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Headphones Buyer Guide

Introduction



Before purchasing your headphone, you will probably want to know a few things about them. At Headphones.com we have a team of technical experts who are happy to provide answers for all your questions no matter how big or small. We have provided this guide so that you may have at least some of these inquiries and curiosities answered at your convenience.

When it comes to headphones, opinions vary from person to person. In other words, there is no “Best Headphone” but there is a best headphone for you; your ears, your sound, your comfort, your lifestyle and your budget.

If you are coming into this purchase without a specific headphone in mind, you may wish to consider a few things:

Comfort: If your headphones are not comfortable to you, then you will not want to use them. Because everyone is different, this often comes down to personal preference of wearing style.
Do you prefer headphones with full size ear pads which surround the ear?(Over Ear Headphones)
Do you prefer headphones with ear pads which rest on the ear? (On Ear Headphones)
Do you prefer headphones which rest at the entrance of the ear canal? (Earbuds)
Do you prefer headphones which are inserted into the ear canal? (Earphones)

With a wealth of options available, there is bound to be a headphone with the exact sound you are looking for, no matter which wearing style is most comfortable to you.

How and where will you be using your headphones?

Are you going to be primarily using them in your home?
If you’re primarily going to be using them in your home, it may be worth considering a few things. If the headphones are mainly going to be use for home entertainment purposes such as TV, DVD/Blu-Ray watching and video game use – There is a plethora of wireless headphones available (both with and without microphone) which will enhance your home entertainment experience.

If you are a headphone user seeking to sit down in your easy chair and have your mind blown by a transcendent music listening experience, then we highly suggest pairing your headphones with a dedicated headphone amplifier. Headphone amplifiers are design to power your headphones to their full potential. This includes, but is not at all limited to how the headphone’s output volume is affected. If you are using a headphone with an impedance rating of 60 Ohms or greater, you may notice drastic sonic improvements when the headphone is properly amped. If your headphones possesses an impedance rating of 300 Ohms or greater, you may find that the difference is night and day when the headphone is properly amped. Not all amps provide the same power and not every amp will result with the same sonic result. It is important to properly match your headphone to the ideal amp by considering its impedance rating, its sensitivity rating, overall frequency response and other variables. We offer many amps on our site which are designed to blow your mind when paired with their intended headphone. Please speak with a sales associate for more information.

At the office?
If you will mainly be using the headphones in your office, we recommend a closed back headphone design so that the sound will not leak out nearly as much. This way the others around you will be less disturbed by the sound emanating out of your headphones. We have found that many music enthusiasts enjoy having a headphone with amplifier setup in their office or cubicle.

While commuting?
While commuting, you may want a headphone which possesses a few specialized attributes. Things to consider are if:

  • The headphones are collapsible, light, easy to store and travel with.
  • The headphones possess noise canceling/sound isolating features. While some headphones offer active noise cancellation (noise cancellation created electronically), many headphones offer passive noise isolation (ambient sound reduction created by a closed-back design).
  • The headphones are easily powered by a portable device (a headphone with 32 ohm impedance rating is typically designed to be easily driven by a portable device though headphones with higher impedance ratings can work well depending on the model).
  • The headphones are Bluetooth enabled for your smartphone.
  • The headphones come with a microphone and/or controls that are compatible with your intended device.

While exercising? (Sports Headphones)
When exercising while using headphones, we suggest you consider the following:

  • A headphone design which is sweat resistant. This means that typical foam pads are not advisable because foam deteriorates with moisture.
  • A light headphone which will not overheat you – preferably an in-ear or on-ear design in this case.
  • A headphone which will stay in your ear or on your head even when you are moving rapidly. Many companies offer in-ear designs and earbud designs which offer an ear-fin for this purpose. An ear fin is a little silicone piece which hooks onto the in-ear headphone just before the earpiece enters your ear. This ear fin is designed to gently lock the earphone into your ear by flexibly molding to your cartilage’s unique shape.
  • A headphone which can be easily powered by a portable device.

In the studio? (Studio Headphones)
If you are using headphones in the live room you may want to consider:

  • A headphone that is closed back in design and prevents most sound leakage from reaching the microphone.
  • A one sided cable so that musicians will have as little obstructions as possible.
  • A close to neutral tonality so that musicians will be able to hear the details and flaws of their performance.
  • A headphone which is padded and comfortable enough as to not distract the performers at work.
  • A rugged design which can be sweat on, dropped and smoked around without the risk of severe damage.

