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Headphones: A newbie’s information to terminology and know-how

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Headphones are a class of electronics with two very various kinds of customers. On one hand, you have obtained the customer that settles for “respectable” sound for his or her podcasts, music, movies, and cellphone calls. On the opposite, you have obtained lovers and audiophiles that demand the most effective sound, fastidiously choosing headphones that optimize each side of the listening expertise. 

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That common headphone shopper could imagine the know-how and terminology they’d want to grasp to grow to be be part of the ranks of headphone lovers are simply too impenetrable. We’re right here to disprove that notion. 

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This information is a primer for the terminology and know-how surrounding the subject of recent headphones and the way they work. It may be used as step one towards changing into an audiophile, or as a reference that will help you discover the headphones that work finest on your distinctive wants. In both case, learn on to have a number of the commonest questions on headphones answered and a number of the commonest factors of confusion demystified. 

Type components

On this part, we’ll cowl the three principal kinds of headphones: in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear. 


Left to proper: Apple AirPods Professional (really wi-fi), Dunu DN-2000j (wired), and Jabra Elite 75T (really wi-fi)

Michael Gariffo

In-ear headphones

That is the kind that the majority of you might be in all probability accustomed to, and the type you are most certainly utilizing every day. In-ear headphones, or earbuds, rose to prominence alongside early MP3 gamers. They turned really mainstream as a default pack-in merchandise delivery with nearly each smartphone launched for a number of years. Extra not too long ago, producers have stopped together with them with their units, however the public’s desire was already firmly set.

This diminutive model of headphone is straightforward to toss in a bag or pocket, needs to be comfy to put on throughout something from commutes to exercises, and might typically be had for the most affordable costs of any of the three type components we’re overlaying.

Additionally: Galaxy Buds 2 Professional vs Pixel Buds Professional vs AirPods Professional: The battle of the most effective earbuds

 In-ear headphones are available three common subtypes: 

  • Wired: This consists of any pair that bodily connects to the participant, smartphone, laptop computer, or different machine that is offering it with sound. The connectors these terminate in can differ vastly (one thing we’ll cowl in our “Connection varieties” part beneath), however all of them require a bodily cable connection to perform. 
  • Wi-fi: This sort is commonly lumped in with the third kind beneath, but it surely initially tended to confer with a pair of earbuds that did not have to bodily hook up with a tool, however nonetheless had a single cable working from one earbud to the opposite. These stay well-liked amongst some athletes and people in search of cheap wi-fi earbuds. 
  • Actually wi-fi: That is the newest kind to be launched. They require no cables by any means, connecting wirelessly, normally by way of Bluetooth. They cost by way of their included charging circumstances. This makes them ultra-convenient to be used on the go, unobtrusive (Airpod stems apart), and normally in a position to final a formidable period of time while not having exterior energy, due to their charging circumstances functioning as a transportable battery pack. 

Professionals of in-ear headphones

  • Portability: Their measurement makes them straightforward to take anyplace and stow in a bag or pocket to be used when commuting, taking a run or bike journey, or sitting at your desk. 
  • Type: Their small measurement makes them unobtrusive in public. The presence of sure fashions in your ears may even be a standing image for some. 
  • Freedom: Earbuds supply a stage of freedom both of the bigger varieties beneath cannot match. Actually wi-fi choices present fully cable-free use for exercises.

Cons of in-ear headphones

  • Sound high quality: There are amazing-sounding earbuds on the market. However, the miniaturized know-how required for them makes them dearer than equally adept on-ear or over-ear fashions. Even costly models nonetheless cannot match the audio copy attainable with the bigger drivers in different varieties. 
  • Straightforward to lose: Actually wi-fi earbuds are particularly losable. A loose-fitting bud can simply slip out of your ear and fall someplace it can by no means return from. 
  • Susceptible to inflicting listening to harm: Between the air-tight seal many fashions present to enhance their sound copy and the truth that greater ranges of quantity are sometimes used to compensate for an absence of readability, low cost earbuds could also be answerable for customers listening to too-loud audio extra usually than every other type issue. 

Additionally: 5 suggestions for stopping listening to loss brought on by headphones


My aged, beat-up Grado SR80s that also sound as nice because the day I purchased them a really very long time in the past. 

Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

On-ear headphones

On-ear headphones are the center youngster of the headphone world. Like many center kids, they have a tendency to get ignored. Most older readers are in all probability extra accustomed to them as a result of they have been to walkmen and transportable CD gamers what earbuds have been to smartphones. The slim metallic headbands and black foam earpads stay a constant website in each 80s film. 

Nonetheless, this manner issue truly helps a a lot wider vary of sizes. Some earpads are giant sufficient that they might be mistaken for over-ear headphones. The differentiating issue is that on-ear headphones do not encompass your ears. As an alternative, they sit in your ears, utilizing a scarf or, much less generally, an ear hook to remain in place. This gives a middle-ground between the portability of in-ear fashions and the bigger measurement and sound copy of over-ear headphones. 

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As talked about above, these are the least widespread of the three type components. Nonetheless, a number of iconic traces proceed to inhabit the area. Koss’ Portapro household sits atop nearly each “nice sound for the worth” headphone listing, whereas fashions just like the Grado’s SR line have remained on sale for many years due to the standard their on-ear drivers present. 

Professionals of on-ear headphones

  • Sound high quality: Getting access to extra space than earbuds gives on-ear headphones area for bigger drivers (extra on these later), providing pure sound, and improved readability while not having to miniaturize their elements. This retains prices down with out sacrificing sound copy. 
  • Value: Each the Koss and Grado traces I discussed above are thought-about budget-friendly choices, with the Portapro sometimes accessible for lower than $40 and the SR60X promoting for lower than $100, regardless of each offering sound high quality superior to headphones costing twice or thrice as a lot. 
  • Balanced portability: Whereas they are not as straightforward to stow as earbuds, on-ear headphones are a lot more durable to lose, providing a wonderful steadiness for the extra forgetful amongst us. 

Cons of on-ear headphones

  • Restricted choice: As talked about above, on-ear headphones do not obtain as a lot love as their siblings. This implies the choice usually consists of fashions which were round for a few years or fashions that, to the untrained eye, appear outdated or cheap-looking. 
  • Consolation: Because the identify suggests, on-ear headphones relaxation immediately in your ears. This could make them the least comfy type issue, relying on how they’re constructed. Accurately-designed headbands with enough padding can reduce the strain induced by on-ears, however they’re going to additionally by no means be as comfy as ergonomically designed earbuds or huge, pillowy over-ear units. 
  • Restricted connection choices: That is an extension of the above level. As there’s typically a smaller choice of on-ear headphones, there are fewer connection choices. The overwhelming majority terminate in a normal 3.5mm connection (defined within the “Connection varieties” part beneath), and there are fewer Bluetooth-based choices. 

Sehnnheiser’s discontinued HD700 headphones with their ear-shaped cups.

Michael Gariffo

Over-ear headphones

These are the biggest type issue, designed to fully encompass your ears. They’re additionally known as over-the-ear, “cans,” or “circumaural,” should you’re feeling fancy. No matter moniker you employ, they supply the utmost quantity of area for the biggest drivers. This implies they often have essentially the most pure sound by proper of being nearly as giant as some freestanding audio system. 

Over-ear headphones sit on the very prime of the worth charts. Whereas there are positively earbuds and on-ear fashions that run into 4 figures, there are a number of over-ear designs that skew into 5. Sennheiser’s legendary Orpheus, which comes with its personal tube amplifier constructed right into a slab of marble has an eye-watering beginning value of $50,000, or extra if you’d like them personalized. 

Assessment: Beyerdynamic DT 900 PRO X headphones: Brutally sincere sound for underneath $300

Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of over-ear headphones are nowhere close to that costly and supply distinctive sound for the patron prepared to take care of their tendency to be on the cumbersome aspect. This doesn’t suggest they’re uncomfortable, nonetheless. Quite the opposite, I’ve forgotten I’ve had over-ear headphones on extra usually than every other type.

That is additionally the one type issue to supply two very distinct, purpose-built subtypes: open-back and closed-back headphones. Due to that, we’ll be splitting the professional/con part for over-ears into two subcategories. 


Beyerdynamic’s DT1990 Professional headphones. Notice the mesh display on the earcups that marks these as open-backed headphones

Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

Open-backed headphones

Over-ear headphones of this sort characteristic earcups that permit air to freely move out and in of them. They’re the other of closed-back fashions and earbuds that try to seal in sound by creating an hermetic seal round or throughout the person’s ear. The results of this air flow is a extra open-feeling sound that mirrors listening to your audio by means of audio system. This could additionally assist improve a pair’s “soundstage,” or the feeling that the reproduced sound is coming at you from a extra nuanced choice of instructions than merely left or proper. 

