Shure just launched its first line of headphones aimed specifically at music-making applications -the SRH series. The idea's been to fill a growing demand for pro-level gear by an audience that's breaking from the norm. Improvements in the performance of software and the chaos of the music industry in general have fueled an explosion of nontraditional creative practices, and this is where the SRH840 shines. According to Shure, "the proliferation of portable listening devices, user-generated content, and home recording studios has increased demand for affordable, professional quality recording gear." The average user is now demanding higher quality and of course, like most consumers, doesn't want to pay pro prices. The SRH840 is Shure's high-end model, yet it still comes in at $250 MSRP -definitely the low end of the pro market where prices are typically anywhere from $200-$600. After DJing for many years and managing a music studio for quite a few more, I've spent a great deal of time on headphones of every flavor. I've got to say that even after going through model after model of headphones, the SRH840 was a serious surprise.
My first impression of the SRH840 was that its form-factor was awkward. Coming from the DJ world, I've had pair after pair of folding headphones, and the SRH840 is a bit unwieldy to fold and unfold. The wires into the drivers are on the outside of the casing on the thumb edge, where you naturally grasp, and they were always noticeable when folding or extending the earcups. I kept thinking about the potential for these wires to snag or catch on something, so I found myself really babying them. Extending the earcups out of the headband takes a little more force than usual, adding difficulty to on-head adjustment. Also, I'm not really a huge fan of the curled cable, generally preferring the straight variety. This in mind, the "book by its cover" idiom couldn't be more appropriate.
I must admit that I didn't start off with the SRH840 in a terribly scientific manner. I took it on vacation and started a track with just a laptop and the SRH840. I was never thinking too deeply about the sound of the headphones because I was literally just starting a track from the first note, so I didn't have any frame of reference. I spent three days working several hours at a time and made some decent progress with a song. Just for a bit of background, I've done this exact thing before with numerous headphone models, and inevitably, I returned home and had serious mixing to do -lows being a particular and well-known issue when using cans. I expected the same with the SRH840. After getting back to the studio, I wasn't thinking about the review and just opened the session to start working. I don't think it hit me until the next day when I realized I had done very little remixing of the music I'd created using just the Shure SRH840.
After this initial experience, I used a pretty basic setup to more formally test these cans -A/B'ing between many different headphones, then comparing what I heard to a pair of Event TR6 monitors I've had for ages and know fairly well (decent accuracy with a bit of mud in the low-mid to low range). For my test, I had the following headphones: Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO, Audio-Technica ATH-PRO700, Sennheiser HD 280, and Sennheiser HD 650 -all headphones that I've come to know extremely well. I put the DT 770 PRO on first. I've always thought of these as excellent headphones and have personally recommended them to dozens of people. When I switched to the SRH840, it was incredible how different the two sounded. The kick drum was the first thing that really stood out, and I think it perfectly illustrated the greatest talent of these headphones. The kick was punchy and clear -something every headphone manufacturer must lose years of their lives agonizing over. The lows in general were clear -not all consuming -and didn't sound like you were listening to a bass drum played in a cave. They also didn't step on any other frequencies. The next thing that really stood out was the vocal. Character in the vocal was astonishingly clearer, yet still had its perfect place in the mix. My first thought was that one of these two characteristics must be overcompensation, and I was sure I'd find some frequencies underserved. After spending some serious time A/B'ing each instrument in the track using the SRH840 versus the monitors, it really just seemed that the headphones were giving an amazingly accurate picture of the track.
Next, I loaded up an orchestral piece and a dance track to see how different genres would "look" using the Shures. While listening to the symphony, strings in the mids and upper-mids had more depth and were much clearer than through the Beyerdynamics, sounding even a bit more accurate than my studio monitors -while still having great definition and clarity in the highs as well. Even at high volume, the SRH840 remained clear and comfortable. When I loaded the dance track, I really experienced how amazing the bass response is with these headphones. Focusing on just the kick drum, the ATH-PRO700 was really overpowering and clearly overcompensating (a great thing for DJ'ing, and my favorite pair for the task); the HD280 was weak and lifeless; the HD650 was clean and sounded decent; the DT 770 was also decent; but the Shure SRH840's kicks were clear, punchy and amazingly accurate. With most headphones I've used, a decent punch in the lows will often overpower the rest of the track -not with the Shures. The Shure SRH840 has the most defined, punchy kick and general low-frequency response that I've ever heard in a pair of headphones. While the Sennheiser HD650 edges out the SRH840 in overall clarity, the SRH840 definitely reproduces tighter, punchier, clearer lows and is extremely close elsewhere in the spectrum. That said, I should note that the Sennheiser HD 650 lists for $400 more than the Shure SRH840 and is like a vice grip, keeping you from wearing it comfortably for any extended period of time.
Shure has certainly put together a great piece of gear here and with some minor improvements could net a real "must have" for the exact market they're targeting (mobile producers and home studios). While I'd love a few changes to the design, the headset is comfortable, and the sound is simply fantastic, having amazing clarity across the frequency range and unheard of bass response. Anyone needing critical-listening cans should definitely try these out before buying anything else. ($199 street; www.shure.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.