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10 things to know when buying Headphones

Buying a pair of headphones is not as easy it was a few years ago. With the advancement in technology, headphones have transitioned into more than just listening devices. Offering features like active noise cancellation and step counting, headphones have become devices that add to your phone’s functionality. 

That said, this added functionality has associated a lot of technical jargon with headphones, further complicating getting the right pair of listening devices. So how do you select the right headphones?

Well, you demystify all the technical jargon around headphones and think about what you need from your headphones. Still, before starting with all the technical simplification, it is essential to understand the various categories of headphones available in the market.

Although earphones and headphones use similar technologies, we will be looking at over-ear headphones in this article.

Also read: AirPods Pro vs AirPods 2: Which one should you buy?


Studio headphones

A pair of studio headphones are designed for sound monitoring and are generally used by music producers and sound engineers. Although most of us are under the impression that all headphones sound the same, the facts are far from reality.

In-ear earphones vs On-ear headphones vs Over-ear headphones
Photo by Blaz Erzetic

Most consumer-grade headphones amplify certain parts of the audio spectrum to make music sound more appealing. This technique used by headphone manufacturers is called sound colouration. In the case of studio headphones, sound colouring is not performed.

Due to this reason, music producers can identify any distortions in the music as they get a flat frequency response. Studio headphones are designed to reproduce music as closely as possible. Due to this, they use high-quality electronics and have designated electronics that might be clubbed in consumer-grade headphones.

All these design constraints increase the impedance of studio-grade headphones. Therefore most studio headphones have higher impedance when compared to consumer-grade headphones — more on that in the proceeding sections of the article.

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Gaming headphones

If you are an avid gamer, you know that a pair of gaming headphones don’t sound like your regular headphones. Gaming headphones are designed from a gamers’ perspective, whether the RGB lighting or the bass-heavy sound output.

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These headsets are designed to minimise latency and amplify surround sound to provide gamers with a more immersive experience. In addition to this, gaming headsets come with dedicated microphones with noise distortion capabilities to help them stay in touch with their teams in noisy environments.

Also read: How to connect Bluetooth headphones to PS4?


Consumer headphones

Most of us have come across consumer-grade headphones in our lives, and they are the most prominent in the industry. These headsets are designed to be used with mobile devices and have a low impedance as low power electronic devices drive them.

10 things to know when buying Headphones

Not only this, consumer-grade headphones are designed to be mass-produced, and the quality of electronics used in the same are not on power with studio-grade headphones. In addition, every manufacturer manages the sound signature differently, and headphones from different manufacturers behave differently when playing the same music.

Due to this reason, many audiophiles out there have brand loyalty and prefer certain brands over others.

Now that we understand the different headphones in the market, we can look at the technical specifications in more detail.

Also read: What is Fast Pair? Everything you need to know


Impedance 

Any electronic device we use has resistance. This resistance opposes the flow of electrons in any device, and this resistance to the flow of current in a headphone is known as impedance. The impedance of headphones is generally in the range of 8-600 Ohms; here, Ohms is the unit for measuring impedance. 

Headphones with electrostatic drivers have high impedance values of up to 100,000 Ohms and require special amplifiers to be powered

Most of the consumer-grade headphones out there have an impedance of 32 Ohms, and if you are looking for consumer-grade headphones, you should not worry about the same.

On the contrary, if you are in the market to get a professional set of headphones, you can find the same pair of headphones in different impedance formats. For example, the Beyerdynamic DT 770 pro come in three impedance configurations, namely, 32 Ohms, 80 Ohms and 250 Ohms. So which one do you select out of the three?

10 things to know when buying Headphones

The answer to the question depends more on how you plan to use the headphones rather than the sound quality. If you plan on using the headphones with mobile devices, then getting the 32 Ohms version is a good idea as the same does not require external amplifiers to reach full volume.

The 250 Ohm version might be a good fit if you are a sound engineer and music production. The 80 Ohm version can work with mobile devices and amplifiers and is suitable for professional sound editing and casual listening.


How does impedance impact the listening experience?

The impedance of a pair of headphones determines the amount of power it requires to reach its maximum volume. A headphone with a higher impedance requires more power to reach its maximum volume, while a headphone with a lower impedance does the same with lower power.

