Tag: headphones

Open Back vs. Closed Back Headphones

Open Back vs. Closed Back Headphones

When looking for a new pair of headphones, if you dig deep enough into your research you’re going to come across open back and closed back headphones (also referred to as the acoustic principle of a headphone). If you aren’t a headphone connoisseur you may wonder what the difference is between the two. The basic answer is that both are exactly what they sound like; a closed back headphone has fully enclosed ear cups to give you excellent noise isolation whereas open back headphones have open ear cups that allow sound to flow out into your surrounding environment (not exactly rocket science). Headphone drivers produce sound in two directions (toward your ears and away from them), closed-back headphones block the sound headed away from your ears while open-back headphones let that sound go out into the world.

Sennheiser Urbanite

Sennheiser Urbanite Closed-Back Headphones

There is, however, a little more to the open-back vs. closed-back headphone difference than just whether your headphones fully seal your ear or leave it open to the environment. Each design offers its own specific advantages and disadvantages and, if you’re looking for the perfect pair of headphones, it is important to understand the differences between the two as well as their intended applications.

Closed-Back Headphones

Closed-back headphones are the most commonly available headphone type, in part, because they are more versatile than their open-back counterparts. One of the primary advantages closed-back headphones offer is noise isolation. They’re designed to keep sounds from the surrounding environment out while not letting any of your music escape into the world.

Blue Mo-Fi Headphones

Blue Mo-Fi Closed-Back Headphones

From a sound perspective, there are some drawbacks to closed-back headphones. In general, closed-back headphones can limit the soundstage of your music. Basically, this means that they can make your music sound like it’s coming from a single point rather than spread out across a stage (also described as the music being “in your head” rather than all around you). Closed-back headphones typically offer fairly robust bass performance because of the fully enclosed chamber. They also allow you to really focus on the technical aspects of your music.
If you’re in the market for a pair of headphones for travelling, studying at the library, while at the office, hitting the gym or even working at a music studio, closed-back headphones are the way to go.

Open-Back

Sennheiser HD800

Sennheiser HD800 Open-Back Headphones

A pair of open-back headphones provides you with a completely different listening experience than a closed-back headphone. Open-back headphones feature grills or perforations on the earcups that allow air and sound to flow in and out of the headphones. Drawbacks of this design include anyone around you hearing your music and the ambient noise around you seeping into your music. As a result, you’re really only going to want to use them in quiet environments where you aren’t going to disturb anyone.
Because of their design, open-back headphones, as you’ve probably realized by now, are capable of producing a much wider sound stage than closed-back headphones. Open-back headphones generally offer much more realistic sounding audio because of the wider soundstage. This gives you a much more immersive listening experience and makes you feel like you’re at a show.

As a result of their open design and lack of isolation, open-back headphones are only recommended for using in your home or any quiet environment where you’re alone and not going to bother anyone. You won’t be able to fully enjoy open-back headphones in a noisy environment because your music will get so tainted by the ambient noise around you.

Choosing What’s Best for You

Nobody can tell you what the right style is for you, it all depends on your listening preference and what you’re planning to use it for. If you’re just looking to get lost in your music at home after a long day at work, a pair of open-back headphones might be the way you want to go. On the other hand, if you’re in the market for a pair of headphones at the office or for studying in a library, you’re probably going to want to pick up a pair of closed-back headphones.

 

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What Are Headphone Drivers?

exploded headphone view

It’s a well-known fact that not all headphones are created equally. Besides the obvious differences such as how they fit your ears, various features like Bluetooth and noise cancelling and even what their intended uses are, there are other more subtle differences that can make a huge difference in your sound quality. One such difference is driver type. Headphones are essentially a set of tiny speakers that sit in, on or around your ears and like all speakers, they have drivers.

What Are Headphone Drivers?

A driver is the part of the speaker which compresses and refines air to create sound waves. The drivers in a pair of headphones are generally considered the most important part of the headphones because they’re what make the sound you hear; the better the driver, the better the sound. Not all drivers are created equally however; there are several different types of headphone drivers that can have a dramatic impact on the performance and sound quality of a pair of headphones.

