If you’re looking for confirmation on the headphones you’ve chosen, or you lack knowledge about the different headphone types there are on the market, or simply you have a hard time selecting the perfect pair of headphones that suit your needs, then smile as this is the guide for you 🙂
In this guide, I have decided to collect most of the tips on issues that arose during many of my discussions with private debaters on their problems of choosing headphones and audio equipment. I will try to simplify your buying process by giving detailed information based on my hands-on experience and all of my resourceful debates.
After reading this guide, you should clearly know:
- what kind of headphones are available on the market,
- how to increase the chance for a good synergy of purchased audio equipment,
- how to define your requirements and make the right purchases according to them,
- in other words, how to deal with the whole process yourself and get the best out of it.
The article, however, operates on the reader’s independence and the ability to make decisions based on his / her thoughts and analysis. If you cannot or do not want to apply this approach, you do not have time or keep saying that you are a novice and not an audiophile, then please close this article, go buy whatever you want, the way you want, and with all possible consequences that come with saving money on an item that, when well-chosen, can serve you for many many years.
1. Where to look for help
Each of us uses the opinions of others. Everyone, both you and me. We can choose from a number of places where various opinions or tips appear. While you cannot approach the topic on the basis that everyone lies and is sponsored, just like everywhere else, there may be situations in which we come across content created for purposes slightly different than purely documentary or aimed at expressing our own opinion. And even if you do, you have to take into account that there is no universal absolute truth and all reviews and opinions are more or less subjective. No review will give you a 100% guarantee that the equipment that you choose will perfectly suit you.
When looking for content and studies, pay attention primarily to:
- the correctness of the language and the volume of reviews,
- comprehensibility of the content,
- the ratio of paragraph volume on sound and usability compared to side paragraphs (design, technology, etc.),
- inclusion of measurable and quantifiable data in the content,
- comparisons to other devices,
- clear and legible statements of what is better / worse according to the writer,
- additional explanations on the methodology and preferences of the evaluator,
- references to test equipment used in the review.
Remember that there is always a risk that the perception of headphones, even with all the points above, will be different then described. Sometimes it results from age, predisposition, equipment and experience, but most often from simple taste. I do not like, for example, weak bass, although many people prefer it and headphones that I praise and find great are judged as exaggerated and full of bass. However, this does not automatically mean that the review does not describe the facts, or perhaps that I wrote an untruth in it. It’s just that my perspective and preferences are different. Therefore, if you read any review, try to find information about the reviewer’s preferences, i.e. his modus operandi. (To be included soon: In my case, this is a separate page which I also update with my equipment or a lot of information about testing procedures. Reading such a document will allow you to take appropriate corrections to what you read.)
If you see a review or opinion:
- is written using typical marketing buzzwords and slogans,
- uses the manufacturer’s photos instead of their own,
- is laconic in many places and forcibly shortened,
- contains logical and factual errors,
- is written in a grammatically incorrect language and with glaring spelling mistakes,
- as regards content, is written in such gibberish that it is impossible to deduce how the equipment plays,
- notoriously uses terms that can be interpreted completely freely,
- avoids providing the equipment used for testing, reference points, own preferences and is not recognizable as specifically made by the author of the content (i.e. lacks of the so-called modus operandi),
- directly undermines the measurement data obtained repeatedly by other users and portals,
- gives the impression of a cluster of several different reviews …
… then such content is best either avoided, or taken firmly through the fingers. You should also watch out for “solicitors” on industry forums, those users that are always and everywhere recommending equipment from a particular shop or brand. The same goes for whisper-marketing and websites pretending to be review blogs.
From the perspective of an ordinary reader, how can we defend against this? It varies, and unfortunately, there is no universal recipe for it. Apart from maybe general self-awareness and reading between the lines, or checking the number and nature of outgoing links, sometimes it is worth checking such a simple thing as the owner of the domain on which the service is based. But in general, the very quality of reviews and the persistence in the reactions to them should be effective clues here. So should the lack of measurement data or self-made pictures.
2. Decide: headphones or speakers?
If we take as a priority that only the general, completely objective sound quality counts, regardless of the form of reception and in the context of the lowest price possible for that, in the vast majority of cases headphones will win. For 50€ we won’t buy such good playing speakers that could compete with e.g. Razer Kraken X or SteelSeries Arctis 1. See for yourself how affordable the first and second models are respectively. And this is just one of many examples.
However, there are situations, where using speakers instead of headphones will simply be better, or healthier.
At the same price, one of the most interesting items on the loudspeaker market are, among others, Logitech Z313. They do not exceed 50€ on the store shelves and at the same time, although they sound quite efficient, they will not get, for example, the same bass quality as both items indicated above. Of course, all these are only exemplary models, interesting, but not the only ones out there. However, they help to show, both, some elementary dependencies and ways of handling such dilemmas.
Also in other ranges, it is generally the case that we will pay more for speakers of comparable quality. Only from a certain price level forward, we can talk about a proper confrontation of one speaker with another. If I were to indicate such an arbitrary limit, it would probably be somewhere in the range of 1000€. Very conventionally, of course. Here, too, examples could be used, but the market is so strongly stretched and tastes so different that it is impossible to do it in a universal way according to them. There is also a large number of used, vintage models, still in working order and having their sonic value much higher than their visual one. But above all cost-effectiveness and reliability exceeding modern equipment.
3. Find out how much you can spend and for what
Of course, we want to buy “good” headphones. Nowadays, the rule to be accepted is simple and unfortunately brutal: “You want quality? You have to pay for it”, although of course in everything you can find limits of reason and products that contradict this principle to a greater or lesser extent. When determining the final budget, however, take into account that a given purchase may involve additional costs.
If headphones have higher requirements, i.e. they have high impedance (combined with, for example, a lower SPL (Sound Pressure Level) value, usually below 100 dB) and you see that power consumption of such a pair is mentioned everywhere, you will need at least a headphone amplifier. If, in addition to that, those are also higher-class headphones, you will need an additional sound source in the form of a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) or a sound card. Sometimes these devices already have a headphone amplifier on-board.
