I’ve been threatening this review for a while now, having had the SE846s in my possession for a number of months. The reason for the delay is not the normal busy-ness or range of other gear requiring reviews. No, the reason for the delay is that it has taken me some time to fully appreciate the SE846s for everything they are and can be. I have been through phases of awe, doubt, wonder, and hesitation with more time spent in awe and wonder, but enough doubt and hesitation that I wanted to be sure that my opinion didn’t swing the other way in time.
Well here we are now with a pair of SE846s in my ears, my mind completely made up on them and a blank page ready for audio-induced ramblings. Let’s go!
The Shure SE846 is Shure’s flagship IEM, sitting a step higher than the older, but still ongoing SE535. The SE846 sits significantly higher in price though at around $1000-1200 depending on where you shop and where you live. There are differing opinions about the SE846’s value compared to the SE535, but that comes down to two things: what you value in sound reproduction and which filter you use in the 846s, but I’ll get to that. Suffice to say for now, the 846s come three pairs of filters to tailor the sound to your tastes.
- Impedance: 9 ohms
- Sensitivity: 114 dB / mW
- Cables: silver plated copper (SPC) in 162cm and 114cm lengths
- Frequency Response: 15 – 20,000Hz
Design & Comfort
The engineers at Shure haven’t strayed far from the general form factor of their other highly successful SE series IEMs with the 846. It is still a similar shape housing to the older models, but is now more rounded like an oval-shaped bubble. The cable attachment remains at the same position and angle as previous models and that’s a good thing. They also continue to use the MMCX connector which is a great connector in my opinion and I’m personally fine with the ability of the cable to spin in the connector, but that seems to be personal taste.
Comfort-wise, the SE846s pickup exactly where the SE535 left off for me. They are super comfortable for long, long sessions and are among the very best fitting universal IEMs on the market (next to the new range from Audiofly). The casing of the SE846 is slightly larger than the SE535 due to housing an extra driver in the 846 so those with smaller ears may find some parts of the housing touching their ears and potentially becoming uncomfortable, but I personally haven’t found this problem and love the comfort of the 846s.
The SE846s are a 9 ohm, multi-balanced armature design meaning that you’ve got wide-ranging impedances that may easily dip below 9 ohms in spots and soar higher in other spots. That means you need to be really careful about matching the SE846 with the right devices – namely those with output impedance <1 ohm and ideally closer to 0 ohms (like 0.1 ohm). Failing to correctly pair the SE846s can result in extremely rolled off treble and the sense that you’re listening to a highly flawed product so be aware of this before you demo the SE846 as it would be a crime to not hear them in their full glory.
Another compatibility issue with the SE846 is the combination of their low impedance and high sensitivity leading to the possibility of hiss from less-than-stellar devices. The SE846s even display the slightest of noise when connected to the outstanding FiiO X5. Thankfully, the sound from the X5 is so slight that it’s only audible in a quiet room and quickly becomes inaudible once even the faintest of music begins so the pairing with the X5 is actually excellent and not at all far behind something like the AK240 (we’re talking 95-96% versus 100%).
Just a note: I’ve conducted all the listening for this test using the X5 paired with the E12DIY running a MUSES01 op amp and HA9P5002 buffers.
Packaging & Accessories
The packaging of the 846’s is suitably high-end as it should be for an IEM in this price-range. The box is high quality and everything inside is beautifully laid out. What’s more important to me though is what’s inside. I love that Share provide 2 cables – short and long – and a wide range of tips including silicone, open cell foam and Shure’s own sealed foam tips (often referred to as “olives”). As it happens, I’m not using any of Shure’s supplied tips, but the range they provide is excellent and should be suitable for most users.
You’ll also find an excellent hard-case to transport your IEMs in and this might be the best manufacturer-supplied case I’ve seen in terms of being just the right size, being hard enough to protect your investment, and offering a small section for storage of tips, etc.
Of course, the unique thing in the SE846 packaging other than the earphones is the little metal phial and attached key. The key is circular with three prongs and is designed to remove the metal cuff holding the earphone nozzle and filters in place. Attached to the key is the phial containing 2 pairs of alternate filters. The 846s come with the “neutral”, blue filters installed which means the darker-sounding black filters and brighter sounding white filters are in the phial. I’ll discuss the filters in much more detail later.
