Finding The Right Headphones For Me11 months ago
How to choose the right pair of headphones.
Most of the time, it’s easier said than done.
There is a plethora of headphone makes and models in the current market, which usually only appendage a multitude of other variables when it comes to technical design and specifications.
Having a good understanding of these characteristics makes the whole decision making process infinitely easier and assist the user in acquiring something that’s going to do the best job for its intended use.
Knowing and recognising what to look for in a pair of cans will help filter the mass waves of information (and marketing jargon), so we’ve chewed the fat and created this palatable explanation on the most important elements of specs and style that need to be considered.
Open-Back vs. Closed-Back
There are two common types of headphones: open-back and closed-back.
Open-back headphones have acoustic ports that allow sound to move through the ear-cups and increase stereo imagine and depth of field. The main drawback of this design is the ability for background noise to bleed through and sound to spill out from the headphones – not so good for private listening.
Closed-back headphones are completely covered and have no acoustic openings, which reduces background noise and prevents sound originating from the headphones from radiating outward. They can also retain certain frequencies better, especially in bass levels, but may trap others as a result.
Open-back headphones generally sound more natural, open, and accurate – compared to closed-back headphones – and provide acoustic accuracy for tasks that require critical listening. Sound produced by open back headphones more closely approximates monitor speakers and can be better for mixing and mastering applications.
Closed-back headphones are preferable for applications where noise isolation is desired, such as a recording session where noise needs to be minimised, of if the listener is in a noisy environment. This isolation is useful for critical listening in music production, DJing and simply being immersed in the audio.
In A Nutshell
- Open-back headphones provide more acoustic accuracy and are an ideal choice for organic and critical listening in situations where noise spill won’t be an issue.
- Closed-back headphones offer less acoustic accuracy, but provide a degree of isolation from surrounding environments. Some closed-back models have also been designed to compensate and replicate more of natural sound than what is usually heard in this style.
Impedance is the effective resistance of an electric circuit or component to an alternating current, which arises from the combined effects of ohmic resistance and reactance.
It’s basically an opposition to the flow of current (power): the higher the impedance, the less current will flow. Impedance is measured in Ohms (Ω) will usually be shown in the technical specifications of audio equipment.
The higher the impedance, the higher the sonic details and dynamic range of the audio signal will be. The drawback of this is that higher impedances also have a higher resistance to the flow of current, so they need more power to function and produce sound at higher volumes.
Most earphones and headphones range from 8 Ohms to 600 Ohms or higher, and an audio source – i.e. the headphone output – will also have an impedance rating. In an ideal world, the impedance of the audio source and the listening device would match to ensure all usable power from the source reaches the earphones, but that's rarely the case. When impedances don't match, there is a loss of power.
Without getting too deep into the maths and physics, it’s fair to say that the load loss is not critical, in most cases. However, it’s important to note that low impedance headphones can be easily overloaded by power and are more susceptible to “blow-outs”, proving disastrous when they are used with higher powered amplification.
Lower impedance devices can perform at louder volumes than those with a higher impedance, but provide far less sonic detail and protection from the flow of current.
Higher impedance devices offer a more dynamic and expressive level of sound quality and are constructed to create less distortion and maintain an audio file's integrity. On the flip-side, they demand higher power and may not perform high volumes on some devices. This is becoming less of an issue as more devices can now facilitate higher amplification, although, in some instances a dedicated headphone amplifier may be required to aid with the supply of power.
In A Nutshell
- A good pair of headphones for DJing or on-the-go use will usually range from 32-70 Ohms.
- 80 ohms is pushing into higher fidelity, so this is a starting point for most studio and/or multi-purpose pairs.
- 250 ohms and up will provide the most detail and dynamic range, and reduce internal ‘noise’, but may require a supplementary headphone amp if the impedance and power from the audio source can’t facilitate higher volume playback.
Frequency response is the range of bass, mid and treble frequencies and is measured in Hertz (Hz). It is generally accepted that the audible frequency range of the human ear is 20Hz to 20,000 Hz, so this is the base standard for most headphones.
- Bass frequencies below 20 Hz are usually felt more so than heard, and treble frequencies over 20,000 Hz are not always audible.
- Some headphones offer wider ranges, such as 5 to 35,000 Hz, but better frequency response does not always mean better sound quality, especially if they m not be audible.
- Some ratings include a plus/minus deviation (ie ±3 dB), which indicated how far the sound deviates from a neutral or "flat" response – the lower the number, the better.
Sensitivity is how effectively a headphone converts an electrical signal into an acoustical signal, and indicated how loud the earphones will be for a given level from the source.
This measurement is given in decibels of Sound Pressure Level per milliwatt, or dB SPL/mW. It may also be shown as dB/mW and is based on a 1 mW input signal.
- The sensitivity of earphones is usually in the range of 80 to 125 dB SPL/mW. Much as louder isn’t always better, a higher SPL level may not be beneficial to the headphones, and can actually cause hearing damage, especially over long exposure times.
- Note that dB SPL do not sum in a linear manner; doubling or halving the input power increases or decreases the SPL by 3 dB.
- A sensitivity rating doesn’t mean much until it is matched with the output capabilities of an audio system: if a system has low output level, using a low sensitivity earphone will result in low Sound Pressure Level.
- Increasing the amplifier level in this configuration will lead to distorted audio due to amplifier clipping. On the other hand, a high sensitivity headphone paired with a high power headphone amplifier will force a low volume setting, which can result in more noise.
Price range is obviously a pretty important factor, but a bigger price tag doesn’t always mean it’s a better product. A good entry or intermediate level pair of headphones can be just as good as a designer product; you’ve just got to know what to look for.
Other factors, such as cable length, size and weight, is mostly personal preference or activity specific application and won’t really affect the overall functions of the headphones.
For General Studio Applications
- Audio Technica ATH M30x
- Audio Technical ATH M40x
- AKG K92
- AKG K612
- AKG K240 MKII
- Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro
- Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro
- AKG K712
- Audeze LCD-X
- Sennheiser HD 800
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