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Professionals of open-backed headphones

  • Pure sound: As talked about above, the open-backed earcups produce a sound profile that the majority intently mirrors discrete audio system, and even dwell music. It is because the soundwaves are allowed to scatter naturally, with out ricocheting round within the earcup the way in which they’d in closed-back units. 
  • Consolation: The additional air flow additionally means your ears are much less prone to get scorching, since they don’t seem to be trapped in an hermetic chamber warmed by your physique warmth. 
  • Consciousness: Some customers need headphones to dam out exterior sounds. Others want to listen to the world round them. For the latter, open-backed headphones present a option to preserve your ear, actually, open on your children, co-workers, and even different individuals on the road. 

Cons of open-backed headphones

  • Sound leakage: Open air flow means any audio, particularly at greater volumes, shall be audible to anybody inside earshot. Make sure to by no means hearken to something on these you would not need the entire room to listen to. 
  • Lack of isolation: That is the counterpoint to the ultimate professional above. For these desirous to isolate themselves from the surface world, open-backed headphones aren’t supreme. They let sound in as readily as they let it out.
  • Worth: Of the entire type components and subtypes on this listing, open-backed headphones in all probability have the worst choice of low cost, good-quality choices in the marketplace. They have an inclination to exist towards the mid and mid-high finish of choices, which means the worth for a strong pair usually begins effectively north of $100. 

Razer’s closed-back BlackShark V2 Professional wi-fi gaming headset. Notice the entire lack of any openings on the earcup

Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

Closed-back headphones

Closed-back headphones are the exact reverse of these above. Like earbuds, they try to seal the sound in, encircling your ear in a (principally) hermetic chamber. This produces a extra bass-heavy sound, which might profit some genres of music or action-heavy movies. Nonetheless, this seal also can lure warmth, and trigger points with unintended resonance from the soundwaves being trapped throughout the earcups. 

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Professionals of closed-back headphones

  • Improved bass: Closed-back headphones are normally able to superior bass copy at decrease prices and with smaller drivers than their open-backed counterparts. The low-frequency sounds profit from the tightly-enclosed area, serving to closed-back headphones keep the affect of audio hits like drums or explosions. 
  • Isolation: Along with the lively noise cancellation (ANC) accessible in choose fashions throughout the entire type components right here, closed-back headphones supply the most effective passive sound blocking of any type issue. Their seal blocks out exterior soundwaves, permitting you to deal with the audio that you simply wish to hear, with out it being tainted by exterior sounds.  
  • Privateness: What retains sound out may also preserve it in. Closed-back headphones can present nice sound high quality to you, and solely you. 

Cons of closed-back headphones

  • Warmth buildup: Closed-back headphones principally mimic the earmuffs you put on in winter to maintain you heat. As such, they lure warmth simply as effectively and might get fairly uncomfortable in the summertime months and in hotter climates.
  • Fatigue: As a result of the soundwaves are trapped contained in the earcups with you, closed-back headphones can really feel extra fatiguing to hearken to than their open-backed counterparts. That is brought on by the identical elevated strain that enables for issues just like the aforementioned bass copy. 
  • Much less pure sound: We have coated the advantages closed-back designs can present to low frequencies. However, there are some that discover the bass increase they provide to be muffled, or of decrease high quality than a well-tuned pair of open-backed headphones.

The dynamic driver utilized in Sennheiser’s HD800 S seen from behind


Driver varieties

Having coated the exterior measurement and shapes of headphones, let’s have a look inside, on the single most vital a part of any headphone: the motive force. That is the half that really creates sound. Whereas most individuals will think about a tiny speaker, solely sure headphones (ones with “dynamic” drivers, particularly) truly use one thing near a conventional speaker. 

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The kinds of drivers in use are literally rather more various. That mentioned, there are two that stay, by far, essentially the most generally used selection. Mixed, this duo covers no less than 99.9% of all fashions in the marketplace. So, studying about every ought to allow you to acknowledge and perceive the know-how behind nearly each pair of headphones on the market. We’ll additionally cowl an attention-grabbing third, for example of the much less widespread, unique drivers on the market.

The three kinds of drivers we’ll cowl are dynamic, planar magnetic, and electrostatic.


