Today’s post is about 2 very different in-ear monitors (IEMs) (i.e. canal phones or earphones that go inside your ear like an earplug). They are very different in technology, slightly different in sound style, very different in looks, extremely different in price, but very similar in quality. So which one’s better for you? Let’s find out…
Our contestants are the Shure SE535 Limited Edition and the HiFiMan Re272
Dressed in red, the Shure SE535 Limited Edition
Dressed in black, the HiFiMan Re272
Both of these IEMs are recognised as offering brilliant sound quality, but they do it very differently. The Shures use 3 drivers per earphone. Yes, there are 3 tiny speakers in each of those red casings! The drivers are a balanced armature type. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that means – I didn’t either until I spent some quality time with Google. In essence, the balanced armatures are a delicate and sensitive system to push the air that makes sound. They are very good at picking up subtle details in sound, but can sound a bit thin at times and without the warmth of the alternative system. The alternative system is dynamic drivers. These are exactly what we’re all used to seeing in our home theatre systems or car stereos. They have good presence and warmth, but are sometimes less sensitive. The Re272s use just 1 dynamic driver per ear, but don’t be fooled by the 1 vs 3 matchup – dynamics and balanced armatures bring very different characteristics so it’s not won or loss based on this matchup.
I want you to know that I have not planned the order or results of this shootout – I am writing, reviewing and scoring as I go so you are experiencing the comparison exactly as I am and the results will be as much a surprise to me as to you! I’ll score each section out of a possible 10 points for each phone.
Let’s look at the all-important dollar…
The Shure Se535s will set you back around AU$400-500. That places them right up near the top of the pile for non-custom IEMs. There are only a few mainstream brands (e.g. Westone) that charge more for an IEM that doesn’t require an audiologist to make moulds of your ear.
At nearly $500, the 535s may be instantly knocked out of contention for some, but read on because you might find some good news waiting for you.
The Re272s are much more affordable at around AU$250 making them still expensive compared to some alternatives, but there is very little (if anything) for less money that will sound as good.
So far it’s Re272: 8, SE535: 5
Usability & Comfort
Both headphones can be worn with the cords going over the ear, but only the 272s can have the cord straight down. Although it’s fiddly to get used to running the cord over your ear, I find the benefits definitely worthwhile. Wearing the cord over your ear means little or no noise is transmitted through the cable to your ear and it also means that if you snag the cable on something, it doesn’t put pressure directly on the fragile joints where the cable meets the earphone.
Both earphones come with a range of tips, but the 535s have a few more options (including foam tips). In the end, I’m using non-standard tips with both: Comply foams on the 535s and Sony Hybrid tips on the 272s. The range of options supplied with the 535s is offset by the small size tube which can make using aftermarket tips a bit tricky. The 272s are slightly larger than some others, but seem to fit most standard tips I’ve tried.
Both earphones are really comfortable so it’s a draw here… Still Re272: 8 + 8 = 16, SE535: 5 + 8 = 13
One of the key benefits of IEMs is their ability to block outside noise. The 535s excel here because of their use of balanced armature technology which is happy in a completely sealed shell. The dynamic drivers in the Re272s need a small vent and therefore allow a tiny bit of sound to come in. I also find that the fit of the 535s helps to keep them snug and keep a secure seal. Using both on a noisy train or airplane, you can definitely hear the difference and it means you either have to go louder with the 272s or lose details in the sound so it’s a win to the 535s for isolation.
Running score: Re272: 16 + 6 = 22, SE535: 13 + 9 = 22
The SE535s are crazily sensitive. While this gives them the ability to delivery incredible details, it also makes them susceptible to poor source quality. They often produce background hiss from poor source units (i.e. amplifiers and players) and can be quite uncomfortable to use for listening to low quality sound such as radio and podcasts. The Re272s are still very revealing and can border on uncomfortable for my favourite podcasts, but they’re a step ahead of the 535s here and are my earphone of choice for low quality sources.
