The Shure SRH940, a Subjective Opinion-Based Analysis Subject to Scrutiny
The Shure SRH940: "I can hear the smoke in the bar."
Background (A Preface)
Before even beginning to describe my journey with the Shure SRH940 headphone, I should explain where I'm coming from to help explain some of my perceptions, expectations and generally how my opinion is formed. I'm a basshead at heart. I like thundering, pant shaking, jaw rattling bass. I like it low, tight and with impact. I don't like muddy uncontrolled flabby bass, even if it's full and wall shaking. Because of this, my headphone collection is pretty centered around bass heavy headphones such as the Ultrasone Pro 900, BeyerDynamic DT990 and the Sony XB500. My reference point for determining neutrality and color is usually done with my Sennheiser HD580 headphone. I keep my Audio-Technica AD500 and Sony XB500 as reference points for inexpensive headphones to make references to between a closed bass heavy headphone and an open air headphone with good soundstage. After all, what's the point of a $300 headphone if a $50 headphone can do it too. It's good to have a wide spectrum of things to sample from to get an idea of quality, sound spectrum, extension, rendering, well, the total package.
Too Long; Won't Read (TL;WR): I'm a basshead going after a detail monster headphone for vocals and acoustic.
Why I Chose the Shure 940
I already have a Sennheiser HD580, so why would I want to get a Shure SRH940? Simply put, I wanted a headphone that would deliver clarity, crispness, detailed highs and likewise mids that wasn't a bass centered headphone like most of my other headphones. I wanted something specifically for classical music, female vocals, acoustic, indie, folk and jazz. The Sennheiser HD580 already performs this task very well, but is laid back and is open air so it's not very ideal for portable use. I wanted something a bit more forward with the highs and mids that was specifically closed so that I could use it while going portable as well as when at home for isolation if quiet-time is needed. Very few headphones that were closed fit the bill in terms of the sound signature I was looking for and the style and comfort that had to pair with it. Searching around landed me the Shure SRH940. A closed back headphone with velour pads and an easy-going-headband grip that has forward mids and highs with good bass extension that is not too bright and little to no sibilance that is relatively easy to drive and sounds excellent for acoustic and female vocals (primarily for me) with incredible detail and clarity while being very comfortable and able to be used portable and it had to have cloth pads, as I will not wear anything else when going portable.
Too Long, Won't Read (TL;WR): Closed back headphone with forward highs and mids, neutral bass, that is bright and clear with a great sound stage and good extension. Perfect for vocals, acoustic, jazz, indie, folk, etc. Basically, if you want a personal studio session with Ani Difranco, this is your headphone.
What's In The Box
Some people do not really care about what package, and others do. I like to have accessories and extras that supplement and actually are useful. When it comes to a headphone, the things I'm looking for in terms of these things are extra ear pads, additional cables, a carrying case, etc. The Shure SRH940 has a really good offering in terms of it's package, aside from it's headphone. The carrying case it comes in is a sturdy semi-hard rubber finish-feeling plastic case with a good sturdy zipper. The case does not have a lashing or band, it's just a case, so you have to hold it to carry, it doesn't turn into a hard bag so to speak. It compresses if you press with force, so a crushing force will destroy the contents, but it's sturdy enough to protect the headphone and contents in your luggage bag, backpack, messenger bag, piling books on it on the table, etc. Inside the case, you get two detachable cables, one straight cable and one coiled cable. Both terminate with a 3.5mm jack and come with a 1/4th adapter that screw locks onto the cable. It makes for quick swapping and adapting to your source device. There are additional velour pads of the same color included. The case has a zipper bag inside the case for the additional cable. And of course the headphone itself. The middle of the case has a hard rubber place holder for the headphone to hug. When in place, the headphone does not move around making it a great travel case with some pretty good protection.
