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This page is intended to be a guide for those seeking to expand their knowledge with regards to headphones. For general information on headphones, please visit Wikipedia. Guides are located at the bottom section of the page.
Basic purchasing recommendations are to avoid Beats and other fashion over sound brands like Skullcandy (some V-moda and newer Skullcandy headphones are an exception). While discussion of headphones is welcomed, generally threads based on which headphones you should buy are discouraged. Those threads frequently result in the same guides being posted, many of which can be found on this page.
There is no such thing as the objectively best headphone. While we can talk about how a headphone is objectively more accurate than all the others, it does not make it better for everyone, since some people do not like the sound of accurate headphones. They might, for example, prefer a bassy sound with scooped treble. There are many neutral headphones at different price ranges, but when we look at populated sites like Head-Fi, a large amount of popular headphones are slightly bassy. This suggests that there are many people who don't want their headphones to represent "what the artists intended". However, it should be noted that as a generalization listeners tend to prefer a neutral signature.
When seeking a headphone that reproduces sound in a way that fits your subjective preferences, the term "sound signature" will be of great use to you. Sound signature refers to the way a headphone reproduces sound, for example, a warm headphone will reproduce sound with more bass than other frequencies, and a bright headphone will emphasize the high frequencies. People tend to prefer neutral signatures or signatures close to neutral generally, but it is perfectly possible that you might prefer the sound signature of an Ultrasone or Grado. Despite the differences in subjective preferences, there are still objective differences like build quality, weight and distortion, which will also be useful to you when looking for a headphone. Note: Comfort, is in fact subjective. The comfort a user experiences will be related to head size, hair length and other factors. While some headphones are terrible for everyone, others may only be uncomfortable to a few.
The world of audio is filled with snake oil products, such as magical stones, hangers and silver cables. If something sounds too good to be true, do some research on them.
- 1 Amplifiers and DACs
- 2 Impedance/resistance and sensitivity
- 3 Frequency Response Charts
- 4 Going deeper with frequency response and CSD (Work in progress)
- 5 Soundstage/imaging
- 6 Form factor
- 7 Somethings to look out for when buying a headphone
- 8 Types of Drivers
- 9 Accessories and mods
- 10 Equalizer, And How to Equalize Your Headphones
- 11 Digital
- 12 Surround Sound
- 13 External links for further reading:
- 14 /g/uides and Infographs
Amplifiers and DACs
Amplifiers and DACs are a necessary part of your digital audio system. The DAC converts your music from 0s and 1s into analog signals, and then the signal is amplified by your amp. People often ask if they need an amp or DAC, and the answer will depend on the following:
- Are your current headphones underpowered?
- Do you plan on getting headphones that will be difficult to drive with what you already have?
- Are your current amp/DACs really terrible and you desire better performance?
There are a few types of amp and DACs, and they serve different purposes. An amp or a DAC can be portable, meaning you can simply put them in your pocket, and then enjoy the music on the go. Desktop amps or DACs can go from the tiny USB powered FiiO E10 and all the way up to the size of a Beta22. Amps and DACs are either be two stand alone units, or a single device. For example the FiiO E17 is a portable amp/DAC two in one, and the WooAudio WES is a vacuum tube based desktop amplifier for STAX electrostatic headphones.
With amplifiers, most people want a neutral and transparent sound signature, meaning the amp doesn't change the sound in anyway. However some people prefer amps that change the sound, because of this, many vacuum tube based amps are made with the intention of reproducing a colored sound. In general however, it is better to do this with an equalizer.
Professional amps are often multi-channel, meaning it can power many headphones at once. Headphones with high impedance is recommended with this kind of amps, for more on impedance scroll down.
To utilise your amp correctly and minimising damage and stress, be sure to read up on gain structure. To simplify correct gain structure for playback, keep the volume bar at 100% or as close to it on your computer, then the same on your DAC and only adjust the volume at the end of the chain (AKA your amp). The only exception to this for most users are digital EQs as they tend to produce a lot of noise. Some links about gain structure 1 2 3
Impedance/resistance and sensitivity
Headphones will often come with a few specifications like frequency range, sensitivity and impedance/resistance. The most common impedance would be 32ohms. Although some headphones will have impedance all the way up to 600 ohms. As a generalisation, more impedance will require more voltage and less current, and visa versa. The reason that many portable players can not drive a 600ohm headphone well is due to the limited voltage it is capable of outputting. However for the purpose studio monitoring, many 600ohm headphones in one amp is much better than many 32ohm headphones in one amp as it will require less current, and produce less heat. (power loss is generally in the form of heat, calculated by P loss == I^2R)
Improved damping factor is also often associated with high impedance headphones but it's effects is minimal if not unnoticeable when using an amp with near zero output impedance. However when amps with very high output impedance is involved high impedance headphones will fair better than their lower impedance counter parts.
