How much? High-end, in-ear headphones have a real problem when it comes to perceived value and it’s hardly surprising because they look barely different from alternatives at a fraction of the price.
An aura of luxury is usually missing and these Shure SE846s are no different.
Even if you’re prepared to overlook this, there’s still the problem of finding suitably talented sources and amplification.
Top-class performance and true portability are a hard combination to find, even with a generous budget; Sony’s NWZ-ZX1s – the best portable music source we’ve come across – still isn’t good enough to make the most of these headphones.
Most of our listening for this test is done using high-quality files from our MacBook, loaded with Pure Music media software.
Amplification switches between Chord’s superb-sounding Hugo portable DAC and Naim’s mains-powered DAC-V1.
Then the SE846s really begin to shine. There’s impressive engineering inside the transparent, plastic shell. The SE846s use four balanced armature drive units, which work in a three-way configuration with twin bass drivers.
These bass units are loaded by a clever tuning system that Shure says extends the low-end response considerably.
Shure also allows fine-tuning by supplying three interchangeable filters in the form of small coloured tubes. These adjust the tonal balance.
You will need the supplied tool to swap them around, but it only takes a minute. Their effect is subtle. We use the ‘standard’ option, which delivers the most neutral tonal balance. But we like the ‘bass’ option too, with its warm and smooth presentation.
We didn’t take to the treble-boosting filter, which proves unforgiving with less-than-perfect recordings and makes listening tiring.
In-ears live or die by how well they fit. Without a proper seal between the unit and ear canal, the sound will be thin.
The SE846s come with a range of buds, and it’s vital to take time in choosing the right set. We found the SE846s comfortable once we got a good seal, and the smooth, curved shape of the enclosure sits nicely against the ear.
The signal cable is stiff at the headphone end to allow it to wrap behind the ear for extra security and this works very well.
The SE846s may not look glamorous, but they’re among the most comfortable in-ears we’ve tried. And we’ve tested hundreds, so that’s some compliment.
Perceived value is an issue, but if you’re judging these Shures on sound quality, then they’re excellent. You’d have to spend thousands of pounds on speakers before you find as much detail.
These ‘phones give the impression of delivering every last nuance, and do so in an appealingly natural and understated way. They don’t highlight treble detail artificially (as many do) to give the impression of resolution.
Instead, the leading edges of notes are naturally drawn and harmonics beautifully differentiated. There’s not a hint of hardness or overstatement.
These qualities are apparent listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata: the Shures render its harmonic complexity correctly and deliver the piano’s dynamic envelope with confidence.
There’s a convincing sense of solidity and scale to the presentation too, and plenty of power when required.
At no point is there the feeling the SE846s are overstating things to sound impressive. They concentrate on an honest approach to music replay.
We try Gil Scott-Heron’s Me and the Devil and the Shures’ enthusiasm in delivering the hard-charging rhythm and their punch at low frequencies impress.
The bass-tuning design works very well here and gives these in-ears a solid kick at low frequencies. Scott-Heron’s gruff vocals are delivered with passion and precision too.
A grand is a lot of money for any headphones, but given an appropriately talented system we think the SE846s are good enough to justify that kind of outlay.
It’s fair to say they’re the most capable in-ears we’ve heard.