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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 several types of customers. On one hand, you have received the customer that settles for “respectable” sound for his or her podcasts, music, movies, and cellphone calls. On the opposite, you have received lovers and audiophiles that demand the most effective sound, rigorously deciding on headphones that optimize each facet of the listening expertise. 

Additionally: 30+ Black Friday headphone offers: AirPods, Beats, Bose, and Sony on sale

That common headphone shopper might consider the know-how and terminology they’d want to grasp to turn out 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 contemporary 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 in your distinctive wants. In both case, learn on to have a few of the commonest questions on headphones answered and a few of the commonest factors of confusion demystified. 

Type components

On this part, we’ll cowl the three foremost varieties 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 sort that almost all of you’re in all probability acquainted with, and the sort you are almost definitely utilizing each day. In-ear headphones, or earbuds, rose to prominence alongside early MP3 gamers. They grew to become 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 gadgets, however the public’s desire was already firmly set.

This diminutive type of headphone is simple 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 normal subtypes: 

  • Wired: This consists of any pair that bodily connects to the participant, smartphone, laptop computer, or different system that is offering it with sound. The connectors these terminate in can range enormously (one thing we’ll cowl in our “Connection sorts” part under), however all of them require a bodily cable connection to perform. 
  • Wi-fi: This sort is usually lumped in with the third kind under, however it initially tended to check with a pair of earbuds that did not have to bodily hook up with a tool, however nonetheless had a single cable operating from one earbud to the opposite. These stay standard amongst some athletes and people searching for cheap wi-fi earbuds. 
  • Actually wi-fi: That is the latest 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 capable of final a powerful period of time with no need exterior energy, because of their charging circumstances functioning as a transportable battery pack. 

Professionals of in-ear headphones

  • Portability: Their measurement makes them straightforward to take wherever and stow in a bag or pocket to be used when commuting, taking a run or bike experience, 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 provide a degree of freedom both of the bigger varieties under 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 costlier than equally adept on-ear or over-ear fashions. Even costly items nonetheless cannot match the audio replica attainable with the bigger drivers in different sorts. 
  • 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. 
  • Liable to inflicting listening to injury: Between the air-tight seal many fashions present to enhance their sound replica and the truth that increased 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 ideas 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 baby of the headphone world. Like many center youngsters, they have a tendency to get ignored. Most older readers are in all probability extra acquainted with them as a result of they had been to walkmen and moveable CD gamers what earbuds had been to smartphones. The slim steel headbands and black foam earpads stay a constant web site in each 80s film. 

Nonetheless, this type issue really 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 replica of over-ear headphones. 

Extra: The most effective Bose headphones: For audiophiles to athletes

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

Professionals of on-ear headphones

  • Sound high quality: Gaining access to more room than earbuds gives on-ear headphones house for bigger drivers (extra on these later), providing pure sound, and improved readability with no need to miniaturize their elements. This retains prices down with out sacrificing sound replica. 
  • 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 tougher to lose, providing a wonderful stability 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 title suggests, on-ear headphones relaxation immediately in your ears. This may make them the least comfy type issue, relying on how they’re constructed. Appropriately-designed headbands with enough padding can reduce the strain induced by on-ears, however they will additionally by no means be as comfy as ergonomically designed earbuds or large, pillowy over-ear units. 
  • Restricted connection choices: That is an extension of the above level. As there’s typically a smaller collection of on-ear headphones, there are fewer connection choices. The overwhelming majority terminate in a typical 3.5mm connection (defined within the “Connection sorts” part under), 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 referred to as over-the-ear, “cans,” or “circumaural,” should you’re feeling fancy. No matter moniker you utilize, they supply the utmost quantity of house 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 high of the value 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 would like them personalized. 

Assessment: Beyerdynamic DT 900 PRO X headphones: Brutally sincere sound for beneath $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, nevertheless. 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. Be aware the mesh display on the earcups that marks these as open-backed headphones

Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

Open-backed headphones

Over-ear headphones of this kind function earcups that enable air to freely go out and in of them. They’re the alternative of closed-back fashions and earbuds that try to seal in sound by creating an hermetic seal round or inside the consumer’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 may additionally assist improve a pair’s “soundstage,” or the feeling that the reproduced sound is coming at you from a extra nuanced collection 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 almost all carefully 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 best way they might in closed-back units. 
  • Consolation: The additional air flow additionally means your ears are much less more likely to get scorching, since they are not trapped in an hermetic chamber warmed by your physique warmth. 
  • Consciousness: Some customers need headphones to dam out exterior sounds. Others favor to listen to the world round them. For the latter, open-backed headphones present a option to maintain your ear, actually, open in your youngsters, co-workers, and even different individuals on the road. 

Cons of open-backed headphones

  • Sound leakage: Open air flow means any audio, particularly at increased volumes, will likely 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 skin world, open-backed headphones usually are not very best. They let sound in as readily as they let it out.
  • Value: Of all the type components and subtypes on this record, open-backed headphones in all probability have the worst collection 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 value for a strong pair usually begins properly north of $100. 

