Alright beat-corner-ians. This week I am going to try so very hard to keep this a short one. I’ve been doing a lot of research on headphones recently and I think I might have enough information to fill out a small book. So I’m going to consciously keep it brief and keep it simple (finally that stupid K.I.S.S. acronym to use).
I’m going to be going over that different KINDS of headphones, what kinds of THINGS you should be looking for in headphones, and which KINDS of headphones best fit the kinds of THINGS you should be looking for!
Ah the earbuds, had to start somewhere huh? These little guys have their good and bad points. They are essentially tiny speakers with mini drivers in them which can fit into your ear. Usually headphones have drivers for high frequencies (think cymbals on the drums or high vocals), mid frequencies (think most vocals and instruments like guitars and pianos) and of course the low frequencies (the bass and rumbling drums). Earbuds, being so small, tend to only have one driver that covers all three of the frequencies. Its convenient and cheap, but you sacrifice for quality. Coupled with a microphone and remote for your smartphone, they can be handy little saviours on the bus and train. Don’t go for the cheapest buds you can find, because they will be using the cheapest magnets, the hardest plastics and the worst materials for the cord. Some may disagree, but for the earbud category, I actually think that the new apple EarPods are probably the best sound you’re going to get out of these tiny devices.
CAUTION: Due to the one-size-fits-all approach to the buds, and the fact that they don’t create a seal in your ear, a LOT of sound will leak out. This means that A. people on the train will hear your shitty music and B. you will compensate for this by TURNING UP THE VOLUME VERY HIGH and DAMAGING YOUR HEARING! So beware, long term use of the earbuds will damage your hearing! You’ve been warned!
In Ear Headphones (aka In-Ear Monitors)
Now THESE little ones shouldn’t be confused with the above-mentioned earbuds. They shouldn’t be confused for mainly two reasons. 1. They are usually made of better quality materials and may even have multiple drivers to cover all the frequencies well and 2. They provide more of a close fit and cover out background noise, which will prevent you from turning up the volume to dangerous levels like you do with the earbuds.
Another version of these are known as in-ear monitors, These are professional in-ear headphones used my musicians and performers. They are ultra-durbale and made of the best materials. They usually contain 3 or more drivers and create the perfect seals by using custom ear molds (created by an audiologist) so it fits the exact contours of your ear. They sound amazing but are super expensive, like in the thou$and$!
Circumaural….sounds dirty i know, but its a fancy word that means “around the ear”. Circumaural headphones cover your whole ear and allows your outer ear, or pinna at its called, to contour the sound naturally. These headphones may be big but they can potentially provide the best sounds due to their large drivers and ability to provide a “soundstage”…wait a what?
…a soundstage is another fancy and complicated word that means the ability to perceive sound coming from a distance. This means that a headphone with a good soundstage will allow you tell which direction the drums are coming from, and the perception that the guitars or piano are being produced from a fixed distance from the drums. This gives a sensation that you are in a concert hall and listening to the music as if it were live.
Circumaural headphones are not very portable though, due to their size. They can also be heavy depending on which materials they use. They are best used for home environments and studio settings.
As you may have guessed, supra-aural means “on the ear”. These headphones are perhaps the most misunderstood, as you will find the biggest price disparities within this range. You will find the cheapest of the cheapest on-ear headphones for about $10 and the most expensive at $500 and upwards. Their most defining feature is their good isolation. A good pair of on-ear headphones will create a seal on the ear and allow little to no sound to “leak out” thereby allowing more of the sound in your ear than out. This can prevent you from having to crank up the volume and thereby davie your hearing in the long run. Some good DJ headphones are on-ear, such as the above-pictured legendary Sennheiser HD25.
They contain medium size drivers and can provide audiophile-quality sound at the high end. Due to their isolation the sound can sound like its coming from inside your head rather than from the outside, thereby reducing the soundstage.
Some people, especially those with small ears or those that wear glasses, may find on-ear headphones uncomfortable especially if they provide a tight seal on the ear and put pressure on it. They are a like or don’t like category of headphones.
Not really a subclass on their own, as you can get wireless headphones in almost any size and shape these days, they are different enough to warrant a new category. In the old days, they were big monstrosities more resembling helmets rather than headphones. Today, the technology has improved to the point where they are reasonably sized, provide good distance from its source and have good battery life.
A good wireless headphone will feel comfortable on the head and provide good clear sound. This is especially true if there is a headset attached with microphone. If you are going to use your wireless headphone for gaming, there should also be little to no lag, which the time time it takes a sound to reach the headphone. Lag will screw up your response time and delay your audio.
Oh yeah, and cost! Expect to pay a premium for the wireless headphones due to the extra technology in them.
Now that we’ve gone over the different KINDS of headphones, I thought I’d quickly cover some QUALITIES of headphones you might want to look out for:
Another fancy word which means how LOUD the headphones can go. Higher sensitivity means less power is required to convert electricity into sound, and therefore more volume will be available.
Impedance is a measure of resistance. The less resistance that is present in the headphone, the less voltage and current is required to “drive” the drivers. Low voltage devices such as smartphones, laptops and other battery-powered devices will sound better with lower impedance headphones of 18ohms to 30 ohms but are more prone to distortion. Higher impedance headphones (50ohms to 600ohms) will require more voltage and current to drive them but they are less prone to distortion.
Closed-back vs Open-Back Headphones
Look at the back of the headphone, the part the part that sits opposite of the ears, facing outward. If it is completely sealed with metal or plastic, than it is closed-back. If there is a speaker grill present or part of the driver exposed at the back, then the headphones are open-backed.
What’s the difference? Well closed-back offers more isolation and open-backed offers more soundstage. Closed-back also is more suited to portability due to their minimal sound leakage, whereas open-back headphones allow more sound to leak out and are more suited to quiet, home environments.
Noise cancellation can come in two forms, passive or active. Passive noise cancellation can come from simple ergonomic designs or from good isolation. Active noise cancellation actually sends a signal from the headphones that work to cancel out any ambient noise. The result is clear audio even in high background noise. This may not be recommended for walking around busy streets or general outdoor use haha. Sometimes active nose cancellation can require extra battery power inside wired headphones, so make sure to check what the requirements for noise cancellation in your headphones are.
I hope this has been helpful for you. In the future I plan on giving some specific reviews on headphones i have owned and tested. In this day and age of designer and lifestyle headphones, it is important that you know what you are spending your hard-earned money on.
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Until then, keep on cornering!
– DJ BRUAEL