If you are using headphones in the control room for monitoring / mixing / mastering and editing purposes you may want to consider:

  • A headphone with an extremely accurate frequency response.
  • A headphone with a low harmonic distortion reading.
  • A headphone with excellent soundstage and imaging abilities.
  • A comfortable design which will allow for hours of continuous use.

These attributes will allow you hear performance mistakes, imbalances and phase issues.

What kind of sound do you prefer?
If your preference is to have a critical listening experience, you’re going to most probably want a headphone with a seemingly neutral tonal balance.
Examples: Beyerdynamic T1, Etymotic ER4PT, AKG K701, Sony MDR-SA5000
If you prefer a fun and immersive headphone experience you may be one who prefers a bass boost or mellower/darker tone.
Examples:Soul by Ludacris SL300, Beats by Dre Pro, Denon AH-D5000, Sennheiser HD650

There are other attributes to a headphone’s sound: detail, speed and transient response for example. If your greatest concern is sound quality, then finding a highly detailed and transparent headphone at your desired budget is suggested.

At Headphones.com we are constantly updating our product pages and reviewing all the models we sell so that our customers can know as much about the sound of our headphones before purchasing. Please feel free to reach out to a sales specialist to learn more and have all your questions answered.

A LITTLE HISTORY
Today, headphones have become the primary way that the majority of music listeners hear their music. Yet it was not always this way. Throughout the first three quarters of 20th Century, most music was listened to on full-size speakers. However, the headphone finds its earliest design example at around 1910 when radio and telephone operators used primitive/poor-sounding headphones for monitoring. In 1937, Germany’s Beyerdynamic unleashed the very first dynamic transducer headphone. At the time this was a major jump in sound quality. In fact, dynamic transducers are still the primary design in headphones being manufactured today. In 1958, John C. Koss introduced stereo headphones to accommodate the growing industry of stereo recordings.

In 1979, Sony unleashed the Walkman to the world – a device which allowed you to listen to cassette tapes while on-the-go. However the Walkman required headphones for listening – and thus the headphone-boom began its steady climb to the top. At the close of the 20th Century, the digital music revolution had finally made it impossible to ignore the practicality of headphones. Now you can literally walk around with a lifetime’s collection of music in the palm of your hand and listen to it anywhere with headphones.

HEADPHONES AND YOUR BUSY LIFE
With the digital/portable revolution in full swing, headphone manufacturing companies have been busy developing new/improved designs to meet the ever-changing technological advances and demands of their consumers. Today, earphones(small headphones which are inserted into the ear) are capable of producing extremely high quality sound in a very small enclosure. In recent times, extensive research and development in active noise canceling headphone design have produced headphones which are capable of eliminating up to 90% of outside noise. This benefits not only those seeking to clearly hear their audio while on-the-go, but it also creates a relaxed, quiet atmosphere for those looking to travel in noisy environments, vehicles and aircrafts. Wireless headphones have shown to be a huge life improvement to those seeking to watch television and perform other tasks without disturbing others around them. Bluetooth headphones allow easy connectivity with many smart phones and mp3 players and often have a microphone built in, allowing the wearer to use as a headset for telephone calls.

And of course, headphones more than ever are proving to be the definition of reference quality sound at an incredible value. As so many headphone manufacturers battle it out to create the world’s greatest state-of-the-art sound, we have seen so many revolutions in headphone design; and we are all happier for it! This is the age of Headphones!

WHY HEADPHONES OVER SPEAKERS?
When compared with full-size speakers, one obvious benefit which headphones possess is that headphones are inherently designed to have as little interference to final sonic result as possible. The sound which emanates from a full-size speaker is faced with many variables which could ultimately affect and reduce the quality of sound prior to reaching your ears. Before sound reaches your ear, it passes through the air and is manipulated by all materials and walls in its pathway. An excellent pair of speakers can sound horrible in fact if placed in a room with unsatisfactory acoustical characteristics. Still, even after the room design, materials and placement of the speakers are all optimal, another variable which plays an important role in how the listener perceives the sound is where listener his/herself is placed in relation to the speakers. With all these variables at play, it is fair to say that it is much easier to achieve a consistency of high quality sound from headphones at a much lower cost and far less aggravation. The proximity of the headphones to the ears ensures that there are far fewer obstacles before the sound reaches the listener’s ears: No room planning; you can sit wherever you like; heck you can even walk around if you prefer a portable option!