If you mainly want to use headphones on a phone, a weaker player, a simple DAC or a sound card built into the motherboard (PC/laptop), then look for headphones with lower impedance (16-32 Ohm) and high efficiency (100 dB SPL or higher). You will save on the sound source and you will not have to have additional devices/equipment. Of course, it will usually be detrimental to the sound, but it is peferable to buy better headphones and use them on a weaker source than trying to balance both of these elements or turning them against each other.
I would recommend the following order of purchase:
- headphones (and speakers)
- source and/or amplifier
- any other accessories, cables, etc.
Spending on headphones and their quality will always give you more than on the source alone. Let me explain.
Headphones for e.g. 250€ will overall sound better than 200€ headphones from a 50€ source or 125€ headphones from a 125€ source. Of course, we are generalizing here, because it may be enough, that a seller makes a promotion, and this whole arrangement becomes inadequate. I know many cases, where I bought headphones very cheaply and they sounded better than many more expensive models.
Nevertheless, the general principle is still to put your money on better headphones, whenever possible. You can always buy a source or an amplifier later. Do not buy everything at once, unless you have a return policy (14 days for online purchases). If you find the headphones to be poor or uncomfortable, it will be easier to cancel your purchase and you won’t be left with equipment that doesn’t match the tone or capabilities of some other headphone model that you can get for the same price.
Also, make sure that next to the model you have chosen, there is not another one, maybe even from the same manufacturer, to which the extra 10-20€ can translate into a drastic increase in sound quality. It is particularly visible in the lower price ranges and there adding just some euros can significantly improve the sound quality and increase the range of products available to you. As you can see, it’s much more profitable to hold off on a purchase, save a little money and then start shopping well prepared.
How much to spend to get it right? There is no limit, neither to the amount nor to your satisfaction, so you better match your expectations to your possibilities. Headphones with wonderful bass, rich midrange, crystal clear treble, a huge soundstage, high precision, dynamics, rhythmics and great imaging costing 20€ do not exist. There are at least two zeros missing here. You can’t have everything and if you want quality, you have to either pay, or look for vintage equipment or hunt for price bangers.
However, as a rule, headphones for 100€ will not sound like those for 1000€, and those, in turn, will not sound like those for 10000€. You don’t have money for better equipment? Don’t buy it. Can’t decide between one product and another? Don’t buy. Do you have existential dilemmas even with headphones costing 20€? Don’t buy. It is better to think ten times about your purchase and, in case of unfavorable conditions, postpone the decision, than to buy and regret or complain on the forums afterwards.
4. Determine what sound you like
Some people get indignant when they hear or read in a reply to their thread, email or anything containing a question about equipment choice, that the respondent is not a psychic or clairvoyant. Because he isn’t. Although in most questions we can observe that this is expected. No one knows what will be “good” for someone and whether that someone will be “satisfied”, especially if they cannot describe their requirements. Therefore, the most important thing is to define exactly what you are looking for and what you expect from your headphones.
The vast majority of people completely do not understand that each of us has different tastes, hears differently, on different equipment, different music, at different volumes. If the inquirer does not indicate his own preferences, no one will be able to advise a fully suitable pair of headphones and at the most point the finger at random products that meet the requirements of respondents, not necessarily the questioners. As a result, we have the usual thoughtless shopping with resentment to the whole world, that someone on the forum “gave bad advice”. And it does not matter whether someone is knowledgeable or not. There are many tastes and preferences. It is impossible to guess, if for person X the bass will be satisfactory in terms of quantity and if, for example, person Y will not feel a headache from the excessive treble.
That’s why you need to take a few moments and think about what you like most in music. What features of headphones you prefer? In which genres? What you pay the most attention to, and what you are willing to give up in pursuit of the best sound-balanced headphones for the amount of money you’re ready to spend. You can give examples of tracks, but above all, try to describe your target sound within the intensity and character of its four basic components:
These are the lowest frequencies, so all murmurs, beats of drums, every sound setting a strong rhythm is located in that area. If the bass is emphasized together with a certain part of the lower midrange, giving a pleasant softness and smoothness, we are talking about warm headphones. If the bass is faster than deeper, much harder and the tone also stays in the midrange, thus less saturated and sounds more synthetic than musical, then generally we can talk about cold headphones. Most people prefer a comprehensive, full-range bass, that is, one with high rhythm, speed, but also power and overtone. Fewer people prefer bass with less kick but a palpable response – more often they choose a punchy, boomy and musical, sometimes qualified as resonant bass. Fewest in the low-price range seem to prefer fast, technical bass with high control but low overtone, allowing more focus on analysis during listening.
The midrange usually consists of vocals, but also everything, that simply takes place in the middle of the headphone’s frequency spectrum. In midrange the tone plays the most important role, and if it is saturated, throaty, with lower tone, then we can talk about headphones musicality, sweetness, the juiciness of midrange. Without saturation, it becomes neutral, indifferent to the track, which many people also prefer, because it is already “guaranteed” by the right source (e.g. specially selected tubes in their amplifiers). However, if the tone is exaggerated in this area, in extreme cases it becomes sterile and dry, completely devoid of emotion. This problem may also apply to some headphones with two drivers (bass + tweeter) not fully aligned, which “meet” less well in the midrange region.
The upper ranges are, simply speaking, all the whistles, cymbals and those fragments of sound that affect the overall perception of both details and the sense of spatiality resulting from them. If the headphones have emphasized high tones – we are talking about light headphones, but if the treble is hidden and thus bass dominates – then we are talking about dark ones. Dark headphones are most often found in closed and in-ear designs, but even if the upper ranges are well audible, it does not necessarily mean that they are of proper quality. When it comes to the “sandiness” of the treble, do not expect purity and resolution from it. The best headphones in this respect are, in my humble opinion, electrostatic models, which can generate a really high-class treble with a resolution far beyond the capabilities of conventional headphones, however, it is a very expensive and exotic equipment – thus not available to everyone.
The stage consists of a lot of individual parameters, but in a simplified way, you can define it as small or large, and if large – whether it is wide (noticeable positioning on the LR channels) or deep (front-back), or both. A small stage does not have to mean a lack of proper localization and naturalness, just as a big stage does not have to mean anything good either. Models with a wide stage work best in electronic genres with abundant stereo effects, but there is a risk that in normal genres or where high fidelity is necessary, such a scene (especially if generated artificially) will disturb and make the musical message unreal. The relationship to the soprano, i.e. the treble, can be used to assess the potential scenario of the headphones – if the highest soprano sockets are strengthened, there is a good chance for additional advantages to the stage of such a pair (better reverberation).
