When buying a pair of headphones, people tend to have a pretty good idea of the style of headphone they want. Whether it is a pair of in-ear, on-ear, around-ear headphones; whether to go wired or wireless and whether to opt for such extra features as active noise-cancellation to help muffle ambient noise. Oh, and then there’s price. Everybody has a budget.
But unbeknownst to most people, choices go a bit further than that.
Knowledge is the key to getting it right, so here’s what you may need to consider, before getting out the credit card.
Good headphones? Bad headphones? How about the right headphones for you?
We have no doubt that all of you are familiar with the different types of headphones. We get it and won’t waste your time on that. But there are a few things that we want to explain to you, so you have an exact idea of what you are looking for. We’re mainly talking the technology used behind your potential pair.
IN-EAR HEADPHONES are small sized drivers that fit inside your ear canal. They are often referred to as in-ear monitors or IEMs.
They are nothing like the ‘cheap and nasty’ earbuds that come with your phone and just sit in the outer ear. Earbuds in our opinion are a no-go: The don’t sit well and they sound bad. End of story.
Prices of in-ears range from very cheap to very high end. Does more money mean a better product? To some extent, absolutely.
Most people opt for in-ears because they are so compact and light.
Obviously, when shopping for in-ears, fit matters a lot. When you are going to ‘shove’ something deep inside your ear, it has to be comfortable. But it’s also the seal that is critical. Not only does a good seal means less ambient noise while still catching the full dynamic range. An airtight seal is also how you get decent bass response.
Luckily, there’s a lot of different kinds of tips earbud makers have come up with. There is life beyond the standard rubber bulb: there’s also squishy foam, or the the Christmas tree-lookin’ triple-flange sleeves might be just the thing that works for you. Because it is such a personal thing, a good pair of in-ears should come with a ton of tips.
But while the fit of in-ears is of real importance, one pair of in-ears can have a very different driver technology behind it than another pair. And both have their pro’s and cons.
Mostly, in-ears use one of two driver technologies — balanced armature and dynamic.
Balanced armature drivers are used in in-ear monitors, as well as hearing aids. Most balanced armature drivers are tuned to sound good in a specific frequency range, which is why many in-ear monitors contain multiple drivers. A crossover splits the sound signal into multiple frequency bands, and sends different frequency bands to each driver.
Unlike dynamic driver designs, balanced armature drivers to not displace air to generate sound. There are upsides and downsides to this. Balanced armature in-ear monitors typically provide better isolation because there is no need for a vent to move air. They offer a more detailed sound, but lack the superior bass frequency presentation of dynamic driver designs. Typically, because they need to fit multiple drivers, they tend to be a bit larger too.
Unlike balanced armature designs, dynamic drivers are designed to cover the entire frequency range. While this often results in less detail, many people find dynamic drivers to be more natural sounding due to the absence of a crossover sending specific frequency bands to different drivers.
Dynamic drivers are often vented and move air by design, and have a reputation of providing a more coherent and powerful sound. They are often described as “warm-sounding”. They are also more durable than balanced armature drivers. And as you may have guessed, they are cheaper than balanced armature in-ears.
Forums will tell you that this is one of those topics audiophiles like to argue about. Ultimately, which one works best for you depends on your budget and how and what you listen to.
Some companies also offer hybrid models that combine the defining qualities of both balanced armature and dynamic drivers.
These days, Audeze has a range of planar magnetic in-ears, which is another higher-end audiophile option. We’ll touch on this technology a bit further down the blog.
ON-EAR HEADPHONES (also called Supra-aural) rest on the outside of your ear, they are smaller than over-ears and can sometimes be folded up to be more portable. OVER-EAR HEADPHONES (also called Circumaural) on the other hand, are headphones that encompass the entire ear and are the largest kind of headphones. They are often the preferred type of headphones for audiophiles.
Most of the time, on-ears and over-ears use dynamic drivers like the ones we described above. If a product doesn’t specifically describe what driver is built into the headphones, they are most likely dynamic drivers.
Dynamic driver headphones have a similar setup to your speakers, just a mini-version of it: cones are mounted on springy material, and electrical impulses are sent to them, which moves the cones back and forth and, in turn, moves the air to create sound.
The reason why this technology is so popular is because it’s inexpensive and isn’t prone to breaking if you drop the headphones.
The downside is that dynamic drivers can be limited by how quickly they can move (which will alter sound) and can also wear out over time. Dynamic drivers are also prone to distortion at higher volumes, which happens if the cones vibrate too much.