Overall, the contents are great which enhances the headphone as a package. By comparison, this package is far superior to what came with my BeyerDynamic DT990, which did not include detachable cables, and was a very flimsy pleather case-bag essentially with a big foam insert in a big tear drop shape where the headphones are cradled. On the other hand, the Ultrasone Pro 900 case is superior to the Shure SRH940, as it is a more sturdy case made of vinyl material that is less prone to show dust and finger prints and comes with a lashing so you can hold it like a hard bag for carrying (and the contents from Ultrasone included extra pads, extras detachable cables and something really neat, a CD with recordings to test the sound stage and rendering ability of the headphone). Shure could have included something like that and made a better case. I've seen a lot of people really liking the case, but the Ultrasone case and contents are superior in my opinion. If you need absolute protection, none of these cases will do. If you want total protection, I recommend an inexpensive hard gun case with foam insert.
Construction & Style
Driver Size: 40mm
Weight: 11oz (320gram) without the cable
The headphone itself is made entirely of plastic except for a few internal bits which are definitely not plastic (more on this in a moment). The color is two tone, grey and silver, with black pads, band and cords. The headphone is not flashy like an Ultrasone back plate for example. The plastic itself is very sturdy. Note, it's easy to scratch the plastic. I noticed this right away compared to the hard rubber material of the Ultrasone. I've already scratched mine a bit just from heavy use and tossing it around with other objects. The headband is lined with a pleather material and foam. The pads are velour and very comfortable, they're not a rigid foam like the Ultrasone, the pads more resemble the soft squishiness of my Sennheisers. The cups themselves swivel 90 degrees and completely flip (you can literally turn them inside out). The cups are shaped like an oval, not a circle, and are circumaural. The headband extension is actually labeled with measurements, so you can match both sides without having to eye it, it's labeled, so you can put both sides to "4" for example and it will be equal on both sides (I found this feature to be a nice detail). The cables are detachable, and lock in place (via a twist lock mechanism, if they are yanked they do not come out, they will simply pull the headphone, so beware). Speaking of cables, it comes with two detachable cables. One is straight, one is coiled. Both are thick and feel durable. They terminate with 3.5mm jacks and come with a single 1/4th adapter that screws on. The design is a single cable (ie, both cups do not have a cable extension).
There is an odd thing to the cups, the swivel mechanism has a spring mechanism inside which was not really documented anywhere and this is my first flaw that I found. The spring (or whatever it is in there) makes the cup snap back to it's position where the drivers face each other, ie, listening position. That seems nice, but the spring feels like a cheap spring mechanism, not a tight tense spring or tight swivel. And I worry that years from now, if that spring loses it's potential that it will start to just be loose and freely swivel around or possibly rattle or something. I don't like the spring thing in there. I don't notice it while wearing. I only even know it's there when I move the cups manually while holding them in my hands just to turn them around.
The construction of swivel cup allows the headphone to easily drop around your neck which makes it a decent full size headphone for portable use while being closed back. I flip them so that they're backwards when portable, so that when I drop them around my neck, the back plates face outwards (instead of the driver). It allows your headphone tell everyone what they are (great conversation starter for people interested in higher end audio equipment).
I've never been a fan of the Shure look. The Shure SRH940 is a deviation from there typical look with velour pads, the color, and the cups themselves. This flagship's look is a definite improvement to their line and is one of the only reasons I even started to entertain getting a Shure headphone (their IEM's look fine of course). I wear these in public without worry at all, they look great. I don't think they're as classy looking as my Ultrasones and they don't have a nice mechanical look the way my BeyerDynamics do. But they definitely look better than other Shures do. I have ugly headphones, and I won't wear them where someone can see (ie, Sony XB500's). So the Shure SRH940 is an attractive headphone for being out and about representing higher end audio to the community. I'm not sure if it looks like a $300 headphone (I think the Ultrasone Pro 900 and the BeyerDynamic DT990 look like their price tags) though.
I find the headphone to be more comfortable than my Ultrasones and even my BeyerDynamics. The Beyers have always been one of my most comfortable headphones, due to big pillow velour pads. My 10 year old Sennheiser HD580's are the only thing that come close to the comfort of the Shure SRH940. The grip is loose, but not `fall off your head' loose. I don't even notice the headband while wearing them unless I think about it. They're not heavy, but they're not so weightless that you think they're falling off all the time (the way my AD500's feel). They weigh 11 ounces (320 grams) without the cable.