This is the simplest descriptive system that can be referred to. Of course, there are a lot of additional things, which I intentionally omitted here: precision, imaging, dynamics, rhythmics, etc. Since in practice it would be unfeasible to expect an inexperienced person to specify those parameters, let’s agree that they will be generally resultant elements, depending on the budget and finally chosen headphones.
Headphones may adopt different tonalities, i.e. arrangements of mutual relations between bass, midrange and treble, spiced up later with appropriate stage. In sum, the first three form a Frequency Response (FR) graph:
In the above example from the DIY Audio Heaven website, you can see that the headphones do not focus on the lowest bass, but on the mid and upper bass, as well as the midrange and in a few places on the treble, which can lead to occasional overdrive if a given track focuses its energy in these sensitive regions. They are therefore bright (emphasizing treble) and spacious (strong last octave at the threshold of audibility), with specific midrange and no orientation towards a strong bass extension (zero point at 30 Hz and only rising from there), so they will not suit those with expectations focused on a strong bass kick and are likely to become a misguided purchase, especially with a source or amplifier not matched to them.
In summary, the tonal systems that the headphones are able to accept, can be very simplified as:
- dark, warm and bass
headphones playing on the \ set have more bass and musicality than soprano. They work well when we have a bright source and we like when the music is saturated, without screeching soprano or whistling details, but with a strong bass.
- clear and analytical
the / plan represents more treble and detail than bass, focuses on light and fast playing, very often is high on stage. Great for listening sessions focused on catching “flavors” in songs, as well as spatial, ambient, light electronic and electroacoustic genres. Also often found in preferences for classical and opera music.
more or less even line that does not favor any particular sub-range, balancing everything with each other and, for example, reacting most strongly to the tonality of the track.
rare plan / \, emphasis mainly on the middle at the expense of the edges. Headphones work very well for the presentation of vocals, human singing, and delicate and intimate playing.
popular plan \ /, emphasized bass and soprano, giving a decent kick and detail. Very good as effective headphones for club electronics and heavier music genres, including metal.
Of course, any mixes of the above are also possible, depending on how the headphones actually look on the frequency chart and for what purpose they are bought.
5. Specify what type of headphones you want to buy
At this stage, you should know more or less how much you want to spend and on what specific sound. Now it is necessary to deal with the target format of headphones that will be able to meet your requirements. These can be small in-ear headphones, compacts, or full, large headphones. However, there are now typical utility features, such as insulation and comfort that play a big role in defining the right headphones.
Of course, each of us would like to buy the “best” headphones. The problem is that, unfortunately, there is no top-down definition of this term, because everything is broken down to the musical taste, sound preferences, source equipment, and even the anatomy of the owner and his own ability to perceive sound. For this reason, it is risky to ask someone for the “best” headphones for us. Those will still be headphones simply “best for someone”. Therefore, you have to define your own requirements as best as possible.
Since you already know that:
- you want to buy headphones above speakers,
- you’re aware of what amount you have at your disposal,
- you have thought about what sound you expect
It’s time for a more specific definition of what type of headphones you are interested in and to look for what is the best sound you can get without ruining your pocket.
At this stage, think about where you will want to use your headphones, in what conditions, whether they should be small, large, airy, insulated, and for use in an urban environment or home? To make an effective choice, you should focus on all types and formats of headphones available on the market. The choice is not easy, as it can be generally divided due to:
- transducer chamber type,
- transducer manufacturing technology,
- size format.
Each type and technology has its own branches, bifurcations, and combinations of advantages and disadvantages. Some technologies are cheap and popular, while others are much more exotic and intended for high-end models, perhaps way beyond your reach. Nevertheless, I will present all that you can find even among antique models to this day.
Transducer chamber types
We distinguish the drivers in the headphones as being placed in three types of acoustic chambers as follows :
the transmitter is located in the acoustic chamber, which throws all kinds of waves reflected completely outside (net, grill, housing with perforation). Open models usually provide a very good listening experience due to the feeling of freedom of sound. Focused by definition on a comprehensively rendered space and associated with great comfort resulting from the fact that the ear is ventilated through the holes practically used by the transducer itself as acoustic ports. Unfortunately, thanks to this, they do not completely isolate from the environment and this fact also prevents their use in, for example, means of transport or noisy rooms. In addition, the sound projected outside in quiet conditions can be heard by other people with us in the same room.
Closed models are characterized by a completely closed shell. As a rule, they deliver the greatest isolation from the environment and often exposed bass to varying degrees, although these are not always certainties. The sound does not come out when listening, so it becomes a more discreet way of perceiving sound. As any type, it has its drawbacks: the risk of uncomfortable use in the city (lack of orientation what is happening around us), often narrowed stage and a reduced feeling of airiness, which results in worse positioning and thus makes sounds blend together. Nevertheless, these features again depend on the class of equipment with which we are dealing. Fortunately, there are glorious exceptions to these drawbacks in closed models. In top-class headphones of this type, the sound quality can often surpass that of open models, even more expensive ones. Attention: Due to the closed design, they can cause increased ear sweating and a feeling of discomfort after prolonged use, especially in summer.
- subgroup of open, semi-open
A combination of open and closed designs, where part of the wave is projected outside and part is damped or reflected inside the headset. You can argue about the degree of openness, but the fact is that these headphones are simply models with a significantly reduced number of diffusion holes. If we were to cover the larger grill area of the fully open headphones, we would get nothing but a half-open version, with all the acoustic consequences. Generally, models of this type stick to the features of both mentioned above, guaranteeing a balanced sound with quite good space and not negating the lower frequency parts, as well as adequately kept timbre (tone character). The isolation from external sounds is generally greater than in the case of fully open headphones, but it is still noise-sensitive equipment.
Whether the transducer has external diffusion holes or not determines whether the headphones are open or closed. If there are no such and the acoustic wave gets dumbed inside the sealed dome – we talk about a closed model. If it has a partial perforation on the outside, but still a large part of the dome does not have any holes – most often we are talking about half-open ones. The open models are fully perforated.
