Learn About Headphones

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Whether you have a background in audio or are brand new to headphones, there's always more to learn. Headphones.com is a dedicated resource for everything to do with headphones - everything from information that can help you make the right choice for the type of sound you want, to the vast body of knowledge on headphones in general that our community members have developed over the years.

If you're new to high performance headphones and you want to learn, this is the place to get started. This section will also get updated with links to more in-depth information as more gets published.

The Basics

There are a number of different types of headphones, with fit types that can vary widely. In terms of performance, it's a little more straightforward:

Over-ear Headphones

These completely fit around the ear. The ear pads usually come into contact with the side of the listener's head, rather than the ear itself. There are two types of over-ear headphones, namely open-back and closed-back.

  • Open-back - Open-back headphones are the ideal choice for enthusiasts because they're typically able to provide a more spacious and 'open' sounding presentation to them. Open-back also means that the outside of the ear cup is either completely or partially open, and that means sound leaks in and out. Examples of open-back headphones:
  • Closed-back - Closed-back headphones generally don't leak sound in and out as much, but by closing off the back of the cup, additional sonic challenges are introduced. The sound waves produced by the headphone transducer (driver), don't just travel towards the ear, but also towards the back of the ear cup. Without proper damping or ways to break up sound waves, there's a risk that they will bounce of the cup and travel back towards the listener's ear. Therefore, closed-back headphones require some form of damping, and this can also lead to compromises in sound quality. But with that said, many flagship closed-back headphones solve this problem in unique ways, constantly improving what's possible with closed-back headphones. Examples of closed-back headphones:

Over-ear headphones generally use one of three driver (transducer) types:

  1. Dynamic Driver - Dynamic drivers are the most common, and these often allow for high excursive force, meaning the slam or punch quality is more evident. Examples of dynamic driver headphones:
  1. Planar Magnetic - Planar transducers often sound tighter, more controlled, and have better extension capabilities with minimal distortion for bass than dynamic drivers. In general, planar magnetic headphones are better at instrument separation and distinction, however they do also impart a certain type of sound or 'timbre' that makes them immediately recognizable. Examples of planar magnetic headphones:
  1. Electrostatic - Less common than the other two driver types, electrostatic headphones require a unique energizing system to power them. Sonic characteristics include improved detail retrieval, especially for treble frequencies, a somewhat 'ethereal' sound, but also commonly provide less impact and energy for bass frequencies. Examples of electrostatic driver headphones:

    There are some other transducer types that have found their way into headphones, such as AMT (air motion transformer), or ribbon drivers, but they have yet to be commonly adopted.

    In-Ear Monitors

    IEMs are devices that fit inside the ear. You can think of this as the natural progression from the well-known 'earbud'. In-ear monitors can vary in size, shape, and degree of insertion into the ear canal, however they generally create a seal with the ear canal. IEMs can also be fitted with different tips that vary in material type from silicone to foam, along with different sizes to best fit different ear canal shapes. For the transducers, there are three common types.

    Balanced Armature - Usually high performance IEMs will use multiple BA drivers to handle different frequency ranges. The advantage of BA drivers is that they're able to provide incredible detail for treble and midrange frequencies. The downside is that they aren't as capable for bass frequencies as dynamic drivers are. BA drivers also occasionally impart what some people call the "BA timbre", and this is a kind of metallic smearing effect - however not everyone notices this.

    Dynamic Driver - Once again, dynamic drivers are able to provide solid bass impact due to high excursive capabilities (the air can physically be moved with increased force).

    Electrostatic Driver - Occasionally electrostatic drivers are used in IEMs, but they're generally reserved only for high frequencies, leaving the rest of the frequency range up to BA or dynamic drivers.

    While we often see pure multi-balanced armature driver IEMs, they also commonly use a hybrid system with balanced armature and dynamic drivers, and occasionally the use of electrostatic drivers. While it's possible for single driver IEMs to exist, they're not as common as ones that use multiple drivers. The reason for this is because certain transducer types are best suited to different frequencies, and in the case of hybrid IEMs, dynamic drivers will handle the bass frequencies, while the balanced armature drivers handle the rest of the frequency range.

    Amps, DACs & Sources

    Headphone Amplifiers

    A headphone amplifier is simply a miniature power amplifier specifically designed to drive the tiny speakers inside headphones. Headphone amps are most useful with certain power-hungry high-impedance audiophile headphones that can benefit from the improved clean power of a dedicated amp. A headphone amp can improve detail resolution and dynamic range extension and maximize overall musical clarity.

    Because headphones are often used with portable devices, some headphone amps are battery-powered for use on the go. 

    Some headphone amps also include built-in digital to analog converters (DACs) with a USB or optical port to connect directly with a laptop, PC or tablet, as well as optical and coaxial connections for compatibility with other digital audio sources.

    Read more about headphone amplifiers here.

    Digital to Analogue Converters (DAC)

    Every common device that you connect a headphone to (laptop, tablet, phone), will have a DAC in it. This is what's used to convert the digital signal your device is sending, to the analog signal the amplifier receives (and eventually your headphones or speakers).

    There are many different types of DAC chips that get implemented in various devices, but the problem with conventional devices is that the DAC unit is integrated with the rest of the system, and not isolated on its own.

    Read more about DACs here.

    Measurements & Frequency Response

    When doing research on which headphones to buy, you'll inevitably come across frequency response measurements of some kind. When approaching these measurements, it's important to have some understanding of what they mean.

    Learn about measurements and frequency response here.

    Learn about source equipment measurements here.

      How Does Frequency Response Impact Sound Signature?

      In order to get an idea of the headphones you're most likely to enjoy, it's important to also understand how different frequency response ranges impact sound signature. That way when you see a frequency response graph, you'll know how deviations from a given target are going to impact the music that you listen to.

      Learn how frequency response impacts sound signature here.

      Now that we've covered the basics, some of you may want to go more in-depth and learn more about headphones. More information and topics will be added here over time, so continue to check back for links to additional information as it gets published. In the meantime, you'll find additional information in The HEADPHONE Community Forum. This is a great place to ask questions if you're looking for anything specific.

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