Here’s what you need to know about Audiophile Headphones:
There’s a lot to think about when purchasing headphones, including the style of headphone you wish to buy, the driver type, whether it’s closed or open back, and impedance matching, to name a few.
If you want to learn about Audiophile-oriented headphones and which one is best for your listening style, check out our Buyers Guide below. Consider this your cheat sheet; please Bookmark and Share!
If you want a list of the Best Audiophile headphones, check out our Headphone Best Buys page.
Audiophile headphones (mainly) come in three different styles:
In-Ear headphones, otherwise known as earphones or In-Ear-Monitors (IEMs), are compact and provide an intimate performance with passive noise canceling. However, depending on the fit depth, wearing them may take some getting used to. Portability is the name of the game here.
On-ear headphones do just that; they sit on top of the ears instead of around the ear or inside the ear. As a result, on-ear headphones can give you some of the scale and impact of over-ear headphones while allowing more ventilation to the ear. That said, they can also cause discomfort during extended wear. On-ear headphones are generally smaller than over-ear models and are typically for portable use.
Over-ear headphones are generally the largest of the three headphone styles, and they are meant for at-home or studio use. They usually provide the most scale and impact since they completely envelop the ear. In most cases, they’re also more comfortable than other headphones since they make the least contact with your actual ear. Plush earpads also aid in comfort.
Open Back vs. Closed Back
In addition to the styles above, audiophile headphones also come in Open-Back and Closed-Back varieties.
Open-back headphones provide a more spacious sound due to the rear venting of the earcups, but at the same time, they allow outside sounds to come in. So while they may sound more natural than other headphones, they do better in quiet environments.
Closed-back headphones provide better passive noise cancellation than open-back models since the earcups are (almost) totally sealed. That means they are better for listening in noisy environments.
On the other hand, it’s harder to make good-sounding closed-back headphones since you have to manage sound waves inside an enclosure. Open-back headphones usually sound better than closed-back, especially at lower price points. (We typically prefer IEMs to closed-back headphones when spending less than $500.)
Dynamic driver headphones are the most common. Like a mini speaker driver, they use magnets, a voice coil, and a diaphragm to create sound. They are usually easy to drive, and they’re also the most affordable. A good Dynamic driver provides good detail, speed, punch, and slam. These guys do it all!
Planar Magnetic Drivers
Planar Magnetic driver headphones (sometimes called orthodynamic or isodynamic) have a conductive diaphragm sandwiched between an array of magnets. Planar headphones tend to have less distortion and faster response than dynamic designs. Even though they do very well with bass articulation and depth, they don’t usually have the bass punch of a dynamic driver.
Electrostatic driver headphones are frequently considered the most transparent, natural, and detailed drivers. This is due to the rapid response of their ultra-thin driver elements, which are charged with a high DC bias voltage. These elements move in response to an electric field created by opposing stators on either side. Like Planars, electrostatic drivers may be thin in the bass department. In addition, most Electrostatic headphones need a special electric energizer to play music, and they are usually the most expensive headphones to run.
Balanced Armature Drivers
Balanced Armature drivers have a tiny reed suspended between two magnets inside a small enclosure. The reed’s vibration is transferred to a stiff aluminum diaphragm which produces sound. Due to their compact size, they are primarily used in earphones. BA drivers deliver excellent clarity and offer improved speed and detail over traditional dynamic drivers. On the other hand, they don’t quite provide the bass slam of dynamic drivers, so they’re often used together with dynamic drivers to give a fuller sound.
AMT (Air Motion Transformer) Drivers
AMT driver headphones are a newer style of headphones that use a full-range Air Motion Transformer driver to deliver an open speaker-like sound. AMT drivers use a folded diaphragm to provide sound with excellent accuracy. This is a newer and less common headphone technology, so these headphones can be pretty expensive.
There’s probably no headphone spec that causes more confusion than the impedance specification. Measured in ohms, it tells you how much current drain a headphone produces.
When it comes to impedance matching, all you need to know is that low impedance headphones (less than 50 ohms) match well with low voltage devices like portable audio players and smartphones. Conversely, high impedance headphones (more than 50 ohms) work better with high-voltage desktop headphone amps. They have the juice needed to play those headphones with full volume and dynamics. BTW, many headphones are rated at 32 ohms, which should work well with portable and desktop sources.
For some info regarding why check out this article from CNET.
The headphone Sensitivity rating is similar to the sensitivity rating on speakers. Usually measured in dB per mW, it tells you how loud a pair of headphones can play using a mW (milliWatt) of amp output power. The higher the number, the louder it can play using relatively little power.
For example, if you see a headphone with a rating of 94dB, that means the headphone can play at 94dB with one mW of power, which is not all that sensitive, especially when using low-powered portable sources.
If you plan to use the headphones with a low gain portable source, you usually want to see a sensitivity rating of 100dB or higher. If it’s lower than that, you will probably need a high-gain portable headphone amp or desktop amp to get the headphones up to a reasonable listening volume.
Here’s a great article about headphone sensitivity…https://www.audeze.com/blogs/technology-and-innovation/sensitivity-impedance-and-amplifier-power
Wired vs. Wireless
With more and more smartphone manufacturers dropping headphone jacks, headphone companies have been compelled to step their wireless game up. A few years ago, the sound from Bluetooth headphones was unremarkable. But now, with advanced Audio Codecs like aptX HD and LDAC providing CD-quality sound, wireless headphones sound better than ever.
If you plan to use wireless headphones for critical listening, we recommend buying one with LDAC for the best sound. Keep in mind that the source must also have LDAC to work. All Android phones (Android 8 and up) should have LDAC as a standard option.
Wireless headphones come in about every style mentioned above, with dynamic noise-canceling headphones and true wireless earbuds being the most popular. Check out our list of great-sounding wireless headphones here.
That said, the sound of wired headphones is still superior to wireless, so for the best quality when critical listening, you should get a nice headphone/amp/DAC combo.
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I’m an audio writer who started as a young audio salesman/consumer electronics professional back in the late 90s. That’s where I discovered the magic of 2-Channel sound. My hunger for great sound has led me on a delightful music quest that continues today.