The SE846s look the business. The clear acrylic shells allow you to see some very detailed electronics in the form of crossovers and wiring of the balance armature drivers. You can also clearly see the labelling on a number of the drivers (including frequency response for the individual driver in at least one case) and the incredible low-pass filter assembly that Shure developed for the SE846 and which is the secret weapon in the SE846s outstanding bass performance, but more on that later.
The supplied cables are identical except for length and offer a silver-coloured wire with right-angle jacks and simple white / grey Y-splits and sliders. The cables are made of silver plated copper which is their only weakness in my opinion. Without getting into cable debates, I feel that SPC cables do more harm than good to the audio signal and can’t wait to receive the pure silver cables I ordered for the 846s. Personally, I prefer manufacturers to go with pure copper or pure silver, but we’ll see what differences an “upgraded” cable bring to the sound of the 846s.
Reviewing the sound of the SE846s is really like reviewing three different earphones because each filter makes a noticeable difference to the overall sound of the earphones. Personally, after many, many filter swaps I found that the white filter was my clear favourite so I’m going to review the sound from an overall perspective using the white filter and will then discuss how the blue and black filters differ. For the record, all three filters sound great and will definitely suit different people so it’s not to say one filter is right – they’re all good, but to me the white is superb.
White Filter Treble
The treble from the white filter is clean and crisp with plenty of air and extension. Those who felt like the SE535 was great, but missing that little something up high will love the SE846s with white filters installed.
It’s still a polite treble for the most part, but that doesn’t mean it’s veiled or rolled-off, it’s just not in-your-face. With the white filters installed the 846s deliver breath in vocals, shimmer in cymbals and plenty of spatial cues and texture. I haven’t once found myself wishing for more treble out of the 846s (with white filters). If you read reviews or hear accounts of the SE846s being nothing more than a bassy SE535 (or anyone generally knocking the SE846’s treble quality / quantity) there’s a good chance they haven’t tried the white filters.
One comment on the treble though… Tyll at Inner Fidelity mentioned that he found the treble a little harsh and I can understand what he means. I’m hoping that the culprit here is the SPC cable and that it can be fixed with a simple cable change, but there can at times be a slight edge to the treble that strikes even though the overall treble quantity is definitely not out of balance with other frequencies. This is by no means a deal breaker as 90% of the time I just listen with a huge smile on my face, but occasionally the 846 bites just a little and I have to nudge the volume back a notch. Perhaps this is the 846 showing flaws in the recording, perhaps it’s the SPC cable, or perhaps it’s just the way the 846’s treble drivers produce certain notes. All I can say is that this is the one element that prevents the 846s from attaining perfection in my mind and it doesn’t prevent them from still reaching 98% of perfection. Yes, they are really that good and easily the best universal IEM I have heard, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Shure earphones have long been known for their glorious mid-range reproduction and I’m glad to say nothing has changed. The filters have less impact on the mids than they do on the treble so consider this a review of the midrange in general, not just with the white filters.
Before I bought the SE846s I was actually saving up for the king of mids, the Fit Ear TG!334. After seeing the 846s second-hand at a great price I decided to pounce and hope they were nearly as good as the 334s. Since then I have listened to the 334s multiple times for extended sessions with all different tracks with a view to still buying them because I thought they were better. After multiple sessions I am amazed to be claiming that I believe the SE846 produces a better mid-range than the TG!334!! I know that’s a big claim and may draw the ire of Fit Ear fans and groupies, but let me clarify. When the TG!334 hits its sweet spot there is nothing on the planet quite as special, but when thrown a range of genres I found the 334 drifted in and out of the sweet spot and sometimes just sounded a bit thick and slow. The SE846 however has not once disappointed me with its beautiful clarity, speed, and texture through all of the mids.
Vocals on the SE846 are front and centre, but not closed in – just accurate and present. Guitars have a wonderful sense of attack and energy where you can hear the textures of the strings and little details buried deep in the recordings. With the SE846s I find myself hearing the texture of drum skins, the subtle characteristics of a singer’s vocal chords, their positioning relative to the microphone, and all those other intangible details that make an upgraded system so exciting. With the SE846s I am learning more about my music collection than I have in a while.
