In the Mix: What Makes a DJ Headphone? Page 2

Shure SRH-550DJ


The new on-ear SRH550DJ is the entry-level model in Shure's DJ line, slotting in below the over-the-ear SRH750DJ ($149.99). The 550DJ's styling should be immediately familiar to DJs. Anyone who's used the venerable Sony MDR-V700DJ, Pioneer HDJ-1000, or Technics DH1200 - from each of which it takes a few cues in earpad configuration, color scheme, and headband construction - should feel at ease with the 550DJ. And those coming from the lower-profile on-ear Sennheiser HD-25 series (a perennial DJ favorite) will appreciate the 550DJ's light weight and low-profile construction. So is the lightweight, affordable 550 all things to all DJs?

The Shure is, first and foremost, a very lightweight headphone, coming in at just 8 ounces. The cable attachment is a Y-configuration, with left and right channels terminating independently. I had my doubts about the usefulness of this from a DJ performance perspective, figuring that a single-sided attachment would make more sense. But our DJ panelist Brett didn't mind the arrangement at all, finding the legs of the "Y" lengthy enough that they weren't in the way during monitoring with a single earcup

Strangely enough for a device marketed to DJs, all three of us felt that the 550's actual sonic signature was somewhat thin - clinical, come to think of it, far more in line with what one might expect from a studio monitor. Instrument separation was clear (and given how present percussion is on these 'phones, this might come in handy in a DJ setting for queueing up tracks and beat-matching), but might not be especially suited to casual listening (those interested in a detailed closed-back 'phone that does double duty might be better served by Shure's studio monitors, the SRH840 or 940).

Activity in the lower registers is definitely audible - and what's there is tight and focused - but I wouldn't say there's any real body. Overall there's a studio-monitor blandness to these cans that wouldn't make them my personal choice as a listening phone these seem to be voiced more for detail-oriented listeners (pressed for a reference, I'd say I found these more reminiscent of the Sony MDR-V6 than anything else) than those wanting to really thump it up.

Checking out an old favorite, Talking Heads' "The Great Curve" (from the HDtracks 24/96 release of Remain in Light) revealed a bit of nasal coloration of vocals, a hint of exaggeration in the upper midrange (Adrian Belew's ripping solo certainly cut through loud and clear, as a side benefit thereof), but otherwise these were a pretty restrained listen - not an exciting headphone, for sure. As for the low end, I could definitely hear distinct bass tones, but I definitely felt that some oomph was missing. Phil appreciated the Shure's brightness, and liked the sense of stereo separation it provided, but felt that there wasn't a lot of low end, and that overall that the music "felt slightly sterile, with no character."

For a change of genre, I switched over to another HDtracks fave, McCoy Tyner's take on "What is This Thing Called Love" from New York Reunion, and found the 550 a bit less suited to acoustic tracks. Cymbals had a nice sizzle without overt harshness, and the focused bass was nice, but Tyner's piano sounded a bit nasal, with a touch of barrelhouse piano tonality, given the midrange bump. Phil felt like the Shure's upper midrange clarity was well displayed by this track, but the lack of character - he liked it to "an enormous hall without the reverb" - wasn't welcome.

Turning to something a bit more contemporary - the title track from LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver - gave us a better sense of the Shure's strengths and limitations. The song's in-your-face synth bass had good clarity, if not a lot of weight, and the midrange presence really accentuated the piano and synth bells that punctuate the tune nicely, but the overall atmosphere was a bit lost. I wouldn't say that this was a negative, however, given that this is a headphone meant to be used as a tool, for making critical mix decisions on the fly. Phil noticed in particular that the synth choir swell that punctuates a key point in the tune just overwhelmed the phones before the crescendo; this came through far more clearly on the Skullcandies and Beats 'phones.

Brett was, interestingly more positive overall than Phil or myself about the 550s - feeling like they were a step up in terms of clarity from familiar 'phones such as the Sony MDR-V700DJ they superficially resemble - but he also found the bass lacking. "you just don't get enough of the low end with these," Brett mentioned. "Maybe it's the shallow earcup not giving me enough of a seal, but it's definitely not enough."

He identified another downside in the stiffness of the adjustment mechanism, finding them difficult to adjust without taking them off of his head - a definite requirement for long sets - which coupled with ths size and configuration of the earcup made for difficult monitoring.

"My favorite phones right now are the Sennheisers [the HD-25], which are small enough that when you tip one cup off your ear the other side still isolates well. The Shure has the lightness, it just needs better-designed earcups - there's so much cushioning that when you move the cup off your ear it seems to obscure the driver."

The Shure is certainly an interesting contender in the DJ phone market. It might not be suited for those looking to spin bass-heavy electronic tracks - but not every DJ does that in any case. If you like the Shure sound, there's always the full-sized SRH-750DJ in any case, if you need a better seal, which should give you better bess extension (and better isolation).

Test Results

I measured the SRH550DJ headphones using a G.R.A.S. Type 43AG ear/cheek simulator, a Clio FW audio analyzer, and a Musical Fidelity V-Can headphone amplifier. I experimented with slight differences in position of the ear cups to get the best seal of the headphone on the cheek plate and the most representative frequency response curves.

The SRH550DJ's frequency response doesn't show the bass-heavy balance typical for a DJ headphone. There's a strong emphasis from 2 to 3 kHz, which should accentuate voices. The difference in bass response between left and right channel can probably be ignored; for whatever reason, I wasn't able to get a good fit on the ear/cheek simulator with the left earcup. Adding 70 ohms output impedance to the V-Can's 5-ohm output impedance to simulate the effects of using a low-quality headphone amp produced almost no change at all in frequency response.

The SRH550DJ's distortion is very low. Even at 100 dB (level measured with pink noise, A-weighting) the total harmonic distortion (THD) is just 0.9% total harmonic distortion. I'm not sure what that big THD spike at 13 Hz is caused by, but it did show up in multiple measurements. However, I'm unaware of any music with content at 13 Hz, so even if this isn't a measurement anomaly, it won't cause problems.

Impedance of the Shure headphone is close to flat, running about 28 ohms in the bass and rising to 31 ohms in the high treble. Isolation is typical for a closed-back over-ear model, varying from -10 to -33 dB at frequencies above 1 kHz. Isolation results will vary with the shape of your ear and head.

Average sensitivity from 300 Hz to 10 kHz with a 0.179 volts RMS signal is very good at 103.7 dB. - Brent Butterworth