Battle of the $500 In-Ear Headphones: Shure SE535 vs Westone W40 vs Nuforce HEM8 vs Ultimate Ears UE900s

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In the upper range of audiophile gear most of the focus typically falls on over ear and open back headphones. However, for in-ear headphones there are some fantastic offerings to consider if you have $500 and want to make the jump to the big leagues of sound. The UE 900S is the only headphone in this review priced lower than $500. The 900S is included because like the HEM8’s and W40’s the 900s has four balanced armature drivers inside each earbud. The SE535 only has three drivers but still packs in the same level of quality. All of these headphones are super solid in design, comfort, and audio quality but have different tasting sound signatures.

 

Shure SE535

Shure SE535 Clear headphones

The Shure SE 535 is a very well balanced headphone with its greatest strength lying in the superbly crisp and powerful mids to treble range. It is a surprise the SE 535 handles the higher frequencies so adeptly since only one of its three drivers is a tweeter. Not to say the bass is at all lacking as it is definitely solid and well defined though less powerful than the mids and highs. With how detailed, strong, and clear the mids and highs are they never become too fatiguing. The soundstage is not a massive one but still feels good for an in-ear headphone.

se535 extreme close up se535 unboxing

Packaging is simple but industrial with a solid metal box containing the oval Shure carrying case and an assortment of earbud tips. The mold-able and removable black rubber cable is pretty much the kind of comfort and utility you want in a headphone cable. Smoke colored plastic driver casings for the earbuds look refined and feel sturdy enough for going anywhere. It is also a version made with a clear casing for more discrete needs, SE535 clear.  I found these to have the most comfortable fit for long listening periods.

Westone W40

The westone w40 headphones for serious listeners

The design of the W40 is fun because the shell of the earbuds can be removed and swapped for either a red, blue, or black piece to customize. The fact that the box the headphones arrive in has a ribbon tab and folds open like a deluxe edition of a book emanates luxury. Inside can be found a bright orange airtight plastic carrying case that you will not be likely to lose track of along with a volume adjustment and call-enabled swappable cable. The cable is designated for iDevices but works fine with Android too.

w40 extreme close up w40 unboxing

Music on the W40s is very warm, smooth, and lush making for a very mellow listening experience. The headphones blend all the frequencies with noticeable presence and have the strongest bass of the four headphones compared here. Great detail and clarity, though not quite as much as sound separation as the other headphones. The soundstage of the W40s is generously spaced and second only to the HEM8’s here.

Nuforce HEM8 Hi Res Audio Heaphones

NuForce HEM8

Balance across the frequency spectrum and the dynamic range are nothing short of exceptional. The lower mids are easy to muddy but the HEM8 even makes them sound as crisp and clear as everything else. One of the only things I can knock the HEM8’s for is that the transients and higher frequencies lose some snappiness when the music is too densely layered. The HEM8’s would be a great fit for use in the studio with their flatness and accuracy revealing every detail of production in the mix of a track.

nuforce hem8 extreme close up nuforce hem8 glamor nuforce hem8 unboxing

The HEM8 gives you the option of taking a larger plastic case or a smaller cloth one on the go. While the HEM8s have a replaceable cable, of the two provided neither was moldable around my ear so they did have a tendency to pop over at times. The curvy yet angular matte black plastic of the driver casings feels more stylish than the other headphones compared.

UE 900S

Packaging is just as luxurious as the W40 with a ribbon tab and case that folds open. The black plastic traveling container is somewhat uniquely styled as it swings open like a cigarette case. I love having the color coded, organized earbud tips inside the box instead of the usual rummaging around and trial and error to find the right size. The cable of the headphones is a twisted braid that was starting to unwind which made me question the longevity.

ue900s extreme close up ue900s unboxing

The bass on the UE 900S is clear but also restrained. Overall a bit of a colder sound than the other headphones. Definitely a brighter headphone in a way comparable to the SE 535, though the UE 900S a bit more forward in the upper range. The soundstage is not as large as the three other headphones but that’s probably why it is much cheaper. Having four drivers gives the 900S detail and clarity across the frequency range.

Track by Track Comparison

“Moon River” by Joanna Wang on the SE 535’s is pure symphonic bliss. The horns and strings are perfectly reproduced and given fantastic body. Really amazing strength and clarity of timbres in the mids that gave the instruments so much more emotion than I’d noticed before. Orchestral recordings all sound magnificent on the 535’s. The UE900S handles the vocals and high frequencies well but does lack a bit of the richness of the full orchestra. W40’s had a wider soundstage but less defined and powerful lower mid instruments. However, the W40’s have the edge when it comes to upper mid vocals, as they were crisper and more direct than the SE535, but not as much as the HEM8’s.

Iggy Azalea’s “Change Your Life” opened with such wide, dirty bass growling above the mix it added a new angle to the track with the SE535s. The HEM8 have the edge in vocal power and clarity making Iggy feel inches away. The UE900S offers a very different take on the track by emphasizing the treble elements such as very prominent risers and synth pads. The UE 900S handles vocals very smoothly and the organ and piano shine through while the low frequencies are definitely secondary. W40s also have a much larger bass presence compared to the HEM8s, but it is a little less defined.

The “Demon Dance” by Julian Winding through the SE 535’s displays how clean every electronic element is while still maintaining the menacing bass. It’s as if I’m sitting in a dark futuristic environment experiencing the synth stabs and lurking bassline around me instead of merely listening to a prerecorded track. With the UE 900S transients pop in the mids and highs more while trading slightly less bass clarity. The W40s were the best match for this track to keep the core of warm thick bass and kick drum pulsating inside the treble synth plucks and pads. The HEM8 once again displays its neutral signature with reserved bass and crisp but pleasant highs.

Verdict

Of the headphones compared the HEM8 wins for the most detail and neutrality throughout the frequency spectrum but the W40s and SE535’s win for bass power. The SE 535 wins for detail, crispness, and power in the upper mids and highs. If you prefer warm and lush then the W40 will be a great fit. You can’t go wrong for clarity with any of these headphones. With their all-around audio quality it makes choosing one of these four headphones simply about how you prefer your sound signature.

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