Headphones are seemingly simple equipment. You put them on, you play and enjoy. However, like everything in life has its crumb and if you want to make sparks or make the best purchase, it is not a bad thing to know a little how they work. Before buying headphones, you should learn headphone tech specifications. It is important that you have some basic notions.
Did you know that if you spend a lot on some high-end headphones, you should still take advantage and connect them to a headphone amplifier to freak out in color? What are drivers and what are they for? Do you know that knowing the technical specifications of your headphones can help you not to burn them the first week? How many people have had to retire their headphones prematurely for putting them to the limit without knowing how far they were giving of themselves! But we do not want to put the badge of the century. For that, you will already have other people. We are aware that some of these technical things can bring you down the street of bitterness. That is why we have prepared a complete but very simple guide with the basic terms and specifications of headphones that it does not hurt that you know.
What are headphone drivers?
This concept is basic. When manufacturers talk about drivers, they refer to that part of the headphones that generates the sound. These are typically small, thin, disc-shaped devices found inside the ear cups. The drivers are powered by the electrical current that travels from the source through the cable and then releases it into our ears as sound.
If all goes well, you will never have to see a driver. Unless you are curious and disassemble the helmets. But it doesn’t matter if you never see them. It is always good to know something about them. The drivers are what provide us with the sound, and depending on the type and size they will sound differently.
Let’s talk size first. Drivers are normally measured in millimeters. Sizes can vary from 6-12mm for in-ear headphones, up to 40-100mm for large headphones, such as HiFi headphones or gaming headsets. Many think that the bigger the drivers, the better the sound. And this is not always the case. It is true that the bass can sound cleaner. However, larger drivers tend to have more difficulty reproducing high frequencies (such as violins).
Therefore, although the size of the drivers helps us to get a slight idea of how they will sound, there are many other indicators that are just as important: types of drivers, impedance, sensitivity, power…back to menu ↑
What types of drivers for music headphones are there?
They are the most common. We find them in almost all on-ear headphones and many over-ears. They are capable of producing good quality bass, but the level of detail in the other frequencies may fall short. They are susceptible to distortion, especially at high volume levels.
Flat Magnetic Drivers
Also called Orthodynamics. They are mostly found in open over-ear headphones and are often expensive. With the flat magnetic drivers, you can obtain great sound fidelity since they produce clear and defined tones. They are often used in home helmets as they are heavy and less portable than dynamic drivers. The sound quality is excellent and they do not cause any distortion.
Balanced Armature Drivers
They are smaller than dynamic drivers and are usually found exclusively in in-ear headphones (IEMs). They are used mainly by musicians or sound engineers to listen to mixes since these drivers have the ability to emit specific frequencies. A good in-ear headphone can have up to four balanced armature drivers and you need them in order to get a decent bass response. The sound it provides in the high and mid-tones is highly detailed and has good noise isolation. They are more expensive than dynamic drivers.
Electrostatic drivers are often used in more expensive headphones. They are the best in terms of sound resolution. They produce high fidelity audio, with great amplitude and without any distortion. They use a diaphragm that has been electronically charged. Headphones that use these drivers require headphone amplifiers to work.back to menu ↑
What is the impedance of the headphones?
For us, impedance is the most important technical specification. In fact, when we evaluate the best headphones in our reviews and choosing the best gaming headphones 2021, it is the first thing we look at. Not only because it tells us something about the behavior of the headphones, but because it clarifies what we will need so that they can reproduce music correctly.
Impedance is electrical resistance. Basically, it is the resistance created by the coils of the loudspeaker magnets that it exerts on the passage of current and warns us of how well or badly the loudspeakers or headphones resist a certain electric current.
Even if we don’t understand any of this, the impedance of the headphones is easy to interpret. It is measured in terms of ohms (Ω) and what it tells you is how much power your headphones need to get a reasonable volume of the music. The more impedance they have, the more resistance they will put up and the more the signal will weaken. Outcome? You will likely need an amp to squeeze them out. Of course, the sound quality will be incredible. High-quality headphones often have a high impedance and require an amplifier capable of delivering adequate power to bring out the maximum brightness of each sound.