Dynamic Drivers

Dynamic Headphone Driver

Photo Credit: Head-Fi User GREQ

The most common driver type used in headphones is the Dynamic driver. Dynamic drivers, also known as the moving coil driver, are designed with a permanent magnet, usually neodymium, a voice coil and a conical diaphragm. A dynamic headphone driver looks pretty much identical to any typical home theater speaker. Dynamic driver headphones are capable of delivering a full range of sound with more than enough detail and clarity for the average listener.

 

Dynamic driver headphones will function perfectly fine without a headphone amplifier (although they usually will sound better with one) and can be found in everything from budget friendly earbuds to audiophile-grade over-ear headphones.

Balanced Armature Drivers

Balanced Armature Driver Diagram

Balanced armature drivers use basically the same components of a dynamic driver, magnets and voice coils to produce sound waves. How they function, however, is much different. A balanced armature driver uses a coil wrapped around an armature which is held in between two magnets until it is stimulated by an electrical current. When stimulated, this armature is magnetized which causes it to rotate one way or the other around a pivot point which moves the diaphragm to create sound. The strength of a balanced armature driver lies in the midrange, they tend to struggle reproducing frequencies below 20 Hz and higher than 16,000 Hz.

Balanced Armature X-Ray ViewHigher end balanced armature driver headphones often have multiple armature drivers which divide predetermined frequency ranges between them by utilizing a passive crossover network. As a general rule, the more balanced armature drivers a headphone contains, the better they can handle the low and high frequency ranges (but not always). Balanced armature drivers are generally used in in-ear earbuds because of their compact size and low impedances. Another benefit of the compact size of balanced armature drivers is that they are commonly used in hearing aids.

Electrostatic Drivers

electrostatic_driverElectrostatic drivers are generally only found in high end headphones (though not exclusively) because they require much higher voltages to operate. Electrostatic drivers are made up of an extremely thin membrane, usually a coated PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) film, stretched between two metal plates (electrodes). An electrical signal is applied to the metal plates to create an electrical field. The result of this electrical field is that, depending on its polarity, the speaker diaphragm is drawn toward one of the plates which forces air through the perforations in the diaphragm which generates the sound wave. Unlike dynamic and balanced armature drivers, electrostatic drivers have no moving metalwork.

Electrostatic drivers are much more sensitive and handle a significantly wider frequency range and produce hardly any distortion. Unfortunately, due to their higher voltage requirements, electrostatic driver headphones require a separate headphone amplifier.

Planar Magnetic Drivers

planar magnetic driverPlanar magnetic drivers, also known as orthodynamic drivers, operate in a similar fashion to electrostatic drivers. A planar magnetic driver is made up of a relatively large membrane suspended between two sets of oppositely aligned magnets. An electric charge is applied to the membrane to induce movement and produce sound waves. As a result of the entire membrane being equally charged and suspended within a uniform magnetic field, any changes in the electrical charge to the membrane causes movement in uniform across the entire membrane surface.

Planar magnetic driver headphones are known for having greatly reduced distortion levels as well as better bass response than other headphones because of the large surface area of the membrane producing the sound waves. In general, planar magnetic drivers are found in high-end, audiophile-grade headphones. Another thing to be aware of, while planar magnetic drivers don’t require as much power as electrostatic drivers, they still generally need to be used with a headphone amplifier.

Other Drivers

There are other types of headphone drivers available, but they are used much less commonly and typically only for specially designed headphones. These include technologies like the Heil Air Motion Transformer driver, Ribbon Planar Magnetic driver and Magnetrostriction headphones (sometimes referred to as ‘Bonephones’).

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Headphone Buying Guide

Headphone Buying Guide

Buying a New Pair of Headphones

Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear Headphones

So you need a new pair of headphones, simple right? Not so fast. Finding the right pair of headphones to fit your needs, preferences and budget can often be a more time consuming process than anticipated.

