Dual-Driver Smackdown: Shure SE 420 vs. UE super.fi 5 Pro

When Shure announced its new dual-driver in-ear headphones at CES, I was immediately anxious to compare them with my Ultimate Ears super.fi 5 Pros. So I managed to get hold of a preproduction pair of the SE420s, with the assurance from Shure that the drivers were final, and the only changes will be purely cosmetic.

I’ll get right to the nitty gritty and discuss sound first. The SE420s sound very, very good. Tight bass, good overall balance, and solid presence in the highs. But when I A-B’d them against the UE 5 Pros, I found a few differences that could sway folks in either direction. The UE 5 Pros are bass-heavy compared with the Shures, and the highs have more sparkle. The amount of detail is roughly the same with both sets of headphones, though the Shures have a slight advantage, partly because the bass is more laid back and doesn’t overwhelm the mids. Articulation (attacks on things like drumsticks) is also very good on both headphones, though the UE’s give drums a bit more “pop”. Overall, I found the Shures more natural sounding, but I think many of today’s listeners prefer the big, beefy bass of the UE 5 Pros.

One thing I should point out is Shure’s new hybrid tips. I have always preferred silicone to foam tips for their smoother surface and ease of insertion. But these new tips are almost as smooth as silicone, and you don’t need to roll them up like regular foam before stuffing them in your skull. Shure claims they don’t get as dirty as the yellow foam ones, but since I keep my ears extremely clean, I couldn’t really verify that myself. So I enlisted the help of a friend–who remains nameless to protect the waxy-eared–and Shure enough (ahem, sorry), the hybrids didn’t get as gross as the foam ones.

The SE420 (with hybrid tips) were the clear winner in blocking the voices of annoying 8th-grade girls on the subway–and the train noise too, though it pales in comparison. Neither set was in any danger of falling out, though I absolutely love UEs’ flexible over-the-ear wires, as regular wires like those on the Shures have a tendency to slip over the tops of my ears if I turn my head.

As far as accessories go, UE’s metal “squircle” case and Shure’s black nylon-covered zippered hard case are both a bit bulky for my taste, but UE also gives you a small leather travel pouch. Granted, I’ve had several sets of UE headphones fall apart, probably from being squashed while in their soft case in my pocket, so I recommend using the more protective hard case. Both come with extra tips, a level attenuator, and a cleaning tool, but Shure also sells inline accessories for the modular cabling system like volume control and the aforementioned PTH module.

So which should you buy? The SE420s list for a hefty $349, though online retailers will probably have them for only slightly more than the 5 Pros, so budget shouldn’t be too much of an issue. If you’re into bass beyond what may have been intended on recordings and don’t mind getting stared at while you’re wearing them (trust me, it happens, but I’ve gotten over it), go for the UEs. The Shures, however, are more compact, and the new hybrid tips are comfortable and effective at isolation. I also like the modular cables for adding inline accessories. The SE420s’ overall sound quality is impressive and the anemic bass of many of Shure’s other headphones is no longer an issue with this model.

If I seem to waffle like a Democrat politician, it’s only because both sets of headphones are worthy in their own rights, depending on your musical and aesthetic priorities.