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Shure SRH440 Professional Studio Headphones (Black)
- Optimized for home and studio recording
- Closed-back, circumaural collapsible design
- Detachable, coiled cable
- Includes SRH440, threaded 1/4" gold-plated adapter, carrying bag, and user guide
- Provides exceptional sound reproduction and comfort
- 10-foot coiled, detachable cable
- Replaceable ear cup pads ensure long product life
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I am a speaker builder with measurement equipment, so I know what is neutral and undistorted sound. Unlike speaker systems, most headphones have no crossover or frequency response correction circuit. So, it is critical to be able to know how much such uneven responses affect perception of their sound with respect to accuracy and neutrality. I have good sense of it since I have been measuring sound. But I do not have proper equipment for headphone measurement, mostly importantly a dummy torso/head, nor am I willing to invest time in making a DIY setup. This is the reason why my search and audition have been limited to headphones for which measurement data exist, with some exceptions (see below). I made use of three different sources for the data: InnerFidelity.com, Headphone.com, and en.GoldenEars.net. While there is consistency within each site's measurements, there is also inconsistency between them, due to different measurement conditions and compensation methods. So, I researched and took those into account.
One may say we can use EQ to remedy irregular frequency responses. But EQ has its own limitations. Some minor EQ'ing can help, but headphones that need too extensive correction should be avoided. The foremost reason is the loss of dynamic range. Theoretically, with EQ you can only limit, not increase, dynamic range in a certain frequency band. On the source side, you lose digital bit depth, and on the headphone side, you suppress the driver's efficient response range.
Below is the list of headphones that I have auditioned (in the order of their street prices):
- Tascam TH-02 ($30; no data available)
- Panasonic RP-HTF600-S ($32; semi-open headphones)
- Brainwavz HM3 / Incipio F38 ($35; no data available)
- Tascam TH-2000 ($50; no data available)
- AKG K518LE ($50)
- Sennheiser HD 429 ($65)
- Creative Aurvana Live! ($70)
- KRK KNS 6400 ($85)
- Shure SRH440 ($90)
My DIY speaker system (it measures very flat) served as a reference with respect to tonal balance. I also own some open headphones like Sony MDR-MA900 and Sennheiser PX100, which also provided a baseline when I evaluated tonal balance of the headphones under comparison. I used a desktop headphone amp that has flat FR and reasonably low output impedance.
I will give short, summarized impressions for each pair.
Tascam TH-02 (no measurement data available)
This is a really nice surprise. There is a little hump in the bass and midbass regions, and some wide, shallow dip in upper mids and lower treble (i.e., slightly polite presentation). Otherwise, these are relatively accurate headphones at a fraction ($30) of cost of headphones of comparable quality. Construction is good for the price. The pad size is between over-ear and on-ear, but comfortable enough.
Panasonic RP-HTF600-S (semi-open headphones)
Warm tone, deep bass. Treble is there, but upper mids and lower treble are lacking. Comfortable to wear. A good value, but not great for those looking for reasonably accurate sound.
Brainwavz HM3 / Incipio F38 (no data available)
Mid/upper bass ruins the sound which has otherwise good midrange-treble balance. Very uncomfortable to wear due to non-swivel cups.
Tascam TH-2000 (no data available)
Simply inferior to its younger brother TH02. Very dull and muddy presentation. The model uses the same ear cups as TH02 but contains different drive units. The driver may have better components but execution must be bad. Not worth the asking price.
You need to remove the thick foam pad at the driver's front (easily removable) to have better bass-to-mids balance. Even the pad removed, the phones still have bass-oriented sound, but not bad. Mids to treble balance is good. Somewhat similar sound signature to Tascam TH-02's. But the TH-02 sounds a little more natural. The headband can be too small for some people. The clamping force is a bit above a comfortable level.
Sennheiser HD 429
Anothter pair of headphones with bass emphasis. Not overly bassy, though. But a bigger problem is treble, which is a little too polite to be neutral. I would not consider these headphones a good value.
Creative Aurvana Live!
Smooth and warm tone. Bass is somewhat loose at times. Treble has sparkles and at the same time sounds smooth. But relative to bass and treble, upper mids and lower treble are somewhat recessed, making the headphones' sound colored. Some people may feel them musical and full, but I prefer the Tascam TH02 at a lower price. The appearance is very good, though, with some feel of high quality. Very comfortable to wear with memory foam pads.
KRK KNS 6400
It has much more neutral sound than the headphones described above. Mid- and upper bass is somewhat lacking, and treble is a little overly presented. Good monitor-type sound. But there is one problem with these headphones. They are not very efficient, which means their usability is limited---you need a desktop headphone amp or a high-current capable portable amp to make them sound good. A little too bright treble is a weakness, too.