Headphone Health

Headphones are everywhere now. Everyone seems to live in an iPod bubble as they go through their lives, whether on public transit, walking around, sitting at their desk, or even sitting at home reading. We wanted to bring you some simple tips on what you can do to keep your ears safe while using headphones.

How loud?

There isn't any definite number on how loud your music should be, but a number of around 85 decibels is the most common one given. Since no one really knows what this means, there are some basic rules. You don't want to listen at more than 70% of the maximum if you use your headphones all day, or more than 80% if you use it for an hour or so. Basically, the lower you can keep the volume, the better.

Don't use them to drown out noise!

If you're in a noisy environment, you shouldn't turn up your headphones to drown out the noise. You're far better off getting some closed-ear headphones, or some noise-cancelling or sound isolating models.

Types of Headphones




Over the Ear Headphones (aka Full Size or Circumaural)

 

Over the Ear headphones are typically larger than the other categories offered as the earpads fit around your ears and do not rest on the ears themselves. This category of headphone typically offers the most expansive soundstage due to the distance which the driver sits from ear.

 



On Ear Headphones (Supra-Aural)


On Ear headphones sit on top of the ears, instead of over the ears. They are typically lighter and more portable than Over the Ear headphones. These are a great choice for those who prefer a portable headphone but do not find it comfortable to put headphones inside the ear.



Closed Back vs Open Back (& Semi Open Back)
Over the Ear and On Ear headphones are offered in two different design-types:

Closed-back (aka sealed) headphones reduce the outside noise around you and prevent much of the headphone’s sound from leaking into the outside environment. Closed back headphones are the preferred type of full-size headphones for use outside or in other noisy listening environments, such as a DJ table. Other examples of where closed-back headphones prove to be essential are at the office, the library, and other places where the person sitting nearest you would prefer the courtesy of a quiet environment. Of course, a closed-back headphone would be your preferred choice if you are a commuter as well. It is important to distinguish closed-back headphones from Active Noise Canceling headphones. Active Noise Cancelation (or ANC) is a type of noise cancelation produced electronically and typically attenuates outside noise to an even greater degree. It is still worth noting that many headphones which do not feature active noise cancelation will still do an excellent job of attenuating much of the ambient noise around you.

Open-back headphones do not provide nearly the same amount of sound isolation as closed-back headphones. The person sitting next to you will most certainly hear what you are listening to even at a fairly low volume. However, some headphones are specifically designed not to be sealed for optimal sound reproduction. In these instances open headphones are top contenders for critical listening.

When and where sealed headphones may be best:

  • Noisy environments
  • When commuting
  • At the office and library
  • DJing
  • When recording the studio
  • Home listening

When and where open headphones may be best

  • Home listening
  • Mixing and mastering
Closed Back
Semi-Open
Open Back



In-Ear (aka earphones, in-ear-monitors, IEMs, Canal phones)
In-ear-monitors sit at the entrance of the ear canal and operate and sound their best when there is a tight seal. In-ears can typically block out outside noise quite well without necessarily incorporating an ANC feature. However, companies have begun to offer in-ear models which include an active noise cancelling feature for extra noise isolation. In-ears differ from ear buds in a number of ways. Firstly, ear buds sit in the outer ear section, while in ears enter the ear canal.

Why is this important?

Because everyone’s ear is shaped differently, the sound which leaves the ear bud faces far more variables which ultimately affect the sound. Since IEMs are designed to bypass many of these variables, the sound is much more consistent from person and person and from listen to listen. Once you achieve a good seal by finding the right tip for your ear size and shape, you will not only notice an improvement in sound quality, but also a drastic reduction in outside noise. In-ear-monitors come in a broad price from under $50 all the way up to $1000+. Many in-ears are offered with brand-compatible playback controls and a microphone. The differences in price often depend on the amount of drivers per ear and the overall design which at the higher end can include custom-fitting.

