Back when I was still in high school I blindly bought a pair of Shure earphones without knowing anything about audio. At that point in time I hailed from an illustrious personal audio track record, such as having upgraded from the basic Apple ibuds to the Apple ‘in-ear EarPods’. The source was a sky blue Sony MD player, and listening to soapy break-up ballads from NSYNC, A1 and Westlife without ever having experienced any break-ups while cruising in a Chinese taxi in the Nanjing rain at a crawling speed was as good as I thought things could get. I remember feeling nothing after getting the Shure, I got it partly because of the brand name, and partly because I simply wanted to spend. Music listening soon became an indispensable part of my life, and somehow I splurged on the then Shure flagship E500PTH (push-to-hear).
Eventually, the E500s broke. As was customary back in the day, the strain relief (or lack thereof) was the weakest link, and being the most cautious consumer that threw expensive earphones around and scrunched them up before shoving them into jean pockets, I totally blamed Shure for the build quality. I parted ways with Shure and defected to Westone for the better part of a decade afterwards, always feeling that Westone boasted a more pleasant and ‘easy-listening’ sound. I even chose the Westone 4R over the SE535 in 2013, and I didn’t care to look for anything else.
That all changed in the Christmas of 2014, when one of the co-founders of this blog, who got into the audiophile trap way earlier, created an instant messaging group between a small group of audio aficionados that would grow to become Accessible Audio. I was no stranger to owning premium in-ear monitors, but I was in actuality quite aloof to what’s going on in the scene. Being constantly exposed to all this alien talk in the group, I started browsing the web out of curiosity, and picked up a lot of traffic about the Shure SE846. It looked the business and seemed like a giant departure from the myriad of samey Shure models released over the years. Upon further research, the SE846 can actually be regarded as Shure’s first ‘true’ groundbreaking new flagship after 10 years, as the previous flagship releases such as SE530 and SE535 were simply iterations of the E500PTH with incremental improvements in accessories and slight variations in build and design.
Towards the end of 2015, Shure unveiled an electrostatic earphone system known as the KSE1500. However, it costs more than 3 times the SE846 and is using a completely different technology. The SE846 is therefore still wearing the crown in Shure’s multi balanced armature stable. So without further ado, I present a review of the true successor to my E500PTH, the Shure SE846.
|Frequency Range||15 Hz – 20 kHz|
|Sensitivity||114 dB SPL/mW|
|Noise Attenuation||Up to 37 dB|
|Speaker Type||Quad High-Definition MicroDrivers|
|Cable Style||Detachable cables with wireform fit|
|Cable Length||46″ and 64″|
Look & Build
My SE846 is of the original variant and comes with crystal clear shells where the guts can be seen in all their glory. New solid housing colors in the form of black, bronze and blue have since been released, but for my taste I still like the crystal clear option the best. Four balanced armatures are paired and compiled neatly along with minimal, subtle wirings that blend seamlessly with the drivers. A frame holds some of these internals from behind, with the one in the right piece color coded red to make orientation instantly recognizable, an ingenious little detail really. The Shure logo and the frequency range each driver is responsible for are laser engraved onto the armatures themselves. The driver configuration is as follows:
01 – 20Hz – 200Hz (Bass)
02 – 20Hz – 200Hz (Bass)
03 – 200Hz – 2000Hz (Mids)
04 – 2000Hz – 20,000Hz (Highs)
A key feature here is a low pass filter created by precision welding ten stainless steel plates together to form a high acoustic mass pathway that if unwinded would be four inches long, enabling low frequencies to roll off at about 75Hz without distortion or artifacts, performing as a true Subwoofer without sacrificing clarity or detail of the mid and high drivers. The nozzle and the threaded collar that secures it are metal as well, solidifying resistance to wear and tear, especially when they are expected to be fiddled with quite frequently (reason elaborated below). Overall, everything feels sturdy, robust, and impeccably engineered, a massive improvement in durability over past Shure models.
Another innovation introduced is an interchangeable nozzle insert system that allows for customizable frequency response. A nozzle key is provided for loosening the threaded collar mentioned above, after which the nozzle can be gently removed from the housing’s opening, allowing one of three varieties of nozzle filters to be inserted:
|Blue||Balanced||Neutral (as shipped)|
|White||Bright||+2.5 dB, 1kHz to 8kHz|
|Black||Warm||-2.5 dB, 1kHz to 8kHz|
I have tried all three filters, with the white ones rendering the treble more airy but way too hot and bright for my taste, and the black ones simply enhancing nothing but slight muddiness. For the purpose of this review, sound impressions will be based on the blue balanced filters (best sound in my opinion), SpinFit CP800 eartips (Shure Olives were the second best but were a tad less clear) and the ALO Tinsel cable (the stock cable was inflexible and clumsy).