The overall comfort and feel is very satisfying.
The headphone was meant to be a headphone that can travel. It's portable. It's a full size portable that comes with a carry case, swivel and folding cups and detachable cables that is easy to drive and doesn't require amplification to enjoy. So in a nutshell, yes, it's portable. I found it was very natural and easy to drop the headphone down around my neck. I tend to wear my full size headphones backwards when I'm going portable because when I drop my headphone down around my neck, I like the driver to face my chest so that the back plate faces everything else (essentially showing the back of the headphone to everyone). I like knowing you can see what the headphone is, not just open drivers. Plus, spilling coffee into the driver compared to the closed plastic back of the driver is an obvious perk of doing this. Clearly, I know from experience regarding that and do not recommend it (hah!).
Let's get to the heart of the matter: how the SRH940's sound. The Shure SRH940 is a treble bright, mid forward and bass neutral headphone that has strength in details, clarity, soundstage, extension, and isolation. Again, this is why I went for this particular headphone, it has the sound signature that I wanted for listening to things like acoustic, classical, folk, indie and female vocals, while being a closed headphone for isolation. My first impression after listening a while was that the headphone lived up to it's reputation and immediately performed exactly what was expected of it and more.
We should probably at least have a basis here, so I'll share what hardware I used as my source(s) and what music I used to test the range and rendering ability of the headphones.
I used my Shure SRH940's with a few different bits of hardware for both desktop home listening and portable listening. For desktop use, I used my Matrix Cube DAC as both my primary DAC as well as my solid state amplifier. To compare solid state to tube amplification, my tube amp is the Little Dot MKIII. And for my portable setup, the Vivid V1 Technologies is my DAC/AMP combination.
Music Samples Used
Overall, I tested mostly vocals, acoustic, jazz, folk, indie and pop. I added in some electronic (house & dub) and rock just for comparison sake. All my music is lossless FLAC via Fubar2000 or my Sansa Fuze when portable.
Strong: Acoustic, Classical, Folk, Indie, R&B, Jazz, Vocals.
Capable: Ambient, Metal, Rock, Scores, Pop.
Weak: Electronic (House, Dance, Dub, Techno).
Ani DiFranco - Both Hands
Ingrid Michaelson - Corner of Your Heart
Regina Spektor - Samson
Dar Williams - Calling the Moon
Diana Krall - 'S Wonderful
Norah Jones - Young Blood
Marie-Jo Therio - Cafe Robinson
Paul Simon - Love and Hard Times
Ludovico Einaudi - Ora
Keith Jarrett - Koln Concert
Pawnshop Jazz - Limehouse Blues
Euge Groove - A Summer Night's Dream
The Cranberries - Such a Shame
Jackie Evancho - Nella Fantasia
Lustmord - Primal
Rush - Tom Sawyer
Journey - Keep On Runnin'
Opeth - Windowpane
Ronald Jenkees - Disorganized Fun
BT - Rose of Jericho
OceanLab - Satellite
Parov Stelar - Libella Swing
Justice - Genesis
DeadMau5 - Some Chords
Crystal Castles - Black Panther
Skrillex - Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites (Dirtyphonics Remix)
Bay Area Dubstep (BAD) - Tip Tap Toez
Nero - Act Like You Know
The highs are forward and bright, however they are not so bright that they immediately cause fatigue. The highs are not laid back the way my Sennheiser HD580 presents. Instead, the highs are rendered very clearly, forward, a bit bright, airy, and with a bit of energy. The lovely thing is that even though it's forward, sibilance is minimal to non-existent. This was important to me because I was going to be listening to a lot of female vocals with acoustics with this headphone. Compared to my Ultrasone Pro 900's which have forward bright highs as well, but they were often fatiguing for intense female vocals for me--this is not the case with the Shure SRH940 at higher volumes which was completely impressive. Female vocals are hauntingly good with this headphone because it's able to present a good neutral mid with a forward high, so it projects and isn't subdued by what else is going on in the music. It's all about the details here, when listening to acoustic and vocals for example, it's very pleasing to hear the little things that are not even musical, but