The Sennheiser HD 800 S’ dynamic driver seen from inside, with foam padding eliminated


Dynamic drivers 

These are the most typical kind, the one most are accustomed to, and the one that the majority intently resembles a conventional speaker. They’re accessible throughout all three type components, and may be present in every thing from the worst-sounding, bargain-basement headphones, to a number of the most beloved pairs ever made. Their pricing varies simply as extensively too. 

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They work by positioning a everlasting magnet adjoining to a “voice coil,” basically a tightly-wound size of conductive wire. When present is handed by means of that voice coil, within the type of an audio sign, it turns into an electromagnet, alternately engaging and repelling the everlasting magnet. This creates movement that’s used to maneuver a diaphragm, which is a bigger floor that pushes round air to create the sound waves you hear. 

The comparatively easy know-how has been in use since a number of the first electrical audio system have been produced, and stays one of the dependable methods to breed sound cheaply and successfully. Nonetheless, well-tuned dynamic drivers can nonetheless flip what would possibly in any other case be comparatively mundane sound into beautiful audio. 


The planar magnetic Driver of the Drop + HIFIMAN HE-4XX headphones with its outer casing eliminated

Drop — HiFiMan

Planar magnetic drivers

Planar magnetic headphones additionally use electromagnets to maneuver a diaphragm. Nonetheless, the whole driver is commonly just some millimeters thick, with a diaphragm as skinny as a mylar balloon’s pores and skin. This makes it attainable to maneuver rather more air than a dynamic driver may with out changing into too bigger to slot in even the most important over-ear pair of headphones. 

Regardless of its thinness, the required inside {hardware} nonetheless produces a headphone that tends to be heavier than its dynamic cousins. However, it additionally produces drivers that some imagine are able to creating essentially the most natural-feeling sound in the marketplace. Many first-time planar magnetic customers usually really feel like there’s a complete wall of sound coming at them, in contrast to the pinpoint sound sourcing produced by some dynamic headphones. 

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Drivers of this sort have been nearly all the time present in open-backed, over-ear headphones, as they offered the room to breathe and area that planar magnetic drivers want. Nonetheless, in recent times, the know-how has shrunk to the purpose that it is made its method into some high-end earbuds as effectively. 

Regardless of the measurement of the headphone getting used, planar magnetic drivers are usually extra power-hungry. This makes them a poor match to be used along with your smartphone or laptop computer. As an alternative, they normally profit greater than dynamic drivers from being related to a devoted amplifier able to supplying the upper present required to make them sound their finest. 


The STAX SRM-D50 electrostatic headphones sitting atop the specialised amp they require. The duo retails for $1,260. 

Stax — HeadAmp

Electrostatic drivers and different unique choices

These are one of many uncommon, extra unique kinds of drivers on the market. They use a razor-thin membrane floating between two perforated metallic plates to provide their sound. As present passes by means of these plates, a static cost is created that vibrates the practically weightless membrane to provide sound.

Proponents of this know-how declare it is able to essentially the most pure, “cleanest” sound attainable, because of the membrane by no means bodily contacting anything. Some additionally imagine this cuts down on the distortion dynamic and planar magnetic drivers can undergo from at greater volumes. Whether or not it is a scientific reality or a easy desire is up for debate. 

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What is not debatable is the truth that there are appreciable hurdles to accessing any electrostatic headphones. Not solely do they require a specialised electrostatic amplifier designed particularly for them, however their value additionally typically skews effectively into 4 figures. 

After all, there are additionally different unique applied sciences that do not value fairly as a lot, such because the balanced armature drivers present in some high-end earbuds and IEMs (in-ear displays), or piezoelectric drivers that present a miniature model of electrostatic know-how for IEMs, and even bone conduction drivers that use your personal skeleton to transmit sound into your ears. None are prone to ever exchange dynamic or planar magnetic drivers, however they are often an attention-grabbing technological rabbit gap to fall down, even should you by no means lay fingers on any of them. 


Left to proper: a 3.5mm connector, a 1/4-inch connector, and an XLR connector, all from headphones proven elsewhere on this piece.

Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

Connection varieties

Now that we all know how the sound’s produced, let’s speak about the way it will get to the headphones within the first place. There are two strategies: by way of a wire, or wirelessly. As you must anticipate by now, there are additionally a number of variations to every of these. 


