Every day we receive interesting questions from our readers via the contact form. Many questions are about speakers and amplifiers. Or switches. However, we also regularly see questions about headphones. Types, amplifiers… In short: time to create some clarity around these ‘personal audio’ products! Which headphones are right for you?
Headphones offer great value for money. For significantly less money than with regular audio, you get some serious quality. A headphone set-up of about 5,000 euros plays better than a simmilar priced hi-fi system. Some enthusiasts think it performs ten times better. We don’t dare to say whether this is really the case, but that it is definately an interesting view on the matter.
In fact, there is a rough three-way split in the headphone market:
- In Ear
- On Ear
- Around Ear
These models are all wireless and wired. In the audiophile industry, wireless has not yet really gained ground because of compression that plays a role. Especially with bluetooth. However, bluetooth 5.0 is already very interesting. We also see more and more AptX HD penetrating the wireless market. AptX HD can handle higher bitrates. And that’s a good thing.
Is wireless via bluetooth as good as a nice cable? No. But it is a handy feature for those who are on the road a lot. Or, for example, does not want to get stuck during some exercise.
And then at the over ear, there’s two choices:
- Closed back
- Open back
Refine even more
And if we’re going to make some seperations:
- Without active noise cancelling
- With active noise cancelling
With that we’ve made al the seperations possible… we guess.
Take a good look at which functions you want per-sé. That makes the search a lot more focused and therefore more enjoyable. If you know in advance that you are looking for a closed back, over-ear model with active noise cancelling, you are already ruling out a lot. That saves a lot of time!
As with ordinary speakers, there are several drivers to be found with headphones. To name them:
- Dynamic drivers
- Electrostatic drivers
- Magnetostatic drivers
You can find all types in almost every segment. Yeah. They made electrostatic in-ears (Shure has them). And yes, Stax made an electrostatic on-ear. With a battery pack that lasted about an hour or two. Not really portable… but it worked.
Which driver is best depends completely on taste. And it has to do with the purpose for which you buy the headphones. Are you going to listen on the couch alone at home, or does it have to travel with you? Electrostatic will always need power. Magnetostats as well (almost always). Dynamic drivers are easier, but you will sometimes have to compromise on detail.
If you buy high-end headphones, you will notice that the amplifier – just as with ‘ordinary speakers’ – plays a major role in the final reproduction. A couple of gorgeous high-end in-ears don’t sound great if you use your phone as a source. With a portable dac / amp it performs much better.
Demanding, heavy-duty models with high resistance really need a good amplifier. We’ve already tested a few of them. And we can guarantee you that it will make a big difference. Know that many dac/pre-amps already have a decent headphone output. So it is not always necessary to purchase a separate amplifier. However: if you don’t have anything laying around, it is advisable to orient yourself when buying a nice pair of headphones.
Buying headphones – or any audio product – completely without testing it is not a great idea. Headphones can sound great but can be terribly uncomfortable. And then you still have nothing, because wearing something that’s not comfortable distracts you.
Comfort has to do with a few things:
- The cushions (or fit / material of the caps)
- Overall fit
- Cable length (if applicable)
It’s quite bizarre how big the differences are in fit and comfort. Watch this very carefully!
Of course, we need to take a look at the brands. After all, which brand of headphones is the best? Of course you can’t answer that. After all, it’s tastebound and every brand has good and less good models. Sennheiser is a very big player. With a huge offer. It’s always wise to listen to a Sennheiser. Just to set some kind of benchmark.
But don’t forget the ‘smaller’ specialists. Hifiman, Audeze, Final Audio, Focal, AKG… go on and on. There are many beautiful products. Definitely – or precisely – with the smaller players.
What types of headphones are there?
Basically, there are a few species. The rough division is: in-ear, on-ear and over-ear. So the over-ear falls around the ear and the on-ear sits on the ear. There are also models with an open or closed model. Especially with the over-ear models.
Do headphones always require active noise cancelling?
No. Definitely not. First of all, there are models that lock themselves in place. In addition, active noise cancelling is not pleasant for everyone. Anyone who travels a lot – especially by plane – may find it a nice feature.
With headphones, which driver is best?
That’s entirely up to you. Dynamic drivers have the potential to reproduce more bass. Electrical states may be able to show a little more detail, but need a special amplifier. Magnetostatic models are again in between (in theory). Listen to some models.
Which brand of headphones is best?
There’s no telling. Partly because of the fact that every brand has good and less good models. Sennheiser is a big player with quite interesting models. But don’t forget the smaller players. Focal has beautiful headphones, Hifiman idem, Final Audio is interesting, Audeze has beautiful models … go on and on.