rather the human counterparts making the music (of course not all recordings have it, it greatly depends on how the recording was done, like studio to live, concert, etc). Hearing the gentle scratches on the strings, shoes moving over the sustain pedal on a piano, breath sounds, the sound of a mouth when it opens after swallowing and prepares to sing (that may sound weird, but it's amazing), etc, is the detail of the headphone I was looking for--again, it has to already be present, recorded, but you then need a good headphone that is able to render it in a way that allows you to hear it. The quoted title of "detail monster" is pretty accurate. And this is where my saying "I can hear the smoke in the bar" comes from. Because of this attention to detail and ability to render it, your source matters a lot more than perhaps with another headphone. My Sennheiser HD580 for example is a very similar headphone sound signature wise, but it's highs are not forward and that's where imperfections are often heard or not heard. The Shure SRH940 will reveal every little perfection. It will be more important than ever for someone interested in these headphones to have the absolute highest quality possible recordings that they can get their hands on. I tested some various bit rate MP3 compression levels and absolute lossless and it was easy to tell which recordings were compressed and which were not. 320kbps simply doesn't cut it in my opinion here. It's pleasing to listen to, but I found it obvious which was 320kbps and which was FLAC when comparing music from acoustic to electronica. The devil is in the details.
Compared to my Ultrasone Pro 900's, the highs are bright, but the Pro 900's are even more bright at the same volume. The Sennheiser HD580's have great highs but are not bright, they're more laid back and not as engaging. The BeyerDyanmic DT990's are bright and forward and more similar to the Pro 900's than the Shure SRH940. The XB500 have no highs to really speak of, they're completely recessed and shallow. The AD500 has forward airy bright highs that are sort of similar.
The mids are forward to neutral and the center of the headphone's signature. The mids sound gorgeous, very generous, and are the bulk of what you're going to hear. The mids are not lost to the low end frequencies and essentially tie together the top and low end nicely. The mids are where you find most of the frequencies involved with vocals and various instruments and the highs top it off and give some of the detail. In this sense, the mids are absolutely clear and a bit bright, but not as bright as the highs. I would describe the mids as neutral, airy, articulate, breathy, detailed, open and transparent. I think the mids have to be a strong, but not over the top presence in a detail headphone like this because it's producing the bulk of what you're hearing. This headphone delivers in mids and highs as a single end of the spectrum. Primarily I focused on vocals and acoustic instruments and the detail and richness of voice and the detail of a guitar or saxophone (including the sounds associated with reed use and wind instruments in general) were incredible. Voices are projected forward when I compared to other headphones and literally take center stage with a full forward sound. Instruments were incredibly detailed (dependent on recording of course). Listening to some jazz, I was listening to various details such as the mechanical working of the saxophone specifically, the sound of a wet reed after prolonged playing, the gentle taps and thumps of a guitar body during play and especially the body of a piano and it's mechanisms that you can hear through the tones being played. The detail was there. The notes were crisp and separate. Absolutely clear and detailed, not muddy or congested, and they didn't drown out the highs.
Compared to my Ultrasone Pro 900's, the mids are forward and neutral, where as with the Pro 900's they're more recessed, I noticed a big difference in vocals and acoustic. The Sennheiser HD580's have excellent mids and are much more similar to the Shure SRH940 but are still a bit laid back and less forward. The BeyerDynamic DT990 has more recessed mids compared to the Shure SRH940. The XB500 mids are there, but are muffled and recessed with the mid-bass. The AD500's have forward mids that are similar to the Shure SRH940's but lack the detail and fullness.