3.5mm connector: That is the most typical kind of headphone connection. It may be discovered on nearly each laptop computer and, till a number of years in the past, nearly each smartphone as effectively. It is basically the identical small “headphone jack” you and your mother and father have been utilizing for many years, and it continues serving everybody effectively on every thing from greenback retailer pairs to headphones costing 1000’s of {dollars}. 

1/4-inch connector: That is 3.5mm’s greater brother. It is discovered on a number of higher-end headphones and part programs. It makes use of a bigger connector with extra floor space, and is most popular amongst fashions that use a “balanced” connection, which depends on discrete circuits run to every earcup. Balanced connections are most popular by some as a consequence of their resistance to “crosstalk” or sound that is meant to be performed in a single ear truly coming by means of the opposite ear’s driver as a consequence of interference. 

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XLR: One other well-liked alternative for balanced headphones. This bigger connector is mostly seen in studio-grade microphones, but in addition enjoys widespread use amongst high-end traces like Sennheiser’s HD800 sequence. It gives essentially the most safe connection and makes use of 4 fully remoted pins to additional stop any type of interference or distortions throughout left and proper audio channels 

Smartphone connectors: When smartphones shed their 3.5mm ports, many producers continued to supply pack-in headphones that used the cellphone’s knowledge port to obtain audio. These uncommon headphones included fashions like Apple’s authentic EarPods, which used the corporate’s proprietary lightning connector, and a bevy of USB-C-based choices from Android smartphone producers. As extra individuals moved in direction of wi-fi choices, these uncommon connectors largely fell out of favor. 

Wi-fi connections

The very first thing that involves thoughts when somebody mentions wi-fi headphones is Bluetooth. To be clear, that’s, by far, the most typical protocol for carrying wi-fi sound. Nonetheless, it is not the one technique. 

Bluetooth has continued its improvement within the many years since its authentic introduction. However, in all that point, it nonetheless cannot fully eradicate one pesky situation: latency. This weak point of the know-how can add as a lot as a pair hundred milliseconds (or 2/10ths of a second) of delay to audio. While you’re listening to music, that is largely irrelevant; you haven’t any method of detecting the delay. Nonetheless, when that audio is tied to a visible as effectively, the delay may be very problematic.

Additionally: The very best noise-canceling headphones

Bluetooth 5.Zero has decreased this delay to the purpose the place it is irrelevant for many video content material. Solely essentially the most attentive customers are prone to discover the minuscule hole between an on-screen character’s mouth and their audio dialogue. Nonetheless, the identical can’t be mentioned for players.

 In fast-paced video games, even a number of additional milliseconds may be the distinction between life and dying. Ready for an additional 2/10ths of a second to listen to enemy footsteps or a beginning tone in a racing recreation? Inconceivable!

Fortunately for the players on the market, different wi-fi applied sciences supply far much less latency. The most well-liked is 2.4GHz wi-fi. This protocol makes use of a small USB dongle to connect with a pair of headphones or, extra generally, a headset. The audio from the supply is transmitted with little sufficient latency that it is normally imperceptible to even essentially the most discerning players. 


Sennheiser’s RS 175-U headphones sitting on their combo transmitter and charging base


You may be stunned to seek out on the market are some 2.4GHz wi-fi headphones for comfy sofa listening on the market as effectively, just like the Sennheiser RS line. These normally use a base unit that is each a charging stand and a transmitter, offering sound from a stereo, tv, or one other A/V machine. 

Some wi-fi headphones even depend on infrared mild to transmit their sound. These are sometimes used with in-car leisure programs or at-home IR transmitters. The advantage of the know-how is that any particular person with appropriate headphones can merely sit in a spread of the IR sign to listen to the sound, while not having to pair their machine in any respect. 

Wrap up

There is not any cause to not be taught no less than somewhat bit a couple of type of digital machine that is come to be such an vital a part of our each day lives. You could discover that you simply’d moderately not choose for a similar AirPods everybody has, or chances are you’ll uncover that they are surely the right steadiness of comfort and high quality. 

Whichever method you go, the vital factor is that you simply’re well-informed about what choices can be found to you, how your headphones work, and what the professionals and cons of every kind of headphone are. A well-informed shopper is most certainly to show into a cheerful proprietor.

Hopefully, this information has given you a deeper understanding of the essential terminology and variables you are prone to run into when searching for headphones. And, even should you’re not at present out there, perhaps you may impress a pal or two while you level out these candy new planar magnetic cans your favourite streamer’s utilizing now. 

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