However, be careful, because the external appearance may be confusing and suggest a much larger area of openings than the headphones actually have. Examples of such headphones are e.g. DT990 Edition and K612 PRO. The Beyerdynamic one can be bought for less than 200€, and the K612 PRO is even better, because they sell for less than 100€. However, it is the former that deserves the laurel for the sound quality and the stage – despite the fact that it is a shabby model, clearly simulated as fully open (the material masks the size of the real acoustic holes). Both models are also praised by a large proportion of users as reasonable headphone items in their price segments. I encourage you to read about them if the semi-open structures with their acoustics and features intrigue you.
Transducer manufacturing technologies
There are at least several ways to create an acoustic wave to mention within this full-size headphone selection guide. Each technology has its strengths and weaknesses, as well as specific requirements.
In full-size headphones we distinguish the following ones :
- dynamic (electrodynamic)
Examples of producers: AKG, Beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, Denon, Audio-Technica, Grado, Shure, Sony, Fostex, Ultrasone, Yamaha.
Examples of top models: Sennheiser HD800, Ultrasone Edition 5, AKG K812 PRO, Beyerdynamic T1, Fostex TH-900, Grado PS-1000e, Denon AH-D7100, Sony MDR-R10 (vintage).
These are the most popular designs on the market, covering a whole range of solutions from bazaar models costing a few euros to high-class dynamic headphones for several thousand. These are classic loudspeaker constructions reduced to a mini and microform, based on a delicate diaphragm, a coil with a magnet as well as a suspension. Due to their universality, practicality and high price flexibility, many people do not even try to look for models made in a different technology.
The advantages of dynamic headphones are, above all, the ease of production in a variety of sizes and variants (open, closed), as well as good resistance to everyday use and dirt. In terms of sound, they are able to satisfy basically every taste, from lovers of powerful bass to lovers of sharp and clear treble and a kilometer-long stage, presenting a generally balanced and most compromise sound image having all the features of a good sound: sufficient speed and purity, extended bass, intimate midrange, legible highs, and a capacious stage. While they are not always able to provide all these features at the same time, the highest models made in this technology are still popular.
- planar (magnetodynamic, magnetostatic, planarnomagnetic, orthodynamic, omnidynamic, isodynamic)
Examples of producers: Audeze, HiFiMAN, OPPO, Abyss, Fostex (formerly Yamaha, Sansui, Aiwa, Heco, SABA, Realistic, Peerless, and even Wharfedale or Telefunken).
Examples of top models: Audeze LCD-3, HiFiMAN HE-1000, Abyss AB-1266, Yamaha YH-1000 (vintage), Sansui SS-100 (vintage).
These headphones were once quite a popular branch of the market, but with the refinement of dynamic technologies, they began to disappear from the market. Currently, they are undergoing their renaissance and are returning to favor as they are no longer a continuation of old sounds, but something completely new and more modern. The principle of operation of magnetostatic transducers is based on the work of magnetic fields affecting a diaphragm with a flat coil usually placed directly on it. The force acting on the surface is homogeneous and unique in the way it produces sound. Drivers of this type are unfortunately the heaviest of all currently offered headphones, clearly heavier than dynamic and electrostatic designs.
The advantages of this type of transducers are the unique combination of features such as speed and impulse response with high-quality sound of great purity, unmatched by electrostatic structures. In terms of sound, they are most often characterized by a beautiful bass and a very rich midrange with exceptional musicality. The disadvantages – apart from the high mass of the headphones themselves and the great difficulty in powering and adjusting them – are often the stage, which, although very complete and correct, is not as huge as, for example, in the highest dynamic models, which are, for technical reasons, more open sonically. However, they reward the listener with the aforementioned musicality and high overall holography of the transmission.
Examples of producers: STAX, KOSS, Kingsound (formerly also Sennheiser, Sony, partly AKG).
Examples of top models: STAX SR-007 Omega II, STAX SR-009, Kingsound H-03 , Sennheiser HE-90 Orpheus (discontinued), Sony ECR880 (vintage).
Along with the derivatives of electrets, these transducers are quite rare and difficult to produce, but highly appreciated in the world of experts on the subject. To put it simply, such a transducer uses the electrostatic charging phenomenon in the form of an ultra-thin foil enclosed in a cage between two stators (electrodes). To work, it requires a very high polarizing voltage, which, while changing, causes a sound. Headphones equipped with such transducers require a special type of amplifier (energizer) to operate and cannot work with conventional equipment.
The advantages of such headphones are usually amazing transparency, speed, crystal clear treble and comprehensively rendered scene with high holography. These features, however, differ depending on the model and manufacturer with which we come into contact. In general, however, the dominant feeling is that you do not feel any mechanical limitation of the transducer at all. Electrostats are the worst at bass reproduction, but not in terms of quality, but quantity and overtone. The buyer of such headphones should pay attention to the cleanliness of the transducers, because the dust, especially in large quantities, can act as an insulator and directly affect the sound.
Manufacturers: as of today, basically only TakeT (formerly probably just Pioneer). Examples of top models: TakeT H2 +, Pioneer SE-700 (vintage).
Headphones equipped with these drivers are extremely rare and basically only include 4 models from two manufacturers. In the 1970s, they were produced only by the Japanese company Pioneer in the form of the SE-300, 500 and top 700 models. Somewhere around 2000, the topic was taken up again by the TakeT company in remarkable, even experimental H2 + equipped with, for example, a dedicated amplifier and external tweeters. The transducers use the piezoelectric effect and in the simplest formula they consist of a sheet of PVDF with attached electrodes in a loose frame. They neither use the electrostatic phenomenon nor rely on magnetic fields like planar headphones, instead, they only focus on the properties of the PVDF material from which the diaphragm is made.
The advantages of such headphones are, above all, the ability to convert an electric signal into an acoustic one in a straight line, as well as a large possibility of faithful reproduction of the sound, albeit with significantly greater problems with the lowest tones than in electrostatic technology. The disadvantages are, unfortunately, the enormous requirements for the drive, especially when we realize that from the electrical point of view, headphones of this type behave like a kind of capacitor, and the most sensitive element of the membranes are the connection points with the electrodes. Taken together, these were the reasons why the technology was abandoned.