Right away it should be repeated, I'm a basshead, so these are a huge break from my typical headphone. My biggest fear was always that I'd get a detailed high/mid focused headphone and immediately reach for my Ultrasone Pro 900's or BeyerDynamic DT990's. The bass extension of the Shure SRH940 is actually quite impressive. The Shure SRH940 was able to render low frequencies when I tested it on various tones and music that had incredibly low bass and it was there, very tight, very controlled, but not forward and definitely not the focus of the headphone's sound signature. The bass is there and very capable, but it's neutral and sometimes you have to listen to even realize that there's a really low frequency playing. The detail is still incredible and you can pick out separate sounds with ease and the bass is like this too. The bass is satisfying in the setting of vocals, acoustic, jazz, indie, folk, classical and some rock. I tested some electronic music with some very extensive bass and bass focus, and found it rendered nicely, but definitely wasn't the strong point of the headphone. In a bass-lite headphone, when listening to dubstep for example, you immediately realize you're not wearing basshead cans. This is not a flaw, but rather, what the headphone is not all about. I tested the bass to see if the headphone was capable of being made more bassy with equalizer setting changes and found it was able to become quite forward and very rich. So the headphone is actually capable of quite a bit more if you do need to be able to make it more bassy, it definitely can do it. It still is not nearly as monstrous as headphones like Sony XB500's or Ultrasone Pro 900's at all, not even in the same league what so ever. But the bass presence is enough to satisfy me, a basshead, while listening to things that are not focused on bass. I was actually impressed how low the headphones were capable of going and it was clear and controlled, simply not forward and not at all covering up the mids. This was a very refreshing sound and when I compared to my other headphones, immediately liked this sound much more for music like vocals, acoustic, jazz, indie, folk and classical. But the bass is present enough that I get a satisfying low hum from a cello, piano and bass saxaphone. If you need present bass, these headphones are not for you. However, I will say again, with an equalizer tweak, it was impressive how much the headphone could change in the bass department.
Compared to my Ultrasone Pro 900's, the bass of the Shure SRH940 will immediately sound like it ran away from the fight, but that's because the Pro 900's are monstrous with their controlled extended low powerful bass. The Sennheiser HD580's are more similar to the bass of the SRH940 in that it's rather neutral, not forward, present and has good extension capability. The BeyerDynamic DT990 bass is also much more powerful, full, rich and forward than the Shure SRH940. The XB500 has ridiculous bass that just rattles your jaw and is the absolute opposite of the Shure SRH940 in every way. The AD500 has very light bass that is not full, less rich than the Shure SRH940, so the Shure is more bassy than the open air Audio-Technica by quite a bit. Overall, bass shouldn't be why you're getting the Shure SRH940. I'm merely giving a bit of a comparison should you own one of these or heard one of these headphones to get an idea of what kind of bass you might expect.
The soundstage of the Shure SRH940 is good for a closed headphone. Instruments are all over the place, even though it's heavily recording dependent. I have a lot of music that is acoustic and vocal based, and when something is not centered it really stands out and is different. In a headphone with poor soundstage, you hear most everything separate, and in some headphones, the channels are so separate that there's too much left or too much right and it just sounds artificial and very poorly recorded. Electronica music generally is very central, no variation on channels, other than movement from direction to direction for fun. But classical, folk, indie, jazz, etc, with several instruments really let the SRH940 shine by allowing you to easily pick out which instrument you want to pay direct attention to and it's relative orientation in the sound field. The soundstage is not the same as that of an open headphone, but it's still quite impressive. I had a few recordings I listened to that I thought I heard someone knocking on the door, or something was happening in the house, but realized it was just something in the background of a recording. Separation of the left and right channel is very subtle, it's not pronounced, so when you hear a recording, things are not only left or right, it's very well mixed. Things can be centered or just slightly off centered, without too much obvious "one channel" sound.
A big reason I went with the Shure SRH940 is because it's closed back, so I could have some isolation. It helps to have the headphone available during travel and helps to enhance detail. Isolation is a big deal if living and listening around other people, be it at the house or in an airport. Direct comparison to the Ultrasone Pro 900's, I noticed right away that the higher frequency sounds like "sss" were more hushed with my Shure SRH940's than with my Ultrasones. So overall isolation was a tad better with the Shure SRH940's. I tested how well they isolate at home and found that when the drivers are open to the room, you can hear them like speakers from two rooms away. I was hearing music in the bathroom of a bedroom next to the office room which had my Shure SRH940's playing away with the drivers exposed to the room. Vise verse, when the headphones are clamped on something for listening, isolation is quite good for natural passive isolation and you can barely hear them from a few inches away and not at all from another room. None of the noise cancelation gimmick stuff is involved. I had the opportunity to test the headphones at home and on the go, I tested them in Miami and Jacksonville airport and their respective flights for several hours. I used them in the airport in Miami and I could not hear anything except music. In the actual airplane, I couldn't hear people or announcements, but I could certainly hear the rumble of the jet engine, but it was still muffled enough to where I could enjoy listening to acoustic at normal listening level. It's very difficult to completely isolate out a jet engine next to you. I was impressed.
