Headphones 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Choosing the Right Headphones for You

Different types of headphone designs, connection styles, and the driver technologies that go into the headphones, explained.
Headphones 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Choosing the Right Headphones for You
From in-the-ear to over-the-ear, headphones come in all shapes and sizes
Highlights

Apart from fit styles, headphones also feature different technologies

The driver technology usually determines the price of the headphones

You can buy headphones ranging from under Rs. 500 to multiple lakhs

A good pair of headphones may seem like an easy thing to buy, especially if you have a firm budget in mind. Often, your budget will dictate what kind of headphones you buy, but in many cases, you have the ability to choose the kind of headphones you want. We've put together a guide that will help you decode the terminology that goes into various types of headphones.

In this guide, we'll go into the details on different types of headphone designs, connection styles, and the driver technologies that go into the headphones available to buy today. Read on, and you'll hopefully come closer to a decision on what headphones are best for you.

Fit style

First, we'll go into the details on the different type of fit styles. There are three major fit styles in headphones, with each having its own advantages and disadvantages. Read on to find out more.

Circum-aural / over-the-ear

The largest in terms of size, over-the-ear headphones completely cover your ears and provide a snug, noise-isolating fit as a result. Your ears rest on the inner part of the ear cup, usually with soft padding all around. This is considered the most comfortable and least intrusive fit, and has other advantages in the form of better noise isolation and larger drivers. Having big drivers usually ensures that these headphones are louder and sound better, and could also feature different driver technologies that require more space in the casing.

What Are Drivers? Your Guide to Audio Terminology 101

guide headphones over ear pixabay Headphones

 

There are some disadvantages to the circum-aural fit, including the larger size of the headset and the possibility of blocking out too much ambient sound or causing heat-related discomfort to your ears. The former means you will likely need a special carry case and plenty of room in your everyday backpack, while the latter means you might have to take the headphones frequently so to give your ears some air. Furthermore, too much isolation could lead to mishaps when using over-the-ear headphones in some situations, such as outdoors or while on your commute.

Supra-aural / on-the-ear

This fit style is similar to the circum-aural fit, but with smaller ear cups and padding, it means that the headphones sit on top of your ears rather than completely surrounding them. This allows for the headphones to sport larger drivers and a non-intrusive fit, but reduced noise isolation and some discomfort caused by the pressing of the headset on the ears can be expected.

guide headphones on ear pixabay headphones

 

The smaller size of on-the-ear headphones makes them a bit more portable and easy to store, and may even suit many people that need to give their ears a bit more air, or need to listen to their surroundings. However, this is also considered the least secure fit in terms of stability, since on-the-ear headphones can come off fairly easily with heavy movement such as running or quick jerks of the head.

In-canal / in-the-ear

Among the most popular fit styles, in-the-ear headphones are the smallest and easiest to carry or store, thanks to the small size of the headphones. Each earbud contains a small driver, which is able to sound loud enough for the user by virtue of being placed inside the ear canal and closer to the ear drums. It's also possible to use these headphones when lying down, which is another big reason for the popularity of the fit style.

guide headphones in ear pixabay Headphones

 

However, in-the-ear headphones are often considered too intrusive; many people find the in-canal fit uncomfortable. Furthermore, the small driver size often means that sound quality is considerably lower than that of on-the-ear or over-the-ear headphones.

However, it is possible to have better driver technology even on in-the-ear headphones now, such as balanced armature or planar magnetic drivers. Notable examples of such headphones are the 1More Triple Driver (with balanced armature drivers) and Audeze iSine 10 (with planar magnetic drivers).

Earbud

Often considered in the same category as in-the-ear headphones, the earbud-style fit is the most affordable, but also the least capable when it comes to sound quality. Earbud-style headphones sport small drivers and have the same advantages of size as in-canal headphones, but are not placed inside the canal. Instead, they sit just outside the ear canal, pointed directly towards the eardrums. As a result, noise isolation and sound quality are often poor.