There is more to buying a new pair of headphones than just finding a pair that looks decent, you should be considering what your intended uses are (for example, if you’re a heavy traveler, you probably don’t want a pair of open back headphones), what style headphones you want as well as any other features you may be looking for (Bluetooth, in-line controls, etc.). Buying the perfect pair of headphones can completely transform your entire listening experience.

What Style Do You Want?

There are 3 very distinct styles of headphones available that you can purchase: in-ear headphones (earbuds, IEMs, earphones), on-ear headphones and over-ear headphones. Each style provides a very different fit, serves different needs and has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Paradigm SHIFT E3m In-Ear Headphones

In-Ear Headphones

For in-ear headphones, there are 2 main types of in-ear headphones, earbuds and in-ear monitors. Earbuds rest in your ears and provide little to no acoustic sealing from outside noise. As a result, earbuds are typically the worst sounding headphones and also rarely offer a secure fit.

In-ear monitors feature soft tips that insert into your ears to offer much improved sound isolation. The seal provided allows for outstanding overall sound quality and bass response. Another advantage of in-ear monitors is that they deliver sound directly into your ear drums. In-ear monitors generally include several sets of ear tips in varying sizes to ensure a comfortable fit for most users. In-ears are great for anyone with small ears or who wants something lightweight and comfortable.
On-Ear Headphones

On-ear (Supra-Aural) headphones feature earpads that rest directly on your ears (creative name, right?). When comparing on-ear headphones with over-ear headphones, the biggest advantage they provide is that they are much more compact. Earpads on on-ear headphones are not overly bulky because they aren’t designed to enclose your ear entirely. Many on-ear headphones are also designed to be folded up which allows for easy storage and makes them great for travelling.

On-ear headphones typically do not offer the same sound quality as their over-ear counterparts because they simply don’t offer the same level of sound isolation. Because of their design, on-ear headphones often struggle to reach the same bass notes as over-ear headphones. If your desire for convenience outweighs everything else when shopping for headphones, on-ear headphones offer an ideal solution for general headphone use.

Over-Ear Headphones

Parrot ZIK Bluetooth Headphones

Over-ear (Circumaural) headphones are the largest type of headphones you can buy. These headphones completely enclose your ear and typically provide excellent sound isolation. Because of their oversized design and sound isolation, over-ear headphones are traditionally better suited for home use rather than on the go. As a general rule, over-ear headphones offer maximum bass and loudness levels because of their oversized earcups which create a larger sound stage.

Over-ear headphones can be overly bulky for some users. The fully enclosed earcup design can also cause overheating of the ears depending on how much the ear cushions breath.

What Do You Plan to Use Your Headphones For?

Headphones are incredibly versatile. They are ideal for anything from working out to travelling and even playing video games. Once you know what style headphone you want, you need to also know what you intend to use your headphones for. If you’re planning on using them at the gym, you probably aren’t going to want a bulky pair over-ears. You also need to know if you want convenience features like in-line microphone and volume controls. No matter what you intend to use your headphones for, you’ll most likely be able to choose between a pair of Bluetooth or wired headphones.
Athletic Headphones are an Athletes Best Friend

Athletic Use:

Active and sport headphones are great for anyone who wants to take their music to the gym or on a run. Most athletic headphones are in-ears, although you can also find on-ear headphones intended for athletic purposes. Many athletic headphones include some type of ear hook integrated into the design to provide a secure fit, ensuring they don’t fall out of your ears or off of your head during use. These headphones also typically feature some type of sweat resistance to provide long lasting use.
Travel:

If you’re a heavy traveler, investing in a nice pair of noise canceling headphones might be the best thing you can do. Noise canceling headphones, whether they are passive or active, are worth every penny when you’re stuck on a cross country flight filled with screaming kids. The best noise canceling headphones are generally over-ear, but you can also find high quality on-ear and in-ear noise canceling headphones.
Studio Headphones:

For the audiophiles and music professionals, studio headphones are designed with you in mind. These headphones are designed specifically for high quality sound and are available in in-ear, on-ear and over-ear styles, although they are most commonly available in over-ear designs.
Other Uses:

No matter what you intend to use your headphones for there is probably an option out there for you. Gaming headsets designed for use with console and PC with integrated microphones are available for serious gamers. These headsets often feature true surround sound technology to ensure you can hear your enemies sneaking up behind you. Home wireless headphone systems are perfect for anyone who doesn’t intend to use their headphones anywhere outside of their home. These systems include a wireless transmitter which is placed at a central location in your home and a compatible pair of headphones. Wireless headphone systems often have ranges well over 100 feet. These wireless headphone systems are great people who want to listen to their music as loud as they want without interrupting their significant others.

