Shure SRH-1540 Stereo Headphone Review by Dale
Youtube review: http://youtu.be/E-guhbX70oo
Sources: iPhone5 alone, iPhone5 with FiiO E07k using LOD, iPhone5 with Decware Zen Head amp, various computers using the Microstreamer DAC/amp.
First impressions of the Shure SRH1540: Clear, clean, and smooth - good soundstage for a closed headphone. Since the recording makes a much bigger difference to the soundstage than the headphone itself, and based on what I hear with the SRH1540 with my better music tracks, this headphone is as good as it gets without artificially boosting the treble etc. to create the sensation of greater detail and space. I expected the SRH1540 midrange to be free of the many colorations that plague the midrange on many popular headphones, and it is. But there were two concerns I had based on early reports from industry insiders:
The SRH1540 bass is, depending on which theory of neutrality you subscribe to - warm-neutral or emphasized. But deciding which is a can of worms I'm going to leave for someone else to open. I've had a few years of experience with several so-called neutral headphones - the best of these being the Sennheiser HD800, Shure SRH1840, and even the excellent Shure SRH940. In the past two years however, I've been indulging in a bass-fest with several dozen new headphones, some of them fairly expensive. This experience has taught me some important lessons in selecting a headphone whose bass is tight and detailed, and which doesn't color the midrange in any way. The SRH1540 bass is tight and detailed, does not impact on the midrange, and plays well with the 20 or so genres of music I play. It's possible that this isn't the perfect design for bass, but until I hear something better that also qualifies as high fidelity, the SRH1540 will serve as my reference.
The other concern I had was the 'relaxed' treble that one high-profile reviewer described in a Youtube video. Before I got the SRH1540, I asked around as to what relaxed means to different people, and most said it means 'recessed'. The SRH1540 treble is not recessed, and comparing it to two other high quality headphones I purchased recently (B&W P7 and B&O H6), the SRH1540 treble is smoother and has slightly less energy at 9 khz** and above. Again, leaving the can of worms sealed (i.e. which is better), days of listening to my best music tracks has the SRH1540 revealing the best of details without the necessity of artificially boosting the treble etc. (as noted above) to create an impression of greater detail. Prior to the SRH1540, I've considered the SRH1840 to be my standard for treble and have mentioned that in a number of forums. As of now, I'm adding the SRH1540 as an alternative standard, and while I'm fine with both, standards are just theory until implemented in real devices like the SRH1540.
**Based on using several different premium headphones over the past two years, I've noticed that the majority of those (those that don't have a recessed treble) have an emphasis in the upper treble, mainly around 9 khz, and the amount of that emphasis varies quite a lot. The SRH1540's emphasis is among the least of these, and whether it's a function of the drivers, closed-back designs, or human ear interaction I don't know. I am satisfied that the SRH1540 doesn't have any problems there.
Summing up the sound and accounting for the fact that different amps sound different (especially in bass control), I think the SRH1540 is excellent for jazz, acoustic, acapella, classical, and other related genres. Electronic and house music may also fare well with the SRH1540, but that depends mostly on whether users demand a level of bass strength and impact that goes beyond the most liberal definitions of high fidelity that I'm aware of. In other words, users who are still keenly interested in the SRH1540 after reading this review, but who ultimately decide on a different headphone, will likely base their final decisions on personal preference, which in many cases can be a coloration (or lack thereof) with as little difference as one decibel between the headphones and how they reproduce those sound effects. Since the better headphones in or near this price range are made in retail quantities in automated production facilities, personal preference is limited by the reality of what's available for purchase.
Most headphones I've used sound better with DACs and amps than with a portable Music Player (PMP) alone, but other than an obvious improvement in soundstage and sense of 'air' around voices and instruments, the sound doesn't change that much when switching from the PMP alone to the various amps. The SRH1540 is one headphone where the differences are subtle, not in-your-face obvious. Some experienced users describe large differences between using PMPs with and without headphone amps, but when analyzed with specific music tracks, the differences are almost always minor, except the things I noted above (soundstage, 'air', and bass control). Isolation is good - at least 10 db at mid-frequencies and a lot more higher up. Leakage is low - better than average I think, but that depends on the earpad seal that users get. I don't hear a significant difference in bass response when wearing the headphone with eyeglasses on, but when wearing glasses while listening, the leakage might be slightly higher than otherwise.
