First Listen: Shure SRH1540 Premium Closed-Back Headphones ReviewOctober 28, 2015
After two years of listening to Shure’s SRH840 headphone nearly every workday, I decided it was finally time for an upgrade. Not so much because the SRH840 isn’t a good headphone (you can read my review here), but more because I wanted something different.
My workspace, where I use an ALO Audio Island DAC/amp to drive my music daily, calls for closed-back headphones. I had the Fostex TH600 in my collection, but its sonic signature never quite satisfied me. The TH600’s sub-bass is beyond fun, the sense of space is great, it’s quite comfortable, but the deeply recessed mids left a lot to be desired for my musical tastes and the resultant emphasis on the bass and treble regions could get overpowering after hours of listening. So it was out. Actually, it’s gone (sold).
So the search for a SRH840 and TH600 replacement began with a few points in mind: Something light, respectable looking, a shade more detailed, rich mids and maybe just a hint more sub-bass extension and definition if possible. I actually thoroughly enjoyed the sound of the SRH840 over the years, so I didn’t want to abandon it entirely. Logically, I looked to Shure’s offerings to see what the next step in the line might be, and that’s where the SRH1540 falls in.
Shure describes the SRH1540 as its “premium closed-back headphone,” featuring “an expansive soundstage with clear, extended highs and warm bass.” The description fit the bill, Tyll’s review on Inner Fidelity helped solidify my confidence in its performance and having the sound signature I was looking for, so I decided to pick up the SRH1540 without ever demoing it beforehand.
It was a risky decision. It’s not a headphone I see suggested frequently or talked about often on forums, and I’ve actually only seen it in person once before at AXPONA in Chicago. With a typical retail price of $499, it’s not exactly a headphone one should gamble on. Thankfully, my bet paid off (mostly).
I’ll dare say it—if you could take hints of the Shure SRH840, Fostex TH600 and Sennheiser HD650 and meld them together, you might just come up with the SRH1540. It’s an interesting and enjoyable soundscape if you like headphones with an intimately warm tonality.
Much like the SRH840 and HD650, the SR1540 maintains a clean, rich midrange that projects vocalists of all varieties well. These are the mids the TH600 severely lacks, and if it had them, I would have likely kept that headphone, but I digress. Mids are where I think Shure shines. I find the midrange smooth and full-bodied with enough texture to really get my ears engaged in the music. If you’re coming straight from the SRH840, you may find the SRH1540 to be a touch cooler as it has less of a hump towards the bass and in the upper ranges. Compared to the HD650, I personally always sensed some grain and edginess in its clarity, I think the SRH1540 just delivers better here, albeit with a slightly different tone.
Moving deeper into the bass region, the SRH1540 delivers weighty bass with ease. Sub-bass is an area the SRH840 lacked and left me wanting for more as it placed a greater emphasis on a mid-bass hump that bled into the mids. While it’s undeniable that there’s a bass hump on the SRH1540, it transitions smoothly from sub- to mid-bass and then into the midrange in a way that sounds more natural and doesn’t overemphasize its presence. I’d say the bass extension and impact of the TH600 is superior, but the SRH1540 is more pleasing and fuller sounding than the SRH840 and it handles the transitions much better than the TH600 where the mids simply fall out of the bottom resulting in bass bloat. Basically, it’s a solid middle ground between the two, and I can live with that.
One thing I can’t live with is peaky, edgy treble—especially in a headphone that I rely on to get me through the workday. The SRH840 didn’t have that; it’s dark and relaxed, and that’s part of why I liked it so much. But at the same time, the soundstage closes in when there isn’t enough sparkle. So here again, the SRH1540 strikes a nice balance between the darker SRH840 and the brighter TH600. The SRH1540 has pleasing, grain-free treble that isn’t fatiguing like an AKG or Beyerdynamic, but offers enough details so that you aren’t missing any zip. With slightly more presence and extension than the SRH840, the SRH1540 sounds more open and spacious, albeit, the TH600 easily outpaces both in presenting a 3D soundstage. Again, it’s a compromise, but one that won’t stop me from fully enjoying this headphone.