Other Features to Know:

Open Back vs. Closed Back:

Open Back Headphones Offer Better Sound Quality

Closed back headphones acoustically isolate your ears from your surroundings while also limiting sound leakage. They are intended listening when you don’t want to disturb others. Open back headphones don’t seal off your ears from the environment; they allow outside noise in and also allow sound out (making them a poor choice for anything other than private listening where there aren’t many people around). The open design typically provides better sound quality than closed back headphones because there is nothing behind the driver to cause resonances or sound colorations. The open sound stage also makes you feel like you are in a room with speakers rather than wearing a pair of headphones.

Semi-open headphones provide the best of both worlds. Semi-open headphones provide a slightly more open sound stage than closed back headphones while also providing more bass and punch than open back headphones.
Driver Type:

The drivers in your headphones are what make the sound you hear. Dynamic drivers are the most common driver type used. A dynamic driver utilizes a permanent magnet attached behind your headphones diaphragm and works with a voice coil to push air at different frequencies, creating your sound. Dynamic drivers provide more coherent sound and better bass response but struggle with overall detail.

A balanced armature driver uses the same general principle and components of a dynamic driver, but a balanced armature driver requires no air to function. Balanced armature drivers can be tuned for specific frequency ranges to provide better sound quality over dynamic drivers, however they can struggle with bass response.

 

Finding that perfect pair of headphones is an incredibly rewarding experience and is something you will reap the benefits of for years to come.

 

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Headphone Amplifier Buying Guide

Get the Best Possible Sound from Your Headphones with a Headphone Amplifier

Buying a Headphone Amplifier

 

Do you own a pair of headphones that you want to get the most out of? Are you considering tossing them aside for another, possibly more expensive pair? Before you go spending more money on yet another new pair of headphones, consider an alternate choice: a headphone amplifier. Headphone amplifiers use the same principle as a car amplifier (making your music cleaner and louder), and condenses it to pocket or desktop form for a personal listening experience. Headphone amps come in many different sizes, from the miniscule pocket sized amps for when you’re on the go to the full sized desktop amps for when you want to just kick back and get lost in some music in the comfort of your home.

The Basics
Portable Headphone Amp

Let’s start with some basic background information, all headphones require a headphone amplifier to function, and nearly every audio device includes a built-in amplifier (your smartphone, tablet and computer already have one). This will probably lead you to ask why you need to buy another amp to make my sound better. The answer is relatively simple; these built-in amps are small, weak and unable to power your headphones to their full potential like a standalone headphone amp*.

Knowing Your Needs

 

Headphone Amps Make Your Music Sound Better
 

Now, when looking into buying a headphone amplifier, the most important thing to know is what you are going to be using it for. If you’re someone who likes listening to music when you’re out and about, travelling or just moving around the house, you’re probably going to want to pick up a portable headphone amp.
Portable Headphone Amplifiers
Portable Headphone Amps Can Fit Virtually Anywhere

Portable headphone amps are just what you would expect; compact, lightweight and easy to carry around with you. Portable headphone amps are typically powered by an internal rechargeable battery or USB connection and have at least one 3.5mm or 1/4” input jack. Intended mostly for use with smartphones, MP3 players, tablets and other portable music players, these amps will also often come with integrated controls for volume, EQ settings for bass, treble, gain and balance and some can even remotely control songs from your device. Select portable amps can also keep your device charged during use so you never have to worry about running out of juice.
Desktop Headphone Amplifiers
Desktop Headphone Amplifier

