Pros: Treble, Detail, Vocals!
Cons: Not for bass fiends
I thought I'd give a brief review based on my experience with the SRH940 thus far. My other headphones are a set of Sennheiser HD280s (7+ years) I use with mobile devices and my laptop, and the Beyerdynamic DT770 (2005 ed.) I use with an inexpensive amp out of my Xonar sound card on the desktop. I've listened to a dozen or so other models, but I'll mostly limit this review to a comparison with the DT770; I have the most experience with them and they're in the same category as the Shures.
First, you'll notice my headphones are all closed design. Everyone has different needs, but for me headphones are about achieving the best non-speaker sound you can get along with (1) blocking out external noise and (2) not annoying those around you. The Shures fall right in middle of my phones in that respect: not quite as noise-proof as the Senns, but better than the Beyers. It's also in the middle for long-wear comfort: the Beyers are the best, followed by the 940s, then the Senns; the Shure's little bumps on the headband felt odd at first, but I don't notice them now.
Sound: This is the important bit, right? I bought the 940s unheard based on all the reviews and forum threads I read, and my experience thus far meshes pretty well with the majority opinions. I listen to a variety of genres -- classic rock, alt. rock, folk, bluegrass, classical, jazz, big band, even forays into electronica on occasion -- really anything except rap or hip/hop.
Detail - These are indeed very detailed cans. As cliched as it sounds, I am hearing many things I didn't notice before on many songs.
Treble - These are definitely brighter than I am used to, but so far it's all quite good. The only track I've queued up that bothered me a bit was Tom Petty's "Running Down the Dream;" for some reason, the hi-hat on that particular song got quite annoying to me.
Bass - One of the primary things I read was that these phones were bass-anemic. Compared to the DT770s, that is true. It's not terrible, however, and fixed by a slight EQ boost if needed. The bass is very tight and has good extension. I listened to some Haynes organ sonatas on the Shures and the Beyers; the Beyers had more bass, but the low end was definitely present on the Shures, the latter having more engaging mids/treble. I wouldn't call the Shure's bass recessed, or anemic, or lacking; I might call it subdued. On something like a didgeridoo, it makes your spine tingle and it doesn't splatter.
Soundstage & Positioning - These consistently better the DT770s on both counts, and blow the Senn HD280s out of the water. The 940s somehow manage to bring the sound closer in, yet with an expanded soundstage. (I realize the Beyers are known for a somewhat recessed midrange.) Rather than saying, "Oh yeah, that's a nice sound on the right channel," it's more like "Holy cow, I hear instruments in three distinct, distinguishable locations on the right channel!" and can point to their respective positions. I'd buy these (closed) headphones for this category alone. Of course, all of this is dependent on good source material.
Where do these headphones shine?
Guitar, Piano, and Vocals.
- Guitar - The 940s really bring out accoustic guitar and banjo. There's a lot of new detail and "pop" without it overpowering the rest of the voicings. Béla Fleck's "Drive" album had a whole new life to it. Rock-Pop faired excellently as well: Gomez's "How We Operate" album was almost like new ear candy, with terrific separation and layering. Abigail Washburn's "Song of the Traveling Daughter" was another album that had a whole new life in terms of instrumental detail, and the vocals, well, look below.
- Piano - Mozart and Liszt piano pieces sounded marvellous; great attack, natural sounding, detailed piano. Dave Brubeck's classic "Time Out" album sounded better than ever, although I noticed the background hiss on my recording more than previously. These headphones beg for quality recordings.
- VOCALS! - These are definitely headphones for guitar lovers, but my first true wow moment came when I queued up -- and then spent the next two hours listening to -- well-produced college Acapella music. YE GODS, these things are breathtaking. While I'm not particularly a huge fan, Ani Defranco's "Everest" also revealed new clarity. Female vocals sound excellent on the 940s, as many have mentioned, but I think any vocal fares wonderfully on these.
Where do these headphones lack?
Compared to my other headphones, the bass lines in rock music can be a bit underwhelming on some tracks. A modest (3 to 6 dB) increase on the very bottom (<60Hz) helped considerably for those songs/albums. I don't think these cans would make a rap/hip-hop fan very happy.
On classical music, I have mixed feelings. Emerson String Quartet's "Emerson Encores" album has a great variety of string pieces, for example. While both the DT770 and the SRH940 sounded good, I was split fifty-fifty on which I preferred for each track. I think what it comes down to is that "more detail" and "better defined" sometimes equates to "thinner sounding" than I am used to. It never sounds bad or off.
There was one place I do not particularly like the sound of the Shure 940s: many older stereo and mono tracks. I have a large collection of jazz & popular music from the 20s, 30s, and 40s and I found the Shures too forward, unbalanced, even jarring on some of the tracks. I can overlook the slightly more noticible artifacting and hiss -- I'm used to it with such tracks -- but in comparison I found the DT770 (and even the HD280s) produced a sweeter, enjoyable, more blended sound on those older recordings. Go figure.
Conclusion - I am quite happy with my purchase -- especially at the price I paid. At $300 I think it would still be a good deal. The SRH940 is a quite different headphone from my previous cans, but is an improvement in almost every way. The Beyerdynaimcs do better in a few areas and complement the areas the Shures don't excel.