Shure SRH1440 Open Back Headphones review

Shure raises the bar on sound quality again...
Photo of Shure SRH1440 Open Back Headphones
£406.80

Shure has something of a legendary reputation when it comes to professional audio. Whether it’s in-ear monitors, microphones, mixers, or DSPs, there’s usually a Shure presence of one kind or another in any recording studio. But thankfully Shure’s audio excellence isn’t limited to the professional market.

Shure has been making high-end earphones and headphones for a while now, and has built up a similarly impressive rep in this market too. In fact I still carry a set of Shure SE530 earphones with me every day, and have yet to find another set to match that triple-driver goodness, bar Shure’s own SE535 earphones that superseded them.

Shure SRH1440 1

Recently though, Shure announced that it would be bringing two sets of high-end open back headphones to the market. The SRH1840s sit at the very top of the Shure headphone range, with a price tag of around £600, and are aimed at serious audiophiles. The SRH1440 open backs, which I’m reviewing here, come in at around £400, which is still a significant chunk of change.

The question that’s invariably raised in relation to any high-end audio product is whether it’s actually worth the price tag. As always, there’s no real “yes or no” answer to that question, since value for money is completely relative to what you’re looking for, and how much you’re willing to pay for it.

One thing’s for sure (no pun intended) though – getting the most out of a set of headphones like the SRH1440s requires an equally high-end source. With that in mind, I contacted Arcam and requested the loan of an A28 integrated amplifier and a CD17 CD player. The A28 is the kind of audiophile amplifier that lets the music do its own talking – delicate detail is expertly handled and conveyed accurately regardless of volume level. There’s also a welcome lack of colouring that’s sometimes favoured by other amps.

Arcam A28 CD17

The Arcam A28 and CD17 combo made the idea source for the Shure SRH1440s

Armed with the Arcam source hardware and a selection of very familiar music, I was ready to see (or hear if I’m being pedantic) what the Shure SRH1440s have to offer. But even before I’d plugged the headphones into the amp it was clear that a lot of thought had gone into the design.

The SRH1440s are extremely comfortable, even when worn for hours. The circumaural configuration of the headphones is, of course, key to the open back design, but the impressive comfort level is a welcome by-product. You get a spare set of ear-pads bundled too. The padded headband has ten notches of size adjustment on either side, making it easy to get a snug fit. It’s also worth noting that I had no problem wearing or adjusting these headphones while wearing glasses.

The 2.1m cable has a gold-plated 3.5mm jack at one end, and dual left and right connectors at the other. The detachable nature of the cable means that should you damage it, you can simply buy a new cable rather than sending your headphones back to be replaced. That said, Shure actually supplies two cables in the box, so even if you are clumsy enough to damage one, you’ll have a replacement already on hand. There’s a threaded 1/4in headphone adapter in the box too, so you’ll have no problem connecting the SRH1440s to any audio device.

Shure SRH1440 Geoff

If you’re used to closed back headphones, you’ll either be pleasantly surprised by your first open back experience, or feel that they lack a degree of impact and intimacy. Personally, I feel that if you’re looking for ultimate, accurate audio fidelity, you simply can’t beat an open back design. But that design does come with a couple of caveats.

Open back headphones let in far more ambient noise than their closed back counterparts, so listening in a particularly noisy environment isn’t really advisable. That issue goes both ways though, since open back headphones also let out far more sound than closed back sets, so if you’re sharing a quiet environment with others, you could end up annoying those around you.

All that said, the advantages of an open back design far outweigh the issues above. The most compelling reason to choose open back headphones is the expansive, airy and open soundstage that they provide. Despite the drivers still sitting in extremely close proximity to your ears, the music feels as if it’s all around you, rather than encapsulated within your ear canals.

Like pretty much every set of open back headphones, the Shure SRH1440s let in a noticeable amount of ambient noise, especially if you’re listening in a particularly noisy environment. However, what really surprised me was how little sound leakage they exhibit. Even listening in a quiet environment, the SRH1440s didn’t bother colleagues seated at adjoining desks.