10 things to know when buying Headphones

Due to this reason, external amplifiers are needed to power high impedance headphones. Regarding sound quality, higher impedance headsets offer better performance as they are built using better materials and have better voice coils.

When it comes to the listening experience, impedance does not play a significant role in how your headphones sound. Instead, higher impedance headphones are used by professionals who use high power amplifiers and mixers to test their tracks.

If you are planning to get a professional high impedance headset, it is important verify that the impedance of the amplifier and the headphones are matched. This impedance matching helps in getting the best quality from your headphones.

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Sensitivity

The sensitivity of a headphone defines its loudness. It defines the sound pressure produced by a headset at a particular frequency and input power. In most cases, the sensitivity is defined at 1 Kz and an input power of 1 milliwatt.

10 things to know when buying Headphones

Simply put, a pair of headphones with higher sensitivity will sound louder when compared to those with lower sensitivity. So if loudness is a big criterion for you, looking at the sensitivity of a headphone is a good idea.

Also read: Open-back vs Closed-back headphones


Drivers

Have you ever wondered how the electronic signals from your device are converted to sound? Well, the driver on your headphones is responsible for performing the task. The driver, also known as the transducer, takes the electronic signals from your mobile device and converts them into sound waves.

10 things to know when buying Headphones

There are different types of drivers, and the list for the same is given below:

  • Dynamic or moving coil drivers: These are the most popular forms of drivers and most of the headphones out there use dynamic drivers. These drivers rely on a diaphragm along with a set of permanent and temporary magnets to create sound waves. When compared to other drivers in the market they offer the best price to quality ratio. That said, they are susceptible to distortions at high volumes.
  • Electrostatic drivers: When it comes to drivers nothing comes close to electrostatic drivers. They are the best in the market and they rely on electrostatic principles for creating sound. That said, these drivers come at a cost and need to be driven by special amplifiers. Due to this reason, headphones using these drivers are not portable and are constricted to a studio setting.
  • Planar magnetic driver: These drivers operate on a principle similar to the dynamic drivers, but they offer better sound quality and lower distortion. That said these headphones require more power to be driven and are heavier and costlier when compared to dynamic counterparts.

Driver size

Driver size is another parameter that can be seen on almost all headphones. The driver size refers to the size of the diaphragm. On receiving an audio signal, the diaphragm moves to and fro to create sound waves. The diaphragm size for headphones lies in the range of 20- 50 millimetres, and a bigger diaphragm can produce a louder sound. The reason being a bigger diaphragm can displace more air molecules producing better bass.

That said, a bigger diaphragm does not correlate to better sound quality, as headphones with bigger diaphragms have trouble reproducing high frequencies.


Which drivers should you get?

If you are looking for the best in the market, electrostatic drivers are the one for you. That said, a pair of premium electrostatic headphones could cost you anywhere from $2,000 – $5,000. Not only this, you will need an external amplifier to power the same, and if you are looking for something portable, then these are probably not the ones for you.

A pair of headphones with dynamic drivers are probably the best bet for you if you are on a budget, and you can explore headphones with planar magnetic drivers if you have the extra cash and are not looking for something ultra-portable.

Also read: Bose 700 vs Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones


Frequency response

As mentioned earlier, every headphone is not the same, and different manufacturers use different sound colouring techniques to make music sound better. So how do you understand how a pair of headphones are tuned and which frequencies they perform better in? 

Well, the frequency response of a pair of headphones can help you understand the same. When it comes to frequency response, most headphone specifications show a range of frequencies they can reproduce.

Humans can only hear sounds in the range of 20 Hz- 20000Hz. 

In most cases, spec sheets of headphones list the human audible range as their frequency response. That said, some headphones have a defined frequency response between the range of 4 Hz-40,000Hz. This more extensive range of frequency reproduction has nothing to do with sound quality as humans can’t listen to frequencies above 20,000Hz. 

10 things to know when buying Headphones

To put it simply, the frequency response graph of a headphone shows the amplification it offers at different frequencies. So if you look at the frequency response curve of a headphone, you can understand how they perform in different frequency ranges. 

