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Do you want to know the headphone specifications that you need to look at before buying your next set on headphones?
If so, then you have come to the right place.
This is a comprehensive guide on the headphone specifications simplified so that you can be able to understand and make the right choice for you.
The best part?
I will later answer the question Do I need an amp for my headphones?
But for now, let us look at some of the specifications of the most common headphones and what they mean when it comes to choosing your perfect set of headphones.
Let’s get started.
- 1 #1.HEADPHONES DRIVERS
- 2 #2.HEADPHONE IMPEDANCE
- 3 #3.HEADPHONE SENSITIVITY
- 4 #4.HEADPHONE FREQUENCY RESPONSE
- 5 #5.TOTAL HARMONIC DISTORTION (THD)
- 6 #6.NOISE CANCELLATION VS NOISE ISOLATION
- 7 DO MY HEADPHONES NEED A HEADPHONE AMP?
This is the main element inside headphones that converts an electrical signal into sound.
The main parts of a driver are a magnet, voice coils and a diaphragm.
Size of drivers is measured in millimetres which is important in gauging the capabilities of the sound.
Take note that it does not directly translate the bigger the driver the louder the sound. This is because the louder volume you can hear from a small and a larger driver remains the same.
Earphones drivers’ sizes range from 8mm to 15mm and larger headphones from 20mm to 50mm.
The bigger the driver the more powerful the bass output but not necessary the overall sound quality.
The sound quality is dependent on the materials that are used to make the driver and technology.
There are different types of headphone drivers, and here we are going briefly look at 4 types of headphone drivers.
They are the most common drivers used on headphones and are most preferred because they use larger diaphragms and achieve the right amount of sound pressure without using a lot of power.
Also known as Moving coils, these types of drivers create a good amount of bass response without the need for excessive power.
This is due to the fact that they have to displace the air and because of the larger size of their diaphragms which provide larger air displacement, dynamic drivers produce higher volume to recreate a realistic bass response.
“The bigger the better” does not apply when it comes to dynamic drivers.
The main downside is that they provide poorer quality sound because they are susceptible to audio distortion at a higher volume.
The other reason that they are very common and are the most preferred is that they are cost effective to manufacture for commercial purposes.
2.Balanced Armature Drivers
With an abbreviation of BA, these are smaller drivers than the dynamic drivers and a used mostly by the in-ear monitor (IEMs). They are more expensive than dynamic drivers.
These can be tuned and give better performance in treble frequency than the dynamic drivers and a more detailed sound.
Since they don’t displace air to produce the sound they lack a powerful bass response that’s why you find IEMs with multi- Bass in combination to one dynamic driver.
You can get one IEMS having 1-4 balanced armature driver per earpiece and custom IEMs can house up to 20.
An example of good IEMs is the 1 more Triple Driver
The IEMs with Bass don’t have an additional air vent which makes them have better isolation which in turn gives more detailed sound.
The downside is that they are more costly compared to the dynamic drivers and may need additional drivers to provide more quality sound.
3.Planar Magnetic Drivers
Also called orthodynamic and are large and subtle. They feature a technology where a diaphragm is sandwiched between magnets and use Electromagnetic field that can interact with the magnetic field creating sound waves.
They use a combination of the large thin diaphragm and strong electromagnetic force to be able to bring to displacement a large amount of air.
These types of drivers are mostly found in high-end headphones because they are more the expensive side and have extremely thin drivers.
With these drivers you get high-standard, accurate sound with relative no distortion and plus excellent bass response.
A Good example of headphones with these type of drivers is the Audeze headphones.
The downside to the Planar Magnetic drivers is they require more power from the power source are on the larger side and may require special amplifiers.
Electrostatic drivers are not very commonly used in finding in normal headphones these are majorly due to the fact that they are extremely expensive.
They use a thin electrically charged diaphragm that is placed between two conductive plates or electrodes.
These drivers are quite complex and require amplifiers known as energizers that are usually found in high-end open back headphones.
With these drivers, you are assured of getting distortion-free sound, unbelievable accuracy and a life-like soundstage.
They are generally amazing drivers except form the main fact that they are very expensive, require special amplifiers and are large and bulky.
5.Magnetostriction or Bone Conduction Drivers
These are drivers that bypass the eardrum sending the vibration directly to your in-ear via bone conduction.
They are also not very common but are made through technology advancement.
They are very helpful in situations where the ears need not be obstructed, having hearing problems and underwater. You will be able to hear external noise while you enjoy your music.
This is one of the most important aspects that you will need to know when it comes to headphones.
Impedance is the simplest term is how well something resists an electrical current that passes through and it is measured in ohms with an omega symbol.
To put this in a visual sense, imagine the crowds when entering a shopping mall during Black Friday, the resistance that you get from the people when entering the mall can be seen as the Impedance.
