A headphone is just a headphone, right? I mean, yes there are in-ears and the ones that go over your ears and some have wires and some don’t but… really how different can one headphone be from the next?
There are many similar terms used to describe headphones, an everyday (almost commodity) item of technology. Categories such as noise isolating, noise cancelling, on-ear, over-ear, open-back, and closed-back seem to be pretty self-explanatory terms. You may understand the differences between all the different types, but why would you choose one over the other? What makes one headphone better than the other? Is a $1,000 headphone really worth all that money? Why can’t I get by on a $80 pair? Which one is the best choice in your specific situation and are the bells and whistles worth the extra spending?
This blog will give you the basic rundown of the types of headphones, their variations, types of drivers, the different kinds of build-it technology and how to choose the right pair of headphones for your needs.
Let’s get cracking.
In-ears, on-ears, over-ears?
To start off, we would briefly like to touch on the different types of headphones. We have no doubt that you will be familiar with the majority of things pointed out, but just summing up pros and cons can sometimes help you see things crystal clear when it comes to the best option for your desires and needs.
In-ear headphones are small sized drivers that fit inside your ear canal. In-ears usually come with several changeable tips made of rubber, silicon and foam material to accommodate different ear canal sizes. Look out for the number and types of tips that are included with the headphones. Some manufacturers will only provide three sizes while others will offer many more. You’ll only need to find one pair that fits correctly, but you’ll be much more likely to do that if they give you lots of options.
Pros of in-ears are that they are small and light which make them easy to roll up and commute with. Since the tips go deep into your ear canal they manage to block out a lot of outside noise, and don’t need to be cranked at high volume levels hence you will see many of them labelled “noise isolating”. The rubber and silicon tips stick in your ear through suction and can be ideal for running and exercise.
In-ears have a longstanding reputation of providing poor sound. These days, there are some decent quality products available like the Sennheiser ie800’s or the more affordable Klipsch Image X11i in-ears (which are Mrs Rapallo’s favourites because of their fit)
Cons about these types of headphones are that since they are inserted into your ear they may get earwax on them, which can make it unpleasant to share with other people. One of the most annoying things about in-ears is that wires always seem to get tangled. The number 1 annoyance in AV world, I’m sure. Some brands have realised this and offer anti-tangle wires with success.
We must also point out that there is a profound difference between earbuds and in-ear phones. (Earbuds sit in the outer ear rather than in the ear-canal. Think cheap with matching sound quality)
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.
The biggest benefit of on-ears is that they are more comfortable than in-ears, yet still fairly portable. They allow the ears to breath and since they are light weight there will be less strain on the head. On-ears are a good compromise between the portability of in-ears and the comfort and sound quality over-ears are known for.
On-ears produce less spacious and natural imaging than over-ear headphones due to the smaller drivers that are further away from the ears. They also are not as good at blocking outside noise because they don’t encompass the entire ear lobe.
Depending on your preference and where you choose to use your headphones makes the factor of noise rejection a positive or a negative to different people. Some people might want a natural sound of the environment around them so sound leakage is welcomed. Allowing to hear your surroundings is something on-ears have in common with open-back headphones (see later).
Over-ear headphones (also called Circumaural) are headphones that encompass the entire ear and are the largest kind of headphones. They are often the preferred type of headphones for audiophiles.
Overall Over-ear headphones tend to provide a comfortable fit, as long as there is large padding for weight distribution across the head because they are heavier than other types of headphones. Arguably over-ears produce the best sound quality due to their size allowing for larger drivers and quality materials.
Talking about drivers…
Talking about drivers, it’s important to point out that in essence a driver of a headphone is no different to a speaker-driver. It is what converts the electrical signal into sound. There are different types of drivers used in the headphone industry and all have their benefits and disadvantages. The main types you are likely to encounter are Dynamic, Planar Magnetic and Electrostatic.
Dynamic drivers are the most common type of driver in headphones. If a product doesn’t specifically describe what driver is built into the headphones, they are most likely dynamic drivers.
You’re probably familiar with the cones that are in speakers. These 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.
Dynamic driver headphones have a similar setup to this but in a smaller form. The reason this method is standard is because it’s inexpensive and isn’t prone to breaking if you drop the headphones.
However, 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 decent dynamic driver headphones. The Sennheiser HD800S for instance is an audiophile favorite.
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.
As you probably remember from primary school, when you put two magnets with the same charge near each other, they repel. And when you put oppositely charged magnets together, they attract. This is due to the magnetic field between them. So, imagine this diaphragm that’s making our sounds is in between these magnets, suspended in a neutral, balanced field. Any change in the field is going to push and pull that little piece of film back and forth, creating sound.
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 over-ear and large over-ear styles. A few weeks ago Audeze launched the worlds first planar in-ear headphones (the Audeze iSine), which are not available in New Zealand yet, but we can’t wait to see how they perform. Knowing Audeze, they will blow us away.
