PLAYBACK 23: Shure SRH840 Professional Monitoring Headphones

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Shure SRH840
PLAYBACK 23: Shure SRH840 Professional Monitoring Headphones

Many Playback readers associate the name Shure with high performance microphones and in-ear headphones, but the Niles, IL-based company has recently entered the market for high-performance over-the-ear headphones with a lineup consisting of three models. Playback was fortunate enough to obtain a sample of the flagship model of the group: the SRH840, which sells for $200.

The basic specifications for the SRH840 seem straightforward enough. It is a mid-weight (318 gram), closed-back, circumaural (over-the-ear) headphone with 40mm dynamic drivers that feature neodymium magnets. Shure says of these drivers that they are designed to deliver “reference-quality frequency response” and are “optimized for studio recording and critical listening.” Earcups are carried on collapsible “arms” that allow the headphones to fold up to fit neatly within their included drawstring carry bag. 

Although many consumers would consider $200 headphones “expensive,” the fact is that among very high-performance models the price of SRH840s falls near the lower end of the scale. Knowing this, we were curious to see how the SRH840 would fare in direct comparison not only with like-priced competitors but also when evaluated against the standards set by headphones in the $400+ range (or even beyond). The short answer, we soon discovered, is that Shure’s new top model not only holds its own versus higher priced competitors but also surpasses them in many respects. In short, Shure’s SRH840s offer terrific value for money and are high-end ear-openers, extraordinaire.

                                                                                                                                                         

Overview

Consider this headphone if: you crave the sound of $400+ headphones, but have only about half that amount to spend. For $200, these Shures sound fully competitive with ‘phones in the $400+ class—better than some, not quite as good as others, but always in the hunt. The SRH840 is sensitive, offers a rich and vivid yet well-balanced sound (with perhaps a touch—but only a light and tasteful touch—of mid-bass emphasis), explosive dynamics, and an uncanny ability to sound at once highly detailed, yet smooth.

Look elsewhere if: you want to reach for the absolute heights of sonic openness, transparency, and neutrality. While the SRH840 comes surprisingly close to true top-tier performance, the fact is that, if you are willing to push the envelope (and your wallet) far enough, there are even higher levels of headphone performance to be had at the top end of the scale. But at the $200 level, the SRH840 is a steal, pure and simple. It’s all the headphone many listeners will ever need or want.

Ratings (compared to similarly-priced headphones)

  • Tonal Balance: 9
  • Clarity: 9.5
  • Dynamics: 10
  • Comfort/Fit: 9
  • Sensitivity: 10
  • Value: 10

Sonic Character

One of the most striking qualities of the Shure SRH840 is that it sounds more sonically refined, revealing, and involving than its price might lead you to expect. Three areas where this is readily apparent involve overall resolution and definition, bass performance, and dynamics. Let’s briefly examine each of these points in turn.

Resolution and definition: many headphones in the $200 class are well-balanced performers that generally sound good, but that fall just a bit short of expectations because they somehow lose (or perhaps gloss over) certain essential low-level textural and transient details that could potentially help pull us deep inside the music. But few such limitations apply when listening to the Shure SRH840s. Instead, they dig deeper—a lot deeper—than other headphones in their price class to retrieve small, delicate bits and pieces of musically relevant information.

In practice, this means you hear the edges of transient sounds more clearly through the Shures while also enjoying a clearer presentation of essential textures and timbres of instrumental and human voices. True, the Shures will expose overly “hot” or harsh-sounding recordings for what they are, but on the whole these headphones do a remarkable job of revealing details while preserving an underlying quality of smoothness. Some pundits say there can be “no gain without pain,” but the SRH840s prove them wrong by showing it is possible to enjoy low level sonic details without subjecting yourself to painful edginess, etching, or glare. 

Bass: the SRH840s are exceptional bass performers, combining low bass extension, excellent bass pitch definition, and sheer low-end power and weight (when the music calls for it). I’ve heard many headphones that give you one or two of these bass attributes, but rarely have heard ones that combine all three as effectively as the Shures do. The only caveat I might mention is that the SRH840s exhibit a touch, but only a very light touch, of mid-bass emphasis relative to strict neutrality—a characteristic that, in my view, is musically grounded and that can, on many recordings, enable headphones sound truer to the overall feel of live music or of studio performances.

Dynamics: many headphones, even some quite high-priced models, have a slightly compressed sound that seems to quash dynamics—especially subtle low-level variations in dynamic emphasis within or between notes. I attribute this, first, to the fact that some ‘phones are relatively insensitive or otherwise difficult to drive, and second, to the fact that some ‘phones cut corners on the quality of the signal cables they provide.

But when it comes to revealing dynamic contrasts, the Shure’s enjoy several advantages: they’re very sensitive (102dB/mW), extremely easy to drive, and come with cables equipped with pure, oxygen-free copper conductors (just like those used in more costly headphones). Perhaps as a result of all three of these advantages, the Shures seem, in a sense, to expand the apparent dynamic range of many recordings, making both large and small-scale dynamic contrasts stand out in sharp relief.  

