All you need to know about the different type of headphones and their key technical specs

With the sea of headphones available to you in the market today, how do you find the right one? Well, you’d need to first understand the difference between their features and how they deliver sound and perform under different circumstances. In this review, we’ll help you find headphones that will suit your needs.

Why choosing the right headphones matters

A lot of people invest in music players, purchasing ones that have a sizable storage, easy to use interface, a menu that is convenient to navigate through, sturdy materials, and an overall sleek, attractive design. There are numerous options in the market, so you are sure to find one that fits your budget and your needs. If you want a truly memorable sound tripping experience, you need to have seriously good headphones to go with your music players.

Like normal speakers, the tiny speakers in headphones (yes, that is exactly what they are, which is why you are advised against listening to very loud, blaring music) affect the quality of the sounds you are listening to. This means that they have the ability to muffle, distort, amplify, enhance, and altogether change the way your music sounds. When you use headphones of superior quality, you get to listen to music and sounds the way they are meant to be listened to – crisp, loud, and clear, with no sounds or beats or riffs fading in the background.

Headphones of subpar quality, on the other hand, give you a less than satisfactory aural experience. Poorly-made headphones have the strange ability to make everything sound unnecessarily loud. These headphones also eliminate the intricate riffs and beats, focusing only on the major percussion and string sounds, and on the vocals, which, at times, also sounds completely different from the actual singing or speaking voice of the artist. This is why it is very important that you invest on headphones that are of the highest quality.

Additionally, the type of headphones you get should be suited to your needs. For example, if you are a multi-tasker, then you need ones that do more than just let you listen to music, but also lets you take calls, switch tracks, and play and pause music, among other functions, without having to reach for your music player or device. If you are an athlete or if you move around a lot or navigate through throngs of people while listening to music, then you need headphones that will stay put and stay dry. If you are a gamer or if you prefer to take calls without having to press your phone against your ear, then you should purchase wireless earphones with a built-in microphone. It all depends on your needs, really.

So many different types of headphones, so little time

If there are numerous options for music players out there, there are even more options for headphones. It is quite liberating to know that you are not limited to the pair that usually comes with every purchase of a music player or a mobile phone – almost every major electronic brand has a line of headphones, and there are brands that offer nothing but headphones and earphones. You are definitely spoilt for choice, as earphones come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and even colours.

There are headphones that simply lets you listen to some music, while there are some that are so technologically-advanced, they can give your smartphones a run for their money as they let you multi-task and yes, listen to music. Some headphones have built-in microphones, some cancel out all external noises completely, and some are completely shock-proof and waterproof.

There are headphones that won’t ever make a dent in your wallet, while there are some that are priced like luxury items. There are headphones with wires that hang like necklaces in front of you, there are those that go around your head like a headband but with oversized muffs, and there are some that are wireless. Indeed, with all the numerous options that are present in the market, choosing which headphones to purchase can be quite a challenge. How then will you be able to choose which one to spend on? The answer depends largely on your lifestyle and your needs.

The different types of headphones

If you want to make a quick decision on which headphones to buy, good luck. There are more than 10 different styles of headphones in the market. Here are some of the different kinds of headphones to help you narrow down your choices:

Over ear headphones

These headphones’ most distinct feature is the ear cups or cushions made of foam or memory foam, or other materials, like leather or suede, surrounding the entire ear. Over ear headphones may be deemed as too large and conspicuous, but they offer superior, immersive sound. Despite their size and lack of portability, they are very comfortable because of the cushioned ear cups that rest against the entire ear, as opposed to the in-ear varieties. Over-ear headphones come in several varieties, including:

  • Noise-cancelling headphones  – A specification that is related to the above choice between closed-back and open-back headphones is noise cancelling technology. It was first introduced by Bose, and is used today in most prominent models to block noises that can interfere with music.There are two types of noise canceling technologies, and they are active and passive.