On the other hand, if you love nothing more than coming home after a long day and relaxing in your favorite chair with your music, a desktop headphone amplifier is the way to go. Desktop amps can be much larger than their portable counterparts and are designed primarily for use with your PC, music server or laptop. Many desktop amplifiers come with a built-in Digital Analog Converter (DAC) which converts the digital signal coming from your device to an analog signal into your headphones to provide an even more clean, crisp sound (some portable headphones also have a built-in DAC, but it is primarily a desktop feature). Desktop amplifiers can also come with integrated full EQ settings and sound controls.
Other Important Information
Grado RA-1 Headphone Amplifier

Other things to take into consideration when looking for a headphone amp include the specs of your headphones themselves. The efficiency (sensitivity) of your headphones indicates how loudly they will play given a specific amount of power. This rating is typically stated as a certain decibel level (dB) reached with 1 milliwatt (mW) of power. The more efficient your headphones the higher the number, with anything over 100dB considered incredibly efficient. The output impedance of the amplifier is another key piece of information to be aware of; the overall sound quality improves the lower the amplifier’s impedance.

Headphone amps can also function as splitters with multiple headphone inputs which are great for listening parties. Headphone amplifiers can also come with 3.5mm or 1/4” input jacks to support even the highest quality of headphones. High end audiophile-grade headphone amplifiers come with optical inputs to provide the cleanest sound possible.

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Active & Sport Headphones Buying Guide

If you’re trying to get into the grove of starting a fitness regimen, then you’re most likely going to use headphones. Active and sport style headphones are ideal for vigorous physical activity and making any exercise-based activity much more enjoyable. Headphones are a great way to compliment your workout and can keep you focused during your routine. Many manufacturers specialize in headphones that are ideal for vigorous physical activity and there are a few things to look for when finding the perfect active headphones:

Things To Look For:

  • Fitment
  • Cord Management
  • In-line Controls

Fitment

Cord management is one of the most important things to consider is the fitment of the headphones. You don’t want them to fall out during use as this will disrupt your music and your workout. In-ear headphones are usually preferred due to the snug fit they are able to provideSport Headphones at Sonic Electronix inside of the ear canal. There are wrap-around styles as well as ear tips that are ergonomically designed to stay in your ear. A good pair will be made with sweat resistant materials and durable construction to withstand harsh conditions. Just don’t be the guy that wears beats by dre over-ear when sprinting on a treadmill.

Cord management is an overlooked part of headphones when you’re trying to work out with your favorite tunes. Getting your headphones caught on a machine during a workout could be potentially hazardous to you and/or your headphones. You need to make sure the headphones have managment clips in order to tie off the excess cord length. Alternatively, you can get rid of the cord altogether and go with a pair of Bluetooth headphones. The wireless technology allows you to connect to your smartphone and create a seamless workout.

In-line Controls

In-line controls for your headphones are the final puzzle piece to completing a good pair of active headphones. You don’t want to spend half of your workout fumbling to play and pause your music or answer a phone call. Having these in-line controls adds further convenience to your routine and makes your workout more efficient.

Keeping all of these features in mind when looking to purchase a set of active or sport headphones. Just remember that you could be doing yourself and your ears an injustices if you aren’t properly equipped with the right headphones.

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How Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Work?

Noise cancellation was first patented by Paul Lueg in the early 1930’s. Lueg had recognized that the technical merits of sound cancellation would require creating an identical but opposite sound wave to cancel out ambient noise. By the 1980’s electronic noise cancellation technology was being implemented in aircraft headphones to protect pilots from hearing damage. The most common type of noise cancellation is “Passive” while “Active” noise cancellation technology is now preferred. Below is a brief description of the two types of cancellation technologies.

Passive Noise Cancelling:

All headphones have some form of passive noise cancellation (also referred to as noise isolation) due to the materials used in their construction. Over-ear headphones enclose the wearer’s ear completely and provide passive noise cancelling due to their design. Passive noise cancelling headphones take it a step further and are packed with super dense foam or sound-absorbing material and are made with thick plastics or metal alloys to block high-frequency ambient noise. The downside of this thick material is added weight which can induce strain and fatigue on the wearer over long periods of time. In-ear headphones are small and have little room for added noise dampening material so their tips are designed to block ambient noise. Earbuds can work like earplugs and sometimes rival the noise cancelling capabilities of active noise cancelling systems.