What’s fascinating to me about the SE846 is that it manages to produce beautiful, creamy mid-range with speed and accuracy, but never falls into the trap of placing the mids ahead of other frequencies. Not once have I found myself feeling too close to the vocalist or trapped in a crowded soundstage with no air and no hope of rescue.
White Filter Bass
Once again now I’m referring specifically to the white filters because the treble and the bass are the most influenced parts of the frequency response. I’m not sure that the filters actually adjust the bass levels so much as the other frequencies, but the end result is a changed perception of the bass.
With the white filters in the SE846s they might just have the best bass I have ever heard from an earphone or headphone. I have heard some people describe the SE846 as having the equivalent to a subwoofer, but it’s important to clarify that comment because there are subwoofers and then there are subwoofers. What I mean is that there is a big difference between a boomy, bassy, messy setup and a well tuned sub. A well tuned sub should only be noticeable when it’s removed – during normal listening it should support and reinforce the experience, never dominate it. That’s exactly what the SE846 achieves and it does it in the most remarkable way.
The engineers at Shure have managed to create a 4″ long tube inside a 1″ long IEM. How? By welding together tiny sheets of stainless steel of course. Why didn’t we all think of that!? Yes, the SE846 wields one of the most innovative advances we’ve seen in IEMs and may end up on par with the introduction of balanced armatures to consumer audio or the introduction of time / phase alignment in custom IEMs – all that depends on how tightly Shure holds onto the technology and how many more IEMs receive the same stroke of innovation in the future.
As far as I can understand it, the bass tunnel created by Shure acts as a low pass filter by physically attenuating higher frequencies. I wonder if it also acts a little like the technologies employed by Bose to help create bass with small speakers by using tunnels to “mechanically” amplify the bass. Regardless of how it works, what I can say definitively is that it works like a charm!
What makes the SE846’s bass so astonishing is that it moves so much air (especially for a balanced armature) while staying incredibly fast, tight and clean. If a track is mixed with a lean sound it will sound lean on the 846s. If it is mixed with rumbling, thunderous bass then you’re in for a treat.
The SE846 creates bass that is on par with a live performance. It produces a visceral, vibrational and auditory experience second only to being in the room with the musicians. It is magical to hear a bass guitar played or a kick drum struck while listening with the SE846s. You can hear (and feel) the impact of the notes as well as the deep, lingering reverberation (if it’s meant to be there). Each note is defined, separate from the rest of the music and decays quickly and naturally to make space for the next glorious sound wave. As you would imagine, sub-bass is powerful and present while mid-bass is solid, but equally well controlled and that’s why the SE846 can create such an excellent sense of clarity, detail and space while still being musical and engaging.
Soundstage & Imaging
The 846s have an excellent soundstage – very coherent and clean with excellent separation of instruments. It’s not huge, but the outstanding separation and clarity means that it never sounds congested. I would say the SE846 stage is a little larger than the TG!334 while perhaps not being as expansive as something like the UM Miracles.
The stage centres clearly on vocals (much like the TG!334), but is not dominated by the mids and manages to clearly recreate the location and space around cymbals, bass instruments, and everything in between. Height is limited, but natural and similarly not congested while depth is similarly average, but well defined.
In short, the SE846 isn’t an earphone for those wanting a massive out-of-head experience, rather it’s about an accurate, well-defined stage that fills every “corner” of your head, but doesn’t extend significantly beyond. To me it’s a natural presentation that allows me to completely forget that I’m wearing earphones and that’s perfect!
I’ll follow the overview with some other filter comparisons so read on after this if you’re interested, but in the meantime allow me to summarise the SE846s in just a few words: the very best universal IEM I have heard to date!
The SE846s really are exceptional earphones and are so far beyond their very capable ancestor SE535s that they really shouldn’t be compared. No, the SE846s deserve comparisons at their pricepoint and beyond – comparisons with IEMs and CIEMs like the Fit Ear TG!334, JH Audio JH13 / JH16, UM Miracles, Sennheiser IE800 and AKG3003. Of the models listed here I have directly compared the SE846 with all but the JH Audio models and can comfortably say that the SE846s are a better overall option than all of the others mentioned. Some earphones may do 1 or 2 things better than the SE846, but I haven’t yet heard an earphone which is overall better and continually put my wallet back in my pocket after auditioning potential upgrades having realised that there may be no upgrade for the SE846 without venturing into the $1500+ custom territory of Noble Kaiser 10s, JH Audio Roxanne, UE Personal Reference Monitors, and other flagship customs.