Earbuds

Earbuds are a type of headphone that rest right inside the concha bowl (entrance) of the ear. They are small, lightweight, and easy to travel with. Ear buds are not designed with the intention of blocking out sound and typically are not as refined sounding as in-ear-monitors. They are often less expensive than the in-ear-monitors. Many earbuds are offered with brand-compatible playback controls and a microphone.

LIFESTYLE CATEGORIES

To better assist you we have provided a description of categories which may allow you to hone in on what would be the best choice for your lifestyle.

Portable Headphones

Portable headphones are meant to be used with mobile audio devices like an iPod or other MP3 player. Many of them are capable of folding up for convenient storage and transport. Other portable headphones are not labeled as such based on their size, but rather on their ability to sound great directly out of a portable player. Many portable headphones are offered with brand-compatible playback controls and a microphone. Many portable headphones also come with a cable length perfect for holding your portable player in your hand.
A couple of subcategories of portables are: Street-Style; a behind the neck band rather than over the head, and Ear Clips, which just have loops that fit over your ears but no headband. Some of the new wireless headphones are ear clip style.

Noise Cancelling Headphones

Noise cancelling headphones block out unwanted background noise by using destructive interference. Destructive interference is accomplished by reducing unwanted ambient sounds by means of active noise control (ANC), which involves using a microphone, placed near the ear, and then electronically generating an anti-noise sound wave with the opposite polarity of the sound wave picked up by the microphone. Generating the sound wave does require energy and most noise cancelling headphones will have batteries that need to be recharged and/or replaced.

Noise cancelling headphones allow you to keep the volume of music lower since it does not have to compete with outside noise. They are great for air travel so you can hear your music over the loud air conditioning system or jet engine.

An active noise cancellation feature is included in many Over-the-ear and On-ear models. Less frequently it can be found implemented into an in-ear design.

Wireless Headphones

Wireless Headphones are capable of receiving a signal without the burden of cables or wires being in the listener’s pathway. This is perfect for watching television, playing video games and any other home theater application. It is important to determine how your device will be connecting to the headphone. TVs and other devices which offer a digital output can be paired with a wireless headphone that offers extremely high surround sound resolution. There are four main ways in which a wireless signal is transmitted:

  1. Bluetooth – Convenient to use with devices that are already set up with wireless technology such as a smart phone.
  2. Infrared uses a transmitter that attached to a device to send signals back to the headphones. Best used for TV- not for music- because it doesn't generate tones across the full audio spectrum. Infrared requires that the headphone be within sight of the transmitter. The signal will be lost through a wall.
  3. UHF also uses a transmitter that normally has up to a 300 ft. range, but has a better frequency range. This is a better option for listening to music.
  4. RF has a sound quality better than any other wireless headphone. They are the most costly, and tend to feature digital radio transmission for optimal listening.

For critical musical listening and studio application, one would be advised to use wired headphones for optimal sound quality.

Sports Headphones

Sports headphones are lightweight headphones or earphones ideal for any user who will be moving around while listening. They are ideal for the active user because they are typically made of sweat resistant materials and provide a snug fit while allowing maximum mobility. They often come in behind-the-head, in-ear, and clip-on styles.




DJ Headphones / DJ Style Headphones

DJ/DJ Style Headphones are designed with the working DJ in mind. The closed-back design and bass boost assist a DJ in hearing what is needed to work the crowd. But the design does not stop here. Usually DJ headphones can be stored easily and have swivel ear cups which allow one ear to be focused on the music while the other can hear the crowd. For this reason, they are also very good for parties and broadcasting. Most of all, DJ headphones are designed to be extra durable. For this reason, music listeners often seek these out for their own personal listening.

Gaming Headphones / Gaming Headsets

Gaming headsets are designed to connect with your gaming console or PC. Gaming headphones are designed to provide maximum comfort for extended hours of game-play. They generally have full over-ear coverage for maximum sound clarity. The microphones are designed with a noise-filtering microphone to eliminate excessive noise. Many gaming headsets make use of surround sound technology to enhance the listener's experience and optimize their game-playing abilities.

Surround Sound Headphones

Surround sound headphones can connect to any surround sound system to get the same enveloping effect as surround sound speakers. You will hear amazingly vivid sound imaging. For this reason, the best gaming headsets are surround-sound headphones. There are both virtual and true surround sound headphones. These are the preferred choice for home theater viewing/listening.