Almost every headphone performs passive noise cancellation as the materials used for making headphones keep some amount of external noise away. The downside with passive noise cancelling technology is that the padding and foam materials that are used to keep away the noise can increase the weight of headphones. Active noise canceling technology, on the other hand, encompasses the passive one, and it also goes a step further by erasing the lower-frequency sound waves. As a result, it can keep the external noise at bay with much higher accuracy than passive ones. The downside is that it may come at an extra cost, and in some cases, such active cancelation technology may not be needed at all. Moreover, it can alter the natural quality of music, and for some people, this noise-cancelation hum can make them feel claustrophobic.

  • DJ headphones – As the name implies, these are used by DJs and music professionals. and are characterised by the ear cups that swivel away from the headband, and especially by a strong emphasis on quality of sound, rather than design and style
  • Gaming headphones – These headphones that are used by gamers have an extended microphone that is used to communicate while playing. Similarly, these headphones may be used to answer calls either on a mobile phone or laptop.
  • Open-back headphones – These headphones’ ear coverings have an outer shell that is perforated with horizontal cut outs, so they have lots of openings. They allow air and sound to pass freely in and out of the headphone cups, so ambient noise and outside noise are not isolated. While they are perfectly fine when you are listening to music in a quiet room, they may be problematic when you try listening to music on a noisier, more crowded environment.
  • Closed-back headphones – These different types of headphones isolate noise expertly, both active and passive noises. They muffle the sounds of the outside world and amplify the sounds of the music, so you have an “in-your-head” musical experience. They reflect the noise created by the headphones themselves, so you hear practically nothing but the music you are listening to.
  • Semi-open headphones – Please note that some models (such as the AKG K 240 ) are hybrid and are known as semi-open, featuring characteristics of open and closed headphones alike.

On-ear headphones

These are a bit smaller and lighter, and are less expensive than the different types of headphones. Their cushions rest directly on the ear. Earphones Nowadays, the terms “headphones” and “earphones” are used interchangeably, but if you want to be politically correct, in-ear headphones – the ones with buds or parts that fit snugly inside the ear or ear canal – are called earphones by most companies. They are also very portable because they do not have full-sized ear cushions and head bands. The caveat, though, is that they tend to be uncomfortable. Under this headphone category, the most popular include:

Clip-on earphones – These earphones, as the name suggests, are meant to be clipped on to the tops of your ears using plastic pipes and pressure to keep the source of sound as close as possible to your ear canals. They are largely uncomfortable to use, as the fabric-padded speakers that hang from your ears are large and cumbersome. The speakers utilised in these clip-on type earphones deliver outer ear-filling and realistic audio, but they tend to leak sound to the people around you. So, if you do not want to get caught listening to outdated pop music, these are not for you. They are heavier than earbuds and may be dangerous to your ears, ass you need to always turn up the volume to hear the music clearly. These earphones do not isolate outside noise.

Standard earbuds – Standard earbuds are shaped to stay firmly in place inside the edges of your ear canals. Their speakers are smaller than the ones used on clip-ons and do not use any other reinforcement to keep them secured to your ears. These are the earphones that the late Michael Jackson, in his documentary This Is It, was complaining about, claiming that it felt like there was a fist being jammed inside his ear. Needless to say, standard earbuds can be very uncomfortable, especially when you use them for a long time, as they have the tendency to fall out when tugged. The upside, however, is that they are lighter than clip-ons. They also do not leak too much sound and even allow you to listen to music without having to turn the volume way up.

Canalphones – They’re just like earbuds, but arguably better. Canalphones have smaller speakers and uses soft, user-replaceable ear tips that fit snugly but comfortably in your ear canals. Silicone rubber or foam tips create a seal with your ear canal, effectively blocking out external sounds and preventing the canalphones from falling off. They offer almost no sound leakage, and are ideal for extended listening as you can hear music even at lower volume levels. They are lighter than earbuds and clip-ons. This is perfect for those who listen to music while moving around.

Convertible earphones – Convertible earphones let you choose between earbuds or canalphones, which you both get in one package. Reinforcing pieces are go around your ears, head, or neck, supporting the earphones against cable tugging or movement, especially when you are exercising. As with earbuds or canalphones, they fit snugly in your ear and offer virtually no sound leakage, effectively blocking out external sounds.

