The moving coil driver, more commonly referred to as a "dynamic" driver is the most common type used in headphones. It consists of a stationary magnet element affixed to the frame of the headphone, which sets up a static magnetic field. The magnet in headphones is typically composed of ferrite or neodymium. A voice coil, a light coil of wire, is suspended in the magnetic field of the magnet, attached to a diaphragm, typically fabricated from lightweight, high-stiffness-to-mass-ratio cellulose, polymer, carbon material, paper or the like. When the varying current of an audio signal is passed through the coil, it creates a varying magnetic field that reacts against the static magnetic field, exerting a varying force on the coil causing it and the attached diaphragm to vibrate. The vibrating diaphragm pushes on the air to produce sound waves.
Will Greenwald has been covering consumer technology for a decade, and has served on the editorial staffs of CNET.com, Sound & Vision, and Maximum PC. His work and analysis has been seen in GamePro, Tested.com, Geek.com, and several other publications. He currently covers consumer electronics in the PC Labs as the in-house home entertainment expert, reviewing TVs, media hubs, speakers, headphones, and gaming accessories. Will is also an ISF Level II-certified TV calibrator, which ensures the thoroughness and accuracy of all PCMag TV reviews.
Inexpensive: Most casual users can find a good pair of headphones for between $20 and $50. Headphones in this price range sound great, include key features like an in-line microphone, and often support wireless Bluetooth connections. If you’re looking for a reliable set of headphones and you don’t need much more than audio, you don’t need to spend more than $50.
Again, back on the automobile analogy. If you’re driving in downtown Chicago after winter time, the road is full of potholes. It would be nice to be riding in a nice SUV, rather than typical sports car with a fully stiff suspension. It doesn’t matter if your sports car happen to cost three times the cost of the SUV, it’s just the wrong car for the road. Likewise headphones. A $1,000 headphone can sound very awful on the wrong music. Don’t believe me? Try listening to Linkin Park with the $1,800 Sennheiser HD800. You will wonder where that $1,800 went.
Impedance: Generally speaking, the lower the headphones' electrical impedance (aka resistance), the easier it is to get higher volume. But here again, the low impedance is no guarantee of high volume capability; other factors can still limit loudness potential. Since many MP3 players have feeble power output -- the iPod is a notable exception -- smart shoppers should check the loudness before purchasing any pair of headphones. To be sure, listen with your player.
With small extrusions emerging from otherwise understated wireless in-ears, Jabra’s Elite Active 65t look like miniature versions of the Bluetooth headsets that helped put the brand on the map. But don’t be fooled by the looks — with sweatproofing, excellent sound quality, and a myriad of useful features, these little guys beat out every other pair of headphones on the market as the best workout headphones.
Dale: There are so many types of amplifiers (and DAC’s with amplifiers) that there is no shortcut for studying all of the options, unless you settle for the most generic approach. Important things to consider are power – if you don’t have enough power for your headphone and the dynamics in the music, clipping will result. Sometimes the clipping is “soft” and not readily noticed, but eventually you would discover that much of the detail goes missing or gets veiled with limited dynamics. Another consideration is whether to use a DAC, which may be a separate DAC or built into the same enclosure as the amp. Most DACs will improve the sound over the DACs that are built into computers, but when a DAC is available to replace the DAC built into most cellphones and low to mid-priced music players, you can usually expect a much greater improvement.
Those who buy either of these headphones are in for a treat. Our reviewer didn’t hold back in their assessment of these cans’ ability to fully realize every detail of a recording, noting their “warm and rigid bass, a midrange that dips close to the ruddy colors of analog tape saturation (without sacrificing an ounce of detail), and a laser tight response up top that helps illuminate vivid clarity and granular instrumental texture across the board.”
While the data signal containing Bluetooth audio is compressed, headphone and earphone manufacturers have found ways to enhance the signal to compensate for its deficiencies in a way that even audiophiles can appreciate. We've included some wireless options here, but if you're really keen on cutting the cord, check out The Best Wireless Headphones. And if you want to go completely wireless (with no cord at all connecting the two earpieces), check out The Best True Wireless Headphones—just keep in mind these are about as far from over-ear headphones as you can get.
At the heart of the WH-1000xM3 is outstanding wireless sound. Sony’s LDAC technology delivers a wireless signal at what the company claims is three times the quality of standard Bluetooth streaming, and the headphones also support the latest aptX HD codec (with supported devices). The 1000xM3 even “upscale” wireless music from high-resolution audio devices using a special chip, helping to make music sound dynamic and beautiful, with authoritative bass and clear treble response held together by a well-rounded midrange.
Mid-range: Many headphones that cost between $50 and $130 include improved sound and useful smartphone integration (like custom EQ controls). In this price range, you’ll also see a big jump in the quality of materials used, which improves both the sound and the luxury of each pair. If you need a pair of well-made headphones with basic noise cancellation, you’ll need to spend at least this much.
Dale: The examples listed here are good general rules, but one thing to keep in mind is in the mid-to-lower price tiers, open-back headphones aren’t nearly as common as the closed types. The smaller list of choices, and the more limited reviews of those items, could make getting a perfect fit more difficult. Sound stage and openness are often given as the advantage of the open-back types, but it’s just a general rule and some closed-back headphones excel at those properties. An important thing to consider is the music itself, since sound stage and perspective varies widely in different recordings.
I will get to these today. Just imagine the sound you hear is a line stretching left to right, with bass at the left and treble to the right. Now the line is tilted toward the right so the bass is higher (stronger) and the treble lower (weaker). That’s an example of getting darker. It’s not a perfect analogy, since any complex combination of sounds or balance is possible, but in general when something sounds darker you’ll have less influence of the treble.
Marketed claims such as 'frequency response 4 Hz to 20 kHz' are usually overstatements; the product's response at frequencies lower than 20 Hz is typically very small. Headphones are also useful for video games that use 3D positional audio processing algorithms, as they allow players to better judge the position of an off-screen sound source (such as the footsteps of an opponent or their gunfire).
Transducer technologies employed much less commonly for headphones include the Heil Air Motion Transformer (AMT); Piezoelectric film; Ribbon planar magnetic; Magnetostriction and Plasma-ionisation. The first Heil AMT headphone was marketed by ESS Laboratories and was essentially an ESS AMT tweeter from one of the company's speakers being driven at full range. Since the turn of the century, only Precide of Switzerland have manufactured an AMT headphone. Piezoelectric film headphones were first developed by Pioneer, their two models used a flat sheet of film that limited the maximum volume of air movement. Currently, TakeT produces a piezoelectric film headphone shaped similarly to an AMT transducer but, which like the Precide driver, has a variation in the size of transducer folds over the diaphragm. It additionally incorporates a two way design by its inclusion of a dedicated tweeter/supertweeter panel. The folded shape of a diaphragm allows a transducer with a larger surface area to fit within smaller space constraints. This increases the total volume of air that can be moved on each excursion of the transducer given that radiating area.
In early powered radios, the headphone was part of the vacuum tube's plate circuit and carried dangerous voltages. It was normally connected directly to the positive high voltage battery terminal, and the other battery terminal was securely grounded. The use of bare electrical connections meant that users could be shocked if they touched the bare headphone connections while adjusting an uncomfortable headset.