Virtual Surround Sound Headphones deliver realistic, simulated surround sound by using 3 speakers in front of the head phone, 2 speakers in the rear of the headphone, and a subwoofer to replicate low notes and explosions.

True Surround Sound Headphones use independent sound chambers, usually with 4 speakers in the front and 2 in the back, to produce even more realistic spatial imaging.

Classroom Headphones

Classroom headphones tend to be very adjustable, collapsible for easy storage, and easy to clean. They are made to reduce outside noise interference. They are designed with durability in mind to withstand years of use in a classroom environment.

F.A.Q.




How should I evaluate headphone specifications?

  • Does a larger driver size equal better sound?

No! There are so many variables at play when considering how sound is made. While the size of a driver can prove to have an effect on sound quality, other variables such as materials used, proximity of the driver to the ear, the acoustic seal of the headphone etc. can prove to be of equal or even greater importance.

  • Does the driver size tell me anything definitive about the headphone’s sound?

If you are comparing headphones designed by the same manufacturer, with similar materials, it is probable that the larger driver has a broader frequency range and is considered by the manufacturer to be the superior model, however nothing concrete can be determined about a headphone’s sound quality in relation to driver size.

  • What about surround-sound headphones which feature multiple speakers in each ear, does this mean better sound?

Not necessarily. For gaming and home theater purposes it is often preferable to have surround-sound headphones because gaming and home theater consoles offer surround sound for a more realistic and engaging listening experience. However, most music is listened to in either stereo or monaural mode and a surround sound headphone will not benefit the listener. A good pair of stereo headphones can outperform a great pair of surround sound headphones with regard to music listening.

  • What about in ear headphones which offer multiple balanced armature drivers in each ear. Do multiple drivers in this case mean better sound than a single driver?

More often than not, it does mean better sound! When an in ear headphone features multiple drivers, this means that different drivers will be focusing on a different frequency range. One driver will responsible for bass, while another will be responsible for treble. This design often can give the earphone a greater sense of detail and control.

What is impedance?

At its simplest description, impedance is how much current flow is impeded in an electrical circuit. While resistance pertains specifically to direct current, impedance differs in that it refers specifically to alternating current and considers the influence of capacitance and inductance.

What does an impedance rating imply about my headphones?

It implies that you may need an amplifier to get optimal sound out of your headphones…

  • HIGH IMPEDANCE: It is not recommended to pair high impedance headphones with a portable player such as an iPod. The most obvious reason is that in most circumstances, the volume of the headphone will not be sufficient out of a portable player. This is the case because a headphone with a high impedance rating needs more voltage than a portable device is able to put out, in order to reach satisfactory volume levels. For this reason, a headphone amplifier specifically designed to power high impedance headphones deserves consideration.
  • LOW IMPEDANCE: A low impedance headphone often will be louder out of a portable device. However, in many cases, it is still highly recommended to pair a low impedance headphone with a headphone amplifier. The reason for this is that typically a low impedance headphone will sound far better when fed more electrical current. A low impedance headphone’s frequency response can be dramatically altered and improved (especially in the bass region) when paired with a headphone amplifier offering sufficient current. In some rare cases, there are low impedance headphones such as the AKG Q701 which require high current not only to sound their best, but to reach satisfactory volume levels as well. This is an example of an instance where the headphone’s impedance rating is not very high, but its sensitivity is not very high either. This means that more power is required to drive the headphones.
  • THE PORTABILITY FACTOR: Almost without exception, a headphone with an impedance rating of 32 Ohms or below is intended to be compatible with and/or plugged directly into a portable device or computer headphone output. In the case of some 32 Ohm headphones such as most in the Grado line, it is suggested to amp for best sonic results, but a portable device will still satisfy many listeners when usingusing Grado headphones. Most in-ear headphones are designed by the manufacturer to be driven directly out of a portable device. While there are amps, both portable and stationary, which are designed to deliver the best sonic performance from your <32 Ohm headphones, it is rarely the case that an amp be of top consideration when using a headphone with an impedance rating of equal or less than 32 Ohms. If a wired headphone is listed without an impedance rating it can be safely assumed that the headphones are suitable for portable use. If a headphone is listed with an impedance rating of under 100 Ohms and a high sensitivity rating, it will most probably be suitable for portable devices.