- hybrid and non-standard designs
Examples of top models: FAD Pandora Hope VI, AKG K340 (vintage), AKG K1000 (vintage) .
They are a mixture of different technologies within one headphone pair. History knows cases of unconventional use of dynamic transducers or mixing them with each other – e.g. with electrostatic and even balanced armatures found in in-ear headphones. However, it cannot be said that this particular method is the best and superior to designs equipped with one driver. Everything depends on the implementation of a given solution.
Headphone size formats
For there we have the following:
These are perhaps the most famous earphones; they surround the ear with a cup and are the most frequently chosen type of earphones. In theory, they offer the best comfort, but the possible hardness of earpieces and the pressure of the domes to the head can effectively show why this is just a theory. This type of equipment offers the most place for your ears, the least risk of sweating and the best stage qualities due to the size of the acoustic chamber. It can occur in the form of sets of transducers in the number of more than 1 per side, which, however, happens very rarely and is paid for with various problems.
Full-size headphones that resemble circumaural earpieces by the way of holding on the ears. Pressing against the surface of the head, but the material of the earpads also presses too, causing the effect of a kind of blending of the ear with the headphones themselves. Comfort varies, a lot depends on the material used in the cushions, the method of generating pressure as well as the size of the head / ears. Such headphones are primarily planned not to have design limitations resulting from the small size of the earpiece (and thus the transducer), and therefore guarantee better sound quality and acoustic characteristics than smaller compact headphones (often manifested by a clearly better stage), but also to be a bit more “handier” brother to full-size, heavy models. In general, they also force the user to learn how to put them on correctly, in accordance with his own anatomy, the arrangement of the cartilage on the ear cuff and in relation to the hearing tube.
- compact, folded, clip-on, on-ear / neckband, backhead
It is a class of scaled down full-size models, very often having shells almost the size of a human ear. They stay on the head with the help of pressure generated by the headband, covering only the auricle. Here we have to point out the pressure models, featuring special plastic earpads that provide very good isolation from the environment at the expense of comfort for long listening hours, making them more adapted for applications such as DJing or even traveling. They are a good outdoor choice, guaranteeing mobile sound without negating ambient noise, and are also handy, because their taking of, if necessary, is very easy and fast. Such headphones are based only on the arm attached to the auricle and dynamic transducers in the form of either earbuds or a larger transducer known, for example, from compact headphones. Headphones, on the other hand, are worn in a similar way to orthopedic models, but unlike them, they are permanently connected with a headband at the back of the head. They are usually based on sponge cushions that do not isolate from the environment, but at the same time give a very open sound. Both the first and the second type may not be very comfortable for longer listening sessions, but it depends, both, on the design of the headphones and the user’s physical predispositions.
At one time, the most popular type of headphones. These are models equipped with a dynamic driver having a large diameter, placed perpendicular to the ear and covered with a grille. They do not completely isolate from the environment, because the handset is not inserted into the ear canal, but only hung in the inner part of the auricle. On one hand, this ensures complete ventilation of the channel and provides a sound with a large openness, but at the same time you have to be careful that the headphones do not fall out of your ears, which is quite annoying. Any background noise will disturb and the sponges (often included in the set) get dirty and rub off quickly, although buying additional ones is a matter of pennies. There is one more unpleasant fact connected with their openness – lack of intimacy, because at higher volumes, everyone around us will hear what we listen to.
- in-ear monitors (IEM)
As the name suggests, these headphones are tightly inserted into the initial part of the ear canal, thanks to which the sound is transmitted directly to the hearing center with the lowest losses. As part of the in-ear headphones, you can most often find dynamic drivers, although there are also other, more advanced ones, e.g. armature. IEMs are characterized primarily by the lack of falling out of the ear and high listening intimacy – no one will hear what you do. This is especially usefull when sitting next so someone on the plane, train or bus. Due to the closed structure and the lack of air access to the canal, during their use, the pressure inside the ear increases, so you may feel discomfort after some time, although it also depends on the type of tips used. If the headphones are not tightly seated in the channels, the sound will be very degraded, therefore, they require individual tips for each user due to the differences in the physical structure of the ear (most often a set of tips of different sizes is included with the headphones as standard).
Applications of the above in practice
As you can see it gives us quite a lot of combinations. If you appreciate surround sound or listen to music such as ambient, classical and all kinds of light electronics – semi-open and open headphones should attract your attention. Pure ambient sound loves anything open, but for many people a sound delivered near the golden radio, thus more balanced, should be enough.
In case of most other genres – it’s worth looking for semi-open models, although in the area of club music, popular among young people, you can look for closed headphones – they will guarantee appropriate rhythmicity, often strong low tones, which work best in this type of music (my favorite pick is the V-Moda Crossfade M-100. Closed or in-ear models should also be chosen wherever discreetness and isolation are essential for you, very often they serve as universal headphones, be it for travel, for work or for studying. Open and semi-open devices, on the other hand, are most often used as full-sized home headphones. The former work best with leatherette earcups, guaranteeing the best noise isolation, while open ones work best with comfortable velour earcups.
Additionally, if we really care about comfort, we should look for headphones with large earcups, low weight and low pressure to the head. Examples of such headphones are the AKG K702 or the Sennheiser HD800S, but not only. The first pair can be bought already for a relatively low price and easily under 150€, which for the premium class is a good result and proves high profitability. The flagship HD800S, on the other hand, are already high-end equipment and with an equally high-end price, amounting to 1500€ (sometimes a little less, depending on the shop). Both models are completely unsuitable for output equipment, they strongly throw the sound out, as well as do not offer strong bass. Both should also be supplied with high quality accompanying equipment.
Sometimes, however, it is possible to reconcile the different extremes and use headphones such as, for example, AKG K550 MKII or Beyerdynamic T5p. The latter are, up to the said 1500€, a high end closed model, comfortable, quite well isolating, with great bass, correctness, stage and ease of drive. Some shops offer them cheaper, so it’s always worth checking the market situation before buying. Often, however, it is not possible to limit yourself to just one pair and, as a result, it is necessary to buy two: one for home and one for the city.
