When it comes to sub-£100 in-ear headphones, you’re spoilt for choice. It’s difficult then for a new pair to stand out in this overcrowded market. Enter, though, the Cambridge Audio SE1s, a pair of audio enablers that bring a bit more than you’d usually expect in this price bracket.
With cheap plastic making way for more premium aluminium elements, and high-end drivers shrugging off their usual price tag, the SE1s offer style and accomplished, well-rounded sound, all without breaking the bank. They don’t necessarily stand out though. At least not at first.
Their £68 (around $85) asking price isn’t your usual fee, but with half the proceeds going to the Youth Music charity, at least you can feel good about yourself while filling your ears with solid sounds. And solid sounds are guaranteed.
Unlike their on-ear or over-ear cousins, in-ear headphones don’t have much real estate to play with when it comes to design. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a number of potential design pitfalls that need to be dodged, though. Fortunately, with the SE1s, Cambridge Audio has done a fine job of skirting them. Well, mostly.
Garish colors, and a style- and sound-compromising plastic build have been eschewed. Instead, you’ve got aluminium bud housings with a small plastic inlay. These are well balanced, with a reassuring weight, without being bulky enough to constantly be pulled from your ear. You might not want to go jogging with these in your ears, but if you did you wouldn’t have to worry about shoving them back in your lug holes every 20 metres.
They’re not the most eye-catching headphones going, but that’s kind of the point – they're refined more than simple. The cable down to the 3.5mm jack has a transparent rubberised coating, with the overall effect of the whole package being one of simplistic elegance. The SE1s aren’t without their design shortcomings, though.
These mainly manifest in the form of missing features. Namely, the SE1’s limited inline options. Although there’s a single physical play/pause button and an integrated mic to let you take calls on the move without fishing your phone from your pocket, the lack of inline volume controls is a disappointing omission.
Comfortable as well as easy on the eye, the SE1s come boxed with plenty of silicone and foam interchangeable ear tip options. For those of you with an iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus, however, the 3.5mm connection and absence of Bluetooth abilities mean you’re going to have to go hunting for that little 3.5mm-to-Lighting adaptor you put in a ‘safe place’.
When it comes to sound quality, the Cambridge Audio SE1s are, like their design, elegant rather than elaborate. From the off there’s a pleasing, natural balance to their sound, with bass not given undue precedence, as on the Beats X.
The 8mm Beryllium drivers pack plenty of punch, and are capable of hitting high volumes without any sound-compromising distortion or clipping. These headphones aren’t just about brute force though; there’s a beautiful subtlety to their sound.
While many rival headphones take a heavy-handed approach, focusing on the mass-appealing bass, Cambridge Audio has introduced more balance and finesse. Listening to the Piano Guys' cover of A Thousand Years, there’s a well-rounded nature to the output. It’s a beautifully blended, uncluttered sound that doesn’t isolate a single element but balances the highs of the piano with the deeper cello notes to great effect.
No matter what sort of music you favor though, the SE1s bring the mid to the fore, ensuring vocals are crisp and clear even when backed up by strong bass lines or electronic highs. This does come at some cost elsewhere, though.
Switch things up and the SE1s can come slightly unstuck. Listening to Can't Hold Us by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the headphones push the vocals a bit too much, lacking the necessary punch to bring such a bass-heavy track to life.
Bass isn’t underpowered though; instead it’s natural rather than artificially over-inflated, and that means you'll need to push the volume up for it to land. And that’s not the only reason you’ll want the volume pushing the red limits.
Although comfortable enough to wear for hours on end without ear fatigue, the SE1s don’t offer the most isolating fit. Sure, you’ll cut out most of that unwanted background noise, but there’s no escaping the rumble of your morning commuter train or the wail of a baby unless you crank the volume up to uncomfortable levels; such elements will always find their way in, jarringly so in the lull between tracks.
It’s not all doom and gloom though – you’re not going to get disgruntled glances from your fellow commuters, as there’s no unwanted leakage, even when you’ve got the volume pumped to bass-rattling highs.
Easy on the eye and comfortable to wear, the Cambridge Audio SE1 headphones are everything you could expect from a £68 pair of in-ear headphones, and a bit more besides.
They don’t offer a listening experiences that will ever wow, but they deliver a sound that’s brilliantly balanced and well rounded, and at a wallet-friendly price tag. It’s a natural sound that will take you from morning easy listening to party-prepping dance tracks without many shortcomings.
Aside from a slight lack of bass, there’s not much to dislike about these in-ear audio enablers. The lack of in-line volume controls, however, is an omission that continues to annoy well beyond early use. Repeatedly fishing your phone from your pocket in order to toggle the volume is a frustration that doesn’t disappear.
Although the headphone’s fit is tight, keeping plenty of ambient noise out, they’re not the best at isolating sound either. Given their lack of volume distortion though, this is only a slight issue.
The Cambridge Audio SE1s are an accomplished pair of in-ear headphones. They never threaten to reach the realms of greatness, but for the price tag they don’t really need to.
They offer surprisingly well-rounded sound that's deep and detailed, if lacking slightly in punch, and you could pay much more for a lot worse. Take the plunge and they’ll put a smile on your face.