Without doubt, these are the best of the bunch. Perceived dynamic range is unbelievably wide. These are in a different league in terms of clarity as well---perhaps, the KNS 6400 is close but also with weaknesses (see above). Treble is sometimes a little on the bright side, but not as bright as the KNS6400's. Some people may find them bright with bright recordings, but the headphones should not be blamed for that. These produce very neutral and accurate sound. Bass is sufficient and often pleasantly strong in the mid- and upper bass regions, but deeper bass is not covered by these cans. Most music recordings do not contain this deep bass, anyway.
I summarize my findings with the following top two picks:
1. Shure SRH440: These are the headphones you can safely choose under $100 if what you are looking for is accurate, neutral sound.
2. Tascam TH-02: This is a secret gem. At $30, you get really good closed cans. Its overall presentation is not as clear as the SRH440's, but with their price factored in, you cannot complain. They are definitely in the same league as the AKG K518LE (foam pads removed) and the Creative Aurvana Live. It may depend on personal preference, but among the three, my pick is the Tascam. The Creative has a better look and feel, but I'd choose the Tascam for its sound.
Another headphone model I wanted to include in my search was the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro ($90-$100), but after I listened to the Shure SRH440, I decided not to. According to HeadRoom's measurements and many people's common impressions, the HD 280 Pro has a little subdued treble compared to the SRH440 which has great mids to treble balance when compared to my reference speakers. The Sennheiser covers the lowest octave much better than the Shure, but that is not my priority.
I also considered the Koss ProDJ100 because of good reviews, but ruled them out because of their measurements. Their response might be flat in fundamental tones from most instruments but not with harmonics due to a large dip around 5-6kHz. Some people may think they sound good, but there is no way for them to sound accurate and natural by my standard.
For anyone looking for sub-$100 headphones that sound more like $200-300 headphones: Shure has it, if you're into modifying gadgets.
These cans are heavy, as others have mentioned. The headband is terribly under-cushioned. The ear pads are thin and actually degrade the sound quality. You'll need to replace them within the first year with either Shure's 940 replacement ear pads or a third party like Brainwavz, which is what I bought.
The hinges are the biggest problem with these headphones. I just stuck a piece of foam padding from leftover shipping material and made the headband very comfortable with the cushioned ear pads. The hinges need a complete rebuild, though. They are all plastic with a little metal hinge inside that allows them to turn to the sides a bit. They come nice and tight brand new. I would say after a few months of heavy use, or one year of casual use, they turn into loud, annoying, squeeky nuisances. You will first notice them while you are talking and eating. A few years later and they creek with every little head movement.
That's all to say IF you don't accidentally break the hinges completely, as they are very fragile and probably would take just one drop or a moment of pressure while falling a sleep with them on. Considering how heavy the headphones are and how well-made the actual speakers/drivers are, this is a depressing fact I've had to accept early on.
Also, the pleather covering on both the headband and stock ear pads will peel off within your first year. Sadly, the Brainwavz pleather is now peeling for me, too, after only 3-4 years of light use. I'm super meticulous about my electronics, I keep them away from dust and moisture, but still my headphones look trashed.
My rating is a three only because the sound quality is so good. I would rate it as the best/most balanced in the under $100 range without hesitation. I still use these headphones even though they look like they came out of a dumpster and I have to sit still like a statue to avoid creeky hinges. I haven't bought a new set because I use earbuds a lot more and I'm a poor dude, but it's definitely getting close to donation time.
Buy these headphones only if rebuilding/customizing electronics is your thing, the value is still there.
* Excellent frequency balance. All bands from low to high are represented well and fairly, not overwhelmingly.
* Very sensitive to quiet sounds, so high volume is almost never necessary, especially in a quiet room.
* In Overwatch terms, around the time of release this meant that if you set the volume such that the loudest possible 2khz square wave no longer caused pain, you could then use the same volume setting and, while standing at the factory entrance in King's Row, still hear a reaper walking upstairs. In the far deck. In short, "rip headphone users" should make no sense to you as nothing can cause you pain and you can hear everything.
* Isolation is good enough for moderate fan noise.
* Headband lasts about 2 years tops for me as both pairs I've owned have broken at the thin sliding plastic joint
* Headphones are so heavy that your neck muscles will probably need some training to get used to them.
* Headphones are so heavy that the top of my head began to develop a bald spot from long term use. After switching to KRK studio headphones which are much lighter (but not as bright sounding as these), the bald spot grew back within a month.
In short, know that you will have an interesting, yet inherently transient experience with these headphones. Don't expect to pass them to your grandchildren or anything.