I said earlier that these phones have a great midrange. Generally, when somebody says "and they aren't clinical" that's code for "they have no midrange" No really, I mean it. They're honest, not saccharine but not ear lasers either. They are engaging and inviting. The midrange is convincing. They won't spit sibilants at you, but if a recording is a little sibilant - Bob Dylan's "Oh Mercy" comes to mind - it will sound a little sibilant.

The 435s throw an excellent, check that, fantastic soundstage for IEMs. Images are focused and stable. If there's an acoustic space, you can feel its air in three dimensions. The soundstage can extend way outside your head on occasion. Listen to Michelle Shocked's 'Winter Wheat' on "Kind Hearted Woman". Imaging performance is way better than the 420s. 

At this point, someone is stopping to ask "is this detail real or is it just brightness ?" I think it's the real deal. I'm pretty allergic to brightness. I hate artificial detail and I'm not often fooled by it. In fact, in my mind, real resolution can sometimes make a little brightness bearable. It's a glassy, indistinct, hot lower treble that can send me running from the room. I don't hear that in the 425s at all. I think what I'm hearing here is a quiet background and good micro-dynamics. (It's worth noting here that we're talking about the 425s AFTER break in. You shouldn't leave your head in circuit while you are breaking in cans. Having done so a few times, I have a full appreciation for the term "dummy load" :-)

I tried the 425s with my long time favorite Comply tips, large Shure black olives and the Shure Christmas trees. (Foamies of one sort or another or Christmas trees being the only kinds of tips that ever seal decently in my ears.) For me, the three dot black olives seemed to perform the "best". The earphones sounded faster, with more bass slam with the black olives. The Christmas trees didn't last ten minutes. The Complys gave up some oomph in the bass and some soundstage volume for smoother highs and a more palpable midrange. Your ears are likely very different. Aaron hated the black olives, was underwhelmed by the Complys and settled on Christmas trees (not the Shures, but Etys, I think) for his 535s. The take way is that tips matter on these phones. They can make the difference between liking them or not. Knowing me, I suspect the extra midrange magic the Complys bring to the party will make them my long-term choice.  

Different music was served better by one of the other of the 425s or 420s and sometimes it surprised me by which. Swapping tips could change the outcome. Richard Cheese on "The Sunny Side of the Moon", for instance (Shuffle play. But now that the precedent is set, I'm going to try to work Richard Cheese or 2 Live Crew into any serious discussion of sound) did better on the 420s, black olive vs black olive. Oddly, Cheese's, ah, vision depended on a certain midrange intimacy. Switching to the Complys did the trick for the 425s, though. When Cheese croons "Ladies, if you want to roll in my Mercedes...", with the Complys on the 425s, you can practically smell the sincerity of sweaty leopard print synthetic velvet. And the 425s are PRATier. 

The black olives pushed vocalists back a wee bit in the mix. The Complys brought them closer to where they were probably intended to be. The Junkies disk or Rebecca Pidgeon on 'Spanish Harlem' from "The Raven" illustrated the point.

Guitar-driven rock militated for the black olives (and definitely for the 425s over the 420s) 

Speaking of rock - and classical and big band - the 425s excelled at keeping the threads of complicated music from coming unravelled. They didn't clog up or get congested when the going got heavy.

At this point, I should probably mention that Matt said the the drivers in the 425s are the same as the ones used in the 420s. (As much as two sets of drivers three years of production run apart from each other can be "the same") So, sonic difference between the 420s and 425s have to be down to the crossover, which is new, and any acoustic changes in the redesigned cases.

Physically, the 425s and 535s are quite different from the 420s and 530s. 

The cases are now a broad, flat shape that fit sort of flush in the ears. They look kind of like customs when they are inserted. The nozzles are at a rakish-looking angle to the bodies, said angle being set to point the nozzles into your ear canal. Thumbs up. The new design is easy to insert and snuggles flat against my head, giving the cable much less leverage to pull the phones out of my ears. The cases on mine are an attractive silver-y hard plastic. I couldn't tell them apart very easily and they're not clearly marked, so I put a red sticky dot on the right one.