Here's a video with audio to give an idea of isolation at 8 inch distance and high volume:
Sensitivity: 100 dB/mW
Testing amplification has been a bit tricky, but I've made a few notes that are worth mentioning. When I play various music through my Sansa Fuze without a portable amplifier and with a portable amplifier there are small differences. When I test my Sansa Fuze with and without my Vivid V1 Technologies portable DAC/AMP, I noticed that the bass is slightly different. When amplified the bass is a little more pronounced (which is still not forward at all compared to the mids and highs). I think I notice more of a bump in the mid-bass range that gives it a bit more of a full sound. It does not suddenly make the headphone bassy at all, to be clear on that. I do not think the headphone needs amplification beyond what your portable player can provide (depending on the player). These headphones are not power hungry and are not hard to drive. But again, I think you will squeeze a tiny bit more out of their lower ranges with an amplifier should you be interested in these headphones for portable use.
As for amplification at home in the desktop setting, I tested both solid state and tube amp with my Matrix Cube DAC and my Little Dot MK III. I noticed the tube sound really warms up the headphone at least in my setup and the bass was a bit more full under the tube. Solid state seems to be a better amplifier for the headphone in regards to detail and producing a neutral and more true to the recording sound for this particular headphone. I noticed a little more sound stage with my tube amp as well, but it's very slight. I think overall I enjoyed the sound of female vocals on my solid state amp more because it seemed to have less of a bloom and less of a tubey echo sound. They both sounded great, but I think I simply enjoyed the quiet, detailed, nothing added amplification that comes from a good clean solid state amplifier. The tube made it a bit more fun. So depending on what you're looking for in sound, one way or another could be important. Overall, I think the solid state approach is better for a detail headphone that is meant to be neutral, or neutral with a color towards mids/highs.
Too Long, Won't Read (TL;WR): Amplification is not necessary. It enhances the fullness of bass response when used very slightly. Solid state amplifier I think sounds better than tube amplifier for this headphone due to detail and not adding any particular sound to the render the way a tube amp tends to.
I have to say that I've spent over 100 hours on these headphones at this point constantly switching and comparing to my other headphones and trying different combinations with my gear to see what I find works best out of what I actually have. I am more and more listening to my Shure SRH940's than my other headphones, largely because I'm listening to more acoustic and vocals. I immediately change to my Ultrasone Pro 900's when I get into more dance and house, without hesitation of course. But I find I don't even want to use my Sennheiser HD580's when I have these Shure SRH940's. The Shure is just more engaging and the mids and highs are just gorgeous, and being close and portable, and easy to drive, it's my headphone of choice between the two so that I can basically use it anywhere.
I've not noticed any specific changes with the mystical burn in, as I've just listened to the headphone the whole time and it sounds just like I put it on, except that I'm used to hearing it now and of course either continue to like it or not.
I'm definitely happy with the headphone. If you're looking for a headphone for acoustic, jazz, vocals, indie, folk and classical, that is closed back, portable, full size, very comfortable, that can handle high volume female vocals without sibilance or shrills, this is the headphone for you. I don't think these are the headphones you want for rock, metal, pop and ambient even though it's capable. And you absolutely will not want these headphones for hip hop, dance, house or dub (electronic) music because the bass is not emphasized. The headphone is quite a good reference headphone should you want to do professional work. But in general, I would call this a good monitoring headphone for the above genres mentioned that it works well with.
Thanks for reading my opinion and thoughts.
Very best and happy listening.
Edited by MalVeauX - 9/15/11 at 7:18pm