However, this doesn’t mean you can’t buy some very, very decent dynamic driver headphones. The BeyerdynamicT1 Gen2 for instance is an audiophile favourite and the Focal Utopia is a bit of a legend on its own. The Focal Elear is the more ‘economic’ version and according to Deano, it’s ‘90% there’. Both brands offer excellent midrange options too.
Planar magnetic headphones work very differently from dynamic headphones. In this case, the driver is a diaphragm, a thin piece of film-like material suspended between sets of magnets.
Planar magnetic headphones use two magnetic fields to cause motion. But instead of focusing the force on just the voice coil like the dynamic headphones, it’s spread across the diaphragm. This generally requires larger, or more, magnets than a dynamic driver array, and they’re needed on both sides of a diaphragm, which is why a lot of planar magnetic headphones are quite big and heavy.
They are the pick of many audiophile. The reason for that is because the driver design of the planar style results in very low-distortion sound and excellent transient response. (Transient response is how fast the driver reacts to changes in the input signal and how quickly it cuts off those frequencies as they’re cut out of the source, which is particularly important for bass notes.)
Bottomline: planar magnetic headphones have a reputation of producing very clear, accurate sound that tends to come across as very lifelike. They tend to work best with a quality headphone amplifier.
Audeze (amongst a few others) is one of the most known brands that produces this type of headphones with excellence. Until recently, planar magnetic technology was only possible in on-ear and large over-ear styles but these days Audeze also offers planar in-ear headphones: the ‘affordable’ Audeze iSine10 and 20 and the high-end Audeze LCDi4.
Many headphones of this kind are also open-backed, which require a quiet listening environment. This makes these headphones not really suitable for use when you’re on the go.
And last but not least, electrostatic drivers like the Sennheiser Orpheus HE90 headphones are the audiophiles dream when it comes to driver technology. Their architecture and design creating near-flawless detail. With electrostatic headphones it’s the diaphragm itself that moves directly using a current passed through charged metal plates on either side of the diaphragm. Also, electrostatic headphones need to be paired with electrostatic specific amplifiers, called ‘energizers’.
We were able to score a listening session while we were at the Munich High End trade show earlier this year. They were simply amazing, however we have to admit that the price tends to be a ‘little’ obstacle for the average Joe. As a matter of fact, they are so expensive you won’t find them on our website.
And then some more….
And then there are additional perks that can just make a certain headphone the one you need.
Wireless headphones using Bluetooth technology have a reputation of sacrificing sound quality. This probably was the case with the Bluetooth devices made 5 years ago, but recent devices are built with more attention to audio quality in mind. Look for Bluetooth 3.0 standard or higher.
If you have Bluetooth in-ears in mind, the excellent value for money Beyerdynamic Byron BT in-ears should be a consideration. The Sennheiser Momentum in-ears just received the prestigious EISA award for wireless in-ears.
Noise cancelling headphones remove the noises from outside of your headphones. This can be ‘passive’, by just blocking out any noise or ‘active’.
Active noise cancelling headphones actually have microphones situated on the outside the ear cups picking the noises around you. The microphones then play the noises back to you, but inverted (anti-phase), in physics terms this is called destructive interference.
Noise cancelling technology works best on constant low frequency sounds, and they can be life-savers on long-haul flights or bus commutes. Admittedly, they don’t work as effective on sharp higher frequencies. Also, the noise-cancelling tends to alter the “natural” qualities of music; sometimes described as an “underwater” nausea effect from the noise-cancelling hum.
On a final note, we want to touch on the choice between open-back and closed back headphones. Open-back are what their name suggests, they are open to allow external noises to enter. People standing close to you will be able to hear what is playing on the headphones. These type of headphones are popular among audiophiles because they omit pristine quality and higher fidelity compared to closed back. They have the ability to make music sound like it is playing around you rather than playing in your head.
Closed-back provide better sound isolation because they close off any sound leakage. These are great for commuting, at home or the office because they don’t leak sound and nearby people won’t hear the music so much. They do have a lesser soundstage and aren’t as high quality as open-back since sound waves are trapped inside the cups. They do however excel in delivering more bass than open-backs due to their closed nature.
Which is right for you? In some instances, the choice is simple: If you want something cheap, the dynamic driver is your only bet. Otherwise, you have choice and a lot depends on what you want from your headphones. If you are a casual listener, go dynamic. If you are on the move, go closed-back dynamic or in-ear. If you are a critical listener and don’t get disturbed by ambient noise, go open-back; as for drivers: the choice completely depends on your preference.
All headphones and brands can deliver different sound signatures. It is a matter of preference when it comes to your music and sound needs. There is usually a pair of headphones to match any budget.