Sensitivity is often measured in SPL/mW @ 1kHz. What this essentially means is that at 1mW, a 1kHz tone played through this headphone will be in *Insert SPL here.
Frequency Response Charts
Before we can get into frequency response charts, you have to know what frequencies contain what sounds. If you think 20khz is where the bass is, you are going to have a bad time. " This frequency chart should help you improve your understanding.
A frequency response graph shows how a headphone will reproduce sound, whether it'll have emphasized bass or treble, or relatively neutral, but it does not tell you the whole story. There are other factor such as distortion and decay involved. Headphone measurements are not yet mature and somewhat imperfect. The results will change with a very slight adjustment of the headphones being measured. Keep this mind when you're using frequency response graphs to compare headphones. Remember that since different sites will use different methods, graphs from different sources are therefore incomparable.
Before you find a graph on the Internet, and decide that a headphone is therefore the objectively best headphone in its range, read up the more in depth section below.
Some sources of FR graphs:
- Effin' Ringin' (Contains CSD and pirates)
- Headphone.com (Also a shop)
- InnerFidelty (Reviews and other interesting articles)
- GoldenEars (Mostly just measurements)
- HeadphoneInfo (Reviews and measurements)
- PCMag (You'll need to use the search function)
Going deeper with frequency response and CSD (Work in progress)
Changstar, AKA Effin' Ringin' is one of the main sources of cumulative spectral decay (CSD) graphs on the Internet in general.
To quote the site owner, Purrin: "Cumulative spectral decay (CSD) or waterfall plots measure energy content over time across all frequencies based on a "sound burst" that excites all frequencies. They are sort of like a FR over time (technically not really as they measure energy throughout the band in successively smaller windows over time.) These plots are a good tool to "see" driver ringing or resonances (seen as ridges), which typically sounds bad (piercing, glare, shoutyness, etc.); and how fast and cleanly the driver decays (speed and extraction of low level information.)
For a perfect or near-perfect response, the decay should be immediate. We first see a wall (meaning all frequencies are excited) at the beginning. The next few fractions of a millisecond, the wall collapses into silence (meaning the driver is no longer vibrating or sound waves are no longer bouncing around inside the headphone enclosures.) The back wall at time = 0 is basically an uncompensated frequency response. Success plots over time move toward us."
CSDs has the benefit of showing something frequency response won't be able to tell you, such as decay and ringing, but due to the lack of compensation, frequency response graphs should not be abandoned in favour of CSD but both should be used in conjunction with each other provided they are from the same source.
When researching further into frequency response, one is likely going to see different compensation methods.
- Free field compensations, when showing a neutral result, show a headphone that will sound like a perfectly neutral speaker in the perfect anechoic (no echo) room with nothing affecting the sound. In other words, neutral with this compensation is what is really neutral, but of course your average joe will never hear this form of neutral
- Diffuse field compensations, when showing a neutral result, will sound like a perfect neutral speaker in a not so perfect room with echos.
Neither compensation is objectively the correct method, and often neutral by these standards are not the most preferred signature. A straight line under any method is meaningless if you hate the sound.
To begin, we must define soundstage. Two popular definitions from Head-Fi and Stereophile are included here.
- "Soundstage - The area between two speakers that appears to the listener to be occupied by sonic images. Like a real stage, a soundstage should have width, depth, and height."
- "Soundstaging, soundstage presentation The accuracy with which a reproducing system conveys audible information about the size, shape, and acoustical characteristics of the original recording space and the placement of the performers within it."
Humans can perceive the direction of a sound, that much is known. This ability is based on the delay for sound to reach each ear, the amount of high frequencies and the volume of sound in each ear. All of these phenomenons can be demonstrated in a DAW (digital audio workstation).
Now that it is established that humans can perceive soundstage, we can move on to perception of soundstage in audio equipment. 2.0 speakers, for example, when placed together, project sound almost directly into both ears, at the same angle. When placed apart, several factors come in effect.
- The treble will have a slight reductions as the distance between the listener's ears and the speakers increase.
- The sound will reach the listener's ears at a different angle, which will be perceived by the listener
- The delay between the sound from reaching the closer ear and further ear increases as it takes more time to reach the other ear, again heard and perceived by the listener. (Think of the distances between the two ears and one speaker as an almost isosceles triangle at the start, and as it moves further to the sides the closer ear side is decreased as the further ear side is increased)
Moving on to headphones, headphones are similar to the speakers, but there are a few differences. Sound on one side will not be heard by the other ear due the nature of headphones, so the delay between the ears are only caused by the recording itself here and soundstage relies on the distance between the ears and the drivers. Where the drivers are pointing at is also different to speakers, as speakers are generally at the front of the listener, while a headphone driver can pointed either centred on the ear canal or slightly off of it. This difference in pointing the drivers will also have an effect on the sound, as shown in Tyll's measurements at Innerfidelity, where even moving a headphone a few mm, an acceptable difference similar to human error, produced differences in sound.