What does Frequency Range tell me about my headphones?

Frequency range describes at what frequencies the headphone’s capability of producing sound begins and ends. This refers to the lowest bass frequency to highest treble frequency. Most people cannot hear below 20 Hz or above 20 Khz.Some headphones are able to exceed human hearing. The Sony SA5000 for instance can produce sound up to 110 Khz. This does not necessarily mean that this headphone is better than a headphone that has a frequency range which ends at 25 Khz. However, while the human ear typically can detect frequencies outside the specified parameters (20Hz to 20Khz) some listeners do claim to be able to sense the feeling of frequencies beyond human hearing.

Headphones versus Headsets - What is the difference?

There is a lot of confusion out there about the difference between headphones and headsets. In fact, if you search for Headsets on Google, you'll find some headphones. Why is this?
It may have to do with due to air travel. They constantly tell you that you can pay $2 for a headset to listen to the movie. Why do they do this? We don't know!
A headset is a device you wear on your head that allows you to both listen and speak. A headset always has a microphone.
Headphones are an audio only device that you wear on you head that allows you to listen only.
To wrap up, if they don't have a microphone, they're headphones. If it does have a microphone, it's a headset.
So next time you're on a flight, and they ask you if you'd like a headset to listen to the movie, you can politely say that you'd be glad to purchase some headphones. Or, if you're like me, you'll bring your own!

Headphones vs. Earphones - What is the difference?

Are Headphones and Earphones the same thing? They are both listening devices worn on your head. Headphones fit outside your ear; generally worn over-the-head in a headband style, but can also be worn behind the neck or with loops that fit directly over the ears. Earphones fit inside your ears either as an earbud resting just at the entryway or a canal earphone that rests deep inside like an earplug sealing out noise.
The sound between headphones and in-ear earphones are simply different. It's really a personal preference as to which someone would prefer. Headphones do will have much more air flow, but earphones are much better for sound isolation, precision (because you can listen at a much lower volume), efficiency (no amps are required), and the music plays "inside" your head rather than from left and right.
Most high end earphones will sound great right out of your portable device without further amplification. A very high end pair of headphones will usually show great improvements when paired with an amplifier.

Glossary


Accurate: Accurate sound reproduction is usually referred to as tonally-balanced – colorations to sound are very little to none

Active Noise Cancellation: ANC is featured in many consumer products. How it works: A small microphone picks up the ambient noise around the headphone and emits a reverse sound image to cancel out as much of the outside sound as possible. Why is this not used in every headphone (especially the super expensive ones)? The reason is because there is a degree of distortion added to the audio signal when this takes place.

Attenuate: Reduce volume

Analytical: Also referred to as cold, audiophiles refer to a sound as analytical when referring to a very detailed, not overly bassy headphone. A lot of engineers prefer mixing/mastering on analytical headphones because it is not very forgiving and will emphasize the problems in the mix.

Armature: (aka balanced armature) Almost exclusively used in IEM design because of size and efficiency, balanced armature design employs a moving magnetic armature. As the armature alternates on its pivot in the field of a fixed magnet coil is moved causing the diaphragm to vibrate and create sound
img1

While this design works amazingly for very small designs, it is not employed in full size and supra-aural headphones because it needs to be extremely close up to ear to reach its full potential, requiring a good seal. There is also a limitation in this design to how high the treble can extend.

Bass: low end frequencies (roughly 20-200 Hz)

Ok, so everyone loves good bass response. But what is good bass response? Depending on whom you ask the opinion will vary almost to complete opposite definitions. Even still, the consensus amongst the general consumer is good bass = punchy, full and impactful. Audible bass frequencies start roughly at about 20 cycles per second (cycles are measured in Hertz or Hz) to about 200 Hz. Some people may refer to bass as low frequency or low end

Boomy: a reference to accentuated bass impact (usually spoken from a negative perspective)

Bright: Accentuated treble response

Canal phones: (see In-Ear-Monitors)

Circum-aural: Over the ear / Around the ear design

Colored: A reference to the frequency response having emphasis in specific areas of the audio spectrum.