Re272: 22 + 8 = 30, SE535: 22 + 6 = 28
Both IEMs appear well-built and are both made from plastic so no major advantage there. The 535s have a slightly better feel to them and look sexy whereas the 272s could be cheap plastic painted to look nice – it’s hard to know. I definitely trust the 535s more than the 272s based on the feel of them alone, but only time will tell. If I have to choose to give an edge to one over the other, I have to choose the 535s not just for their look and feel, but also for their detachable cable and quality of cable (although that opens a whole other topic which I’ll need to cover shortly).
Re272: 30 + 8 = 38, SE535: 28 +9 = 37
The all important question! In a case like this where it’s hard to separate the 2 options (except by price), sound becomes everything. It’s not like one of them is ridiculously uncomfortable or brings some fatal flaw so sound is the deciding factor.
The Re272s jump to mind first so let’s discuss their sound. The sound from the 272s is almost flawless – they do nothing wrong, but they also don’t excel anywhere. The sound is neutral without any specific emphasis and instruments are clearly spread out and placed clearly in the soundstage. There is texture to the sound and some energy to the sound, but the bass lacks some fullness and punch. Without EQing (which I’m avoiding purely to keep this shootout a consistent approach), the 272s occasionally leave me wanting more oomph.
The SE535s bring better bass impact and slightly better layering and texturing of sound. You can get lost in the sound of the 535s more so than the 272s, but the placement of the sound is slightly clumsy because of a slight emphasis on mid-range frequencies. On some tracks, you can hear the whole band perfectly laid out before you, but on other tracks it can sound like the band is all clustered together when it shouldn’t be (i.e. the issue is the earphones, not the recording).
So, based on the sound qualities, it is very hard to split the 2, but I think the seductive qualities of the 535s and being able to get lost in the sound leads me to reach for the 535s first (unless it’s for poor quality sources).
Re272: 38 + 8 = 46, SE535: 37 + 8 = 45
There’s one final thing to mention before I give an overall final score. The detachable cable supplied with the SE535s means that you can replace it with a range of aftermarket options. I was fortunate to have a friend in Hong Kong send me an aftermarket cable to try out (thanks Gavin!!) Despite having good results with hifi cables, I was sceptical of the power of a cable change on headphones, but was SO wrong!! The cable completely transformed the SE535s (you can read about it in my review of the SE535s). With the Baldur Mk2 cable attached, the SE535s move head and shoulders above the Re272s, but the total price increases by about AU$140 for the cable so I have to update the price scoring too.
Price adjusted scores with aftermarket cable for SE535:
Re272: 46, SE535: 35 + 10 = 45
So the Re272s win the shootout when we consider all different characteristics and even the aftermarket cable… but part of me is unsatisfied with the result because I know that I always reach for the SE535s first. The reason I’m not satisfied is that I own both now so the price is no longer an issue and that changes everything. Let’s look at the scores again without the price element…
Final, money-no-object scores:
Re272: 46 – 8 = 38, SE535: 45 – 3 = 42
If you’re on a budget that won’t allow $500+ for IEMs (including aftermarket cable) then the Re272s are exceptional value and quality, but may need a slight dose of bass from your EQ. You’ll need to go a long way and spend a decent amount more money to get equivalent or better sound quality.
If budget isn’t such a concern and you can save up the $$$ or consider purchasing the aftermarket cable later, then the SE535s are simply amazing. They’re probably not perfect, but they are one of the most amazing audio experiences I’ve had for less than $30,000 and that’s saying a lot!!
One final note…
I forgot to write this before publishing, hence why it’s tacked on at the end.
The Re272s are able to run in a fully balanced setup. This means finding an amp that I can test them on which is why I can’t comment now. It also means that most people will use them with a standard common ground setup (i.e. both earphones have a signal cable and an earth wire going to them. The earth wires join up into one before they connect to the source unit) which makes the above comparison more relevant to the majority.
In theory (and from what I’ve read), the balanced configuration does significantly improve the sound, but will also require the purchase of a high quality amplifier which will increase the total cost to equal or more than the Shure SE535s with aftermarket cable so it’ll be an interesting comparison. I’ll post more when I can test the 272s with a balanced setup.