Headphones come in many forms, and some may not suit your needs, so always be careful when making a purchase with your hard earned money.
Headphones have different form factors, such as on-ear (supra-aural), around ear (circumaural), in-ear (IEM) and earbuds.
- An on-ear headphone rests on the ear, and does not surround it. Examples include Beats Solos and Sennheiser HD25-1-II. Some on-ear headphones, such as the Koss KSC75, do not have headbands and secures itself with a clip, these are known as clip-ons.
- Around ear headphones are far more popular in the high end headphone market, examples include the Sennheiser HD800, Audio Technica M50.
- In-ears or IEMs (In ear monitor) are the type of earphones that is inserted into your ear canal. How far in an IEM goes varies, but they tend to provide decent isolation against outside noise. Examples include Etymotic ER4, Shure SE215
- Earbuds are earphone that do not go inside your ears, like the junk you see included with older iPods. They are almost always terrible sounding and offer no isolation.
A headphone can also be open or closed. An open headphone usually have a mesh at the back of the earcups, which allows the sound from the headphones to travel outside, but also allows external noise to enter. Open headphones are said to have a larger perceived soundstage. Closed back headphones are the most common type. It does not have openings, and offers isolation. They are commonly associated with "basshead" headphones, which adds more bass to the reproduced sound.
Headbands also come in a variety of forms.
- Split - See DT1350 and HD25-1-II, splits open and some find them more secure
- Single - The normal headband
- Behind the neck - Goes around the back of the head
Somethings to look out for when buying a headphone
Headphones are usually wired, and wireless headphones are normally thought of as inferior, due to the need to add extra components into the headphone. Sometimes companies make wireless versions of the headphones previously available in wired versions, such as the Sony MDR-R1BT. The cables for wired headphones come in detachable, and attached. Detachable cables offer more convenience, allowing different lengths of cables and cables with mics to be used.
Sometimes headphones will be rebranded by a several small headphone companies, and the price point of it will varies greatly. A great deal can often be found. The Yoga CD-880 is an example of rebrands being sold at various prices. ($50 at Jaycar, $150 from Brainwavz)
A feature often seen in luxury and fashion headphones is active noise cancellation (ANC). While most closed headphones offer decent amounts of isolation, ANC headphones aims to reduce the noise form outside even further by producing inverted soundwaves to cancel out the unwanted noise. While ANC is a helpful feature for plane travelers and others, it is often not recommended due to the fact that an ANC headphone will often have minor flaws in sound reproduction due to their design. ANC headphones use a microphone to pick up ambient noise, and then add the inverted soundwaves into the reproduced sounds. Because of physical limitations, the noise canceling will not be 100% accurate, and often there will be high frequency noise added to the sound. The main disadvantage of ANC however, is its need for batteries to operate.
Headphones are often marketed by their uses. For example, if you see a headphone marketed as a "DJ" headphone, you can expect it to be heavy on the bass, and occasionally have a roll off in the bass region similar to speakers (The Pioneer HDJ-2000 for example). A studio headphone on the other hand, will have relatively neutral frequency response, and they sometimes have the same kind of speaker-like roll off found in DJ headphones (The Sony V6 for example). Audiophile headphones tend not to have a general sound signature. Anything with a rapper's name on it should be treated like Xtreme Gaemer l33t Sniper Military Mountain Dew.
Types of Drivers
There are three types of drivers that you're likely to see when shopping for a headphone, while there are others, they tend to be less common, so they're are not included in this wiki. The three main types are dynamic/moving coil, planar-magnetic/orthodynamic and electrostatic.
- Dynamic/moving coil headphones are the most common type of drivers, found in $1 earbuds to $1000+ top of the line headphones. To put it simply, a dynamic driver is a piece of voice coil is attached to a diaphragm, with a magnet that pushes the voice coil to produce movement, which becomes sound. Of course not all dynamic drivers are made equal, and companies tend to add their own fancy technology to their drivers.