Separately, we should also look at the question of gaming headphones and the fact that they are often better than the non-gaming headphones. I’m not going to point out the “best” pair of headphones for gamers, but I can help you pick out a few models, which for me personally can pretend to such a title.
Soon: [Best Headphones for Players]
So, those are the reasons why I would use each of these pairs in games.
Headphones strictly for the city
If we want to purchase equipment strictly for the city, the best solution is either compact headphones with high pressure (and thus insulation at the expense of comfort), or insulating in-ear models with tips which fit best to your ears. While in compact models we have almost no choice as to earpieces, it is a very important topic for in-ear headphones, because it can have a vital effect on the condition of your hearing and the risk of ear canal infections. Unfortunately, the selection of the right tips is only up to the headphone owner, different people have different sizes and shapes of ear canals, so the type and size fit can differ drastically between two people within the same pair of headphones. Any descriptions in the reviews regarding the convenience and fit of the tips by reviewers may be helpful hints in this regard.
There are generally three types of tips attached to the in-ear headphones:
These are the most popular type of tips. Depending on the quality of workmanship, they can be thin matte tips that are useless or in contrast of high-quality and thus thick, dirt-resistant, tightly adhering to the ear canals (such are included, for example, with NuForce or Westone headphones). The level of comfort and insulation in them depends on the aforementioned tightness in the fit and the selection of the appropriate size. Tips of this type may differ in shape resembling a bullet, a ball or a truncated dome, also the size of the outlet may be different depending on the type of headphones they are attached to (generally between 3,0mm and 4,5mm). In the case of headphones with dynamic transducers with a wide acoustic channel, these will most often have large openings, in the case of armature ones, the opposite will usually be the case.
- bi-flange and tri-flange
These are special multi-layer silicone tips offering, above all, maximum isolation from the environment and no need to painstakingly select tips of appropriate size, which is especially important in the case of having differently shaped ear canals in the left and right ear. They are most often available in two-coat (bi-flange) and three-coat (tri-flange) versions. The disadvantage of this type of tips is, unfortunately, the need to get used to their very deep penetration, as well as to develop the habit of gently and slowly putting them on and off.
These are foams that work in a similar way to moldable protective earplugs. It is enough to properly shape them in the fingers so that they hold a slim, cylindrical shape for a while, and then they are inserted into the ear canals. After a while, the foam returns to its previous shape, tightly filling the ear canal, because it becomes more flexible under the influence of our heat. They are probably the “healthiest” tips you can put on and use for many hours without feeling tired or under pressure inside the ear canal, but the durability and resistance to dirt are noticeably lower than with silicone tips. They are also a bit more expensive.
Remember: It is easier to damage your hearing apparatus with this type of headphones than, for example, with full-size models. The most important thing here is, first of all, common sense in operating the volume knob. When connecting them to your device, it is worth setting the volume to 0. It is equally important to maintain proper hygiene and regular cleaning of the tips inserted into your ears. Also, introducing them into the ear canals should be gentle so that the pressure inside them can slowly equalize.
Take short breaks during longer listening sessions so that your hearing can “rest”. The brain is very adaptive not only to the sound, but also to the volume, and over time the volume knob can travel too far, at least causing a headache.
Finally, a little warning too. As I have emphasized many times, one of the many advantages of in-ear headphones is the fact that they can significantly reduce noise caused by the environment. However, it can be disastrous in the city or while driving, because under normal conditions we are able to hear many dangers first and then we see them. Sight is often supplemented by hearing, and by eliminating one of these elements, we also reduce our ability to respond to threats and increase the likelihood of endangering the health or life of other people. It is worth keeping an eye on this.
6. Select the sound source
If you have selected a pair of headphones that do not need additional purchases in this regard, feel free to skip this paragraph. But if you already have the equipment and it need a sound source for it, then let’s focus on this issue here. By “sound source” I mean any device to which we connect headphones and get sound output. It can be a PC with its sound card, it can also be a phone or a portable player. The sum of all elements in the path of the signal running to the headphones is the so-called “audio signal flow” or simply “audio flow“.
What is an audio flow?
The audio flow is the whole path that the music travels from the starting point (source) to the end (headphone). Such a flow can be single or multi-element. In the case of a telephone, the source itself is the path. There is an operating system to manage playback, an appropriate audio codec, an amplification circuit… all in a convenient package.
However, it may also be that the audio flow will include many specialized devices. For example, a computer may contain a full-fledged sound card, but it is used only as a digital transmitter, transporting the signal via the S/PDIF interface (e.g. with an optical cable) to the DAC, i.e. a digital-to-analog converter. From it, the signal passes through so-called interconnects, i.e. short cables connecting two segments (usually analog), then goes to the headphone amplifier. Only then, the audio flow is released to the headphones. In this case, it includes a digital transmitter, a receiver that converts digital data into an analog signal, and an output stage, i.e. an amplifier.
Segments vs integrals
The example given above with an audio flow consisting of several segments is a scenario that takes up a lot of space and generally costs a significant amount of money. Going towards savings, as long as our headphones allow it, we can limit the number of elements to, for example, the sound card itself or a USB-powered integral system. A headphone integral is a device that combines several specialized devices. An example of such a device is e.g. Aune S6. If we buy only this one device, we will be able to connect it to the computer via a USB cable and plug the headphones directly into the S6. The equipment has a built-in headphone amplifier, so we do not have to worry about an insufficient output signal.
Do I need an amplifier and when?
Briefly, we can say that only some of the headphones require a real amplifier. This is because their parameters are decisive: impedance (Ohm) and acoustic pressure (dB / mW). Most of the cheap headphones are designs oscillating around an impedance of 32 Ohm and efficiency at the level of 100 dB. This means that we will be able to drive them very easily and the amplifier will not necessarily be needed to achieve the right volume on them. In turn, headphones with parameters such as 600 Ohm and efficiency of 88 dB (e.g. AKG K240 DF) will need high output power to achieve both satisfactory volume and acoustic properties (mainly bass in their case). The above-mentioned integral solution from Aune usually has no problems dealing with most headphones, regardless of their requirements. This example is convenient because the equipment also has a balanced output that is able to offer even more power. So if we have headphones with a balanced connector or the possibility of replacing the cabling with one (in this case for the 4-pin XLR connector), we will use the properties of such equipment even better and we will move away from ourselves the vision of buying an additional amplifier. With, for example, the NuForce DAC-80, we have no choice but to buy a full-fledged amplifier.
