March 30th, 2022
It might seem out of place to discuss a pair of IEMs (In-Ear Monitors) on my website that's dedicated to photography but it's not completely out of left field. They play an important role in my workspace, so it's fair game. With that out of the way, I have been using the Shure SE846 for the past three years and I bought them as a direct upgrade from the Shure SE215 that I used for 5 years prior. The SE846 remain an active subject on audio forums with users seeking feedback about them, often from the perspective of owning the SE215. With a lot of time spent using both the SE215 and the SE846, I have some opinions on what I think you should know about the SE846 if you are considering the upgrade.
If you own the SE215 and remain undecided on whether you should try the other SE models — SE315, SE426, and SE535 — save your money for the SE846. The SE846 are effectively the iterative result of the other models. Starting with the SE315, each subsequent model adds an extra driver to accommodate a greater frequency range, resulting in the quad-driver design of the SE846. I have had only limited experience with the other models in the SE range — besides having been a regular user of the SE215 — but even with my limited experience the quad-driver design is noticeably better, particularly in bass response due to its low-pass filter. I'm not saying that there might not be value in trying the other models, but you will likely find yourself considering the SE846 anyways and the money you invested in one of the other models could have been money that you saved to begin with.
In comparison with the SE215, the SE846 have a noticeably different sound signature (more on this in the next section). Part of that reason is the SE846 using multiple balanced armature (BA) drivers versus a single dynamic driver found in the SE215. Dynamic drivers are efficient at producing a wide frequency range from a single driver, with good representation in both bass and treble. Most popular consumer headphones — Sony, Bose, Apple, for example — use dynamic drivers. Balanced Armature drivers are different in that a single BA driver is not as capable at producing as wide of a frequency range as a single dynamic driver. Bass from a BA driver is often found to be lacking in both depth and feel. The advantage of BA drivers, however, are two-fold: the drivers are small and multiple of them can be used in a single earpiece to distribute frequency ranges among multiple drivers. This approach allows for a more efficient distribution of frequency ranges and, theoretically, an IEM with better clarity and detail.
This is admittedly a basic explanation of how BA drivers operate but it's useful to understand at least the basic differences between these driver architectures because it is possible you may not enjoy the audio from the SE846 at first. In fact, you may prefer the sound of the SE215. If your audio frame of reference has always been the SE215, or a dynamic driver equivalent, you are likely going to expect a similar sound from the SE846, but that won't be the case. My advice is that if you buy the SE846, use them exclusively for a week or more and remember that what you may initially perceive as being a worse sound is simply a different sound.
This is the most important factor to consider when using the SE846: you must use equalization (EQ) to get the best out of them. The SE846 are generally marketed as a monitoring earphone and whether that's monitoring audio on stage or in a studio a balanced sound signature is usually preferred. I think that explains why many first-time users are not enamored by the SE846, the default sound is somewhat dull and not that exciting to listen to. For pure listening enjoyment, you will want to EQ them and the SE846 respond extremely well to EQ. So much so that they become a completely different headphone.
Shure does offer some flexibility by including three filters that alter the sound signature. The pre-installed Blue Filters are what Shure considers to be a balanced response, while the White Filters and the Black Filters emphasize the treble and bass frequencies, respectively. You should try all three filters to see which sound signature you prefer but I find the Black Filters to be less useful because the boosted lows do muddy the sound more than what I would consider necessary and requires more EQ to balance out the effect.
I'm assuming this is a function of the multi-driver design and tuning by Shure but the SE846 are a revealing set of IEMs. You are likely to notice differences in lower quality music and music played from different sources. Spotify Premium is a good example. I'm a regular user of Spotify but I also have a large library of CDs and digital music that overlaps with Spotify. It's reported that Spotify Premium streams at 320kbps (kilobytes per second), which is the maximum bitrate available in the MP3 format. Comparing music from my local collection — at the same bitrate — against that same music in Spotify, the SE846 reveal differences between these sources. Spotify still sounds good, just not as good as my local source. I'm treading troubled water here because this is such a highly subjective area, especially when I don't have any objective proof to offer. This is a subjective review, after all, so keep that in mind.
With respect to music quality, I think what best describes the SE846 is 'garbage in, garbage out'. Music streaming (short of hi-res options like Tidal or Qobuz) will sound fine but not stellar. If you want the best out of the SE846 consider having a local library of high-quality music.
The SE846 have always elicited strong reactions from users. Some claim that they are severely overpriced for what they offer while others claim they are the best IEMs they have ever heard. I think what's important is not to consider whether they are the worst or the best but whether they are good, and the SE846 are great IEMs. The only way to truly know if they are right for you is to try them out. Find a company that has a good return policy and test them out for a week or 10 days, keeping the nuances that I have described above in mind. If you don't connect with them, that's fine. The market is flush with options. If you do connect with them, they will serve your listening habits well.