HomeNewsHeadphones: A beginner's guide to terminology and technology

Headphones: A beginner’s guide to terminology and technology

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Headphones are a class of electronics with two very various kinds of customers. On one hand, you’ve got acquired the customer that settles for “respectable” sound for his or her podcasts, music, movies, and telephone calls. On the opposite, you’ve got acquired fanatics and audiophiles that demand the perfect sound, fastidiously deciding on headphones that optimize each side of the listening expertise. 

Additionally: 30+ Black Friday headphone offers: AirPods, Beats, Bose, and Sony on sale

That common headphone shopper might consider the expertise and terminology they’d want to grasp to change into be part of the ranks of headphone fanatics are simply too impenetrable. We’re right here to disprove that notion. 

This information is a primer for the terminology and expertise surrounding the subject of contemporary headphones and the way they work. It may be used as step one towards turning into an audiophile, or as a reference that will help you discover the headphones that work greatest to your distinctive wants. In both case, learn on to have a few of the most typical questions on headphones answered and a few of the most typical factors of confusion demystified. 

Kind components

On this part, we’ll cowl the three predominant forms of headphones: in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear. 


Left to proper: Apple AirPods Professional (really wi-fi), Dunu DN-2000j (wired), and Jabra Elite 75T (really wi-fi)

Michael Gariffo

In-ear headphones

That is the sort that the majority of you might be most likely acquainted with, and the type you are almost definitely utilizing each day. In-ear headphones, or earbuds, rose to prominence alongside early MP3 gamers. They turned really mainstream as a default pack-in merchandise transport with nearly each smartphone launched for a number of years. Extra just lately, producers have stopped together with them with their units, however the public’s choice was already firmly set.

This diminutive model of headphone is straightforward to toss in a bag or pocket, ought to be snug to put on throughout something from commutes to exercises, and might usually be had for the most cost effective costs of any of the three type components we’re protecting.

Additionally: Galaxy Buds 2 Professional vs Pixel Buds Professional vs AirPods Professional: The battle of the perfect earbuds

 In-ear headphones are available in three normal subtypes: 

  • Wired: This consists of any pair that bodily connects to the participant, smartphone, laptop computer, or different system that is offering it with sound. The connectors these terminate in can fluctuate enormously (one thing we’ll cowl in our “Connection sorts” part beneath), however all of them require a bodily cable connection to perform. 
  • Wi-fi: This kind is commonly lumped in with the third sort beneath, but it surely initially tended to confer with a pair of earbuds that did not must bodily hook up with a tool, however nonetheless had a single cable operating from one earbud to the opposite. These stay standard amongst some athletes and people on the lookout for cheap wi-fi earbuds. 
  • Actually wi-fi: That is the latest sort to be launched. They require no cables in anyway, connecting wirelessly, often through Bluetooth. They cost through their included charging instances. This makes them ultra-convenient to be used on the go, unobtrusive (Airpod stems apart), and often in a position to final a formidable period of time while not having exterior energy, due to their charging instances functioning as a conveyable battery pack. 

Professionals of in-ear headphones

  • Portability: Their measurement makes them straightforward to take anyplace and stow in a bag or pocket to be used when commuting, taking a run or bike journey, or sitting at your desk. 
  • Model: Their small measurement makes them unobtrusive in public. The presence of sure fashions in your ears may even be a standing image for some. 
  • Freedom: Earbuds supply a stage of freedom both of the bigger varieties beneath cannot match. Actually wi-fi choices present fully cable-free use for exercises.

Cons of in-ear headphones

  • Sound high quality: There are amazing-sounding earbuds on the market. However, the miniaturized expertise required for them makes them dearer than equally adept on-ear or over-ear fashions. Even costly items nonetheless cannot match the audio copy attainable with the bigger drivers in different sorts. 
  • Straightforward to lose: Actually wi-fi earbuds are particularly losable. A loose-fitting bud can simply slip out of your ear and fall someplace it can by no means return from. 
  • Liable to inflicting listening to injury: Between the air-tight seal many fashions present to enhance their sound copy and the truth that greater ranges of quantity are sometimes used to compensate for a scarcity of readability, low-cost earbuds could also be accountable for customers listening to too-loud audio extra typically than every other type issue. 

Additionally: 5 ideas for stopping listening to loss attributable to headphones


My aged, beat-up Grado SR80s that also sound as nice because the day I purchased them a really very long time in the past. 

Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

On-ear headphones

On-ear headphones are the center little one of the headphone world. Like many center youngsters, they have a tendency to get ignored. Most older readers are most likely extra acquainted with them as a result of they have been to walkmen and transportable CD gamers what earbuds have been to smartphones. The slim metallic headbands and black foam earpads stay a constant website in each 80s film. 

Nonetheless, this way issue really helps a a lot wider vary of sizes. Some earpads are massive sufficient that they may very well be mistaken for over-ear headphones. The differentiating issue is that on-ear headphones do not encompass your ears. As an alternative, they sit in your ears, utilizing a headscarf or, much less generally, an ear hook to remain in place. This gives a middle-ground between the portability of in-ear fashions and the bigger measurement and sound copy of over-ear headphones. 

Extra: One of the best Bose headphones: For audiophiles to athletes

As talked about above, these are the least widespread of the three type components. Nonetheless, a number of iconic strains proceed to inhabit the area. Koss’ Portapro household sits atop nearly each “nice sound for the value” headphone checklist, whereas fashions just like the Grado’s SR line have remained on sale for many years due to the standard their on-ear drivers present. 

Professionals of on-ear headphones

  • Sound high quality: Accessing more room than earbuds gives on-ear headphones area for bigger drivers (extra on these later), providing pure sound, and improved readability while not having to miniaturize their parts. This retains prices down with out sacrificing sound copy. 
  • Price: Each the Koss and Grado strains I discussed above are thought of budget-friendly choices, with the Portapro usually accessible for lower than $40 and the SR60X promoting for lower than $100, regardless of each offering sound high quality superior to headphones costing twice or 3 times as a lot. 
  • Balanced portability: Whereas they are not as straightforward to stow as earbuds, on-ear headphones are a lot more durable to lose, providing a superb steadiness for the extra forgetful amongst us. 

Cons of on-ear headphones

  • Restricted choice: As talked about above, on-ear headphones do not obtain as a lot love as their siblings. This implies the choice typically consists of fashions which were round for a few years or fashions that, to the untrained eye, appear outdated or cheap-looking. 
  • Consolation: Because the identify suggests, on-ear headphones relaxation immediately in your ears. This may make them the least snug type issue, relying on how they’re constructed. Appropriately-designed headbands with ample padding can reduce the strain induced by on-ears, however they will additionally by no means be as snug as ergonomically designed earbuds or large, pillowy over-ear units. 
  • Restricted connection choices: That is an extension of the above level. As there’s usually a smaller number of on-ear headphones, there are fewer connection choices. The overwhelming majority terminate in an ordinary 3.5mm connection (defined within the “Connection sorts” part beneath), and there are fewer Bluetooth-based choices. 

Sehnnheiser’s discontinued HD700 headphones with their ear-shaped cups.

Michael Gariffo

Over-ear headphones

These are the biggest type issue, designed to fully encompass your ears. They’re additionally known as over-the-ear, “cans,” or “circumaural,” if you happen to’re feeling fancy. No matter moniker you utilize, they supply the utmost quantity of area for the biggest drivers. This implies they typically have probably the most pure sound by proper of being nearly as massive as some freestanding audio system. 

Over-ear headphones sit on the very prime of the value charts. Whereas there are undoubtedly earbuds and on-ear fashions that run into 4 figures, there are a number of over-ear designs that skew into 5. Sennheiser’s legendary Orpheus, which comes with its personal tube amplifier constructed right into a slab of marble has an eye-watering beginning value of $50,000, or extra in order for you them custom-made. 

Evaluate: Beyerdynamic DT 900 PRO X headphones: Brutally sincere sound for beneath $300

Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of over-ear headphones are nowhere close to that costly and supply distinctive sound for the buyer keen to cope with their tendency to be on the cumbersome aspect. This doesn’t suggest they’re uncomfortable, nonetheless. Quite the opposite, I’ve forgotten I’ve had over-ear headphones on extra typically than every other type.

That is additionally the one type issue to supply two very distinct, purpose-built subtypes: open-back and closed-back headphones. Due to that, we’ll be splitting the professional/con part for over-ears into two subcategories. 


Beyerdynamic’s DT1990 Professional headphones. Observe the mesh display on the earcups that marks these as open-backed headphones

Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

Open-backed headphones

Over-ear headphones of this kind function earcups that enable air to freely move out and in of them. They’re the alternative of closed-back fashions and earbuds that attempt to seal in sound by creating an hermetic seal round or throughout the consumer’s ear. The results of this air flow is a extra open-feeling sound that mirrors listening to your audio by audio system. This may additionally assist improve a pair’s “soundstage,” or the feeling that the reproduced sound is coming at you from a extra nuanced number of instructions than merely left or proper. 

