Audio afficionados: Shure SE420s - What Am I Missing?

So, a couple of years back I used and loved a pair of Shure E3c in-ear monitors. They were great; tiny, but with great sound. Resonant lows, crisp highs, and a nice midrange that wasn’t overbearing. Sounded great on my iPod at the time.

Unfortunately, they died in an event that would live in infamy as the day I heated up a $600 cup of coffee that didn’t come from a cat’s ass.

But I needed earphones and would not use over-ear cans because I didn’t want to leak sound all over my commute and piss everyone off, and I couldn’t afford to replace the expensive Shures at that time. So I looked around for a pair of IEMs that offered foam tips, for my ears are of a particular configuration that I simply can’t use silicone. My ears are not particularly large, but the area of my outer ears known as the concha are a little larger than you’d expect and can’t hold on to the silicone very well, so buds with silicone tips keep popping out. Foam tips hold much better, so that’s all I use now. So it was after a couple of hours of shopping I settled on a pair of JVC Marshmallow buds. $30, respectable frequency range and low impedence meant it should have good volume and at least respectable sound reproduction.

Well, after trying them I was pleasantly surprised. Though they were engineered with a curve that gave a boost to the low end, they had surprisingly good sound for a cheap set of IEMs. The foam wasn’t tremendously comfortable and they were bullet-shaped so they could slip out a little, but on the whole they gripped well enough, sealed very well, and if they didn’t isolate nearly as well as the Shures, they were good enough to get the job done. I was pleased enough with the sound that I’ve been using the things for the last two years without complaint. I even found a second pair on clearance for $10 at a local store, and since my existing pair had developed a slight crackle in the right ear (well, they were $30, I wasn’t expecting them to last) I picked them up. Can’t go wrong for that price and these IEMs were good value with very respectable sound.

But this year my wife decided to treat me to a new pair of Shures. We found someone selling a brand new pair of SE420s, the current line of IEMs and a step up in model from my old pair, now second only to the drool-worthy SE530s. I picked them up last night, fitted them with a set of the large foam tips, attached the extension (for the phones themselves came with a two – yes, two – foot cord) and set about running it through its paces.

And they sounded … wait. No, this can’t be right. I adjusted them in my ear, fiddled with them, played around with the EQ presets on my iPhone, I tried everything, but … this … this was … wrong. Weak bass, tepid highs, too much mid. Almost, but not quite, like IEMs tend to sound when you didn’t have an adequate seal and the audio gets all attenuated. But I had a great seal going; these things were stuffed well into my ears, the foam was compressed before insertion so as to properly conform to the shape of my ears, and the isolation was definitely as good as it was going to get (for these probably have the best noise isolation in existence, and it’s noticeable). And yes, they were inserted properly; looped over the top of the ear and inserted what amounts to be upside-down as they were intended. Yet, they sounded … like … like crap. Muddy. Weak.

What. the. hell.

This is Shure. These are expensive. These are supposed to sound brilliant, not like they were dragged through the muck before being inserted into my ears. They are certainly not supposed to sound much worse than a pair of off-the-shelf JVCs that cost less than a tenth of the price.

What am I missing here? I have got to be doing something wrong, or there’s something I’ve overlooked. Could it be that the new foam design for their foam tips sucks? (The old E3Cs used the yellow cake-shaped foam tips like you would normally see in ordinary old school ear plugs. These new ones are bullet-shaped like the JVCs and the silicone tips, except of course for being made of foam, and it’s a softer foam, too, but they’re cleanable unlike their old yellow precesessors.) Help me out here, I can’t accept that these higher end Shures sound markedly worse than even their old models. Something’s amiss here.

I am sorry I can’t help you other than to say - trust your ears and don’t be satisfied and do what you can to refer back to your “base sample” to remind your ear what you do want to hear.

I have to do it when I am checking out a new piece of guitar gear - guitar, amp, effect - and sometimes I don’t have it hooked up correctly or the individual item is defective or the whole system needs to be tweaked for it to shine - but sometimes that particular model is a POS and I need to go back to using old stuff. Just because Shure is, well, Shure, doesn’t mean they don’t put out a clunker or two…

…best of luck!