The SRH1540's physical design provides advantages over most consumer headphones, especially the large earcups since there is more room inside for sophisticated damping materials etc. - damping that not only facilitates better bass control, but also minimizes resonances and peaks at different frequencies. Low-priced headphones, small headphones, and to some extent IEMs are more likely to suffer from resonances, due to space limitations as well as a lack of exotic materials that can be 'tuned' to dampen resonances better than ordinary materials. The earcups have carbon fiber side plates, covered by a high-tech plastic I presume, and the headband appears to be aluminum. The top part of the headband is split (but not moveable), and lined with soft squishy leather or pleather-covered foam. The earpads are very soft and squishy, and are covered by a fabric-type material that provides excellent comfort. A second set of earpads is also included with the SRH1540.
The carry case supplied with the SRH1540 is a zippered hard case and is quite large, and will not fit into airline carry-on bags or student backpacks without taking up most of the space in those bags.
The 6-foot cable is dual-entry with detachable Shure-type connectors at the earcups, and a standard 3.5 mm miniplug on the end. Two of these cables are supplied with the headphone, and they appear to be identical. The cable is nearly 4 mm thick and looks very strong, yet it's very flexible and doesn't stick to clothing. The upper part of the cable - above the 'Y' - is slightly microphonic, which I haven't noticed in actual use, but did notice when handling the cable with no music playing. The SRH1540's overall size, the heavy-duty cable, and the refined sound quality all suggest a headphone for home use on a very good audio system. Much of the advantage the SRH1540 has in sound quality and fine detail would be lost in noisy environments, i.e. most portable uses. While the isolation is quite good at 10 db or better depending on frequency, I haven't found that places with noise levels 30 to 40 db above a quiet room at home are good for hearing the full detail that the SRH1540 produces.
The music tracks below were listed in two prior reviews (B&O H6 Green and B&W P7), and are a random sample selected from the 400 most recent tracks I've acquired. Since these tracks cover a wide range of genres, and were selected when I was using several different headphones, there won't be a bias toward the SRH1540 headphone with this music. My suggestion is instead of reading each comment below as an absolute unto itself, you could compare these notes to the prior reviews and other reviews as they get posted, and see how the SRH1540 compares with each individual track.
Ana Victoria - Roxanne (Pop Vocal): Spacious sound, good bass tone and impact, and the vocal sounds very natural. Excellent reproduction by the SRH1540.
Ben Goldberg - Root and Branch (Jazz): Realistic you-are-there sound with great instrumental reproduction. The SRH1540 plays this extremely well.
Benedictines Of Mary - O Come Emmanuel (Medieval/Female Choral/Acapella): Very spacious sound and natural reverb for a large recording venue (cathedral). The SRH1540 makes the voices come alive.
Black Sabbath - Iron Man (Classic Rock): Excellent instrumental detail - the vocal sounds very natural. As with most classic rock tracks, there is very little or no deep bass. The SRH1540 plays this music very smoothly, and the lack of deep bass doesn't unbalance the treble.
Candy Dulfer - Lily Was Here (Jazz): Narrow soundstage, but excellent detailed instrumental tone. The SRH1540 gives this a reasonable sense of space, but in spite of being a modern recording, the net effect is only slightly better than enhanced mono.
Cantus - Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The SRH1540 plays the voices with enough low end warmth and weight to sound very natural. In spite of my impression that the SRH1540 has a strong bass, there is no exaggeration of the low end of the male voices on this track.
Chris Isaak - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The SRH1540 plays this high treble energy recording with perfection - the voice and instruments are highly detailed but very smooth.
Daft Punk - Lose Yourself to Dance (Electronic/Disco): Less than hi-fi quality recording, but the voices are very good. There's a decent amount of bass impact, but the bass doesn't have much detail.
David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The SRH1540 reproduces the instruments perfectly with a you-are-there ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are very extended and detailed.
David Lynch-Lykke Li - I'm Waiting Here (Soundtrack/Vocal): Dark, moody song - Lykke's voice is very detailed, the strong bass impacts are very good, but most of the instrumentation is soft and kept in the background. The SRH1540 plays this music very well given the sonic limitations.