The cost advantage, ability to hear more of your surroundings and non-intrusive fit are the biggest assets of this fit style, but this dated design is now much less frequently seen on new headphone launches.

Connectivity

Headphones have traditionally needed wires to connect to the source device, but this has changed in the last few years. You can now have wireless headphones as well, and even within the wired category, you can have different connector styles. Read on to know more.

Wired: 3.5mm

A classic and popular connection style, these headphones feature a 3.5mm plug that can be connected into a compatible socket on the source device. This technology is based on a now-universal and open-source specification that has for long been considered the industry-standard for audio connectivity. The system relies on an entirely analogue signal being sent to the headphones, which also draw the electrical energy required from the source device itself.

guide headphones headphone jack pixabay Headphones

 

The universal nature of the 3.5mm and the ease of use are its biggest advantages. There is no setup required, and assuming that the source device has a 3.5mm socket — most mobile phones, audio players and computers do — it's as easy and plugging in and getting going. The 3.5mm connector plug can be found on most wired headphones.

Wired: USB Type-C and Lightning

Less common than 3.5mm but growing in importance following the trend to do away with the headphone jack on many new phones and computers, these headphones offer wired connectivity to the multi-purpose USB Type-C or Lightning ports. This helps phone makers save space that can be utilised for something else, while continuing to offer audio connectivity. While many Android devices use the USB Type-C format, Apple devices use the proprietary Lightning standard.

guide headphones usbc pixabay Headphones

 

However, these ports can transport only a digital signal, meaning that digital-to-analogue conversion must still happen on the headphones. The audio performance of any headphones that use these connectors therefore depends not only on driver quality and tuning, but also on the quality of the digital-analogue converter (DAC) on the headset. However, these headphones are growing in popularity, particularly when users want wired connectivity but don't have the 3.5mm socket on their devices. A popular option with Type-C connectivity is the OnePlus Bullets Type-C, which is priced at Rs. 1,499.

Wireless: Bluetooth

For now, Bluetooth looks like the future for the headphone industry at large. With Bluetooth technology present on practically all smartphones and the price of wireless headphones dropping, it's now much easier to listen wirelessly. Furthermore, the ever-improving quality of Bluetooth technology and wireless audio codecs such as aptX and LDAC means that sound quality is also much better.

Audio Codecs Explained

Not having a wire between the source and headphones is extremely convenient and comfortable, and you get Bluetooth headphones in all of the popular fit styles. This is particularly useful for listening while exercising or on your commute, since wires tend to get in the way in these situations. However, Bluetooth headphones require power to run, and must therefore have a built-in battery that will need to be charged just like a smartphone. When the battery runs out, Bluetooth headphones are essentially dead weight until they've been charged again.

Additionally, true-wireless headphones also use Bluetooth connectivity, although usually only the primary earbud connects to the source. These give you the additional convenience of no wires even between the two earbuds, which is often considered more comfortable than standard wireless in-ear headphones, particularly for working out or commuting. However, true-wireless headphones are susceptible to misplacement because of the small size, need their own charging case, and often have significantly lower battery life than most other wireless options, apart from being significantly more expensive as well.

And finally, purists will always criticise the sound quality on wireless headphones, which is not as good as equivalent wired headphones. Although sound quality continues to improve on Bluetooth, the best sound will always come from a good pair of wired headphones with a decent cable.

Wireless: Radio Frequency

The least commonly used of the popular connectivity styles is the radio frequency form of wireless headphones. Similar to Bluetooth, RF headphones work wirelessly, but are quite different in the way they function. While Bluetooth headphones communicate directly with the source device, RF headphones communicate with a base unit which is connected to the source device. This makes the connectivity style ideal for home use with a fixed source, such as a TV, CD player, or DAC/Amplifier unit. The base unit not only communicates with the headset, but often also charges the battery on the headset.

RF headphones are impractical in outdoor situations, since carrying the base unit with you is often near-impossible. However, RF allows for a more stable connection that is able to send much more audio data wirelessly over longer distances, so sound quality is considerably better than that of Bluetooth. The Sennheiser RS 120 II is a popular and affordable RF-based headset option available today.

