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Obviously the SE110s provide a massive step up from any bundled earphones that you'll receive with an MP3 player, so they fulfill their main criteria with aplomb. But there are a lot of third party earphones that sound far better than the bundled rubbish that you get with your player, so how do the SE110s stack up?
When I first heard about the SE110s, I was curious as to what Shure had done to cut cost from the SE210s. Although the SE210s lacked the more defined bass response of the SE310s, I thought that the cost saving more than justified that compromise. However, the cost differential between the SE210s and SE110s is far smaller, and therefore I expected the performance to be pretty close.
In reality though, there is clear daylight between the SE210s and SE110s, with the former providing better clarity at the top end, as well as fuller bass at the bottom. The SE110s don't sound thin by any means, but the bass has an almost artificial feel to it, almost as if you've applied a Bass Boost EQ setting on your player. There's no hint of distortion with the SE110s, but the clarity does suffer as the volume is pumped, with the bass injecting a slightly muffled sound into the proceedings, especially when listening to music with heavy beats and strong bass lines.
The limitations of the SE110s are highlighted when listening to a track like What Goes Around Comes Around by Justin Timberlake. The combination of heavy beats and vocal harmonies requires earphones to excel across the whole audio range, but the SE110s couldn't quite cope. The bass line sounds slightly muffled, rather than strong and defined, although the vocals and harmonies are well resolved, if slightly harsh. Plugging in a set of Shure SE310s or even Denon's AH-C700s, produces a far more cohesive and pleasing sound - although both those sets cost well over twice as much as the SE110s.
Next I turned to the all too familiar sounding (if you're a Lily Allen fan) Kate Nash. Whether or not you see Kate as a watered down Lily Allen, there are a few tracks on her debut album, Made of Brick, that help it sound more than just derivative. Pumpkin Soup is one of those tracks and melds a strong bass line, with Kate's harmonised, LDN vocals, and the SE110s give a very good account of themselves. This is the kind of track that can easily overwhelm earphones, but these Shures managed to maintain a clearly defined sound stage across the full range, without any hint of distortion.