The frequency response of a headset can help you understand its sound signature without wearing the headphones. This can come in handy if you can’t find the headphones in a retail store near you but want to understand how they sound.

This data is not given in most headphone datasheets, and to get the same, you have to rely on third party reviews. 


Noise cancellation 

A pair of headphones might sound great in a quiet environment, but what happens to the sound quality when external noise is added to the mix? Well, the quality of the music might degrade drastically if the noise from the outside can reach your ears. This is where noise-cancelling technology comes into the picture. 

In-ear earphones vs On-ear headphones vs Over-ear headphones
Photo by Tomasz Gawlowski

Simply put, noise-cancelling technology prevents unwanted noise from the environment to enter your ears. Two types of noise-cancelling can be seen in headphones, namely passive and active noise cancelling. 


Passive noise-cancelling

As the name suggests, passive noise-cancelling uses passive or non-electronic components to remove noise that might reach the ears. Noise insulating material, along with closed-back designs, is used in earcups to eliminate environmental noise.

This kind of noise reduction works well on eliminating high frequencies and doesn’t work very well when it comes to lower frequencies. Due to this reason, sound from jet engines inside aeroplanes cannot be blocked by this technique. 


Active noise cancelling and transparency mode

Contrary to passive designs, active noise cancelling uses electronics to remove environmental noise. To do this, microphones along with digital signal processors are used to eliminate noise. This technique works well in the lower and mid-band frequencies. Based on the placement of the microphone, there are three types of active noise-cancelling technologies. 

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  • Feedforward active noise cancellation: In this case the microphone is placed on the outside of the headphone. Hence it picks up noise from the outside and then the digital signal processor removes it providing clean audio to the user. 
  • Feedback active noise cancellation: Here the microphone is placed inside the earcups. In this design the microphone gets a better noise resolution but there can be degradation in the lower frequencies of the music. 
  • Hybrid active noise cancellation: In this case, two microphones are placed in the headphones. One on the inside and one on the outside. This design offers the best noise cancellation amonst all the designs.

Most headphones with active noise cancellation offer transparency mode as well. This feature is the complete opposite of noise cancellation, and it helps users listen to the outside environment.

Also, active noise cancellation is primarily seen in headphones with batteries as the current from the headphone jack is not enough to power this feature. So if you are someone who can’t live without active noise cancellation, wireless is probably the way to go.


Should you get headphones with active noise cancellation?

If you find yourself travelling a lot, then a pair of headphones with active noise cancellation will change the way you commute. That said, if you are looking for a piece of headphones for a studio environment, then you can probably get a pair without active noise cancellation.

Also, it is crucial to understand that active noise cancellation only works well in lower frequencies. This means that it can only reduce noises like an aeroplane engine and can’t remove noise in the higher frequencies like that of a baby crying.

Also read: How to turn off Headphone Safety?


Wired or Wireless

The advancement in Bluetooth technology has flooded the market with wireless headphones. In addition to this, the unavailability of 3.5mm jacks on most smartphones and tablets has made people transition to wireless headphones. That said, are a pair of wireless headphones better than wired counterparts?

10 things to know when buying Headphones

Well, when it comes to sound quality, wired headphones are better when compared to wireless counterparts. This degradation in sound quality for wireless headphones is due to the use of Bluetooth technology.

In the case of wired headphones, audio signals are transmitted through the headphone jack. Due to this, the audio signals get a lot of bandwidth, and high amounts of data can be transferred to the headsets.

The same cannot be said about wireless headphones. Due to Bluetooth technology, audio files need to be compressed to be transferred to the headphones. This causes a loss in the quality of the audio. It is due to this reason that lossless music cannot be played using Bluetooth headsets.

Although wireless headphones cannot offer high-quality sound like wired headphones, they offer better mobility to users as they are not tethered to their electronics by wires.

10 things to know when buying Headphones

That said, this mobility comes at the cost of batteries and with a pair of wireless headphones comes the responsibility of keeping them juiced up. Although maintaining the batteries of your headphones charged can be a big turn off, these batteries enable features like active noise cancellation.


Which headphones should you get?

If you are an audiophile and want to listen to high-quality music, wired headsets are probably a better choice for you as you can listen to lossless music using the same. On the other hand, if you find yourself travelling and listening to music on the go, getting a pair of wireless headphones is a better bet for you.