Driver technology

A lot of development and technology goes into headphones, particularly when it comes to the drivers. These are the backbone of any headphones, and are the components that produce the sound after receiving the analogue signal. There are a handful of different types of drivers, read on to find out more.

Dynamic

The most common type of headphone driver, dynamic drivers are the most affordable to produce and therefore most likely to be seen on ultra-affordable products. It's also the easiest-going in terms of power needs, and can easily be driven by most smartphones and audio players. However, its affordability and easy-going nature points to an obvious inference - it's the least capable when it comes to performance.

While some brands such as Sennheiser have managed to make excellent high-end headphones with dynamic drivers, this technology is usually reserved for the entry and mid range. As a result, most people use this driver technology, and it can be found on many types of headphones, including in-the-ear, over-the-ear and on-the-ear models. Dynamic drivers are also considered the best for reproduction of the low-end frequencies - that is to say, you get better bass.

Balanced Armature

A key advantage of balanced armature drivers is size, and the performance is also usually significantly better than equivalent dynamic drivers. Because of this, balanced armature drivers are usually found on mid-range and high-end in-the-ear headphones, since these can be fitted into the smaller casings. Balanced armature drivers also open up the possibility of multi-driver designs.

Balanced armature drivers are a bit more expensive to produce than dynamic drivers, but promise better performance with proper tuning as well. Therefore, it's possible to have better sounding in-the-ear headphones, and most premium in-the-ear options sport this drier type.

Planar Magnetic

A step above balanced Armature, a lot of premium headphones these days feature this driver type. The higher cost of manufacturing and tuning means that these headphones are often priced at a significant premium. However, sound quality is said to be audiophile-level, depending on the tuning.

Planar magnetic drivers are considerably larger and require much more power to drive, so will often need dedicated amplification and good source equipment to make the best of them. You're usually assured a balanced and very precise sound that is low on distortion from these types of headphones. Brands such as Audeze, with products such as the Audeze LCD-3, have made a name for themselves with this technology.

Electrostatic

The most expensive type of headphone driver, electrostatic drivers are the most expensive to produce, and also often impractical to use anywhere outside the home environment. These require considerably amounts of power to drive and therefore need dedicated amplification from a special amplifier, as well as good source equipment. Additionally, the size of the drivers makes any pair of electrostatic headphones very large.

However, the sound is said to be superior to all other types of headphones, with the most detail and responsiveness promised. These headphones are also rather expensive; the price of a good pair of electrostatic headphones will go into lakhs of rupees, so it isn't for most people.

Bone Conduction

An often-forgotten style, these ‘headphones' aren't really headphones at all. Instead, bone conduction technology uses a special driver that delivers sound through your jaw and cheek bones, which directly stimulates your eardrums rather than go through your ear canal. The headset is placed below your ears and can be heard as if the sound is coming from outside.

The advantage of this style is that it allows your ears to remain open and uncovered, which can come in handy in many use cases including sports and military-based functions. However, sound quality is usually significantly lower than that of dynamic drivers, at a cost that is much higher.

Hybrid

While not specifically a driver type, hybrid-driver headphones employ two or more types of drivers within the headset. This can be a combination of any two types of drivers, but usually employs dynamic drivers along with balanced armature drivers. You could on occasion see different combinations, such as on the Sharkk Bravo hybrid headphones which use electrostatic drivers.

This gives users the benefits of both drivers used; the headset can rely on the superior low-end of dynamic drivers, while using the armature drivers for the mids and highs. These types of headphones tend to be expensive, but are favoured for their wider range.

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Ali Pardiwala

Ali has over eight years of experience in the technology space, specialising in writing about all kinds of audio gear and TVs. He’s reviewed all kinds of headphones, speakers, audio gear, and televisions over the years, and is the in-house expert on all gadgets with screens and audio drivers. He is of the firm belief that truly wireless earphones are the future, and will always recommend a 4K TV, but not necessarily a smart TV. In his spare time, Ali likes to watch TV shows and movies ...More

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