Cambridge SE1 review

Cambridge’s first in-ears are found wanting compared with class-leaders Tested at £70

What Hi-Fi? Verdict

A valiant first effort at designing in-ear headphones from Cambridge, but they’re found lacking when compared with the class leaders


  • +

    Relatively detailed, well balanced and uncoloured

  • +

    Seem durable

  • +

    Fine charity initiative


  • -

    Lack of space and dynamics

  • -

    Ill-defined bass

  • -

    Not as insightful as class leaders

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Clickbait articles may clog up your website, but they’re a handy alternative to doing some work and much more fun than reading the news.

A year ago, if we’d come across a title like: “You’ll snort your tea all over your trousers when you find out these things HAVEN’T HAPPENED (number six will give you a brain haemorrhage!)”, we might have clicked on it.

But alongside things like Samuel L Jackson’s lack of an Oscar, or Brazilian Ronaldo never having won the European Cup, we would (probably) expect something about how Cambridge has never released a pair of in-ear headphones.

Remarkably, this is the first time this hugely decorated hi-fi company has ventured into this particular field in its nigh-on 50-year history.

We say “a year ago” because Cambridge made 1000 pairs of SE1s available in 2016 as part of a pay-what-you-like charity initiative. But only now are they getting a full release on Cambridge's website.

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Build and comfort

The company is no stranger to Award-winning sound but, as technical director Dominic Baker points out, there are a multitude of things to consider in headphone manufacture that don’t apply to an amp or pair of speakers.

“We need to ensure the SE1s are small, compact, lightweight and comfortable,” he says. “Another factor is making sure they are as tough and reliable as possible. There’s nothing worse than your earphones snapping or breaking when you’re already out the door on the way to work!”

As far as we’re concerned, all those boxes have been ticked. Cambridge has included seven pairs of buds to ensure a decent fit for your ear – both rubber and foam in small, medium and large, in addition to the medium rubber tips that come pre-fitted – and the cable feels sturdy enough to take a fair amount of yanking.

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In terms of delivering its signature sound, Cambridge spotlights its use of beryllium in the diaphragms of the SE1s’ 8mm drivers.

Though it sounds like something from an episode of Look Around You, the company says it is an expensive rare material, lighter than aluminium but stiffer than titanium. It's exceptionally well damped and minimises any unwanted ringing - it's a material Focal (for example) has been using in its high-end drivers for some time.

The driver housing is machined from rigid, aircraft-grade aluminium, with high-purity, oxygen-free copper in the connecting wires. So it would seem no corner has been cut while designing the SE1s.

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Having allowed 48 hours for running in, we first test the SE1s with Joe Goddard’s Electric Lines.

In in this market, there can often be a tendency for headphones to over-egg the low end. Cambridge prides itself on transparency and a refusal to colour music – and we’re met with a relatively level balance that appears to back that up.

There are no hard edges and no intrusive low frequencies; Cambridge’s engineers have kept to their word when it comes to letting the music sing for itself.

There’s a good amount of detail here as well. Tonal contrasts between dance beats, ambient synths, and sampled and treated vocal lines are evident, without leaving each strand to fend for itself.

Timing is decent too, allowing your music the rhythmic momentum needed to make your eardrums dance.

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But for all the SE1s’ talent, there is something holding them back. There is a noticeable lack of space to their presentation - which, coupled with slightly ill-defined bass, can make these usually breezy dance tunes feel somewhat claustrophobic

While the tonal balance is fine in terms of high to low frequencies, the lack of space translates to a lack of depth and results in a rather two-dimensional performance.

Dynamics, too, are a little underwhelming. Just as the soundstage feels cramped, dynamically the SE1s don’t give themselves much room to breathe.

Albums we play that rely more on the character or emotion of their vocal performance – REM’s Automatic For The People, for example – suffer most in that regard. It isn’t that we end up bored, it's just we need more to really be immersed in the performance.

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There’s a lot here to suggest Cambridge is on the right track by adding in-ear headphones to its list of Award-winning products. But it isn’t there just yet.

A comparison with Sennheiser’s Momentum in-ears backs that up: for only a few quid extra, the differences in terms of space and expression are quite exceptional, and even more so when you consider the extra detail and precision of the timing and low-end definition.

Does Cambridge have what it takes to catch up with Sennheiser et al in the in-ear market? Its track record suggests so - there are far riskier wagers you could make.

See all our Cambridge reviews

What Hi-Fi?

What Hi-Fi?, founded in 1976, is the world's leading independent guide to buying and owning hi-fi and home entertainment products. Our comprehensive tests help you buy the very best for your money, with our advice sections giving you step-by-step information on how to get even more from your music and movies. Everything is tested by our dedicated team of in-house reviewers in our custom-built test rooms in London, Reading and Bath. Our coveted five-star rating and Awards are recognised all over the world as the ultimate seal of approval, so you can buy with absolute confidence.

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