The impedance indicates how much you will have to increase the volume control before the sound can be perceived well. Why is this important? Because the higher the number in front of the symbol (Ω), the helmets will need a higher supply/power. It means that certain audio sources, telephones, for example, will not be able to provide the necessary power to the headphones.
Any impedance up to 32Ω can be reproduced by most mobile devices. With the 33-100Ω impedance, you can probably get enough volume but you will need to add a headphone amplifier to improve performance, which increases power and improves sound detail. Any impedance above 100Ω will need an amplifier. Today there are many devices that are capable of handling up to 600Ω.
Why do you need to worry about high impedance headphones in the first place? The reality is that the best headphones on the market have a high impedance. This means that to get the most out of them, you’ll need amps. Which translates into more spending. Of course, once you plug them in, their sound will get you more than a smile.back to menu ↑
What is the sensitivity (SPL) of headphones?
It is the measure of how loud a pair of headphones can sound at a certain power level. Sensitivity, also sometimes called efficiency or SPL ( Sound Pressure Level ) is related to impedance, although it is not that important when deciding whether or not to buy a pair of headphones.
If headphones ‘A’ have a higher sensitivity than headphones ‘B’, at a power level of one milliwatt, then the audio produced by those headphones will be louder at that volume. This means that you will have to turn the volume control less to get the level you want. A sensitivity of 86dB is considered low, while anything above 110dB is considered a high level.
In reality, sensitivity doesn’t tell us much, as most companies are not very consistent in measuring this ability. If we add other variants at the time of reproduction, such as the sound source, the amplifier, or the user’s ability to listen, the sensitivity term is almost useless. It is much more important to find a pair of headphones that can reproduce the sound from the source loud enough, and this is told by the impedance. If we only have a phone or tablet, then we must find headphones up to 32Ω.back to menu ↑
What is THD? (Total Harmonic Distortion)
This is an interesting specification. 90% of the time you don’t need to pay attention to it, but it is a good indicator of how well your headphones behave. It is a measurement that informs us about how much the audio can change from when it enters the headphones until it leaves, thanks to the drivers, in sound form. This change is known as distortion, although it is not the distortion you get with a guitar pedal, for example.
The most important thing is that the total THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) is as low as possible. The less the audio changes in a pair of headphones, the higher the fidelity and sound quality. Headphone technology today is so good that THD is measured in decimal points. A THD of 0.1% (meaning the helmets distort no more than 0.1%) is common. We must say, however, that just because some headphones have a low THD does not mean that they will not add some color to the sound. You can think of THD as undesirable distortion, which can reduce the enjoyment of music from the best headphones. It is not actually the most important aspect when choosing headphones.back to menu ↑
Frequency (or frequency response) refers to the range of sound that a pair of headphones can reproduce: how low or high they can go (expressed in Hertz). The low-frequency sounds, the bass, can be around 60-500Hz, while the more defined highs can sound around 16-17,000HZ (also written as 16-17kHZ, or KiloHertz). It is good to know this technical specification, although it is not the most important. In theory the higher the range, the more sounds the headphones will be able to reproduce. But in practice …
In practice, there may be speakers with a frequency: 10Hz-23kHZ. This is nonsense. Why? Because a human being in his prime, at a young age and without having worn out his ears listening to loud music, can only hear sounds as low as 20Hz and as high as 17.4kHZ. Any frequency lower or higher than this range is inaudible. This means one thing: that headphones can reproduce sounds at 23kHZ, it does not mean anything, because you will not be able to hear them.
