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Time to discuss headphone drivers.

Craving a new pair of headphones? Exciting! You will need to make the choice between in-ears, over-ears or on-ears. Should you opt for open-back or closed back?  Or should you make that semi-open? Do the headphones have a comfortable fit? Do they need to be wireless? How much should they cost?

We are not going to dispute the importance of any of these choices. But we figure these are fairly easy decisions to make. However, what tends to make or break the sound quality of a pair of headphones more than any other factor, is the driver technology used and how it is implemented.

So when you are heading out the door for your next purchase of headphones. We say this is definitely something to look into.

There is a lot of opinion out there when it comes to headphone driver technology and a lot has been said on the topic.  So… let’s start with the basics…

 

So what are headphone drivers?

The driver is the beating heart of your headphones. It’s the drivers job to convert the electrical signal into a sound wave that the ear can understand.

Typically, the driver unit is made up of magnets, voice coils and a cone-like diaphragm (measured in mm) and is one of the most essential pieces of the headphone. However, one type of driver is not the same as the next. They tend to come in a range of sizes and different types of technologies.  Drivers can range in size from 8mm to 15mm for earbuds and 20mm to 50mm for headphones.

 

 

The common players

As we just mentioned, there are drivers with different types of core mechanism. Each has their own unique ways of producing sound with associated pro’s and cons. We won’t go into the technical nitty-gritty of how they are each build and how they do exactly what they do.

The common types of headphone drivers are:

  • Dynamic or moving coil
  • Balanced armature
  • Planar magnetic
  • Electrostatic
Dynamic or moving coil drivers

Dynamic drivers are the most common drivers.

Pros

  • Able to create a good amount of bass response without the need for excessive power
  • Dynamic drivers are very cost-effective

Cons

  • Quality varies from outright excellent to simply bad. Dynamic drivers that are of poorer quality are susceptible to audio distortion at higher volume

 

Balanced armature (BA) drivers

BA drivers are smaller than dynamic drivers and, because of their size, they are mainly used in in-ear monitor (IEM). Because they are only capable of limited frequency ranges, often several drivers are used within one set of IEM’s.

Pros

  • Drivers can be tuned for optimal quality in specific frequency
  • Better performance in the treble frequency than the dynamic driver
  • Sounds are more detailed

Cons

  • Balanced armature drivers are generally more costly than dynamic drivers
  • Need additional drivers to get a better bass response

 

Planar magnetic driver

Planar magnetic drivers are featured mainly in open-back over-ears. The drivers are extremely thin and are usually located in high-end headphones.

 Pros

  • Planar magnetic headphones provide excellent quality and low-distortion sound
  • Excellent bass response

Cons

  • Necessary to have a headphone amplifier
  • Expensive
  • Larger and heavier

 

Electrostatic drivers

Electrostatic drivers are quite complex and requires special amplifiers known as energizers, they are usually found in the high-end open-back headphones.

Pros

  • Electrostatic drivers provide distortion-free sound
  • They offer a life-like soundstage

Cons

  • They are very expensive to buy
  • Electrostatic driver-based headphones require an amplifier
  • Large and bulky

 

So what about the brands that Rapallo has on offer?

Rapallo offers brands such as Beyerdynamic and Shure. Both brands have certain things in common: Both design headphones with the audiophile in mind. Yes, they also offer entry-level models, but excellent sound quality for critical listening is their focus. Both brands prefer audiophile sound quality and outstanding build over features. Both brands put high emphasis on comfort and fit.

But there are also some distinct differences between the two.

 

Beyerdynamic

Beyerdynamic is a German brand that is famous for their Tesla drivers, a variation on the dynamic drivers theme. As said above, dynamic drivers are very common, but quality can go from ‘outstanding’ to ‘plain poor’. The reason why these drivers stand out is the fact that they are extremely efficient (Twice as efficient compared to other brands). This has implications. The way Beyerdynamic designed the Tesla drivers and how they used materials offers high rigidity and low weight. It delivers advantages such as ultra-deep bass and crystal clear highs.  A particular highlight of Tesla technology headphone is its design as a full metal housing.  It shields the the voice coil in the Tesla acoustic transducer and therefore protects against electromagnetic fields. In a Tesla headphone, the only thing that causes the membrane to emit sound is the musical signal itself.

This may sound like a lot of technical mumbo jumbo, but it really means that the creation of these Tesla-powered headphones by Beyerdynamic was a real eye-opener for the headphone industry.  (* Beyerdynamic Headphones that are using the Tesla Technology are the Xelento’s, the DT1990 PRO’s, The DT1770 PRO’s the Aventho’s, The Amirons,  The T1 and the T5p) The high-quality build and the outstanding sound make them as good if not better than significantly more expensive headphones.

In the past we have also talked about the very impressive Beyerdynamic Sound personalization MOSAYC, which adjusts the headphones to your hearing ability. You can read more about it here.

 

Shure

While Beyerdynamic has their tesla drivers (a dynamic driver) to show off, American brand Shure shook the earphone industry with their electrostatic in-ears. Up till that stage, the electrostatic technology was reserved for over-ears and on-ears. Shure changed that and they did it amazingly well. You may need to sell a kidney to be able to afford them, but the Shure electrostatic in-ears will knock your socks off. It did for the Rapallo guys.

Electrostatic headphones have traditionally been praised for their super-speedy transient response, yet maligned for their cold tone and weaker bass response. But when the electrostatic components were folded into the Shure KSE1500’s tiny chamber, the close quarters created a physics anomaly that allowed the engineers to coax a smoother, fuller sounding low-frequency response. They were then able to tone down a bit of the snappiness up top, while still keeping the KSE1500’s clarity to expose the subtlest of details in the music. That’s how Shure was able to work with a totally different technology and still keep its signature sound. And that’s pretty special.

But While a definite audiophile brand, Shure  also makes in-ears that are worth the mention for those on the hunt for  some in-ears for commuting or sporting. Apart from the fact that they don’t sound too shabby, they also won’t give up on you within a few months (replaceable cable, yes?!) . To top it off, they will suit the more budget-conscious wallets. We are talking about the sound-isolating Shure SE215 and the SE215 wireless.

Unlike their more expensive peers like the SE535’s that have multiple BA drivers, the SE215 ‘s have a single micro-dynamic driver.

 

Audio-Technica

There where Beyerdynamic and Shure cater mainly (but not solely) for the audiophile, Audio-Technica is a one stop shop for everything and everybody. Noise-cancelling, wireless in-ears for the gym, high-fidelity Bluetooth, headphones for audio-engineers, gamer sets, budget or high-end… you name it, they do it.

Like most headphone manufactures, they are in the game of dynamic drivers.

 

Klipsch

While known for their speakers, Klipsch also has a history of making headphones (which makes total sense considering that headphones in essence are nothing else than miniature speakers… kinda)

Not that long ago,  as part of their very appealing Heritage Series, Klipsch launched the HP3 over-ear open-back headphones teamed with a Klipsch DAC/amplifier. It’s dynamic drivers again with a powerful and smooth delivery and nice and wide soundstage with good layering.

Again, they are audiophile material and they are striking.

 

FiiO

And last but not least, we want to make a mention of the FiiO headphones, who are definitely growing in popularity.

The highly regarded F9 PRO combines 2 BA drivers with one dynamic driver for the lows. Considered audiophile class in-ears, the F9 PRO’s are made to use on the go and  sound great with a dedicated DAC out of high-end smartphones. Lovers of considerable bass and a live soundstage will like it.

 

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Auckland 2013
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