Asking me to tell you what the best headphones are is like asking WeRateDogs to pick its favorite canine. In both cases, there’s far too much variety, diversity, and idiosyncratic charm to crown just one specimen as the very finest. That being said, I do have a favorite pair (of headphones, not dogs) that I can’t put down right now and that is Shure’s $449 SE535s.
One thing that might give away the greatness of these in-ear headphones is that they’ve been around since 2010 and their price has barely budged from the original $499. Far from becoming obsolete, the SE535s this year got a fresh breath of iPhone-friendly life with a newly introduced Lightning cable option, which is also compatible with the majority of other Shure in-ears. Like buying a fine piece of Bang & Olufsen home audio equipment, a pair of Shure earphones has, if you’ll pardon the pun, a reassuringly long support cycle. My way of coming across the SE535s was via a path of simple curiosity after reviewing the technically exceptional $2,999 KSE1500 electrostatic earphones from Shure: I wanted to know what the company had to offer for the budgets of mere mortals.
Like the majority of its other in-ear models, Shure calls the SE535s sound-isolating earphones. That’s because, with a good fit, you can achieve much of the effect of active noise cancelation passively with the SE535s. They come with a varied range of ear tips, among which I very much favor the foam type, which is designed to expand inside the ear (after I give it a squeeze before inserting). The seal created by the foam tips is secure without being fatiguing, and its acoustic effect is to block external noise and thus provide the best possible bass reproduction. The light weight of the SE535s themselves, which include three tiny speakers on each side — one tweeter and two woofers — contributes to the general effortlessness and comfort of using them.
Earphones with cables that hook over the ear are, almost as a rule, slower and more fiddly to put on and take off than conventionally hanging ones. That goes doubly for ones that go properly inside the ear versus something like Apple’s EarPods that just sit on the outside. And let’s not forget that foam tips have a habit of becoming disgusting after only a few days’ use. So in theory, the 535s should be a bit of a pain to use and maintain in good order, but almost everything about their design is of a higher caliber than most, including the foam tips, which are relatively easy to keep clean. I find the 535s more comfortable than most of their direct competition from the likes of the Audeze iSine, Etymotic ER4SR, and Fender FXA7.
Shure’s cable is detachable, Kevlar-reinforced, and extra thick: it resists tangling and produces no detectable microphonics (the noise you hear inside the headphone when the cable rubs against your shirt). I find the 535s strike the perfect balance between the deep penetration and extreme noise attenuation of something like the Etymotics (which, by the way, require lubrication before insertion) and the practicality of a more regular pair of earbuds. It’s difficult for me to think of how their design could be improved.
I’ve tested other in-ear headphones whose casing is made out of steel, as with the RHA T20i, a fancy zinc alloy, as in the Pinnacle P1, or quirky mixtures of titanium and aluminum, and none of them feel any more sturdy or durable than these Shures. They’ve all felt great, to be sure, but I don’t feel like the SE535s lose out in any endurance race by not being made out of metal. Shure’s design is lighter and thus easier to wear for longer periods of time, plus there’s metal where it counts: the MMCX cable connectors are gold-plated to ensure the cleanest conveyance of sound.
The sound is, of course, the whole point of any pair of headphones, and it’s largely the thing keeping me addicted to the SE535s. If we take it as a rule that a pair of headphones can either be revealing — focusing most of its energies on presenting a beautiful high end full of twinkling detail and resolution — or a thumping bass monster but not both at the same time, the Shure SE535s bend that rule.
I love the bass coming out of these earphones: it has a full and vicious delivery that gives real life and meaning to audiophile jargon like “slam” and “impact.” Albums like Feed Me’s Big Adventure or Flume’s Flume and Skin sound exceptional when played through the 535s, powered either by the DragonFly Red DAC (pictured above) or the Astell & Kern Kann music player. Realism and precision are hugely important here: I’m more enamored with the quality than the quantity of the bass of the 535s. It gives me just enough punch to make me want more, which I deem to be the perfect tuning: ideal for prolonged listening and constantly introducing an itch that the earphones satisfyingly scratch.
Without a comfortable fit and a solid bass foundation, no pair of headphones could hope for a good grade from me, but the Shure 535s set themselves apart by maintaining that high quality in the full range of their musical presentation. There’s a degree of transparency to these headphones that makes the strengths and weaknesses of any music source immediately apparent. The 535s are my favorite pairing with the A&K Kann player, because that chunky $1,000 slab of portable music nirvana does almost everything right, and the Shures just let it shine at its best. The flip side of that equation is, of course, that I can instantly tell the difference between a casual SoundCloud or YouTube upload and a nicely mastered track streaming off Tidal.
I also consider it borderline criminal to plug the 535s directly into a Google Pixel or any other smartphone not named LG G6 — that would be like buying a McLaren for the school run. To get the most out of these $449 headphones, you’ll want music files and playback equipment to match. If you grab the $99 DragonFly Black USB converter / amp and a Tidal subscription for lossless streaming, you should be good to go. Both work across Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android without a problem and are worth the upgrade with or without the SE535s.
Most of the technical qualities of the Shure SE535s feel just right. The soundstage is broad enough to give a sense of space and allow me to pinpoint instruments and sound sources, but it’s still intimate enough for all that bass I love to feel right up in my face. There’s very little restraint in the way the 535s present music: if they were a concert, you’d be right up in the front row, close enough for the lead singer to drip sweat onto you. Preferences might vary, but that’s the sort of thing I seek from an expensive pair of headphones: a ticket to the mosh pit rather than a library pass.
With all the excitement of the SE535s’ sound, you might assume that their tuning is imbalanced in favor of the extremes — more bass and treble at the cost of a recessed mid-range — but I really don’t think that’s the case. Vocals still come through with appropriate primacy, and I struggle to think of ways that the sound can be improved. Everything feels correct, right down to the timbre of sports commentators whose voices I’ve grown accustomed to over years of listening. The SE535s are faultlessly realistic.
Shure is usually one of those super serious and sober audio companies that focuses on high-end precision and doesn’t care for the bass excesses that please plebeian tastes like mine. For whatever random reason — maybe it’s those foam tips fitting superbly well, maybe someone at Shure HQ felt a little more indulgent when tuning this particular model — the SE535s manage to walk that vanishingly thin line of delivering both hugely satisfying bass and a deluge of purist-friendly detail. I want both, and at a price north of $400, we should expect both, but that’s easier said than done.
I can’t tell you that the Shure SE535s are the best headphones to spend your money on, but I can say with confidence that they’re among the best.