Clarity: How clear is the sound? This is dependent very much on the minimization of harmonic distortion, the transducer’s transient response and overall tonal balance

Clipping:  A type of distortion which occurs when the amplifier cannot meet the demands of the transducer.

Closed Back:  A full-sized headphone which has a back on its enclosure. This both attenuates outside noise and prevents sound leakage

Decibels (dB): measurement of the volume of sound. Specifically, the measurement of a dB determines how much force the audio signal has. Because decibel scale is algorithmic, an audio signal which is 10x stronger than another audio signal is 10dB stronger and an audio signal which is 100x stronger than another audio signal is 20dB stronger.

Detail: This one is sort of self explanatory. People have different versions of what they feel detail is. Generally, people find that variations detail is dependent treble representation. But others will insist that many factors come into play, including transient response and harmonic distortion.

Driver: The part of the headphone which actively makes sound. This is also called the transducer

Dynamic: Dynamic driver design headphones are by far the most common type of design in headphones. In this design, the voice coil attached to a diaphragm is moved by a alternating magnetic field. When you have a headphone connected to its source the sound transfers via the cable (or sometimes wirelessly) to the driver as an electrical signal. This electrical signal reaches a magnet inside the frame of the headphone. The magnet does not move but the magnetic field is changed by the electrical signal. As the magnetic field alternates, the voice coil is stirred and the diaphragm, which is affixed to the voice-coil, moves and creates the sound.

Earbuds: Not be confused with earphones or IEMs, earbuds do not sit inside ear canal, but rather rest in the concha bowl. Since there is no seal involved, the same earbuds can sound especially different to people with differently-shaped and differently-sized ears.

Earphones: (see In-Ear-Monitors)

Efficiency: How efficient is a headphone? Efficiency is measures by how much power coming into the headphone actually is transformed into sound.

Electrostatic: A type of transducer design. (see Electrostatic section for more detail)

Flat Response: This is literally a direct reference to a headphone’s reading on a frequency response chart. The flatter the line on the chart, the more neutral the headphone would be considered. A headphone which has a frequency response reading which is a perfectly flat line (doesn’t actually exist) would be considered perfectly flat.

Forgiving: If a headphone is capable of making a variety of recordings sound great it would be described as forgiving. More specifically, a forgiving headphone would not bring to the forefront, specific problems in the recording.

Frequency: The amount of times a sound wave vibrates per second. This is measured in Hertz (or Hz) and Kilohertz (KHz)

Frequency Response: The volume at which a transducer produces a specific frequency. This volume is dependent on how it relates to all the other frequencies in the audio spectrum. For instance, a headphone can produce a frequency of 1 KHz at 90dB. If the headphone simultaneously produces a frequency of 100 Hz at 100dB, then the headphone will have a bassier frequency response than a headphone which produces the same 1 KHz tone at 90dB and the 100 Hz frequency at 80dB.

Full Size headphones: (see circum-aural)

Fun: A positive way of saying “not accurate.” If a headphone is not accurate (colored) but still enjoyable it would be described as fun. This can often refer to an inflated bass response.

Grain: A reference to upper spectrum of the frequency, grain is not preferable. It means that the treble is not smooth and not transparent. Imagine looking at a photo printed on canvas and as you look at it you start to see the grain of the canvas. In audio, the goal is generally to have the music sound as transparent as possible.

Harmonic distortion: How much distortion does the transducer emit at other frequencies producing a specific frequency? If it is a transducer’s aim to produce this specific frequency, but in doing so it releases audible overtones related to the principle frequency, this is a degree of harmonic distortion. Harmonic distortion is generally only discussed amongst audiophiles.

Hertz: (see Frequency)

Imaging: Not to be confused with soundstage, but closely related to – if you can picture the ideal sound reproduction as a circle around the head, a headphone with good imaging is capable of separating instruments in various degrees of a circle or semi-circular image. A headphone can possess a very small soundstage but still be able to image well.

Impedance: At its simplest description, impedance is how much current flow is impeded in an electrical circuit. While resistance pertains specifically to direct current, impedance differs in that it refers specifically to alternating current and considers the influence of capacitance and inductance.

In-Ear-Monitors: aka IEM, earphones, canal phones – In ear monitors are small and portable headphones that are meant seal tightly within the ear canal (or at the entrance of the ear canal).