To me, this is the defining aspect of the SE846. Balanced armatures have long been known to have fast, clean, but lean bass. There is nothing lean about this bass. It bludgeons the listener with its relentless presence. It is abundant, punchy, impactful, yet clean and detailed. Martin of this blog has been a dynamic driver zealot for years and his cynical view on balanced armature bass is well noted (he thinks it is anemic), but even he approved of the SE846’s bass with this face:
With rock and metal the SE846 is right at home. When going full brutal mode on anything by Every Time I Die, the guitars growl with visceral density, and the screams are perfectly guttural and abrasive without being grating. There is a solidarity in the low frequencies that conveys the copious quantity, and it moves fast too, navigating the passages of Slipknot’s Gematria and As I Lay Dying’s unceasingly intense double bass drumming with explosive transient response.
Hearing the shifting, pulsating textures of the electronic beats at the beginning portion of Emancipator’s Greenland reveals that this bass is about clarity and quality too, never getting into veiled or muddy territory just because it’s voluminous. Bassheads can also rejoice and revel in the deep sub-bass extension, the thunderous registers in Recondite’s Petrichor feels positively subterranean and goes lower than any earphones I own. When the recording calls for it, this bass can get downright violent, threatening to shatter my eardrums and tear down the walls around my head.
The bass is infectious, saturating the overall sound with an atmospheric ambience that oozes warmth. Timbre of instruments in the low frequencies are realistic and augmented with a sense of roundness. One of the standout traits for me is the SE846’s expression of the pizzicato technique of string instruments, in particular the double bass. The plucking of the strings is incredibly weighty, and flicks my brain with heft and resonance, with all the tension and stiffness tangibly portrayed. Even when it’s not the star of the show, the powerful bass hangs in the background with an ominous tinge, ready to jump back out at any time and annihilate your world many times over.
Shure is famous for their mids and this is no different. The mids are tuned quite forward, lending to a nice intimacy that presses itself against your ears and into your brain. Guitar solos are syrupy and comfortably affectionate. Vocals are sweet, lush and always in close proximity. Jazz vocals mixed to be in the spotlight, like Bianca Wu (胡琳) for instance, are especially lovely, buttressed by a carpet of warmth and thuds from the low end. However, this has the potential to annoy some users that do not really wish for vocals to be so front and center all the time, and can lead to fatigue with prolonged use.
Unlike the rampant (but still controlled) bass, the treble is leashed and does not take too many risks. I can’t help but feel that the highs are slightly rolled off and not the emphasis from the get-go. There were points where I wished top extension would go further, but it never did and stayed overly polite, withholding emotions out of fear that things might turn shrill and strident. This also means sibilance is never a problem, but those seeking sparkling and far-reaching highs should look elsewhere.
Compared to a lot of contemporary rival flagships, the soundstage is not wide by any means, but this in a way actually works in the SE846’s favor when listening to rock and pop, because the energy is so focused. This is definitely an intimate earphone, and as such I find it to not be ideal with anything that would benefit from a more sizable soundstage. A sense of claustrophobic congestion – that too many instruments are seemingly boxed into a constricted space, is sometimes felt when playing jazz and orchestral music of scale. Pick your battles well, stick with intimate music, and you are sure to be rewarded.
SE846 is a very enjoyable earphone with bass unequivocally its trump card. I have used it since February 2015 and gotten earphones several times its price since then, but the excellent combination of superb isolation, long term comfort, unrivaled bass and intimate, fun sound makes me use it as my main IEM still as of this review. For its price point, its bass wears the crown in extension, quantity, and sheer power, and for this reason it works just as well for movies and gaming as it does music. Many competitors may have it beat in overall tonal balance, soundstaging and treble, but I foresee the SE846 to remain very relevant in my collection, if only as the de facto weapon that quenches my inner basshead thirst. But rest assured that for some people, such as vocals and bass lovers, it may well be all that they will ever need.
After almost a decade, I have chosen the SE846 as my point of return to the Shure brand. It’s been a long time coming, but I’m so glad that we are back together.