Razer’s closed-back BlackShark V2 Professional wi-fi gaming headset. Be aware the whole 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 (largely) hermetic chamber. This produces a extra bass-heavy sound, which may 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 inside the earcups. 

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Professionals of closed-back headphones

  • Improved bass: Closed-back headphones are normally able to superior bass replica at decrease prices and with smaller drivers than their open-backed counterparts. The low-frequency sounds profit from the tightly-enclosed house, serving to closed-back headphones preserve the impression of audio hits like drums or explosions. 
  • Isolation: Along with the energetic noise cancellation (ANC) accessible in choose fashions throughout all the type components right here, closed-back headphones provide the most effective passive sound blocking of any type issue. Their seal blocks out exterior soundwaves, permitting you to give attention to the audio that you just need to hear, with out it being tainted by exterior sounds.  
  • Privateness: What retains sound out will even maintain 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 properly 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 replica. 
  • Much less pure sound: We have lined 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 sorts

Having lined the exterior measurement and shapes of headphones, let’s have a look inside, on the single most essential 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) really use one thing near a conventional speaker. 

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The varieties of drivers in use are literally rather more numerous. That stated, there are two that stay, by far, essentially the most generally used selection. Mixed, this duo covers at the very least 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 frequent, unique drivers on the market.

The three varieties 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 acquainted with, and the one that almost all carefully resembles a conventional speaker. They’re accessible throughout all three type components, and will be present in every part from the worst-sounding, bargain-basement headphones, to a few 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 few of the first electrical audio system had been produced, and stays one of the vital dependable methods to breed sound cheaply and successfully. Nonetheless, well-tuned dynamic drivers can nonetheless flip what may 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 usually only a few 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 might 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 consider 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 an entire wall of sound coming at them, not like the pinpoint sound sourcing produced by some dynamic headphones. 

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

Regardless of the measurement of the headphone getting used, planar magnetic drivers are typically extra power-hungry. This makes them a poor match to be used together with your smartphone or laptop computer. As an alternative, they normally profit greater than dynamic drivers from being linked 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 varieties of drivers on the market. They use a razor-thin membrane floating between two perforated steel 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, as a result of membrane by no means bodily contacting the rest. Some additionally consider this cuts down on the distortion dynamic and planar magnetic drivers can undergo from at increased volumes. Whether or not this can be a scientific truth or a easy desire is up for debate. 

Additionally: The most effective bone conduction headphones

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 properly into 4 figures. 

In fact, 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 screens), or piezoelectric drivers that present a miniature model of electrostatic know-how for IEMs, and even bone conduction drivers that use your individual skeleton to transmit sound into your ears. None are more likely to ever substitute 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 sorts

Now that we all know how the sound’s produced, let’s discuss the way it will get to the headphones within the first place. There are two strategies: by way of a wire, or wirelessly. As it’s best to count on 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 just a few years in the past, nearly each smartphone as properly. It is basically the identical small “headphone jack” you and your dad and mom have been utilizing for many years, and it continues serving everybody properly on every part from greenback retailer pairs to headphones costing hundreds of {dollars}. 

1/4-inch connector: That is 3.5mm’s larger brother. It is discovered on a lot of higher-end headphones and element techniques. 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 result of their resistance to “crosstalk” or sound that is meant to be performed in a single ear really coming by means of the opposite ear’s driver as a result of interference. 

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XLR: One other standard selection 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 collection. It gives essentially the most safe connection and makes use of 4 fully remoted pins to additional forestall 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 unique 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 methodology. 

Bluetooth has continued its growth within the many years since its unique introduction. However, in all that point, it nonetheless cannot completely get rid of one pesky difficulty: 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 don’t have any means of detecting the delay. Nonetheless, when that audio is tied to a visible as properly, the delay will be very problematic.

Additionally: The most effective noise-canceling headphones

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

 In fast-paced video games, even just a few further milliseconds will 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 provide far much less latency. The preferred is 2.4GHz wi-fi. This protocol makes use of a small USB dongle to hook up 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 is likely to be shocked to seek out on the market are some 2.4GHz wi-fi headphones for comfy sofa listening on the market as properly, 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 system. 

Some wi-fi headphones even depend on infrared mild to transmit their sound. These are sometimes used with in-car leisure techniques or at-home IR transmitters. The good thing about the know-how is that any individual with suitable headphones can merely sit in a variety of the IR sign to listen to the sound, with no need to pair their system in any respect. 

Wrap up

There isn’t any motive to not study at the very least just a little bit a few type of digital system that is come to be such an essential a part of our day by day lives. Chances are you’ll discover that you just’d reasonably not choose for a similar AirPods everybody has, or it’s possible you’ll uncover that they are surely the proper stability of comfort and high quality. 

Whichever means you go, the essential factor is that you just’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 almost definitely to show into a contented proprietor.

Hopefully, this information has given you a deeper understanding of the fundamental terminology and variables you are more likely to run into when looking for headphones. And, even should you’re not presently available in the market, possibly you may impress a pal or two whenever you level out these candy new planar magnetic cans your favourite streamer’s utilizing now. 

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