Battle of The Titans

By R. Ricciardi for Earphone Solutions

Disclaimer: For this comparison, the Shure SE846 had the "balanced" nozzle installed. The SE846 ships with 2 more nozzles which would: (1) render a heavier bass presence than the compared nozzle and (2) a lighter bass presence than the compared nozzle.

Its not often you get the opportunity to listen and experience two world-class products side by side. So I was excited to listen to the new Westone W60 and the Shure SE846 in-ear monitors! I have listened to music and consumer electronics audio products for 30+ years. I do not consider myself an audiophile. I just love music.

My comparison was done using the same pieces of music from different genres. I listened to the products in flight, running and in the quiet of my office. Unlike traditional loudspeakers, which you can compare by switching instantaneously, in-ear monitors require listening and noting details of the music as you listen. Then listening to the same music with the other monitors at same volume - noting the differences. As a matter of interest, the music source devices I used were not exotic or expensive. A simple MacBook with an external inexpensive USB DAC and when on the move my iPhone 5. I listened to both high resolution and standard resolution audio files.

My observations and remarks are both from the sound and the physical comfort perspectives. Acoustically speaking, I listened for spectral (tones, timbre and overall balance of tones) qualities and spatial (the size and space of the music) reproduction. And how dynamic they were (sound from quiet to loud moments).

The Shure SE846’s audio reproduction is captivating. It grabs your attention -immediately! The clarity and accuracy in the mid and high frequencies is eye popping. At times revealing astonishing levels of detail that I have not heard before. For example, Norah Jones’ voice (Come Away with Me) is so well defined you could hear a rasp tone in her voice. Never heard that before event though I have listened to this song many times.

The low frequency of the 846 is deep and extends impressively low. This will surprise anyone – including staunch audiophiles. At times though the bass is too preponderant. For example, listening to Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien OP45 (Kunzel -Cincinnati Pops Orchestra) with the full assault of the orchestra and the percussion section can be breathtaking. The SE846 clearly emphasize the bass drum. The upper portion of the low frequencies where the contrabass, cello, and tympani live, appear overshadowed by the extreme lows of the bass drum. The tympani's timbre is hollow. In contrast, in this passage the W60 unveils the percussions instruments (all of them) on an equal level and the timbre of tympani is rolling - more realistic.

Spatially, the Shure 846 is masterful. In a few occasions a little too surgical. The width of the image is well beyond my ears. The soundstage is forward with depth and layers of spaciousness. This can be heard clearly when listening to the acapella of Straight No Chaser – a classic song - Auld Lang Syne. The 12 singers can be identified individually from left to right with ample space between them. At times the SE846s’ discrete sound creates a spatial imagery that is choppy almost like listening to 2 separate monitors. This is notable in Ray Charles and Natalie Cole - Genius Loves Company album – song “Fever”. The two voices are too far apart and sound is isolated in the in the monitors rather than in a blended image.

The most distinct attribute about the Shure 846 is its ability to “grab your attention” with a sound signature of raw beauty and a demanding presence.  However, its acoustical precision comes at the expense of being less musically fit than the W60.

What’s the implication? Listening to the Shure 846 is fatiguing. A 60 minute uninterrupted listening session (at modest volume levels) produces a compelling need to put them down and give my ears an “acoustic rest”. This happened repeatedly.  It’s like going on an acoustic roller coaster ride. Thrilling – but you need to get off after a while.

Shure SE846, jazz and wine.

In contrast, the Westone W60 is more musical with a refined sound palette and a warmer sound signature. The sound is uncolored and more evenly distributed across all frequencies - the holy grail of music lovers and audiophiles.

Its refined sound signature includes serious sonic capabilities. The low frequency response extends very deep and does not overwhelm with mid and high frequencies. At first impression it would appear the 846 might have deeper bass. But that is not the case. The difference in bass between the SE846 and the W60 is in timbre – not tone. They both extend very deep. The SE846 tends to be “punchy”, while the W60 is “tight”.  The W60’s bass is more proportional with the upper frequency range and the musical content.

From my listening experience the most prominent attribute of the W60 is the immense clarity of the midrange. Vocals and string instruments are a standout. Detailed, very natural and warm. This is evident when listening to Diana Krall in Live at Paris – Fly me to the Moon. The timbre of her voice clearly depicts her accent and the roll of her jaw. Listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No3 in G minor the ensemble of strings is extremely well defined as the bows attack the strings. All the string instruments are heard well. Violins, violas, cellos and contrabass heard in discrete layers. There is no screeching or shrillness with the violins and violas.

The W60 isn’t just for classic or refined music. No couch potato here! They’re capable of delivering some extreme sound. I experienced this, courtesy of my son’s newer digital instrumental music.

Spatially, the W60 reproduces a full, wide and very harmonious sound stage well beyond my ears physical space. Frankly, better than the majority of headphones. The W60’s ability to produces space and depth is beautiful. In contrast to the SE 846, the W60 has a soundstage that is less forward in presence. A little more laid back.

Overall, the audio reproduction of the W60 is very balanced. The sound is natural and more musical to my ears.  I spent hours of uninterrupted listening to music from Vivaldi to The Band Perry to Van Halen. It handled all of it well. Unlike the SE846, with the W60 I did not experience listening fatigue. I would define the W60 as a music connoisseur’s dream!

Westone W60, classical music and red wine.

Comfort and Fit

I fly a lot. 3 to 6 hour flights. I exercise 1 hour each day. These 2 activities led my listening time. Although there were times I was in a quiet and non active space.

From a physical in-the-ear comfort I must say there is a clear winner.

The smaller monitor size and shape of the W60 fits in my ears better.  Much better.

My ear openings are average size. The SE846 are a tight squeeze in my ears. I could feel their presence and a bit of discomfort.

The “stay in-the-ear-canal” factor was also a win for the W60. The ergonomic form of the SE846 just did not feel as tight as the W60.

With respect to the audio cable, while the Shure SE846 has a cool looking translucent cable the wire is prone to tangles, too stiff and somewhat bulky. The memory wire section for the ear section was fussy and uncomfortable. In contrast, the classic black audio braided cable of the W60 is far more subtle, thinner and more comfortable around the ear.

I’m a “car guy” and passionate about the exotic Italian ones. I find interesting parallels between these 2 titans of sound and the exotic auto makers Lamborghini and Ferrari.

The Shure SE846 lives in the “extremes”. In performance and design - just like Lamborghini. Its distinctive see-through monitor displays the precision of its 4 balanced armatures, as extreme and demanding as its sound signature. Impressed with its performance especially considering it's a 4 balanced armature system!

The Westone W60’s design and performance are an audiophile hallmark. Like Ferrari, the successful monitor design with unmatched comfort, veils the heart of a sophisticated and a highly musically-tuned 6 balanced armature system. How Westone squeezed 6 balanced armatures in a device that's the size of a peanut is beyond me!

In summary, both of these products are at the leading edge of acoustic performance. Far superior to any other I have listened to. In fact, in my opinion they out perform most well-known headphones.

The sonic differences between the SE846 and the W60 are nuances and apparent after a closer listening. The SE 846 will grab your listening attention quickly. It is spectrally detailed but less musical. If you like decisive audio presence, this is your speed. However, the listening is demanding and fatiguing to the ear. The W60 is a sonic marvel. Very even-keeled in tonal balance. It possesses a warmer and more musical sound signature. It is a music connoisseur’s dream.  

From a comfort, fit and wear perspective the W60 is clearly better. If you listen to music for long periods of time (air travel) this is it.

The choice is yours. It's a matter of taste in sound and use (listening time).

Both are breathtaking and worthy of your listening enjoyment.