SHURE SE846 IN-EAR MONITORS
High-end generics aren’t the poor cousin of custom moulds anymore, as Shure innovates in the smallest of spaces.
Review: Mark Davie
Shure has been manufacturing generic in-ears for years. In fact, they were the first to come out with dual-driver generics, with a little help from JH Audio’s Jerry Harvey (when he still owned Ultimate Ears), and show they were serious about performance earbuds.
Shure is one of the world’s biggest wireless monitoring manufacturers, which requires them to have some decent accessories in the box. And for a lot of people, these single and dual-driver generics do the job. They’re comfortable, provide good isolation, decent sound, and are cheap to replace. Also, if you decide to get a little fancy you can get Sensaphonics to whip you up a pair of add-on custom moulds for $150.
The upside to having custom moulds is their ability to whip in and out of your ears without having to squish and roll foam inserts. But the main benefit is a consistent response. By getting the same locked-in fit every time, you get good solid bass response, which is crucial to the in-ear experience.
One of the other touted benefits has been superior isolation. But with its range of foam inserts, Shure claims a reduction in ambient noise by up to 37dB, yards better than its competitors, which typically quote under 30dB of reduction. Being a frequency dependent measurement, it’s impossible to compare, but the message is crystal clear and direct into your ear canals; foam inserts won’t let you down when it comes to sound isolation.
Lately, I’ve had my ears wrapped around a set of Shure’s latest high-end generic in-ear model, the SE846 — a three-way design, with four balanced armature drivers (two powering the low end).
There’s been a lot of development in in-ears over the years. Balanced armature drivers that require no venting have become more common than dynamic drivers, and ergonomics have mostly been settled to an over-ear wireform cable design. So where to next? Well, Shure has found some wiggle room to innovate.
Custom-moulded in-ears have one advantage over generics; more space for more drivers. While generics are usually limited to four drivers before the whole thing pulls like an awkwardly attached hoop earring, custom in-ears have been seen containing up to eight a side. In the end though, at best they’re still usually operating as a three-way design shooting out the same hole. Some other manufacturers have started to divide the high and mid frequencies from the low end, delivering them via different passageways as a means of creating better phase response.
Still, more drivers won’t solve the biggest issue for in-ear designs — the crossover. With hardly any space to work in, the best manufacturers can hope for is a passive crossover using miniature capacitors and resistors. While sufficient for band limiting the higher frequencies and acting as a high pass for the high and mid drivers, you would need much larger, more complicated circuitry to be able to low pass the LF driver output. With the SE846, Shure splits the response of its drivers across the 20-200Hz, 200-2000Hz, and 2-20kHz regions. But getting the response of the low-end driver isn’t that clear cut. Typically, the low-end driver will reproduce much of the mid range into the bargain and muddy up the sound.
Without the ability to add active circuitry, Shure had to resort to the most mechanical of filters. By welding 10 stainless steel plates together, Shure is able to carve out a four-inch long tunnel attached to the output of the low frequency driver. This essentially traps the shorter wavelengths of the unwanted mid-range frequencies and starts to rolloff the low end response above 75Hz, giving you plenty of bass and clear mid range.
These are definitely the best generics I’ve heard. The low-pass filter gives a much better balance to the sound. While other in-ears can sound punchy, they lack low end by comparison. The effect of stacking mid-ranges from multiple drivers gives a compressed, lumpy character that can work fine for some sources but uncomfortably poke your eardrums on others. The SE846 delivers a much more consistent tonal response across the spectrum — more balanced and natural.
Shure didn’t stop there. After finding success with a mechanical low-end filter, attention turned to the top end. The SE846 allows you to customise the mid-range and high-end response with three interchangeable filters inserted into the nozzle. It’s a fairly painless process that uses a keyed tool to undo the metal retaining ring, releasing the nozzle. A quick changeover and you’re back in business. The added benefit is the nozzle — typically one of two points of failure (the other being the cable) — is replaceable.
The filters are colour-coded: Blue provides the ‘balanced’ neutral setting, black is ‘warm’, which reduces between 1-8kHz by 2-2.5dB, and white is the ‘bright’ filter, which boosts the same range by an equal amount. Of course, a passive acoustic filter can’t actually boost, so the white filter is a straight-through piece which gives the true frequency response of the ear piece.
Also, the insert separates the mid and high frequencies from the low frequencies (which travel around the filter), resulting in better clarity. They are all potentially good choices, depending on your preference. None sounded bad, but I did find myself gravitating to the more pronounced ‘bright’ setting. I’d like to tell myself because it’s the most natural, straight-through response, but I think I just liked the extra brightness.
To ensure you get the right fit, Shure provides nine pairs of interchangeable sleeves: black tapered washable foam in three sizes with a double of the mediums, grey soft flex in three sizes, a pair of throwback yellow foamies and a set of triple flanges suited to really deep ear canals. For once, the standard black foam pieces were the best fit for me, and there wasn’t an ear I couldn’t find an appropriate sealer for. Indeed, it was the best isolated sound a drummer friend had ever experienced, without any chance of it flinging out mid-roll.
Also in the neat hard case are two detachable, kevlar-reinforced cables (46- and 64-inch), an airline adaptor, cable clip, inline volume attenuator and a canister for your spare filters.
Shure has managed to cram a lot of innovation into its high-end generic, and the results are beautifully balanced. Definitely worth it for those unconcerned with custom moulds, who value great sound, or as a high-end backup pair for anyone worried about sitting on their moulds.