Shure has made a big splash in the studio-headphone market with closed-back phones covering a variety of prices and applications; I had the pleasure of reviewing the SRH440 and SRH840 (June 2010), followed by the more upscale SRH940 (November 2011). In this issue, we're looking at the SRH1440, one of two new open-back models.
On paper and in the box
The SRH1440 is an open-backed circumaural headphone with 40 mm neodymium drivers, housed in a lightweight and very comfortable frame with foam-filled velour earpads and a padded steel headband -- a class act all the way. Weighing about 12 ounces, it's designed for long hours of wear without strain.
Here are a few relevant specs: the SRH1440 has a sensitivity of 101 sB SPL/mW (nominal, 1 kHz) and maximum input power handling of 1000 mW at 1 kHz, and a 37 ohm impedance, all of which translates to two things -- it will get very loud without coming anywhere near its performance limits, and it can be driven reliably by even relatively weak amplifiers. Its stated frequency range (no tolerances given) is 15 Hz to 27 kHz.
The 2-meter cable connects to both earcups and has gold-plated MMCX snap-in connectors; at the other end, as is now common on headphones at all price points, there's a 1/8" TRS connector with a threaded 1/4" adapter. As is customary with high-end phones, the SRH1440 comes with all the accessories you'll likely need for years of enjoyment: packaged in a huge box with a magnetic-clasp lid, there's an extra pair of earpads and an extra cable, as well as a plastic hard-shell travel case with an internal pocket for the cable and 1/4" adapter.
In the studio and on the ears
Open-back phones take their name from a construction method that favors a particular sound over practical studio considerations. There is no acoustic isolation when you wear them, in either direction; monitored audio bleeds into nearby microphones, and external sound sources are attenuated very little if at all in the wearer's ears. In other words, you can forget about using these headphones when tracking with open mics, and if your control room or one-room studio is plagued by distracting outside noises that you'd like to shut out by putting on isolating phones, you'll be out of luck.
Why use them at all, then? Because of their sound, which is strongly favored by many musicians, producers, audiophiles, and recreational listeners. Without getting into a lot of technical detail, the difference between open-back and closed-back phones is roughly analogous to that between speakers with ported vs. sealed cabinets. Allowing air to move in and out of the enclosure lets the driver move with less restriction, which in turn creates a very different (and appealing) sonic signature. There's more detail and focus and clarity, often so much so that believers happily give up the isolation offered by closed phones.
I broke in the SRH1440s with 72 hours of loud music, then settled into listening to my usual variety of reference material: classical, jazz, old standards of rock and pop, and electronica -- some of it impeccably remastered on modern CD releases or in high-resolution WAV or DSD files, and just as importantly, some of it on crummy old CDs and low-resolution MP3 files. And, as always, my checkered past as a recording artist proved its worth once more as I hauled out some of my work from the 1980s and 1990s to listen for mistakes I knew were there.
The first thing that I noticed about the SRH1440s was their remarkable detail and balance. I've heard a lot of very good headphones, but there's something special about these cans -- you hear everything, and I mean everything, in a mix... even when you sort of wish you couldn't.
Case in point: I am a huge fan of Michael Cretu's Enigma releases, and his fourth album, The Screen Behind The Mirror, has a lot of fun high-energy dance/ethnic-tinged electronica on it, but the mix on that record isn't always the best. A couple of the tracks have rhythm beds with specific elements that are mixed too far forward, making them jarring. Cheaper headphones can hide this to some extent, gelling the rhythm together with a lack of detail, but on the SRH1440 the rogue elements (like the clave in "Between Mind & Heart") were enough to rip the top off my skull.
Another great example was "Would I Lie To You?" by Eurythmics, a tasty track with the full R&B treatment -- multiple overdubbed vocal lines, jangly rhythm guitars, Hammond organ, and a kicking horn section. On the SRH1440s, this track was a joy to listen to from the CD, but a 192 kbps MP3 file encoded on an older computer revealed all the pitfalls of low-bitrate encoding on a primitive codec, with harshness in the upper mids and smearing of the organ into the guitars. The difference was easy to pick out with the SRH1440.
While the closed-back SRH940 has a wider frequency response on paper than the SRH1440, the numbers really don't tell the whole story. This is particularly notable at the low end, where the SRH940's claimed 5 Hz figure trumps the SRH1440's 15 Hz but the latter's bass detail is remarkable, well beyond the already great performance of the SRH940. If you do any serious recording of acoustic bass, grand piano, or cello, you have got to hear what these phones sound like on those sources!
I also loved how vocals sound on these phones. A less-known but noteworthy band that I always turn to for these tests is the Boulder-based a cappella group Face; performing well-chosen covers plus their own originals, the group imitates a variety of instruments to create amazingly full arrangements from six or seven voices, and their talents are well-displayed on their first full-length CD Forward. The SRH1440 accurately and beautifully rendered each vocalist's contribution, while mercilessly pointing out the few places on the album where the mixing engineer was a little bit off with his choices for eq or level. Better-known vocalists from Robert Plant to Mariah Carey to Paul McCartney to Michael Bublé all came across with their unique signature sounds perfectly represented.
If you're used to headband-style phones, you'll find the SRH1440 very comfortable for long sessions, but as a decades-long user of sling-based phones, I had to take breaks to give my head a rest. One more thing to consider: a headphone at this level of quality requires a good audio source -- a high-quality headphone amp and preferably D/A converter as well -- to perform at its best; if you're listening to a cheap mixer or audio interface, you're going to wonder where all that much-acclaimed detail went!
Are they for you?
I commented that the SRH940 wasn't a cheap headphone, but that the listening experience would justify the investment; that statement holds even more true for the SRH1440, which demands that you listen to it and be prepared for a whole raft of surprises, whether listening to famous material you thought you knew well, or revisiting your own recordings and hearing things you didn't know were there.
In our era of smaller rooms, smaller speakers, and a desperate need for accurate ways to check our mixing choices, whether it's a question of truly hearing what's in the low end or looking for microscopic errors to fix, a really good pair of headphones is more critical than ever... and the SRH1440 may well put you firmly in the ranks of the open-back faithful.
Price: $399 MAP
More from: Shure, www.shure.com