- Review Price: £39.95
There’s good news for those of you who have just bought an MP3 player and – quite sensibly – want to ditch the bundled earbuds. Only a month ago, our Hugo was looking at the Shure SE102s and suggesting that £70 will now get you a pretty excellent pair of earphones. Looking around, we might want to start moving that figure downwards. Not only can you buy a pair of SE102s for less than £50 if you shop around, but Philips is offering some strong competition with these SHE9800s at a similar price point (between £40 and £70, depending on where you shop).
These are budget ‘phones, but like their more expensive siblings, the SHE9850s, they pack in some interesting technology. Can they stand up to the mighty Shures? Well, there’s only one way to find out.
On unboxing, it’s obvious that the SHE9800s are built to a lower price point than the 9850s, but the overall package is still fairly strong. It’s good to see a tough, zipped, plastic carry case with space to wind and stow the cable, while the cable itself still benefits from metal sheathes over the 3.5mm jack and the point at which the twin cables from the earphone meet, along with a tight-fitting rubberised jacket covering the spot where wires and earphones connect. The wire itself, however, is a little insubstantial in comparison to those you would find on some premium earphones, and there’s a bit more cable noise – the dull clanging you get when the cable smacks against clothes or buttons.
The design, meanwhile, isn’t quite as graceful as the SHE9850s, but the dome-like units containing the 13.5mm drivers don’t protrude much out of your ear, while the angled sound channel ensures a snug and comfortable fit inside it. Three sizes of silicon cap are included and the lightweight feel of the SHE9800s makes for pain-free listening over long-ish periods. As always, these things are highly subjective, but I’ve used the SHE9800s over several three-hour long train journeys and not had any cause for complaint.
These tips also gave me plenty of opportunity to see how well the earphones masked external noise. The answer is, not as well as earphones like the SE102s, which describe themselves as ‘noise isolating’, but well enough that the sound of teenage girl gossip won’t drive you completely mad should you have the misfortune to sit within screeching distance of the loud-mouthed, empty-headed harpies that I always find on the 8.57 to Waterloo. And to be fair, Philips makes no claims about the SHE9800s in this regard.
Still, while comfort and durability are vital when you’re looking for a new pair of earphones for your iPod, Clip or Walkman, the major reason why you get rid of the bundled models is going to be sound quality. With the SHE9800s, Philips is claiming that the whole structure of the headphones has been designed to create a wider sound stage than your average earphone, while the dynamic, mylar dome transducer has been tuned using the company’s iLab technology to ensure a deeper bass, clear and accurate sound reproduction and a wider dynamic range.
Well, that’s the company line. What I’d say is that the SHE9800s score well when it comes to clarity and detail and do a fantastic job of positioning the different layers of vocals and instruments in any track across the soundstage. At the same time, they can’t quite match some rival earphones for depth of bass, warmth of tone or overall presence. Try them on their own and you come away thinking that they’re a good pair of headphones for the price. Do some A-B comparisons and you come away thinking the same, but that they’re not the best pair of headphones for the price.
As the Shure SE102s are our current leaders in the sub £70 price point I borrowed a pair from AdvancedMP3Players.co.uk, who are currently flogging them at an outrageously decent price. I plugged both sets into my ‘player du jour’, Samsung’s thoroughly charming YP-Q1. Giving Radiohead’s ”Reckoner” from the ”In Rainbows” album a spin, the strengths of the SHE9800s are immediately apparent. The percussion tracks that dominate the song seem to spread all the way from ear to ear, with everything from cymbals to shakers clearly discernible across the mix. As the bass and pianos emerge and the vocals layer up, you can still hear all the nuances, and when the strings come in towards the end they’re warm and rich.
All very good. Plug in the Shures, however, and you’re in a slightly different league. The percussion instruments have a pop and a zing that they don’t with the Philips set. The soundstage doesn’t feel as wide, but the overall sound is that little bit more powerful and more coherent. Frankly, it makes the SHE9800s sound a little bit clinical.
This impression is backed up when I play ”Hey Ya” and ”Roses” from Outkast’s 2003 double album, ”Speakerboxx/The Love Below”. There’s something really confident about the way the SHE9800s steer the various vocal, bass and vintage keyboard sounds around the soundstage. Bass response is good and its hard to fault the sound for clarity or definition. All the same, there’s something richer and more dynamic about the tone emanating from the Shures. It’s not merely that they dish out a stronger bass, but that they seem to pump out a warmer mid-range without adversely affecting the top end.
On the plus side, the Philips set really does have something to offer if you prefer things a little more rocky. The Thin Lizzy-inspired guitars in The Hold Steady’s ”Hot Soft Light” sound great: edgy, beefy and full of thick Marshall tone. Through the Shures the sound is still excellent, but the guitars seem to have lost a little of their attack. Fans of the classic Gibson/Marshall school of rock might like to bear this in mind.
Still, things swing back the other way when it comes to big, orchestral sounds. Giving the ”Act 1” prelude from Wagner’s ”Tristan and Isolde” another run, I’m again struck by how well-defined and immersive the sound from the Philips set is, but there’s still the sense that you’re not quite getting the whole rich blend of sound. No pair of sub £70 earphones is going to give you the full, concert hall sound, but the Shures get just that little bit closer.
And that’s really the problem Philips faces with the SHE9800s. They’re a fine pair of inexpensive earphones, but the market at this price point is awash with quality sets from Shure, Denon, Ultimate Ears and others, and heavy discounting in the online stores is only making it more difficult to stand out. Arguably, some people will find the SHE9800s more comfortable than the SE102s, bearing in mind the Shure’s bulky design and strange, over-the-ear fit, but when it comes to build quality, sound quality and price, the SE102’s recommendation is staying put for now.
A strong contender for the sub £70 earphones crown from Philips, with excellent clarity and a surprisingly expansive soundstage. However, the Shure SE102s still win our vote for overall sound quality and tone.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 8