Overall, I really like the SRH1540. It takes what I liked about the sound of its SRH840 sibling and does it better in just about every way. Better bass. More balanced mids. Smooth, detailed highs. Greater sense of space and instrument separation. If you like the SRH840, you’ll likely love the SRH1540, except for its price, but we’ll get to that later.
Fit and comfort were my biggest motivators for abandoning the SRH840 as my daily driver headphone. If you follow my blog or Instagram, you’ll know that I took great strides to modify the obscenely heavy SRH840 headband (possibly an over exaggeration) and find ear pads that provided better heat dissipation, comfort and overall performance (Brainwavz HM5 angled pads, please). While my tweaks certainly kept me happy for quite a while, I wasn’t contented enough.
I can confidently say that the SRH1540 takes the comfort level up several notches. The SRH1540 has a sleek modern design that maintains a similar overall shape as the SRH840 but trades in the heavy molded plastics and oversize headband for slimmed down aluminum and flashy carbon fiber bits. While you lose the ability to fold the headphones for transportation, you gain looks and weight savings (a claimed 286g versus my SRH840 that weighed in at 376g pre-mods and 324g post-mods). This puts the SRH1540 in the same weight class as the HD650 and TH600.
The headband in stock form is a step up from the SRH840. It features a similar shape, but is reduced in size and features a center cutout to keep the weight and contact points down. The padding is minimal, but so far it seems sufficient enough. In time I may add an additional pad or wool wrap as I did with my HiFiMan HE-500 and Audeze LCD-X, but I don’t see an immediate need for it. Also, the headband is quite flexible allowing it to be flexed a bit to relieve clamping force. I haven’t had an issue here, but others with larger heads may as all Shure headphones maintain a firm grasp on one’s noggin.
Finally, we get down to the ear pads. The SRH1540 features a thick perforated Alcantara ear pad that is satisfyingly comfortable. It’s a substantial step up from the thinner pleather and velour ear pads that come with the SRH840 and SRH940. Noise isolation doesn’t seem as good as the SRH840, but I don’t have an accurate way of measuring that. Heat doesn’t seem to build up as much with this ear pad either. Pads are also easily replaceable.
Overall, the SRH1540 is a light, comfortable and stylish headphone that fits well and seals out noise fairly well.
As much as I like the SRH1540, I do have some issues with it. For starters, the price is excessive in my opinion. I don’t really have any qualms about the performance, looks or comfort, but at $499 new, I guess I expected it to feel more robust or something. At its full retail price, I am hard-pressed to recommend this headphone to everyone, but at $300-375 for used and open-box models, I find it to be a much better value.
Accessories wise, the SRH1540 comes with an extra set of pads, a ¼” adapter, a hard travel case and two detachable cables. Here’s the silly part; the cables are both identical 6-foot straight cables. Why? Come on Shure. Give us a short cable for mobile use and give us a 10-footer to use in our listening rooms, duh. The cables also feel cheap. In comparison to the 10-foot coiled cable on the SRH840, the SRH1540’s feels thinner, seems more microphonic and kinks easily. It's also dual-sided versus the SRH840’s single-sided design.
My final minor gripe is that the yokes don’t rotate horizontally like they do on the SRH840. This isn’t much of an issue if you plan to use the stock pads, but I really liked the performance of the Brainwavz HM5 angled ear pads on the SRH840. I tried them on the SRH1540, but it’s not possible to get a good seal with them because the ear cup cannot twist to align with your head.
That’s It, That’s All
To sum it up, the SRH1540 is a headphone that you can wear all day. It looks good. It feels good. And most importantly, it sounds good. This is a fun headphone to listen to. It offers great bass, warm mids, and detailed highs that are nicely balanced. If you get the SRH1540 at the right price, you really can’t go wrong.