Audio flow cost vs headphone cost
While the most important element of the headphone system are the headphones themselves, because they determine the most important part of its sound, the source comes just right behind them. Buying or recommending headphones for example for 300€ that is going to be used with a poor-quality sound card or a poor receiver is undermining the sound quality that could theoretically be obtained from those headphones. For good headphones, you need to have a good source, while for the cheapest, very average models, sometimes even a sound card integrated with the motherboard of a computer or laptop or a phone is enough. In other words, the higher the class of your equipment, the higher the requirements it places on the rest of the system that you will need to build. Unfortunately, you have to take this into account and include it in your budget.
Buying expensive headphones is not a guarantee of obtaining high-quality sound right away, but rather only the first step. It may as well turn out that they will show the imperfections of the initial audio flow or you will not even get a good synergy between them (i.e. the headphones and the audio source will simply “not fit together”. Better headphones should also be followed by a better quality of the tracks you’re listening to. So, with models for 300€+, you can actually forget about most of the 320kbps MP3.
Getting good synergy of your equipment
Without external destabilizing factors such as ambient noise, any headphone system should strive for balance, unless the owner consciously decides otherwise. By balance, we mean “the most even playing of the headphones” – the right amount of bass, the right amount of midrange and, of course, the right amount of treble. Everything should be smoothly connected with each other and not have “holes”, that is placed where certain frequencies are less audible. Of course, headphones with a perfectly straight line do not exist, because it is physically impossible, but it does not prevent the search for the ideal and striving for such a situation. The closer to the conventionally “flat” graph, the higher-class listening we can get in theory. Whether it will be in line with our individual taste – it depends only on us.
The problem is that both the headphones and the source or amplifier have their own individual sound signatures and characters, and it is important that one device complements the other on the basis of contrast. A simple example: if we have headphones with a neutral or even sterile character, without emotions, with weak bass but raised treble, which is exaggerated for us, then the source or amplifier should be saturated, musical, and tonally, preferably dark and warm. Equipment with such tonality and character will thus reduce the excess of treble in the headphones and raise the insufficiently perceptible bass. This results in a better overall sound balance.
If we choose a bright and sterile source for bright and sterile headphones, the whole thing will start to strengthen each other and we will get even greater sterility and brightness. If this was not our intention, in the case of such equipment, we would obtain much better and more natural effects by pairing it with appropriately warm and musical elements of the audio flow. Let’s say that we have the Xonara Essence STX, which belongs to the neutral-bright circuits, and the Cayin HA-2i amplifier of this nature as well. Connecting with such a set of headphones like the AKG K612 PRO, unfortunately, will result in a sound that strongly enhances their own tonality. However, if you choose more musical models, such as the Beyerdynamic DT150 or even better Sennheiser HD650, we may like the whole thing a lot. And although each element will stick out one way or the other, in total all the disadvantages of both sides will merge into one liquid mass. This is what the art of obtaining the right synergy is all about.
To visualize it even better let’s check out the frequency graph:
It is easy to notice that in these headphones there was a diameter allowance and a combination of soprano loss with a shot in a quite sensitive 2.4 to 6 kHz section. Up to a point, the usual acoustics created by the earcups of our headphones are able to counterbalance this for us. More than that, the tonality of the audio flow also contributes to this to an unmissable degree. In this way, the headphones align superbly and although it will not always be possible to fix all of their flaws, the reception will certainly be somewhat more pleasant and without unnecessary amplification.
Selecting the right source for your headphones
Earlier I described how to choose headphones and a source on the basis of contrast and balance. In my opinion, you should look at the headphones first, and then at the source, not the other way around. It is the headphones that determine most of the information provided to our hearing apparatus, and they should also deserve our special attention. Only when we choose the right model with the right way of playing, comfort and ergonomics, we will be able to really start looking for appropriate elements of the audio flow for them, according to the rules described by me in this article.
The same applies to buying better headphones for a worse source, which in my opinion makes more sense than limiting yourself to headphones and buying a better source for them. Of course, both concepts have their logical justification to some extent, but personally, I prefer to invest more in headphones, suffer from a worse source, and then calmly make further purchasing decisions. The two-step method. Better headphones are better headphones and this cannot be overcome – in the vast majority of cases, they will sound better qualitatively, although theoretically worse synergistically. Especially in cheaper price ranges, it is better to invest in a more expensive, but better-sounding model of headphones than to divide the budget into two and buy inferior headphones for a high-quality source that will not offer us a very strong progress, after all, limited effectively by weaker headphones. So it doesn’t make much sense.
Therefore, we will gain more sonically by connecting better headphones to a worse source than the other way around. We will always be able to buy the source later, at the same time we will learn how our headphones behave in a state of weaker impulse and worse synergy. And it may also happen that it will not be so bad, but it depends on us. When migrating from budget models, the very progress coming from a better pair of headphones will be positive for us, so there is no need to include the awareness of synergy and drive or lack thereof at the initial stage. Of course, as long as the sound of the headphones perfectly meets our taste from the start.
The most common bad practice is to choose adequate headphones for the currently owned low-quality source, for example an integrated sound system in your computer or laptop. This is an extreme mistake, because integrated sound circuits, even the best ones, will not be able to compete with, for example, currently very cheap sound cards and portable DACs, or used Xonar ST / STX cards. If you have a budget now and at the same time you are sure that in some time you will find money for a better soundcard, it is worth not to limit yourself and go to the maximum use of such a budget. The card can always be purchased at a later date.
However, if we happen to have a source with an appropriate way of playing, the matter will be difficult, because apart from the features of the headphones themselves, we will have one more element that we will need to pay attention to, and that is the way the source equipment sounds. The art is more difficult, but if we have sufficient knowledge about the nature of playing of each component of our system, it should not be such a big problem. However, the lower the class of equipment, the easier it is to put everything together due to the lower sensitivity of the equipment and its scaling.
