Playback was suitably impressed when we reviewed Shure’s SRH840 headphones last year. The 840s set a benchmark for under $250 headphone performance, though of course Grado ‘phones, for very different sonic reasons, also hold a warm spot in our value-oriented hearts. When Shure recently introduced the even lower priced SRH440, at half the price of the 840s ($125), we wanted to get them into the lab as soon as we could.
The 440s are difficult to distinguish from the big brother 840s, since they have the same look, same driver size, same impedance and the same magnet technology. The 440s are a bit more sensitive at 105db/mW (vs. 102dB for the 840s). This means that they should work with some portable devices that have limited output. The 440s have closed backs, though the fit is loose enough that these might not be ideal if isolation from external sounds is what you want.
In any event, Shure doesn’t go overboard in hyping the 840s or the 440s, perhaps because they let the products do the talking?
Consider this headset if: you want headphones with a clear and clean tonal balance with good rendition of detail—even if that comes at the expense of somewhat light or bright sound.
Look elsewhere if: you prefer a sound that is either neutrally balanced or tilted somewhat toward the warm end of the spectrum, or if you demand the punchiest dynamics on wide bandwidth music.
Ratings (compared to similarly-priced headphones)
• Tonal Balance: 8
• Clarity: 9.5
• Dynamics: 8.5
• Comfort/Fit: 9.5
• Sensitivity: 9.0
• Value: 9.0
The SHR440 offers a sound that can be immediately beguiling and involving. This is an important achievement, and one that may work well for many listeners. Like every headphone we’ve heard, the SRH440 has its limits, and in the case of the Shures these are obvious. But before we discuss shortcoming, let’s first catalog this headphone’s strengths.
Clarity without edginess is tough to achieve, but the 440s pull it off. They sound very flat from about 1000 Hz up to around 10khz, which means that instrumental overtones are rich and the sound of acoustic spaces is highlighted. Dynamics avoid splashiness, though I would say that the 440s sound a bit overly crisp from time to time.
The 440s also sound smooth from the mid-bass up to the lower midrange. Bass can sound slightly reticent, but most instruments have their fundamentals present and accounted for.
The issue, if there is one, is that the range above about 1khz is elevated compared to the bass and lower midrange. This is particularly noticeable on vocals, where singers often sound a bit light or thin. This discontinuity isn’t very big, so the results remain musically involving, but this isn’t the most neutral headphone you can buy. Interestingly, neutral tonal balance is a strength of the SRH840, so give Shure a gold star for market segmentation.
One pleasant side effect of the 440s balance is that music often sounds lively and rhythmic on these headphones. Combine that with excellent clarity and lack of harshness and you have an engaging choice that isn’t perfect but is musical.
On Alison Krauss and Union Station’s song “Never Got Off the Ground” [Alison Krauss & Union Station – Forget About It, Rounder], Alison’s voice occasionally gets into a range where there is some slightly sibilant stridency from some other headphones, but where the 440s sound clear and smooth. Through the Shures, Alison’s voice, which is pretty light to begin with, sounds a bit too thin in comparison with the real thing.
On Kate Rusby’s “Sweet Bride” from 10 [Pure], we have another singer whose voice sounds a bit younger and less mature than it really is. I really enjoyed this track on the 440s, though the sound wasn’t quite accurate. It almost sounded like an older recording captured on vinyl, though in fact this is a modern (2003) CD.
Another example of information re-proportioning comes on the Brandi Carlile song “Turpentine” [The Story, Columbia], which opens with acoustic guitar that is beautiful clear with excellent attack. But you might also notice that, through the SRH 440’s, this small guitar is present as mostly having string sound, but the deeper, fuller, lower-frequency sounds of the instrument’s body de-emphasized—so that there is much less body sound than on a real guitar.