As I stated earlier, no earphone or headphone has successfully conveyed the feelings of a live performance the way the SE846 can and it’s all about the bass. Other options like the HD800, LCD-2, and T1 can create a great reproduction and possibly highlight more details or create a larger soundstage, but nothing manages to make me feel like I’m in the room with the musicians the same way that the SE846s do. When I first listened to Ane Brun’s “What’s Happening With You and Him?” I was gob-smacked by the texture and clarity of the drums that rumble across the soundstage – it was so real! I immediately tried the same track with everything else I own and couldn’t reproduce the experience on anything except the SE846s. I’m eagerly awaiting some new customs which will hopefully be an upgrade over the SE846, but I’m not convinced that they’ll be anything more than a sideways step because it’s hard to imagine the sound getting significantly better than the SE846s.
Read on below to learn more about the different filter characteristics because it’s an important feature of the SE846s – they can be 3 different earphones with just a quick filter change. You’ll also find out that the addition of an aftermarket silver litz cable changes the sound further still and left me preferring the other filters over the whites so you can have plenty of fun fine tuning the SE846s to your exact taste and that’s rare with an IEM (although becoming slightly more common).
Blue Filter Comparison
The blue filters are the stock inclusion with the SE846s so they’re what you’ll hear straight out of the box. If I’m honest, I wasn’t overwhelmed by what I heard when I first listened to the SE846s with these filters installed. The sound was smooth and polite, but lacking in anything particularly special. The blue filters produce a sound that is smooth, warm and mid-centric, but I personally find the treble extension a little lacking, however some will like the smooth, fatigue-free sound they produce.
Because of the reduced treble, the bass and mids are more prominent in the mix with the majority of the benefit going towards the mids. The bass is not significantly stronger (referring only to perception as the blue filter doesn’t enhance the bass, just reduce the treble). With the blue filters installed, the SE846s remind me a lot of the SE535 Limited Edition, but with upgraded quality at every frequency and deeper, stronger bass. I find myself missing the airiness and treble extension that the white filter has, but that’s only when using the stock cable. I recently received a pure silver litz cable from Headphone Lounge and it brings the blue filters to life by adding a little extra air and treble extension while keeping the beautiful smoothness and gentle mid-range emphasis.
Black Filter Comparison
The black filters are the warmest option available with the SE846s and bring increased bass and mid presence by pulling back the 1kHz-8kHz range by 2.5dB (just as the white boosts this range by 2.5dB relative to the blue filter).
I personally prefer the black filters to the blue filters because they shine a brighter light on the mid-range and really showcase the SE846s’ brilliance in this area. With the black filters installed, the SE846s remind me quite a lot of the Fit Ear TG!334, but with faster, tighter bass. The 334s probably still have an edge in out-right mid-range resolution, but the SE846 isn’t far behind. The sound from the black filters is still smooth like the blue filters, but the extra mid and bass emphasis makes the signature more striking and interesting than the blue filter which I find to be a bit too neutral in all areas. Of course, some may like that about the blues.
Once again, the edition of a nice silver cable like the silver litz cable I bought brings the treble energy back into the mix and helps to bring life to the SE846s when using the darker filters. In fact, I find myself preferring the blue and black filters with the silver litz cable – I’m not yet sure which of the filters will become my new standard with the silver cable in place.
The addition of the silver litz cable from Ted Allen at Headphone Lounge certainly had the desired results. The sound became noticeably smoother and with better extension and air in the treble. The bass becomes more agile and nimble which may initially sound like a decrease in quantity, but it’s just faster as far as I can tell, not reduced at all. The bass extension and impact is still excellent and just right. As I said above, with the silver cable in place I found the white filters a little too bright and was pleased to discover that the blue filter now sounds very similar to the white filter with stock cable, but the blue filter with silver cable combo is smoother and more refined while still delivering all the extension and air of the white filter (with stock cable). In short, I would definitely recommend upgrading the SE846 cable even though the stock one isn’t bad. If you’d got an IEM with this kind of potential you might as well unleash it.