Evaluate: Sony LinkBuds: Distinctive open ring facilitates on-line and offline listening

Professionals of open-backed headphones

  • Pure sound: As talked about above, the open-backed earcups produce a sound profile that the majority intently mirrors discrete audio system, and even reside music. It’s because the soundwaves are allowed to scatter naturally, with out ricocheting round within the earcup the way in which they might in closed-back units. 
  • Consolation: The additional air flow additionally means your ears are much less prone to get sizzling, since they are not trapped in an hermetic chamber warmed by your physique warmth. 
  • Consciousness: Some customers need headphones to dam out exterior sounds. Others want to listen to the world round them. For the latter, open-backed headphones present a technique to hold your ear, actually, open to your youngsters, co-workers, and even different individuals on the road. 

Cons of open-backed headphones

  • Sound leakage: Open air flow means any audio, particularly at greater volumes, might be audible to anybody inside earshot. You’ll want to by no means hearken to something on these you would not need the entire room to listen to. 
  • Lack of isolation: That is the counterpoint to the ultimate professional above. For these eager to isolate themselves from the skin world, open-backed headphones should not supreme. They let sound in as readily as they let it out.
  • Value: Of all the type components and subtypes on this checklist, open-backed headphones most likely have the worst number of low-cost, good-quality choices in the marketplace. They have a tendency to exist towards the mid and mid-high finish of choices, that means the value for a stable pair typically begins nicely north of $100. 

Razer’s closed-back BlackShark V2 Professional wi-fi gaming headset. Observe the entire lack of any openings on the earcup

Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

Closed-back headphones

Closed-back headphones are the exact reverse of these above. Like earbuds, they try and seal the sound in, encircling your ear in a (largely) hermetic chamber. This produces a extra bass-heavy sound, which might profit some genres of music or action-heavy movies. Nonetheless, this seal can even lure warmth, and trigger points with unintended resonance from the soundwaves being trapped throughout the earcups. 

Evaluate: Razer Blackshark V2 Professional headset: A potent weapon for the fitting gamer

Professionals of closed-back headphones

  • Improved bass: Closed-back headphones are often able to superior bass copy at decrease prices and with smaller drivers than their open-backed counterparts. The low-frequency sounds profit from the tightly-enclosed area, serving to closed-back headphones keep the impression of audio hits like drums or explosions. 
  • Isolation: Along with the energetic noise cancellation (ANC) accessible in choose fashions throughout all the type components right here, closed-back headphones supply the perfect passive sound blocking of any type issue. Their seal blocks out exterior soundwaves, permitting you to deal with the audio that you just need to hear, with out it being tainted by exterior sounds.  
  • Privateness: What retains sound out can even hold it in. Closed-back headphones can present nice sound high quality to you, and solely you. 

Cons of closed-back headphones

  • Warmth buildup: Closed-back headphones mainly mimic the earmuffs you put on in winter to maintain you heat. As such, they lure warmth simply as nicely and might get fairly uncomfortable in the summertime months and in hotter climates.
  • Fatigue: As a result of the soundwaves are trapped contained in the earcups with you, closed-back headphones can really feel extra fatiguing to hearken to than their open-backed counterparts. That is attributable to the identical elevated strain that enables for issues just like the aforementioned bass copy. 
  • Much less pure sound: We have coated the advantages closed-back designs can present to low frequencies. However, there are some that discover the bass increase they provide to be muffled, or of decrease high quality than a well-tuned pair of open-backed headphones.

The dynamic driver utilized in Sennheiser’s HD800 S seen from behind


Driver sorts

Having coated the exterior measurement and shapes of headphones, let’s have a look inside, on the single most necessary a part of any headphone: the driving force. That is the half that truly creates sound. Whereas most individuals will think about a tiny speaker, solely sure headphones (ones with “dynamic” drivers, particularly) really use one thing near a conventional speaker. 

Additionally: AirPods Max: Heck yeah, they’re costly, and rightfully so

The forms of drivers in use are literally rather more numerous. That stated, there are two that stay, by far, probably the most generally used selection. Mixed, this duo covers no less than 99.9% of all fashions in the marketplace. So, studying about every ought to allow you to acknowledge and perceive the expertise behind nearly each pair of headphones on the market. We’ll additionally cowl an fascinating third, for example of the much less widespread, unique drivers on the market.

The three forms of drivers we’ll cowl are dynamic, planar magnetic, and electrostatic.


