Back in 2006 when I was just starting out with this hobby, I thought the Shure E500 was some sort of unattainable grail: $500 for an IEM was unfathomable back then, when its only other universal competition were the Ultimate Ears Triple.fi 10 and Etymotic ER4S and I believe those who wanted to shell out more on customs only had a few options, such as Sensaphonics, Westone, and Ultimate Ears. In just eleven years, the market has exploded, with more brands than most can even remember. Since the original E500, Shure has released the SE530, which was essentially the same other than additional tips and an airline adapter, and the SE535, which finally added a detachable cable and new filters that added a little more treble. But in those eleven years, has the SE535 been able to keep up with the pack or has it shown its age?
The Shure SE535’s packaging has remained unchanged since the E500, which I’ve actually owned previously: it’s a two-part metal box with the case, IEMs, tips, airline adapter, and an inline attenuator. It really gives the impression that the SE535 is in fact a premium product.
The IEM’s themselves are nothing too special. The particular pair I bought is clear so the drivers and crossover are visible, which is always a cool feature, though I would prefer the signature bronze color, but the clear shells do look better in person than I’d expected. I have a problem with many IEM’s not fitting my ears well like Noble’s older style of shells, so I’ve always appreciated how well the SE535 fits in my ears. I think the cable is entirely too thick and heavy for the IEMs and like most clear cables, this one has turned green with age and use which I would expect to happen with other clear SE535 cables.
The E500 was famous for its midrange and warm sound, at the cost of treble. The SE535, from memory, keeps the same general sound, for better or worse. They definitely sound like they’re on the thicker side, with very noticeable coloration in the upper midrange. It’s a pretty unobjectionable sound signature overall but may be a bit too unobjectionable.
I’ve always held the opinion that more often than not, balanced armature bass just doesn’t sound particularly accurate. Balanced armatures have a certain timbre that makes bass sound hollow and decay too quickly. While I have heard some BA designs that do come close to breaking from the herd like the Campfire Audio Andromeda, but even that sounds slightly off to me. The SE535 unfortunately fails to differentiate itself. Its bass is there, but it doesn’t have any real impact and could be much better separated. It does sound generally flat with maybe a bit of upper bass bump to thicken the sound to complement the boosted upper midrange.
Midrange is the SE535’s most prominent feature: it has a relatively even upper midrange that focuses on vocals and higher range instruments. This makes for a generally agreeable sound for less driven, relaxing music, but it’s rather distracting and almost too slow for energetic music. It’s the kind of sound I could fall asleep to, for better or for worse. I do have a problem with its timbre though. Like with bass, I’ve always found balanced armatures’ tone sound sort of fake and almost plasticky to me. The SE535’s midrange highlights this to me so I found it particularly distracting, but I do admit I’m particularly sensitive to this.
Here’s the problem: there isn’t really much. It does help frame the relaxing sound Shure is going for because by taming the treble so significantly, they achieve a sort of “smoky” seductive sound that aims to be as inoffensive as possible. But in the process, they sound really boring and congested. The lack of treble and the even more severe lack of air makes them sound very closed in. I do think I hear a bit of a peak in the mid treble around 10k because I do get slightly fatigued by them after about an hour of listening, which is a sign of a peak in that area, but they’re just so dark-sounding it’s not immediately obvious.
It’s hard to recommend the SE535 at its retail price. It’s a nice, inoffensive sound that’s perfect for relaxing but it just doesn’t sound like it’s worth even half its price. Its bass isn’t anything special, its midrange has off timbre, and it falls apart with complex music. Even at $300, the Massdrop Plus is a technically superior IEM with a similar warm, midrange-focused sound and there are many, many other options that have been released in that price point. The market has moved on and while the E500 may have been a solid option for its time, Shure needs to update the SE535 to keep up with the new era of IEMs.