Yes indeed. Don’t get us wrong: the best headphones, with wider frequency ranges, such as those that go up to 22kHZ, can add a little more detail to the sound spectrum, but it is somewhat inconspicuous. Our advice is to ignore this specification when choosing your desired headphones unless they have a lower range than normal, which may indicate that the headphones are not capable of doing their job. Any equipment that cannot reproduce lower frequencies at 30HZ or above 16kHZ is probably not good.back to menu ↑
Those are the main specs you need to know, but it is worth knowing something about the different types of headphones. The main ones are known as over-ear (circumaural), on-ear (supraural), and in-ear (intraural). Here are some of the pros and cons of each type.back to menu ↑
Over-ear / circumaural headphones
They are placed on the head (which is what the word circumaural means) and have padded cups that completely cover the ears. They tend to provide a deeper and higher quality sound than other types of headphones, although they are also heavier and larger, making them less portable and sometimes more uncomfortable.back to menu ↑
Supraural / on-ear headphones
They rest on the ears. They typically don’t have the depth of sound quality of over-ears, but they’re cheaper, portable, and lighter. You won’t see many high-impedance on-ear headphones, as they are typically used with mobile devices.back to menu ↑
In-ear / in-ear headphones
We can divide these into two main subclasses: earbuds, which are simple units with individual drivers that fit each ear, and in-ear (iEMs), which are somewhat more complex and usually offer multiple drivers, so provide better sound. Currently, the only downside to in-ear headphones is that they can be uncomfortable with prolonged use. The best in-ear headphones can compete with the sound quality of on-ear equipment, but they can also be just as expensive.back to menu ↑
What is the difference between closed and open headphones? Closed-back Vs open-back
Another aspect to consider is whether they are open or closed-type headphones. When grabbing any pair of headphones you just have to look at the outside of the cups. If the surface is solid, then they are closed headphones. If they have some kind of grille or if you can see the driver, then they are open. Something simple, but that generates notable differences when listening to music.
Most of the time, the sound provided by the best open headphones is excellent. These allow the air to interact with the driver more easily and this gives the sound unique qualities. The open design makes the sound open and wide, with good detail.
Open headphones do not isolate sound well, which means that anyone next to you will be able to hear the music you are listening to. In addition, they are not the best headphones to take them on the street because you will also hear external noises. Closed headphones do not have such a detailed sound, but this does not mean that they sound bad, in fact, they tend to have a bit more punch in the lower frequencies and are much better to listen to in busy environments since they isolate much better.back to menu ↑
Wireless or wired headphones
We also want to briefly mention the differences between wireless and wired headphones. Previously, wired headphones always won in terms of sound quality, but thanks to advances in Bluetooth technology and its various codecs such as aptX, the gap between the two has narrowed a lot. However, wired headphones are generally still superior when it comes to audio quality. The best high-impedance headphones, those that need a separate headphone amplifier, are wired. They are the model to choose if you are looking for the best possible sound. Wireless headphones, on the other hand, are very comfortable and give a lot of play since you can use them anywhere. If you are looking for comfort and simplicity, they are the best option.back to menu ↑
Isolation and noise cancellation
The term noise isolation, or passive noise cancellation, refers to the ability of headphones to block out the noise around you. This refers to the efficiency that the seal of the headphones achieves over your head in isolating external sound. Active noise-canceling headphones, on the other hand, use built-in microphones to capture sound from around you and block it by reversing polarity. The most effective are circumaural or over-ear headphones. If you usually listen to music in noisy environments, we recommend you take a look at the selection of the best noise-canceling headphones from Cultura Sonora.back to menu ↑
How can I know which are the best headphones?
How can you know which are the best headphones without trying them personally? The quickest and easiest way is to read the specialist reviews, which can give you a good idea of the unique capabilities of each model. For this you can review our website (BestXpot) with confidence, we have prepared several lists with detailed reviews on all types of headphones designed for any user and circumstance. Such as you can read Sony WH-1000XM4 Headphones Review.
If you want to go one step further, you can analyze the technical specifications that each model presents. That is why we have prepared this guide for you with all the terms you need to know to choose the ideal model for you.