The magnets in planar headphones add a lot of weight, so the headphones can be quite heavy. 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.
They also need a good amount, as well as a controlled amount, of power, so a headphone amplifier is a must.
And of course, there’s the cost. Many people will question the spending of $1,000 or more on a pair of good quality headphones. Are they really worth that amount of money? The answer for many audiophiles is yes, the extra money is worth it. You’re getting a detailed and deep music-listening experience. The key is understanding where your dollars are going. Are you spending money on the drivers or the gold-plated earcups? In the case of planar magnetic headphones, you are getting the bees knees of headphone drivers with the audio experience to match.
Many fans of planar headphones note the detail and delicacy with which these products can produce sounds, as well as better bass response, less distortion, and a better sense of space. This is because rather than having small cones pointing directly at the ear, planar magnetic headphones often create a zone of sound larger than the ear, which many fans say makes them feel more immersed in the music.
Although a bit similar to planar magnetic headphones, electrostatic headphones are different to the other two kinds of headphone who use middle-men metal conductors to move the driver or diaphragm. But 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.
Like planar magnetic headphones, electrostatic drivers like the Sennheiser Orpheus HE90 or Stax headphones are the audiophiles dream, their architecture and design creating near-flawless detail. However, the price tends to be a ‘little’ obstacle for the average Joe, even steeper than planar magnetic ones. Don’t bother looking for them on our website. In fact, they are so expensive we haven’t even been able to listen to a pair. I know…
Also, electrostatic headphones need to be paired with electrostatic specific amplifiers, called ‘energizers’.
Perks that can just make a pair of headphones
And then there are additional perks that can just make a certain headphone the one you need.
Most wireless headphones make the use of Bluetooth technology. They can come in the form of all 3 types of headphones in-ear, on-ear and over-ear. The obvious pro of wireless headphones is that you won’t need to worry about tangled wires.
Some of them like the Parrot Zik 3 and the Definitive Technology Symphony 1 have play, pause and skip hardware buttons or smart touch technology so you can keep your device in your bag, controlling your music on the go.
Wireless headphones have a reputation of sacrificing sound quality. This probably was more the case with the Bluetooth devices made 5 years ago, However recent devices are built with more attention to audio quality in mind. Look for Bluetooth 3.0 standard or higher.
Struggles can come to people who share Bluetooth headphones where pair and un-pairing can be frustrating. Another consideration is that Bluetooth headphones have batteries that need to be charged or replaced.
Noise cancelling headphone typically come in the form of over-ear headphones, although there are also in-ears available like the AKG K391NC’s.
These headphones somehow 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.
Bart could write an entire blog post just about how destructive interference, soundwaves and phases work, but in simple terms it is like the headphones pick up on outside noise called ‘+1’, that gets inverted to ‘-1’ and then the two are added together resulting in …zero! Or adding negative sound to positive sound equals silence.
Noise cancelling technology works best on constant low frequency sounds, like on a plane or bus. But don’t work as effective on sharp higher frequencies. These types of headphones are more expensive than their similar counter-parts and they have batteries which need to be charged regularly to power the technology.
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. Popular choices are the Sennheiser HD600 and HD800S.
Closed-back provide better sound isolation due to closing 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. The Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 series and the AKG K551 are all very popular and affordable options.
Now, how do you choose?
Comfort, purpose of use, design, quality and price are probably the main factors people look for when buying a pair of headphones. People tend to be very loyal to certain headphone brands we have found and there are definitely many options, some excellent brands available at Rapallo.
Our recommendation on how to tackle headphone decisions: set your budget first. Secondly, you limit your search based on type of headphones – on-ear, over-ear, and in-ear. The main question you need to ask yourself is where you use your headphones most, and if you use them in more than one place. If you mostly use your headphones while working out for instance, you’ll probably lean towards in-ears.
If you are using your headphones in more than one location, determine if your listening needs are the same. Do you listen while working out and to and from work on the subway? You might be able to use the same headphone for both. Do you listen while at work but also want an extremely accurate headphone for critical listening? These might not be the same headphone and you’ll need a pair for each location.
Depending on the answers to what meets your specific needs, you also decide on what perks you need in addition to the type: noise-cancelling, wireless, etc.
Lastly, think about past experiences with headphones. Did they give you a headache? Were they too tight or too loose? Did you like the style? Did you find them comfortable? Did they sound good? Remember all these things when you are shopping and read the reviews.
Bottom Line: Once you have an idea on the purposes of the different types, styles and designs in headphones. You can choose what type will be most useful for your situation. 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.
Sources: Trusted Reviews, AVSforum, Audioholics, Headphone.com, Audeze, Sennheiser, AKG, Klipsch, Electronic House