Dream Theater - Take The Time (Metal): The sound quality here is limited, but the SRH1540 is smooth enough to bring out the details in this very busy music without verging on harshness.
Genesis - Follow You Follow Me (Pop/Rock):The SRH1540 plays this old and less-than-ideal recording well enough to enjoy, but the soundstage is fairly narrow.
Giant Drag - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): Annie Hardy's version of the Chris Isaak hit has a lot of energy, but the quality is limited - still the SRH1540 pulls out enough detail to be a pleasant listen.
Grieg (Beecham-Royal Philharmonic) - Peer Gynt-Solveig's Lullaby (Classical): This very old (late 1950's) stereo recording must have been made on the most expensive gear in the world, since the overall sound quality and especially Ilse Hollweg's amazing voice are as close to "being there" as I've heard with some of the better classical recordings made since the year 2000. The SRH1540 makes this an outstanding listen.
Hubert Kah - The Picture (New Wave): This track has great bass detail and weight at the same time, which I find unusual for this type of 1980's pop music. The SRH1540 plays this music very well.
Hugo Audiophile - 15-16 (Electronic): I'm not sure what the 15-16 stands for - perhaps track numbers from a CD album. The strong deep-bass tones that start around 33-34 seconds into the track reproduce very well with the SRH1540. This is a great recording for evaluating whether a headphone's bass will be sufficient for most environments, since for many headphones that have a weaker bass, the deep bass gets absorbed and mostly lost when the environment contains a lot of low-frequency energy.
Korn - Another Brick In the Wall (Rock): Aggressive rock that's very satisfying for hard-rock fans. The SRH1540 plays this perfectly, which is to say, with proper edginess and bass impact, yet without unintended sonic harshness.
Kunika Kato - Fur Alina (Vibraphone): A very unusual instrumental - the tone quality is unlike anything I've heard before. Recording close-up is part of the magic here, but the SRH1540 does the rest in reproducing the full harmonics of this amazing instrument.
Michael Buble - Nice 'n Easy (Easy Listening/Jazz): This is the only track I bought by Michael Buble, but it's a great recording and vocal performance. The sound of the backing band here is rendered extremely well by the SRH1540, and the voice isn't pumped up for Loudness Wars thankfully.
Michael Tilson Thomas - Rhapsody In Blue (20th Century Classic): Great sound and soundstage, and terrific piano playing and tone, brought to life by the SRH1540. There are some very deep bass impacts starting around 38 seconds into the 17:24 length track, and those impacts have a very impressive weight with the SRH1540.
Muse - Madness (Rock): The bass in this track has great impact and detail with the SRH1540, and although the voice is somewhat forward, it doesn't interfere with my appreciation of the bass line here.
Phaeleh - Afterglow (feat. Soundmouse) (Electronic/Vocal): The instrumental sounds that begin this track are played very nicely by the SRH1540, but the voice tends to overwhelm those background sounds - until the heavy bass impacts kick in. If there is any doubt about whether the SRH1540 will play heavy impactful bass with good detail (if such sounds are really in the recording), this track is the proof. If you were to begin your SRH1540 listening with this track, you might think you were listening to a headphone that has a very boosted but tight and detailed bass. Simply amazing.
Richard Strauss (Mester-Pasadena) - Also Sprach Zarathustra (opening) (Classical): The granddaddy of bass is in the opening 1:50 of this recording, and I've heard it only once on a large and expensive loudspeaker system in Cleveland. For most people, that experience would be indistinguishable from being in a fairly strong earthquake. The SRH1540 conveys as much of that experience as is possible on headphones. The tympani also have excellent impact here.
Sargis Aslamazian - The Sky is Cloudy (Classical/Armenian): The National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia has a great classical program, and the SRH1540 plays this music with good separation, tone, and big-orchestra precision.
Satri-Tomoko Sonoda - All The Things You Are (Jazz): This track came from Bakoon Products, who make high-quality audio amplifiers. There's a lot of upright bass plucking in this track, and the SRH1540 plays it well, although it's recorded pretty close-up and may sound somewhat boomy at times.
Tommy Smith - Johnny Come Lately (Jazz): Small-combo jazz - sax, piano and drums. The sound is fairly close-up but well-recorded, and sounds very nice with the SRH1540, although the wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are not as extended as on the David Hazeltine track above.