Pros: Close to neutral, energetic sound, exceptional clarity, value
Cons: Average comfort, creaky build quality, grainy, small soundstage, bass roll-off
The SRH440 was the first $100+ full-sized headphone that I ever owned, back before I joined Head-Fi. I was looking for an affordable, closed monitoring headphone for home studio use, and I found the SRH440 and SRH840, which had just recently come out, to be more engaging/exciting sounding compared to the studio standard, the Sony MDR-7506, while still maintaining relative neutrality. Another studio staple, the once Head-Fi favourite Audio-Technica M50, sounded slightly better but cost over 50% more. The SRH840, which sounded even better, cost twice as much, so I ended up buying the SRH440.
Build quality and comfort
Build quality feels decent in the hand, if a bit hollow and plasticky. The coiled cable is thick, rubbery, and detachable. The little wires leading from the cups to the headband, while exposed, are reasonably thick compared to the dismally thin ones on the basshead favourite M-Audio Q40, for example, and should hold up fine with many years normal use. The pleather underside of the headband, however, tends to crack and peel after a while.
Once on the head, the creaky structure becomes obvious. The hinges and swivel mechanisms are not smooth at all, and the slightest head movement will cause loud creaks, which is annoying when you’re trying to listen to the music. The ear pads are similarly noisy when rubbing against your jaw, skull, or worse, glasses.
The SRH440 is my go-to benchmark for “average” comfort. Headphones that are less comfortable than the SRH440 (e.g., M-Audio Q40, AKG K81DJ, Sennheiser HD25) are below average in comfort; headphones that are more comfortable than the SRH440 (e.g., Denon D600, Sony MDR-1R, Sennheiser HD600) are above average in comfort. What does this mean? Weight is slightly heavy but not too heavy; pads are reasonably thick but not nearly as soft as the SRH840 pads; the driver grills touch your ears but not in a very bothersome way. Notwithstanding the creaking and your ears getting sweaty inside the pads, they are perfectly tolerable for short listening sessions.
Bass is very punchy and visceral despite being modest in quantity. In fact, the SRH440 have the sharpest bass impact of any headphone I’ve tried due to its speed. There is a mild mid-bass hump but the bass remains tight, controlled, and textured at all times. However, the low end gradually rolls off below 90Hz. That’s not to say that these headphones can’t produce the lowest sub-bass, which they can. It’s just quieter than the rest of the frequency spectrum and a bit of EQ can improve bass extension without distortion or compromising bass control.
Clarity is exceptional on these headphones. No matter what music you play or how much you mess with extreme EQ settings, nothing will make them sound muddy or veiled. Timbre is not always ultra-realistic like on an HD600, but everything sounds nice and crisp, and for the price it’s hard to fault. Acoustic guitars in particular are just magical on these headphones due to the slightly forward upper mids. There’s a slight tilt towards the upper mids but the overall midrange presentation is smooth with no obvious peaks or dips. Of particular importance is the fact that I hear no shoutiness at 2 kHz that ruins vocals on many headphones in this price range.
There’s a large mid-treble peak that’s quite obvious without any burn-in. This initially gave instruments a “shimmery” quality that was quite engaging if not technically accurate. It worked quite well for adding “air” around a few specific instruments, but once the mix got busy all that “shimmery air” became crowded together and turned “cloudy” instead.
In any case, after a hundred hours or so, that peak became less noticeable and the upper treble opened up. Now the treble is just wonderfully energetic and extended. It’s still slightly emphasized, giving the overall sound signature a slight tendency towards brightness, and given the quantity there is a bit of grain, but it’s also never harsh or sibilant.
Soundstage and presentation
The SRH440 remains impressively detailed across the whole spectrum, thanks to the treble extension, midrange clarity, and bass speed. Presentation is pretty forward and in-your-face so soundstage is about average for a closed headphone in this price range; decent, but nothing to write home about. Imaging is again quite decent for the price range. You can pick out individual instruments, but there isn’t a whole lot of space between them. Coming from a higher end, open-back headphone like the HD600, the presentation of the SRH440 sounds downright claustrophobic, but still 3D and immersive. It's almost like you're on stage, with the entire band is playing in a semi circle all around you, but each band member is only a couple feet away.
The Shure SRH440 is one of the best sounding neutral headphones at around $100 and a great buy despite some build quality and comfort issues, most notably the tendency towards creakiness. It’s a better value than the slightly better sounding Audio-Technica M50, as the latter has gone up significantly price as a result of its popularity, and as a bonus the Shure doesn’t have the midrange shout at 2 kHz that the M50 does. Admittedly I haven’t heard the supposedly excellent alternatives from Superlux and Fischer, but of the $100 headphones I’ve heard, only the Sony V6/7506 come close. Recommended.