Tag: how to pick 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.


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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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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