The big news on the physical front is that the cable is now detachable, with solid looking, freely rotating (and hopefully standard) connectors. Two big thumbs up! The cable is a nice length for portable use. Gone is the super short cable on the phones and extension arrangement of the 420s. The plug is a molded right angle model, which will please some users and be a pain for others. 

At the earphone end of the cable Shure has added stiff whisker-like sections that stay in whatever shape you bend them. The cables are still meant to be looped over your ears. The jury's out on this one. Sometimes I thought the stay-bent thingies were a great idea and sometimes they were a pain in the pinnae. (Literally so, if you bend them too tight and they bear against your ears.) 

Did I mention that all of this isn't so important anymore because the cables are removable? Yeahhhh!!!! Break the cables and it's no big deal. If there's a demand for after market cables, so it will be. I kind of dount cables breaking will be as much of a concern as it was in the past. I imagine that Shure will be very careful about choosing any plasticized plastics they use after the pain they suffered with the strain reliefs on the 420/530 cables going stiff. But now if something bad should happen to your cables - it's no biggie! Life is good. 

The cables themselves are of a sensible gauge so they don't tangle on the one hand and they don't feel like garden hoses on the other.

The phones are still quite sensitive and easy to drive. (Almost exactly as sensitive as the 420s, in fact. I could match levels by just hot swapping.) You could easy drive them directly from an iPod or phone of you were so inclined. I didn't. I used either my portable rig, which consists of an iPod Classic and an RSA Tomahawk or my home rig (a Musical Fidelity X-DAC V8 into a Woo WA6SE). Both amps drove the 425s just dandy. I used the home rig for convenience since I have a better selection of lossless music for it, rather than from any conviction that in-home in-ears might be the wave of the future. That said, the Shures were not embarrassed on the home rig. I'm listening to them on that rig as I write this.

Should you upgrade your 420s for 425s? Oh, I don't know. The rational side of my brain says "Heck no. Spend the money on music." The other side of my brain says, "Well, these really aren't very expensive....." (My brain might be having this conversation with itself if I actually had to think about this, but I don't. My 425s came to me in the raffle.) 

The SE-420s were a favorite for me. I'm happy to report that the 425s carry on the heritage. If you are looking for involving, toe-tapping earphones that isolate well, don't hype your music and don't cost an arm and a leg, they are highly recommended.


post #2 of 17

very nice write up

post #3 of 17

Interesting read  thanks

post #4 of 17

I happen to like ear lasers. smily_headphones1.gif


Nice review though. 

post #5 of 17

Nice review! Though, I would say any changes in sound are from the cable, crossover, solder joints and they should happen in the first 25-30 hours. Only changes later should come from perfecting/adjusting to the fit. I think you are in a very, very small minority that say any Shure phone needs long term burn in.


Also, have to disagree on the 420 being a "giant bargain". Very few around these parts will agree with that one. That said, I tip modded and S-adapted my SE420 and they were one of the most flat earphones and had a very large soundstage straight out of a Cowon. Something like a slower version of the CK10 with less detail and a bit less extension on both ends. Bought mine for $200 on ebay and sold them for $200 several months later. I was quite happy with them. So, I had a good experience with them! A nice deal at the time though I choose to not go the authorized route and would have had no warranty. Still not a DBA deal, the the CK10 when it was in the $180s, or a $99 Custom-3 but a decent deal at the time.

post #6 of 17
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by jant71 View Post

Nice review! Though, I would say any changes in sound are from the cable, crossover, solder joints and they should happen in the first 25-30 hours. Only changes later should come from perfecting/adjusting to the fit. I think you are in a very, very small minority that say any Shure phone needs long term burn in.




Well, I can only call 'em like I hear 'em. Some components seem to change a lot when they're new and some don't. In this case, I had the 420s handy for reference, so the change was pretty plain to hear. Sometimes, it's pretty obvious why something breaks in the way it does - speaker surrounds, anything with a capacitor in the signal path - other times, it's a complete mystery to me.