The Sennheiser HD 800 S’ dynamic driver seen from inside, with foam padding eliminated


Dynamic drivers 

These are the most typical sort, the one most are acquainted with, and the one that the majority intently resembles a conventional speaker. They’re accessible throughout all three type components, and might be present in every thing from the worst-sounding, bargain-basement headphones, to a few of the most beloved pairs ever made. Their pricing varies simply as extensively too. 

Additionally: Greatest microphones for streaming: From Twitch to podcasts

They work by positioning a everlasting magnet adjoining to a “voice coil,” basically a tightly-wound size of conductive wire. When present is handed by that voice coil, within the type of an audio sign, it turns into an electromagnet, alternately engaging and repelling the everlasting magnet. This creates movement that’s used to maneuver a diaphragm, which is a bigger floor that pushes round air to create the sound waves you hear. 

The comparatively easy expertise has been in use since a few of the first electrical audio system have been produced, and stays one of the vital dependable methods to breed sound cheaply and successfully. Nonetheless, well-tuned dynamic drivers can nonetheless flip what may in any other case be comparatively mundane sound into beautiful audio. 


The planar magnetic Driver of the Drop + HIFIMAN HE-4XX headphones with its outer casing eliminated

Drop — HiFiMan

Planar magnetic drivers

Planar magnetic headphones additionally use electromagnets to maneuver a diaphragm. Nonetheless, all the driver is commonly just some millimeters thick, with a diaphragm as skinny as a mylar balloon’s pores and skin. This makes it attainable to maneuver rather more air than a dynamic driver might with out turning into too bigger to slot in even the most important over-ear pair of headphones. 

Regardless of its thinness, the mandatory inner {hardware} nonetheless produces a headphone that tends to be heavier than its dynamic cousins. However, it additionally produces drivers that some consider are able to creating probably the most natural-feeling sound in the marketplace. Many first-time planar magnetic customers typically really feel like there’s an entire wall of sound coming at them, in contrast to the pinpoint sound sourcing produced by some dynamic headphones. 

Additionally: One of the best PC gaming headsets: Premium audio, no drops

Drivers of this kind have been nearly at all times present in open-backed, over-ear headphones, as they supplied the room to breathe and area that planar magnetic drivers want. Nonetheless, in recent times, the expertise has shrunk to the purpose that it is made its method into some high-end earbuds as nicely. 

Regardless of the measurement of the headphone getting used, planar magnetic drivers are usually extra power-hungry. This makes them a poor match to be used together with your smartphone or laptop computer. As an alternative, they often profit greater than dynamic drivers from being related to a devoted amplifier able to supplying the upper present required to make them sound their greatest. 


The STAX SRM-D50 electrostatic headphones sitting atop the specialised amp they require. The duo retails for $1,260. 

Stax — HeadAmp

Electrostatic drivers and different unique choices

These are one of many uncommon, extra unique forms of drivers on the market. They use a razor-thin membrane floating between two perforated metallic plates to provide their sound. As present passes by these plates, a static cost is created that vibrates the almost weightless membrane to provide sound.

Proponents of this expertise declare it is able to probably the most pure, “cleanest” sound attainable, as a result of membrane by no means bodily contacting the rest. Some additionally consider this cuts down on the distortion dynamic and planar magnetic drivers can endure from at greater volumes. Whether or not it is a scientific reality or a easy choice is up for debate. 

Additionally: One of the best bone conduction headphones

What is not debatable is the truth that there are appreciable hurdles to accessing any electrostatic headphones. Not solely do they require a specialised electrostatic amplifier designed particularly for them, however their value additionally usually skews nicely into 4 figures. 

In fact, there are additionally different unique applied sciences that do not value fairly as a lot, such because the balanced armature drivers present in some high-end earbuds and IEMs (in-ear screens), or piezoelectric drivers that present a miniature model of electrostatic expertise for IEMs, and even bone conduction drivers that use your personal skeleton to transmit sound into your ears. None are prone to ever substitute dynamic or planar magnetic drivers, however they are often an fascinating technological rabbit gap to fall down, even if you happen to by no means lay fingers on any of them. 


Left to proper: a 3.5mm connector, a 1/4-inch connector, and an XLR connector, all from headphones proven elsewhere on this piece.

Michael Gariffo/ZDNET

Connection sorts

Now that we all know how the sound’s produced, let’s speak about the way it will get to the headphones within the first place. There are two strategies: through a wire, or wirelessly. As it is best to anticipate by now, there are additionally a number of variations to every of these. 


