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.
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.