Now that I think of it, some of the times I don't hear any change could be down to self-fulfilling prophecy. Let's say I had nothing to compare these phones to and I just tossed them and my portable rig into my backpack and started using them. Two hundred hours is over a year's normal use for a given set of IEMs for me. Would I be able to remember the sound well enough over a year to know if it changed? Assuming there was nothing out of order that I could put a verbal tag on, I doubt it. So, if I tell you those Grados that I got this summer and immediately tossed into my suitcase for travel didn't have a break-in period, I'm talking through my hat. (And sure enough, it crossed my mind to cite those phones as not needing break in. Now that I've thought about it, maybe better not. Hmmmm.)



Bargainhood is strictly in the wallet of the beholder. I like the 420/425s better than some competitors that cost a fair bit more, so there you have it, a bargain per se. YWMV (your wallet may vary)

post #7 of 17

Thank you for your review. It has been very helpful in my decision making.


I pulled the trigger and ordered the SE425. I believe that they will be just fine for me. If the SE535 were a bit cheaper I would have probably opted for them though.



post #8 of 17

Really nice write. I've got the SE420 one year ago and i've been very happy with them. Now through some lucky gambling i've got some money to burn and i'm trying to decide if going for the new SE535s would be worth its sky high price and would comply with the diminishing returns law that i always treasure to keep some financial perspective into this hobby.

Edited by elfary - 11/15/10 at 8:54am
post #9 of 17

Hi, thank you so much for your helpful review. In addition, I would like to ask you something, as I only have SE425 and SE210. Of course I like the sound quality of SE425 better than that of SE210, but angle of the earpad I like SE210 better because it can go deeper into my ears. Are SE425 and SE420 different in this perspective? I assumed that angle of SE420 may be similar to that of SE210. What do  you say?

post #10 of 17

I think the se 425 has much more shallow insertion point. Isolation is not compromised because the earphone housing covers the ears very well.

post #11 of 17

could you say something about the isolation in general and between the two models?

it seems the 420 isolate great, but the 425 fail.




post #12 of 17

Enjoyed your review.  Just got my 425 three weeks ago and I am enjoying it.  Not until I read your review that it validates the smile on my face.

post #13 of 17


Originally Posted by fluse View Post

could you say something about the isolation in general and between the two models?

it seems the 420 isolate great, but the 425 fail.





post #14 of 17


Originally Posted by fluse View Post

could you say something about the isolation in general and between the two models?

it seems the 420 isolate great, but the 425 fail.



@fluse - this might help (http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/550673/review-shure-se315-vs-se425-differences-with-old-se420-shure-s-mid-tier-iem-s) - I did a comparison between the SE315 and SE425 a while ago - with reference to the SE420 which I also owned.


Here's what I said about the isolation - I think it's what you're looking for:


My old 420's had quite a 'bulbous' design, and because of this quite a bit of the housing would protrude outside the ear. The 420 also was designed to go deeper in the ear (or at least I had to do this with the olives to ensure a good fit). With both the 315 and 425, the housing is designed to fit flush with your ear - meaning you can easily sleep on these with no discomfort. A lot of reviews I've read have said that the new design is difficult to fit. For me this is ridiculous. The change form the 420 means that they the sleeves are not as deep in my ear canal. So I switched from the medium olives to the large. To fit, I simply swivel the cable to the side, grasp the body, insert and twist slightly, then swing the cable back over the ear. It takes about 4-5 seconds. The fit is perfect every time. And it stays there even during running. To remove - just reverse the procedure. The isolation with these new models is phenomenal. I recently returned from a round the world business trip - including 4 flights of over 8 hours duration - and these are brilliant for the flight. it doesn't block out all the engine noise (no IEM will) - but it takes it to such a low level that by the time you add your music to the mix, I couldn't hear the engine at all.



post #15 of 17

thanks for the read, but did you compare the 425 in terms of isolation directly to the 420, maybe they isolate even better like the headroom graph suggests?

if you say the tips have to go deeper into the ear that seems the case.

could you sleep with the 420 or were they too bulky?


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