- Planar-magnetic/orthodynamic headphones are less common, but tend to be compatible with other consumer sources, and does not require the consumer to purchase a special amplifier, however they tend to be power hungry, so an external amp is still recommended. The drivers are generally thin plastic, with the voice coil spread onto the diaphragm in a manner that allows the driver to be driven evenly across its surface. Most planar-magnetic headphones have two magnets, however some only have one
- Electrostatic drivers are drivers that uses a diaphragm coated with conductive materials, and the diaphragm is moved by stators on either side of the drivers. Electrostatic headphones tend to require their own special amps. STAX and Koss currently makes electrostatic headphones. Sennheiser once made two electrostatic headphones, known as the HE90 Orpheus and HE60 baby Orpheus. The HE90 is an almost legendary headphone among audiophiles due to its sound, price and rarity
Accessories and mods
Aftermarket earpads and tips is frequently purchased to improve comfort or for other reasons. Foam tips for IEMs for example, improves the isolation provided by IEMs. Common earpad materials include velour, pleather and leather. IEMs tips are available in single-flange, bi-flange, tri-flange, foam and many other forms.
Cables are also modified and replaced. Some believe that they improve sound but no evidence supports this belief. V-moda, a headphone company, sells the cable intended for their line of headphones. DIY solutions are also popular. Comply Foam tips are a common tip. They seal well, and are very comfy. The downside is they only last a month or so of normal use.
Equalizer, And How to Equalize Your Headphones
An Equalizer simply changes how strong a headphone responds to certain frequencies. To avoid clipping, never use boost, either lower the frequencies you don't want, or lower the preamp the absolute value of your highest boost.
Analog EQs tend to have multiple bands representing each region of the frequency range, going from 3 to 32 bands in most situations. Digital EQs tends to emulate the same setup. EQs are available in graphic and parametric versions. A graphic EQ is a simple multi-band equalizer that controls the level of certain frequencies, where as parametric EQs can also control the central frequency of each band, and its range. Meaning it can control the frequency that it'll boost the most and the range of surrounding frequencies.
A quick guide to equalizing is here.
Sound files come in different digital formats. .mp3 is by far one of the most common type. .mp3 is a lossy form of compression and 320kbps is recommended for listening purposes as lower bit rates can sometimes have audible degradation. .ogg and .aac are also popular lossy compression formats, and follow roughly the same rules as .mp3. Two forms of popular formats for storage is .wav and .flac. A .wav is often the default export format used in DAWs, and can be uncompressed. .flac is a popular lossless compression format.
The difference between difference bit rate, sample rate, bit depth and other factors has been debated endlessly, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is what the listener himself can hear, rather than what magical golden ears on the Internet say they could hear. A testing method known as ABX is commonly used to test if there is an audible difference between two or more files. An ABX test in this context, is where two samples A and B, are played to the tester, and then a third sample, either A or B, known as the X sample is played. In the case of A and B sample, the user is told which sample is which, however with the X sample, the user would have to guess which sample is the X sample. Note that this methods requires repetition, often up to 10 to 20 times for the sake of accuracy. This method can easily remove the effect of placebo with individual listeners, and given the right group of participants (trained listeners), it may also given generalisations about a large group of people such as audio enthusiasts.
A rather interesting form of recording known as "Binaural recording" are available from records such as " Chesky, these are made with special binaural dummyheads that simulate the human ear, giving ultra realistic imaging. An example would be the virtual barbershop from QSound Labs.
Surround sound sources, usually from movies and games, can be downsampled to stereo with filters that simulate the human ears, just like dummyhead recordings. One example of a technology accomplishing this is Dolby Headphone.
A DAC, as it is used to convert the digital to analog, is not required for anything that is analog, like vinyl records. Your computer however, will require a DAC.
If you frequently play video games or watch movies, you may want virtual surround for your headphones. Virtual surround converts the multi-channel signal from movies or games into 3D stereo, simulating the experience from a real surround sound setup. This should not be confused with physical surround headphones, which carry multiple speakers in each cup and do not enhance the experience, so they should be avoided. To get virtual surround, a DAC that can process virtual surround must be used. The most widespread technology that achieves this is named Dolby Headphone, which is supported by numerous DACs, including ASUS Xonar sound cards. 3D sound works by applying properties to the audio that real sound has in a spatial environment. This is formally known as head-related transfer function (HRTF).
- NwAvGuy's blog - A blog about headphones, amps and DACs by an anonymous and (in)famous audio engineer (inactive since May 2012)
- Information about transducers, impedance and localization (skip anything else)
- Headphone measurement explained @InnerFidelity
- WHO | Make Listening Safe
- Joker’s mutli-IEM review thread. More than 200+ IEM reviews
- A list of videos on headphones
- Stack of AES papers, documents and books on headphones/loudspeakers
/g/uides and Infographs
- Tranquilizer's Universal IEM Guide (based on IEM_GUY's, but with some modifications)
- $200 and over headphones
- Real headphone guide.png
TOTALLY real headphone guide