As usual I threw a wide selection of music at the SE420s, consisting mainly of high bit rate or lossless tracks – after all, anyone thinking of spending a significant amount of money on earphones isn’t going to be listening to low bit rate, poorly encoded music! First up on the audition list was Glory Box by Portishead, a track that can quickly highlight any limitations in earphones or speakers. The SE420s took this test in their stride though, reproducing the haunting vocals perfectly while the heavy bass beats reverberated through my brain. Many lesser earphones can struggle with this track, resulting in woolly vocals or distorted bass. Even when pumping the volume up to an uncomfortably high level, the SE420s refused to allow any distortion to enter into the proceedings.
Changing tack completely I fired up Where The Streets Have No Name by U2, and once again the SE420s impressed. The Edge’s guitar riff is expertly rendered, while Bono’s vocal wailing flows over the top of the music without overpowering it. And while the bass line is subtle, it’s easily picked out and adds just the right amount of weight.
Heading off on another tangent, I went with The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel – my favourite song from that particular dynamic duo. Despite being quite a simple arrangement, this song can often sound harsh when listening on inferior earphones, but there was no such issue with the SE420s. Every pick of every string of every acoustic guitar can be heard, despite the vocal harmonies taking centre stage. And even though there is no dominant bass line, the SE420s still managed to make the whole song sound warm and soothing.
Finally I threw a complete aural assault at the SE420s, in the form of Breathe by The Prodigy. This is a track that can often turn into a cacophony of noise when you pump the volume up, with heavy beats coming at you from every angle and vocals that tear through your ear drums. But once again the SE420s didn’t break a sweat, with every bass beat, every clash of percussion, every scratch and every lyric easily discernable, without losing any cohesion along the way. And no matter how loud I pushed the volume, there wasn’t the slightest hint of distortion.
The sound produced by the SE420s is truly superb, eclipsing even the Ultimate Ears super.fi Pros that I reviewed last year, and that is no mean feat. The Ultimate Ears super.fi Pros were the first dual driver earphones that I had reviewed and they sounded, and still sound superb. But Shure has just about stolen the march on Ultimate Ears, with the SE420s sounding just the bit more balanced. I would never have accused the Ultimate Ears of being too bass heavy, but the SE420s seem to balance the high and low frequencies with more delicacy, producing a more pleasing sound stage across a whole host of different music.
In fact, the only thing that took any sort of shine off the sound from the SE420s was plugging my E500PTHs in and listening to the same music. The E500PTHs really do put all other earphones in the shade, but you’re obviously paying a high price for that performance. When it comes to the best price/performance ratio, the SE420s pull ahead of their more expensive siblings.