It may also happen that the headphones will have such high drive requirements that you will need a headphone amplifier, sometimes with high power, able to drive headphones with a huge power appetite due to low efficiency. It is worth adopting the rule that the lower the resistance and, at the same time, the higher the Sound Pressure Level (SPL), the easier it is to run the headphones. An example of such headphones are the AKG K550 shown in the photo, which, despite being a full-size model of a larger format and at the same time one of the best in the class of reasonably priced closed constructions, are able to play nicely with most lower-class devices without the use of a headphone amplifier, of course to some extent.
Simple and cheap flow topologies
If the user deems it appropriate, he does not have to buy all the previously mentioned elements of a typical headphone flow. He can safely consider choosing more or less integrated solutions, such as headphone integrates or sound cards equipped with built-in amplifiers for this purpose.
There are quite a few situations where getting an internal specialized sound card makes a lot of sense. In some cases, the computer sound card is so well made that it can easily compete with much more expensive USB devices with seemingly more “audiophile” origin and purpose. Often the advantage of a sound card is the omission of digital transport from a PC, but also the possibility of replacing operational amplifiers (OPAMPs) and thus tuning the sound to your own requirements. And while this sounds like a great ideal, the only possible problem may arise from the mere fact that the card is an internal model. Today, most motherboards have both PCI slots and the newer PCI-E, but the latter are currently placed on newer and more expensive designs. The choice of slot is therefore apparently arbitrary here, but the differences between the versions of a given card are usually only physical and sonically represent the same level (e.g. Xonar DX and Xonar D1). The fact is that the PCI-E slot has the greatest “future-proof” design, naturally along with USB, because in the case of migration to better (newer) hardware, there will be no problem with connecting or relocating the device later. The solution may be to look for a USB card, but models that actually are worth something sonically, stand at a price that sometimes exceeds the integrals of manufacturers with more awards in the production of audio equipment, e.g. Aune with its tube DAC / T1 amplifier.
It should be remembered that contrary to appearances, not every sound card is suitable for everything. Not all of them will be versatile enough to prove themselves in every task we set in front of them. If, for example, we have some expensive Hi-Fi headphones that require an appropriate source, and at the same time we do not want to have another box at home in the form of a headphone amplifier especially for our headphones, a specialized card with its own amplification circuit will be a very good choice. For example, we have the Asus Xonar ST or Asus Xonar STX. However, they will offer us surround sound only in the case of an optical connection because headphones are the priority of such devices.
Apart from the intended use, an important aspect are the requirements that we want to set before a new purchase. The choice of a card must therefore be dictated either by the specific equipment already owned, or by the maximum certainty as to its purchase. Having more expensive high-end headphones with ST / STX cards could slowly be a problem. The solution could be the cheaper and at least a shelf higher Audio In Motion SC808. However, when having a real audiophile headset, for example, the Audeze LCD-3, it may turn out to be necessary to think about an equally serious audio flow, and here the integrated amps are a top pick.
Integrals are nothing more than a DAC with an integrated headphone amplifier. It combines two different devices and thus saves both space and costs. Well-equipped integrals are also able to act as a separate amplifier or only a DAC, not limiting us to specific scenarios of their use case. In practice, the only drawback is the fact that both segments are inseparable from each other. It is impossible to separate one from the other and replace it with a better model without potentially having a problematic interference with electronics. It is also impossible to control the tonality of the DAC / amplifier for perhaps even better synergy. Therefore, the purchase of an integrated amplifier should be preceded by an in-depth reading about it, and preferably also listening with our target headphones, which we will not want to get rid of too quickly.
Of course, the more enterprising readers will probably start to wonder if it would not be better to save a few shekels in favor of headphones immediately equipped with a USB card in the set. Yes, they can, but it’s not interesting and such devices cause more sonic damage than it’s worth. The phrase “headphones + USB card included” sounds very promising in the ears of people who are looking for a very inexpensive connection of this type. Unfortunately, the sound will certainly not be so rosy, especially if such a card is included with headphones fo
r a total amount of let’s say 30€. It is simply an unnecessary increase of the final price because it represents nothing interesting and is often of lower quality than the one integrated with the motherboard. If you want a good USB sound chip, you just have to think about a separate real DAC. So again, remember the previously expressed principle: “You want quality? You have to pay.”
7. Allow your equipment to “mature” after purchase
This refers to the adaptation process. There is a very strong belief that every headphone needs to “mature” after being taken straight out of the box. While there are various theories on this subject, the fact is that headphones taken straight out of the box will sound different compared to the same ones but after a week of frequent use. Now the question is why? It happens most often not only because of the “change in the characteristics of the drivers” themselves, but, as it is commonly believed, by complementing this process with the proper adjustment of earcups to the shape of our head and getting our brain used to a specific sound transmitted to the hearing apparatus.
If the headphones you bought sound “strange”, do not worry and just let them fit properly to your head, because it will also alter the quality of the transmitted sound. Usually process of such adaptation takes about 80-100h and during this time headphones can change their sound characteristics even a few times. Only after this time it will be possible to reliably assess the product purchased. Some headphones play nominal sound after just a few moments, others may need hundreds of hours before all the pieces of the puzzle come together and fit to the owner’s head. We can assume, that the “warming up” of headphones always exists, but mainly to force the user to evaluate them only after some time, not immediately. In the same way, it is a good idea to establish this process for all electronic equipment, which only reaches its optimum operating conditions after some time.
8. Trust your ears™
Last but not least, here is a slogan that you will remember because of the funny trademark. It is incomprehensible, I admit, that a person comes to the forums after making a purchase and asks if he or she did the right thing. And this even after the goods have been received and used to great satisfaction. So I don’t see the slightest point in such actions, because in this way you will never gain a sense of confidence in your own decisions, nor confidence in yourself. You don’t have to have your finger pointed at what you should buy and what you should hear. You have to find your own answers, not believe what other people hear. Especially knowing that you are never sure of their intentions.
Remember, it is you who will be the user of the headphones you choose – hopefully with the help of this article – and it is you who will either enjoy or tire of them. Not someone behind a monitor from the other end of the planet, who may have a good laugh at recommending you the worst possible headphones, but claiming the opposite. Whatever decision you make, it will certainly be better than the one made by such a person. And if you need advice, let it be given by people with experience and any history on forums that can attest to it.
Good luck and have fun finding your ideal headphones!