Now, that you have the picture you may be wondering…
Why do we need to know the impedance of headphones?
Impedance has to do with the volume a pair of headphones has can deliver which also defines how well headphones can handle power, the lower the impedance the less the power that will be required to deliver higher volume.
The higher the impedance the more power required which also serves to protect the headphones from power overload and gives them the flexibility to be used with other audio equipment.
A pair of headphones can be looked at like tiny speakers which house drivers that consist of magnets that require electrical current in order to produce sound waves.
In all simplicity, there is a circuit system in the headphones. This system will provide resistance to any current passing through it.
There is also a certain amount of current that is required to overcome this impedance and power your headphones speakers.
One of the main reasons why we need to look out for the impedance when it comes to making the decision to purchase particular headphones is because it will enable us to answer the following questions.
- Do I need an Amp with these headphones?
- Can I use my headphones with my Mobile device?
This will save us a lot of time and help us make the right choice to avoid being disappointed later.
Since loudspeakers need to provide more loud volumes their impedance tend to range around 4, 6, 8 ohms.
Headphones don’t need to provide that much volume so their impedance ranges from 15 to 30 ohms in general.
This range is good for portable headphones since they can be powered easily by mobile devices, smartphones and laptops and they are loud enough for the human ears.
If ohms go higher than 35 this becomes a challenge for most smartphones to power them and the volume is so low and sound quality has some fuzziness.
This is because your laptop or smartphones don’t have that much power.
When it comes to higher ohms headphones to beat the impedance will require a portable headphone amplifier.
The thing to note is that the idea that higher impedance direct means better sound stage is not necessarily true in a sense.
There are low impedance headphones that produce quality soundstage like the AudioQuest Night Hawk carbon.
The thing with higher impedance is because the speakers in these headphones tend to be made of a better material which makes sound accurate, vivid and original with the better quality overall.
Good examples of higher impedance headphones are the Audeze LCDX. Used mostly used by DJ and audiophiles since to them audio quality matters most as opposed to portability.
The term sensitivity is a measure of how efficient headphones are in converting the electrical signal from the power source into undistorted sound waves.
This is simply a measure of how a headphone driver is using the power it receives or how much current a headphone requires to output higher volumes.
So in a sense, if you have a headphone that has a higher sensitivity it requires less power to achieve high volume levels, which means that you will require a less powered amplifier.
In short, high sensitivity headphones do not require a more powered amplifier like a low sensitivity headphone.
But the advantage of low sensitivity headphones is that although they require more power, they tend to last longer than their counterparts.
So the best bet is to have a headphone with a sensitivity that is right in the middle, not so low and not so high.
Sensitivity is measured in dB/mW which is expressed as simply dB. Sensitivity can be sometimes referred to as sound pressure level (SPL) or Efficiency.
This sensitivity value will help you to determine the type of amp that you will require to buy for your particular headphones.
For most headphones, the sensitivity will range between 86db to 110dB and a sweet spot will be around 90db.
The general standard of loudness is 110db, anything above is damaging to your ears especially with a long time exposure.
The thing is that most people tend to assume sensitivity as a spec to consider when buying headphones because manufacturers tend to differ in the way they measure sensitivity.
The other thing that knocks sensitivity off is the sound source and amplifier output may vary plus different people have different hearing abilities.
Most people tend to rely on Impedance (below) which is also closely related to sensitivity and give to get a more reliable gauge if a headphone is worth it.
#4.HEADPHONE FREQUENCY RESPONSE
This can be defined as the range of at which the headphone drivers are capable of reproducing sound from the lowest tones to the highest.
Frequency response is measured in Hertz; bass lines tend to be in 500Hz range and crisp highs between 15-20 KHz.
The average human ear can hear frequencies between 20Herts to 20,000 Hertz.
Most headphones come with a frequency response of 20Hz to 20 KHz and even lower frequencies of up to 5Hertz.
The thing to keep in mind is that the lower the frequency the more the bass and the vice versa the higher the frequency the shaper the sound gets.
When it comes to choosing headphones in regards to the frequency it is not very complicated, all you need to consider are music genres and at what frequency they sound best.
This will help you make a better decision because everyone has a special taste to certain kind of music and they sound different depending on the frequency.
#5.TOTAL HARMONIC DISTORTION (THD)
In simple terms, the total harmonic distortion is the difference between the input signal and the output signal to the ears from audio devices.
The lower the THD figure the better as it means that there will be less unwanted distortion and the audio signal will tend to be clear, more accurate and pure.
Due to the advancement in technology, we get that the THD is measured in decimal points percentage.
If a headphone has a measure of 0.1% it means that it can only distort 0.1% of the input audio.
The thing that you need to have in mind is that there is no perfect output audio from any audio device, whether it is headphones or speakers since they are all reproductions from the original sound.