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Bluetooth

Bluetooth technology has evolved leaps and bounds since its inception in the late nineties. Starting from Bluetooth version 1 in 1999 to Bluetooth 5.2 2020, Bluetooth is nothing like it was two decades ago, but what is the difference between these different versions of Bluetooth technologies, and is it worth an upgrade? 

Although there are several versions of Bluetooth, most devices in the market come with either Bluetooth version 4 or 5. So we will be comparing these two and looking at some newer versions of Bluetooth 5. 

10 things to know when buying Headphones

When it comes to Bluetooth technology, three different parameters are critical to any user, namely range, bandwidth, and power consumption.

In terms of numbers, Bluetooth 5.0 offers twice the bandwidth when compared to version 4. This enables devices to pair quickly and provides better sound quality. Not only this, Bluetooth 5 offers four times the range when compared to version 4.

In addition to all this, Bluetooth 5 uses lesser power when compared to version 4. So if you have a pair of headphones running Bluetooth version 4, getting new ones with Bluetooth 5.0 is worth it. 

If you plan on getting a headset that supports Bluetooth 5.0, it is quintessential to make sure that your streaming device also supports it.

Bluetooth 5.2 is the latest in Bluetooth technology

Although Bluetooth 5.0 offers a lot of upgrades over the older version 4, Bluetooth version 5.2 comes with newer updates that are worth the upgrade.

Bluetooth 5.2 comes with low energy audio for starters, which enables audio to be transmitted over low power channels. Up until now, audio files were transferred using Bluetooth classic, which used more power for transmission. With low energy audio, music files will be sent with higher quality and lower power consumption.

In addition to all this, Bluetooth 5.2 offers features multistreaming and broadcast modes.

Bluetooth 5.2 was released in early 2020 and it would take time for technologies like low energy audio to come to the market.

Also read: How to fix ‘AirPods keep disconnecting’ issue?


Audio codecs

Music from your device cannot be sent to your wireless headphones as it is. The audio files need to be compressed to be sent to a Bluetooth device. Different codecs (coders-decoders) are used to perform this task, and the compression efficiency can alter the music quality.

Several codecs are available in the market, and a codec offering a higher bitrate provides better sound quality. A list of audio codecs with their bitrates is given below.

Codec Bitrate
SBC 320 Kbps
AAC264 Kbps
aptX352 Kbps
aptX HD576 Kbps
aptX LL352 Kbps
LDAC990 Kbps

Apart from SBC, all other codecs are proprietary and are developed by Apple (AAC), Qualcomm(aptX) and Sony(LDAC). Therefore, it is essential to check if both devices support the codecs. If not, then SBC will be used as the default codec of choice.

Although higher bitrate codecs offer better sound quality, they compromise on connectivity. Due to this, using a high bitrate codec can cause audio to drop over a long distance.

In addition to all these codecs, L3C is a new codec available with Bluetooth 5.2 and will offer audio transmission over lower power channels.

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Battery life

If you plan to get a pair of wireless headphones, it is vital to consider their battery life. Most of the headphones out here offer up to 40 hours of listening time on a single charge.

10 things to know when buying Headphones

It is also important to look out for technologies like fast charging as they will help juice up your batteries faster when it comes to batteries. Not only this, if you get a pair of headphones with active noise cancellation, you should look at the battery life they offer when ANC is turned on, as it reduces battery life.

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Water resistance

When it comes to headphones, most of them do not come with water resistance. So if you are someone who is looking to work out with a pair of headphones, it is better to go for a pair of waterproof earphones.


Which headphones should you get?

Now that we have an idea of all the technical details pertaining to headphones, it is time to answer the most critical question. Which set of headphones is suitable for you?

Well, the answer depends on how you use your headphones. Are you a gamer, an audiophile or a typical consumer? Do you love bass-heavy music or listen to electronic music?

After asking these questions and knowing the technicals associated with headphones, you will be able to find the right pair for all your needs. Not only this, it is critical to try a pair of headphones on as the transfer function of the human ear makes every person experience music in a different way when listening to surround sound.

Also read: How to make a Bluetooth speaker louder?

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