Musical Examples

To hear the terrific clarity of the SRH840s in action, I put on “Just Her Weekend Fling”—the first track from Ludwig Berghe’s gorgeous (and pristinely recorded) jazz album Weekend [Moserobie Jazz]. The track feature Berghe on piano and sidemen Daniel Fredriksson on drums and MattiasWelin on bass. The song unfolds slowly, giving each of the highlighted instruments plenty of room to breathe, allowing the listener time to drink in and savor each instrument’s voice. What floored me was the way the SRH840 effortlessly revealed even the smallest intricacies and details of timbre, giving an incredibly intimate view of the performance. I could hear, for example, the sound of Fredriksson’s brushes gently rustling over the matte-textured head of his snare drum, creating an ethereal percussion wash against which the rest of the song could unfold. Similarly, I could take in the crisp, sure-handed percussive beauty of Berghe’s note choices and hear—to borrow a phrase coined by my colleague Jonathat Valin at The Absolute Sound—the “action” of the piano at work (that is, the subtle, almost subliminal sound of keys actuating hammers, hammers striking strings, strings beginning to vibrate, and vibrations setting in motion rich resonances within the frame and case of the piano, and so forth). The effect was not unlike hearing a piano from very close range—perhaps from only a few feet away. Finally, the Shures showed the masterful restrain of Welin’s bass playing, revealing the way he caressed and held individual notes, rather than succumbing to the temptation to overcomplicate things. My point is that the Shures give you an accurate insider’s view—indeed, almost a performer’s view—of high quality music recordings, which is exactly what you would want a monitoring headphone to do.

To evaluate the Shure’s bass performance, I played the very demanding third (“Landscape: Lento”) movement of Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia antartica [Bakels, Bournemouth; Naxos], which features tympani, concert bass drums, and a pipe organ. I have heard this recording many times through superb full-range loudspeakers and through systems equipped with world-class subwoofer, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it better rendered than through the SRH840s. Here’s why. The movement presents low frequency instruments played both delicately and vigorously and at high and low volume levels, in the process exposing listeners to a very wide range of bass timbres and pitches. Speakers often have a hard time keeping up with the demands of this track and room interactions can be a problem, too. Through the Shures, however, I had the sense of hearing the bass content of the track as it was meant to sound—low key in some passages and almost overwhelmingly powerful in others, yet always with presented in perfect control with clearly delineated pitches, even on the lowest organ pedal notes. This is how bass was meant to sound.

Finally, to enjoy the dynamic clout of the Shure, I tried an old favorite: the track “You And Your Friend” from Dire Straits’ On Every Street [Warner Bros.]. This track, more than many, shows how dynamically compressed most hi-fi systems sound and, in contrast, how dynamically expressive the SRH840’s can be. Through most systems Mark Knopfler’s guitar sounds smooth and lush on this track, but also a bit subdued relative to the sound of a real electric guitar. Through the Shure’s, however, one has the eerie but very exciting sensation of being “hard-wired” directly into the pickup circuitry on Knopfler’s guitar. Some notes are indeed smooth and creamy-sounding, but on others you can hear Knopfler dig in just a bit, making the leading edges of notes explode with bursts of energy. Similarly, you can hear variations in the way Knopfler bends notes, gently pulling some to higher pitches while sharply tugging others upward in a way that imparts a vigorous howl of expression. The point, I think, is that the Shures offer you extra measures of expressiveness that make dynamic contrasts sound vivid and alive—leaving lesser hi-fi systems and headphones sounding somewhat “faded” or "washed out" by comparison.

Comfort Factor/Accessories

The SRH840s feature generously-proportioned, leather-covered earcup pads that help distribute the headphone’s moderate clamping forces for long-term wearer comfort. Another plus is a wide, padded headband that helps distribute the weight of the Shures across a broader area at the top of your head.

The Shures come with a high-quality 9.8-foot extension cord with a bayonet-type locking lug that cinches the cable firmly to the body of the left earpiece. Other accessories include a gold-plated, threaded mini-jack to phone jack adapter, a spare set of earcup pads, and a leatherette drawstring-type carrying bag.

Bottom Line:

Shure’s SRH840 is a wonderful general purpose headphone that is good, not just “for the money” (though it is certainly that), but also in a broader sense. These headphones set a benchmark in terms of value for money. To do better, you’ll have to spend much, much more.

Specs & Pricing

Shure SRH840 Professional Monitoring Headphones

Type: Closed-back, over-the-ear (circumaural) headphone
Driver complement: 40mm dynamic driver with neodymium
Accessories: mini-plug to phone jack adapter, 9.8-foot extension cord, spare earcup pads, carrying bag.
Frequency Response: 5 Hz – 25 kHz

Weight: 318 grams
Sensitivity: 102dB/mW
Impedance: 44 ohms
Price: $200.00

SHURE INC.
5800 West Touhy Avenue
Niles, IL 60714
(847) 600-1212

www.shure.com 

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