Wireless earphonesWireless earphones range from clip-ons, to earbuds and semi-canalphones in terms of design. While they do not have headbands, they are not entirely wireless because they are still connected to one another through a wire. However, you can still walk a few feet away from your music player and still hear some music, which is a breakthrough experience compared to when you are using wired headsets, where you are practically glued to your music player. These require a wireless audio receiving chip and a battery, so they are bigger and weigh more, and are also more expensive than wired earphones or headphones. They offer superior sound and are sold at between $100 and $300.

Waterproof or sweat proof headphones – These headphones, the latest to hit the market, are designed with the serious athlete in mind, using advanced technology that enables it to stay dry and impervious to damage caused by water. Because they stay dry, you no longer have to worry about the annoying “waterlogged” sound that you hear whenever your headphones get wet, or wait for them to dry and hope they still function well after getting doused with water or soaked with sweat.

Bluetooth / Cordless or wireless headphones

These state-of-the-art headphones are designed to work with Bluetooth-enabled devices, such as gaming stations, computers, mobile phones, PDAs, Apple devices, digital music or multimedia players, and the like. They are also ideal for home entertainment receivers, televisions, and vehicle radios. Because its radio frequency waves travel through light solid objects, you can connect to any device effortlessly. This type of headphones is ideal for those who want to be connected to their devices wirelessly and be able to stream music or videos without having to worry that the signal may be cut off when there is a physical barrier. Have you decided which type of headphones would work best for you? Well, remember that whatever type of headphones you choose, make sure that you choose one that is well-made, within your budget, and will deliver excellent sound quality.

The key characteristics of different types of headphones

Apart from considering the types of headphones and earphones, you should also get to know their key characteristics and technical specs. The main ones are:

Total Harmonic Distortion Total harmonic distortion (THD) is a measure of the harmonic distortion that is expressed as the sum of all harmonic components to fundamental frequency. When the different types of headphones are driven at high volumes, the diaphragm or the speaker that is present inside the headphones cannot move as fast it should. This lag creates a distortion that can sound as a crackling or popping noise to users. Headphones that have THD have a higher propensity to distort when compared to those with lower THD. Hence, it is important for users to go for headphones that have the lowest THD, typically less than 0.1 percent.

The downside of this specification is that it is hard to identify, and THD is not always a great benchmark for measuring sound quality. THD occurs mostly when headphones are played at very high volumes, which is rare. Nevertheless, it helps for users to keep these specifications in mind if at all they need to amp up the volume on their headphones.

Impedance Impedance is the elctrical resistance given by headphones when current is pushed through them. It is measured in ohms, and it depends to a large extent on the number of components used in the headphones. When the impedance levels are high, it makes it that much more difficult for MP3 players, phones or sound cards of laptops to push high volumes through the headphones.

High impedance levels are tyical in high quality headphones because impedance becomes a by-product of low electronic interference. As a result, some high quality headphones with the lowest interference levels need a headphone amplifier to power them. Hence, users should opt for low impedance headphones (usually 25 ohms or less) when they plan to use it with weak amplification devices such as MP3 players and cell phones. On the other hand, if users are looking for DJ-quality headphones, they should choose high impedance levels, and as a downside, will need an amplification system or an audio system to go with it.

Frequency Response Frequency response is the ability of a headphone to reproduce sound frequencies. It is measured in Hertz, and is usually expressed as a range where the low end value represents the bass while the high end measures the treble. Most quality headphones have a frequency response of 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz where 20 is the bass and 20,000 is the treble. While the entire frequency range may not be used everytime, it is good to have a pair of different types of headphones that would cover as much frequency as possible. However, users should not put too much effort on this factor because some manufacturers may exaggerate this value.

Unfortuantely, frequency response is hard to measure, so there is no way a user is going to know unless he or she actually listens to bass or treble. In short, the above technical specifications can help you to identify the right headphone model that would match your needs. Along with these specifications, users should also take into consideration factors such as the overall design of the headphone and their budget before heading out to purchase the headphone of their choice.

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