Sennheiser Momentum Noise Cancelling Headphones

Sennheiser Momentum Noise Cancelling Headphones

Active Noise Cancelling:

Advancements in sound electronics technology have lead to active noise cancelling which utilizes a 4-step system to erase lower frequency ambient noise. These headphones create their own sound waves that are identical to the incoming sound waves with one exception: they produce waves that are 180 degrees out of phase or reversed from the incoming sound. This is known as destructive interference and causes the two waves to cancel out resulting in silence, if we lived in a perfect world of course.

To accomplish this destructive interference, microphones placed in the ear cups “listen” to external sounds that cannot be blocked passively and send that information to noise-canceling circuitry. The electronics, usually placed in the ear cup or in line with the signal cable, duplicates the frequency and amplitude of the incoming wave and inverts it 180 degrees. Then the speaker produces this new frequency along with normal sound waves to effectively erase noise. A downfall of active noise cancelling circuitry is that they require a battery to energize the system which can decrease convenience.

This active cancelling technology works well for continuous sounds such as the humming of a jet engine, train or a refrigerator. This technology is still in the early stages so it does not completely omit all sounds. On average, active noise cancelling headphones provide an additional reduction in noise of about 20 decibels, which is 70 percent of ambient noise. Because these systems are battery powered they often induce noise into the headphones in the form of a high-frequency hum. This noise is often unheard when actually listening to music but might become annoying to some who use active noise cancelling headphones just to get some peace and quiet.  Regardless of any drawbacks, most people will never steer away from noise cancelling headphones back to normal headphones again.

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How to Select a Pair of Headphones

Choose the Right Headphones for You

A good pair of headphones allows you to enjoy an awesome listening experience almost anywhere. Whether you are playing video games on your laptop, watching movies on your portable DVD player, or listening to music on your MP3 player, a good set of headphones provides realistic sound that will leave you in your own entertainment world.

Most audio components come with stock headphones, but these stock headphones usually do not maximize your listening experience. If you want to enjoy crisp, detailed sound, using a pair of aftermarket headphones will create a more desirable listening environment. If you listen to rap or hip hop, look for headphones with greater bass and wattage capability to provide bass beats. Earphones with greater sensitivity and frequency ratings will bring greater clarity and more accurate sound. You should choose a pair of headphones based on your preferred style of music.

Without question, everyone enjoys a pair of headphones that can reproduce accurate sound. Professional quality headphones enable you to distinguish even the slightest differences in sound. These professional DJ or monitoring headphones are perfect for disc jockeys and professional mix artists. Even if you’re not a DJ, you will enjoy using a pair of high quality headphones to create a private listening environment at home or in the office.

Some headphones include a built-in microphone, which allow you to partake in hands-free phone calls. You can switch from music to a phone call with the switch of the button. For example, if you are listening to music on your iPhone, as soon as you answer the call, the music will pause. After you end the call, the music continues on.

If you are an active person who enjoys working out, jogging or other outdoor activities, portable headphones and earbuds are a must-have. These ear buds are specially designed for active use. The designs include over the head, around the neck and in-ear ear buds. The tight fit design helps prevent them from falling off while you work out. Some are even water and sweat resistant. Overall, these extremely lightweight headphones are built to last and will not interfere with your workout.

Finally, wireless headphones are the ultimate companion for in-car video systems. Wireless headphones enable the rear passengers to enjoy a movie while the people in the front seats listen to music over the front speakers. You can also use wireless headphones at home to watch TV without waking others. You can relax on the couch and enjoy the sound without having to worry about tangling any wires.

Select a pair of headphones based on your music tastes and listening habits. A pair of ear buds might be great for the gym whereas you may prefer to purchase a professional quality pair for sedentary listening environments. So make a selection based on your intended listening application, and enjoy the music!

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