3.5mm connector: That is the most typical sort of headphone connection. It may be discovered on nearly each laptop computer and, till a number of years in the past, nearly each smartphone as nicely. It is basically the identical small “headphone jack” you and your mother and father have been utilizing for many years, and it continues serving everybody nicely on every thing from greenback retailer pairs to headphones costing 1000’s of {dollars}. 

1/4-inch connector: That is 3.5mm’s greater brother. It is discovered on numerous higher-end headphones and part methods. It makes use of a bigger connector with extra floor space, and is most well-liked amongst fashions that use a “balanced” connection, which depends on discrete circuits run to every earcup. Balanced connections are most well-liked by some on account of their resistance to “crosstalk” or sound that is meant to be performed in a single ear really coming by the opposite ear’s driver on account of interference. 

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XLR: One other standard alternative for balanced headphones. This bigger connector is mostly seen in studio-grade microphones, but additionally enjoys widespread use amongst high-end strains like Sennheiser’s HD800 collection. It gives probably the most safe connection and makes use of 4 fully remoted pins to additional forestall any type of interference or distortions throughout left and proper audio channels 

Smartphone connectors: When smartphones shed their 3.5mm ports, many producers continued to supply pack-in headphones that used the telephone’s knowledge port to obtain audio. These uncommon headphones included fashions like Apple’s authentic EarPods, which used the corporate’s proprietary lightning connector, and a bevy of USB-C-based choices from Android smartphone producers. As extra individuals moved in the direction of wi-fi choices, these uncommon connectors largely fell out of favor. 

Wi-fi connections

The very first thing that involves thoughts when somebody mentions wi-fi headphones is Bluetooth. To be clear, that’s, by far, the most typical protocol for carrying wi-fi sound. Nonetheless, it is not the one technique. 

Bluetooth has continued its improvement within the a long time since its authentic introduction. However, in all that point, it nonetheless cannot completely remove one pesky challenge: latency. This weak point of the expertise can add as a lot as a pair hundred milliseconds (or 2/10ths of a second) of delay to audio. While you’re listening to music, that is largely irrelevant; you don’t have any method of detecting the delay. Nonetheless, when that audio is tied to a visible as nicely, the delay might be very problematic.

Additionally: One of the best noise-canceling headphones

Bluetooth 5.0 has lowered this delay to the purpose the place it is irrelevant for many video content material. Solely probably the most attentive customers are prone to discover the minuscule hole between an on-screen character’s mouth and their audio dialogue. Nonetheless, the identical can’t be stated for players.

 In fast-paced video games, even a number of additional milliseconds might be the distinction between life and dying. Ready for an additional 2/10ths of a second to listen to enemy footsteps or a beginning tone in a racing recreation? Inconceivable!

Fortunately for the players on the market, different wi-fi applied sciences supply far much less latency. The preferred is 2.4GHz wi-fi. This protocol makes use of a small USB dongle to hook up with a pair of headphones or, extra generally, a headset. The audio from the supply is transmitted with little sufficient latency that it is often imperceptible to even probably the most discerning players. 


Sennheiser’s RS 175-U headphones sitting on their combo transmitter and charging base


You could be stunned to search out on the market are some 2.4GHz wi-fi headphones for snug sofa listening on the market as nicely, just like the Sennheiser RS line. These often use a base unit that is each a charging stand and a transmitter, offering sound from a stereo, tv, or one other A/V system. 

Some wi-fi headphones even depend on infrared mild to transmit their sound. These are usually used with in-car leisure methods or at-home IR transmitters. The good thing about the expertise is that any individual with suitable headphones can merely sit in a spread of the IR sign to listen to the sound, while not having to pair their system in any respect. 

Wrap up

There is no cause to not be taught no less than just a little bit a few type of digital system that is come to be such an necessary a part of our every day lives. You could discover that you just’d moderately not decide for a similar AirPods everybody has, or it’s possible you’ll uncover that they are surely the right steadiness of comfort and high quality. 

Whichever method you go, the necessary factor is that you just’re well-informed about what choices can be found to you, how your headphones work, and what the professionals and cons of every sort of headphone are. A well-informed shopper is almost definitely to show into a contented proprietor.

Hopefully, this information has given you a deeper understanding of the essential terminology and variables you are prone to run into when purchasing for headphones. And, even if you happen to’re not at present out there, perhaps you may impress a good friend or two whenever you level out these candy new planar magnetic cans your favourite streamer’s utilizing now. 

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