Isolation: The attenuation of outside sound. Closed headphones automatically provide a degree of isolation. Some closed headphones can isolate extremely well even without Active Noise Cancellation

Laidback: Sound is relaxed and not overwhelming, but at the same time not always exciting. It can also refer to a warm and or lush tone. Some people who refer to this negatively use laidback synonymously with sleepy. Because the detail in the treble is somewhat held back, laidback headphones can feel as though the sound is distant.

Leakage: When sound escapes from your headphone into outside. Open headphones will not isolate and will leak sound.

Midrange: the middle of the frequency response section. This is where most of the sonic information takes place (roughly 200 Hz- 4 KHz). A good example of an experience you’ve had with just hearing the midrange, is a small alarm clock which has a built in radio.

Muddy: Sound is unclear / blurry. This can be caused by a slow transient response or accentuated / boomy bass response.

Musical: Sometimes used as the counterpart of analytical, musical refers to a headphone being very enjoyable for non-critical listening, but a great headphone can prove to be both capable of musical and analytical qualities.

Nasal: A boosted upper midrange created a kazoo-like effect. Not a good thing when describing headphones.

Neutrality: A reference to tonal balance being neither warm nor bright and as flat as possible. This is not precisely synonymous with transparency.

Ohms: (see impedance)

Open: enclosure design without back and does not attenuate outside noise and does not prevent leakage. See Open vs. Closed section for more on this.

Overtones: (see timbre)

Rolled Off: When the frequency response reading declines steadily in either the bass or treble region it is referred to as “rolled off”.

Sensitivity: (see efficiency)

Sealed: (see closed)

Shrill: often synonymous with tinny. Sounds harsh on the hears.

Sibilance: how harsh the letter “s” sounds on the ear. Sibilance can also refer to hi-hats, cymbals and other percussive elements.

Sound envelope: as shown in the diagram, a sound envelope is the attack, decay sustain and release specification of a sound wave. The one demonstrated below is a piano key. A headphone with a fast transient response would produce sound wave most accurately.img2

Soundstage: How wide and defined the sound is presented around the head. A well-rounded, contouring and wide soundstage is preferable for many listeners. Conversely, some will prefer a more immediate, narrower soundstage which makes the music feel more intimate. A wide soundstage is highly preferred for orchestral and well-recorded acoustic instruments.

Supra-aural: On the ear headphone design. Ear pads are designed to press on the ear instead of fitting around the ear.

Tight: Almost always a reference to how the bass impact interacts and interferes with the other regions within the audio spectrum. Bass response can be emphasized and accentuated but still remain tight depending on the headphone’s transient response.

Tinny: a metallic unnatural sound.

Transparency: How real does the sound actually sound. A headphone can sound warm or bright and still be very transparent. For instance, an orchestra which plays in bright hall will still sound transparent even if the sound is bright. There are so many factors which play into transparency, including a person’s own ear and brain. If someone mentions transparency they are most probably coming from an audiophile standpoint. In addition to tonal balance, they may also care about transient response, soundstage qualities, imaging qualities and harmonic distortion specifications.

Treble: the highs (roughly 4 KHz to 20 KHz). This sonic region is especially important for producing clear and focused sound images. This region is where the majority of overtones come from and hence where the clarity comes from. For instance, a good treble representation from a headphone will make it very easy for the listener to differentiate an oboe from a clarinet.

Timbre: The identity of a sound. How your ear is able to identify that a trumpet is not a guitar. It is the unique timbre of someone’s voice which allows for your brain to identify exactly who they are just by hearing their voice. The uniqueness of individual timbres is determined by the exact overtones included in the sound information as the sound leaves its source. For instance, while a trumpet may play an “e note” at the exact same frequency which a guitar plays the same “e note” it is the overtones which your brain translates into the identity of the source of sound. Each individual instrument has a different series of overtones, but obviously all trumpets have a much more similar pattern of overtones when compared with a guitar.

Tonal balance: This refers to the overall quality of the frequency response. A warm tonal balance would be bass while a bright tonal balance would be tilted in the treble region

Transducer: (see driver)

Transient response: The speed at which and the accuracy of how the headphone reacts to abrupt jump in sound. To the ear this has a drastic effect on the rendering of percussion and piano.

Warm: A reference to tonal balance -bass emphasis and or a rolled-off treble.

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