There are also other sorts of factors involved in an audio system that plays in such as the composition, the sound source, the room acoustics and many more.
You can take for example the Sennheiser HD630VB which has a THD of 0.08%, this distortion is so low that even human ears cannot possibly detect.
I guess right now you may be wondering…
Do I need to take into account the THD figure when it comes to choosing headphones?
Fortunately, this is a specification that you will not necessarily need to focus on when buying headphones.
The beauty is that most audio manufacturers have done their best to ensure that most audio devices have minimal distortion as possible.
That being said you can still check to see that the total harmonic distortion is as low as possible to at least be sure of better quality sound output.
#6.NOISE CANCELLATION VS NOISE ISOLATION
Headphones, in general, do block out sound waves especially from higher frequencies.
This can be referred to as the Passive noise cancelling, which leads to the term known as Noise Isolation Headphones.
Noise Isolation Headphones and even Active Noise Cancelling Headphones tend to be circum-aural in shape, over-ear headphones like they are commonly known.
They are packed with high-density foam and sound absorbing materials. This tends to make them heavier than normal headphones.
Noise isolating headphones can block background high- frequency noise up to 20dB.
When it comes to louder scenarios like the aircraft where background low- frequency noises can reach up to 80db is when the camel breaks the straw and we see that noise isolation headphones can work okay in some noisy environments but in other cases they are is not very practical.
That is where Active Noise Cancelling Headphones come into play.
Active Noise Cancelling Headphones work by eliminating low-frequency noises as well as high-frequency noises with an inbuilt technology and a microphone that detects unwanted noise disturbances and works to cancel it out.
They do this by destructive interference where they create their own sound waves that mimic the incoming noise at 180 degrees out of phase. This reduces ambient noise up to 40dB, which is a 70% decrease in the overall background noise.
These headphones are ideal for airline travel, open office environments and place with a higher amount of noise.
A pair of good Active noise cancelling headphones like the BoseQuite Comfort 35 wireless can reduce ambient noise by 60%.
Although these do a great job at blocking out ambient noise this technology tends to sometimes interfere with sound quality.
It is not generally the case but we need to have in mind that these headphones were built for the sole purpose of block out noise and give peace of mind in a certain situation as oppose to the best audio possible.
The other concern is that they tend to be on the expensive side and required a power source like batteries to be able to block out the noise.
If you want to learn more about Noise cancelling headphones you can check out this article here.
Overall every headphone is built with a purpose to solve a particular problem and give a viable solution.
We believe that active noise cancelling headphones are a step ahead in technology and we can’t wait to see how they evolve in future.
DO MY HEADPHONES NEED A HEADPHONE AMP?
This is a question that many people wonder when they are ready to purchase their next set of headphones.
An Amplifier in the simplest of terms is a separate box that you placed between your headphones and mobile device or laptop or what you intend to use to be your sound source.
Do I need an amp?
The truth is that most headphones can work okay even without an amplifier. iPods, Smartphone and tablets come with an inbuilt amplifier.
This is like an added bonus or an icing topping for those who really enjoy music and want the best sound quality possible.
What you need to do if you absolutely don’t want to buy an amp is to provide your devices with enough power to make sure that the sound output is not distorted.
How do I know what type of amp to choose?
The need for an amp is usually determined by the headphone’s impedance, this, as we mentioned above, is expressed in ohms.
The best way to pair an amplifier to headphones is to pair a headphone that has at least 10 times the ohms value of the amp being used.
Another way that you can use to determine if you will require an amp for your headphones is that sensitivity. Sensitivity as we also mentioned above is expressed in Decibels (dB).
A headphone with sensitivity of 100dB and above can attain high volumes without necessarily requiring an external amplifier. A headphone with sensitivity lower that 100dB may require an external amp to produce a more pronounced sound.
What are the benefits of adding an amp to your setup?
There are a couple of pros when it comes to having an amplifier.
One is that an amplifier can provide you with physical volume control that you can use to make precise volume adjustments.
The main benefit of including an amplifier to your setup is that apart from increasing the sound volume overall it will also improve the quality of sound with and a built-in bass booster if you have a plain set of headphones.
Last but not least is that it provides with you with arrays of connection ports that you can use for other purposes.
Now that we have looked at some of the benefits that come with an amp, you may be wondering…
So how do I make a choice when I want to purchase an amp?
When it comes to making a decision to buy an amplifier, the best way is to buy a headphone set first.
There are very many types of amplifiers available on the market right now since gone are the days when amplifiers used to be these heavy boxes that no one could dream of carrying them around.
Will technology advancing every year we now have Portable amps to the size of an iPods.
These do range from Expensive to affordable depending on how deep your pockets go.
The best way to choose a perfect amp for your headphones is to look at your how you generally use your headphones daily, then read reviews online of the various types of amps to make an informed decision.