Shure SRH1440 2

I was also surprised at how little driving the SRH1440s needed. Obviously, I wasn’t expecting any issues when plugged into the Arcam A28, but even portable players such as an iPhone had no problems whatsoever driving the SRH1440s, and with very impressive results too. And given the commendable lack of sound leakage, the SRH1440s could seriously be considered for mobile usage, as long as you can live with the size.

There’s always a sense of nostalgia when testing something like the SRH1440 headphones. First up, it means setting up some proper Hi-Fi components like the Arcam kit used here. Second, it means pawing over my CD collection and pulling together a selection of discs to test with. Considering that I’m listening to digital music stored on various types of mass storage device most of the time these days, there’s something almost therapeutic about loading a single disc into the CD transport and hitting play.

Kicking off with Ronny Jordan’s breakthrough album, The Antidote proved that the SRH1440s feel completely at home with jazz; in fact Ronny’s licks have never sounded so smooth. Blues Grinder, arguably the standout track on the album, is rendered with intricate delicacy – the high-end percussion sits right at the front of the mix without ever sounding harsh, while the ever present bass thrumming is strong, but not overpowering. If you want to close your eyes and lose yourself in some spiralling guitar riffs, this CD and these headphones are your ideal partners.

Slowing things down considerably I slotted Tim’s House, by Kate Walsh into the CD tray. This is a simply beautiful album, and Kate’s arrangements and vocals are nothing short of angelic. Once again the SRH1440s brought out the absolute best in the source material, with wonderfully light, almost frail sounding acoustic guitars complementing Kate’s hauntingly sad vocal range.

Shure SRH1440 Exploded

Headphones that are designed for ultimate clarity often struggle with more rock oriented fare, and although I wouldn’t say that the SRH1440s struggled, they certainly didn’t sound quite so cohesive when I fired up some Foo Fighters. The guitars in Times Like These had an ever so slightly harsh edge to them, while the bass came through a little muddy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that rock music doesn’t sound good through the SRH1440s, because it does. It simply doesn’t sound quite as impressive as pretty much every other genre. Interestingly, the live, acoustic version of Times Like These from the Skin and Bones CD sounded simply superb.

Anything classical sounds fabulous through the SRH1440s, which is hardly surprising when you consider that the expansive soundstage offered by an open back system lends itself perfectly to pretty much any orchestral arrangement. Nigel Kennedy’s interpretation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons proved to be particularly wonderful. Kennedy’s aggressive bow strokes and increased tempo add a feeling of urgency to the piece that’s perfectly relayed through these headphones. That’s not to say that more gentle classical arrangements aren’t equally well looked after. Claude Debussy’s The Girl With The Flaxen Hair comes through with all the subtle, almost dreamlike delicacy that it deserves.

The point at which the SRH1440s really blew me away, though, was when I loaded up Jean-Michel Jarre’s classic, Oxygene. The outstanding high-end clarity afforded by the SRH1440s makes itself abundantly clear, while the spatial envelope achieved is nothing short of staggering. I found myself closing my eyes, tuning out the world and just drinking in the music without any distractions – which, after all, is exactly what a great Hi-Fi headphone setup is all about.

Thanks to Arcam for providing the source equipment used to test the SRH1440 headphones.

Company: Shure

Website: http://www.shure.co.uk/products/headphones/srh1440

Positives
  • Very comfortable, great sound quality, versatile
Negative
  • No the best option for rock music

Verdict
The Shure SRH1440 headphones are aimed at consumers who are looking for serious sound quality and are willing to pay for it. The target customer will probably be looking at equally expensive Grado or Sennheiser models, which is why Shure had to make sure that the sound quality was up to scratch. As is generally the case with Shure, there is very little to complain about in the sound quality department, and these headphones can turn their significant talents to a wide variety of musical styles and genres. When married to a high quality source system, like the Arcam A28 and CD17 setup used for this test, the resulting sound is very special indeed. What really surprised me though, is how good the SRH1440s sound when hooked up to a portable music player and fed compressed audio files. Pushing out 256kbps AAC tracks from an iPhone 4S still produced fabulous results, proving that even with modest power driving them, the SRH1440s are still formidable. Although £400 may seem like a lot of money for a set of headphones, considering the ability and versatility of the SRH1440s, I'd say they're something of a bargain!