Special Post I: An Introduction to Headphones

Greetings everybody! For my first “special post” on this website, I’d like to introduce what might just be my favorite peripheral: the headphones! I’ve always liked music, and since headphones can give you much better audio quality than speakers of the same price, as well as giving you the ability to listen to music without bothering others (since my family loves silence and won’t likely be fond of the kind of music I normally listen to anyway, this is a great plus), I absolutely adore them. As you can see, aside from introductions and commentaries on computer components, I also do headphones reviews, and I also host a headphones facebook group for my school, so they are really important to me. So, let us get started!

Types of Headphones


There are actually many ways to categorize headphones, including:

By Form Factor


  • In-Ear Headphones:

  • Also known as “earphones” or “canalphones”, these are like the Apple EarPods your friends use everyday, small, tiny headphones that you can insert right into your canal. Don’t let its size fool you, though! Some in-ear headphones are some of the most expensive and glamorous headphones in the world!
    Apple Earbuds
    Behold, the most popular headphones in the world!
    • Earbuds: These are the cheaper earphones that normally come with your smartphones. They are distinguishable from in-ear monitors in that they only have a round body that you can plug into your ear, but it’ll rest on your earlobe and you can’t plug it all the way in.

      Old Samsung Earbuds
      Behold, the 2nd most popular headphones in the world!
    • In-Ear Monitors: These are the proper earphones, with a long body that you cam insert right into your ear canal, and discrete universal earphone tips, that can be replaced at will.

      ATH-CKR10
      The Audio-Technica ATH-CKR10, a fine $250 IEM that acts as the flagship of the brand’s newest CKR line.
    • Custom In-Ear Monitors: These are basically also in-ear monitors, but they are custom-made to fit your ears and YOUR ears alone! A word of warning though, these earphones are REALLY expensive, often having a price north of 1000 USD, so they are often regarded as a “rich man’s game”. You get what you pay for though. In return, these earphones give miraculous, lifelike sounds and paramount comfort.

      Noble Kaiser 10
      The Noble Kaiser 10. Once you buy one of these, strange men in tuxedos will come to gauge your ears with all kinds of scientific instruments, then proceed to make a few tiny plastic pieces with a signature of gratitude. Adore it. Remember, you paid $1750 for it. (Jokes aside, the sounds from this pair should be heavenly nonetheless)
    • Earhooks: Not as common as other form factors, but they are still regularly used for sports-oriented earphones. These, as their name implies, have small hooks that hook them into your ear, leading to reduced chance of falling off while running, but I can’t say they are the most comfortable offerings though.

      V-Moda Remix 4S
      The V-Moda Remix 4S with the earhook module. The only decent earhook I could find, but that’s because it’s not always an earhook…
  • On-Ear (Supra-aural) Headphones:

    • These headphones also wrap around your head, like the “full-size” (over-ear) headphones below, but they are small enough that their earpads don’t cover your whole ear, but instead rest on your ear, hence the name.

      HD 238
      My old headphones, the Sennheiser HD238. I still adore these, even after upgrading to a much better and more professional pair. Modded, these cans’ sound is simply top-notch for the price.
  • Over-Ear (Circum-aural) Headphones:

    • There are actually many names for these pairs: full-size, over-ear, around-ear, circum-aural,… you name it. Whatever they’re called, these are widely considered to be the most “proper” kind of headphones, since they can wrap around your head and their earpads can fully cover your whole ear. Large and in charge, these bad boys are normally more fit for home listening or studio mastering than portable listening.

      3kshop-sennheiser-hd598-3.jpg
      The Sennheiser HD 598, the only bright-colored headphones from Sennheiser (though its Special Edition is black again…). I’ve had the fortune to test these. Sound’s as yummy as it looks. Yum!
  • Mono Headphones:

    • And then, there are some headphones that don’t even have 2 ears at all! Although they only have one side and thus can only output one channel (“mono”), these headphones are still fairly common today, but they are mostly used for communication rather than fine listening.

      Jabra Motion
      A Jabra Motion. CIAs love these. I don’t. *blog gets closed by NSA*

By Function


  • Musical Headphones:

    • Musical headphones are, as their name imply, headphones designed for music. Most audiophiles and music lovers (myself included) like their headphones as bare-bone as possible, with only 2 sound-projecting earcups, a headband, and a simple wire, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. In fact, recently there have been quite some audiophilic headphones that have many tweaking-related techs inside, such as the Sennheiser HD630 VB with the Variable Bass slider, or the AKG N90Q with… a lot of non-purist stuff going on inside. These musical headphones can in turn be divided into many subcategories, such as basshead headphones, “enjoyment” headphones, monitoring headphones, etc. etc., but design-wise they are sorted into two main kinds:
      • Closed-Back Headphones: These headphones, like their name implies, have a closed, solid back on their housing, thus delivering better passive noise cancellation and isolation, but compromise on soundstage (more on that later), and in most cases, also general sound quality.

        Sony MDR-Z7
        The Sony MDR-Z7, one of the most desirable closed-back headphones right now. It’s also one of the most expensive ones, at around $700.
      • Open-Back Headphones:  These headphones, on the other hand, don’t have a solid back, but only utilize a grill of some sorts for the back of their housing. Consequently, they deliver purer, wider sound and thus are more liked by audiophiles, but they are best listened to in a quiet environment because they’ll let more external sound in and also leak your music more.

        Sennheiser HD600
        The Sennheiser HD600, a widely renowned audiophilic pair with its signature full-grill, completely open design.
  • Gaming Headsets:

    • Unlike musical headphones, which strive to be as simple but high-quality as possible, gaming headsets ought to have edgier designs (often with, you guess it, RGB LEDs), surround sound (whether in virtual or true surround form, see below), and most importantly of all, they MUST have a mic. They also tend to come in wireless or Bluetooth form often, and their sound is usually tuned more for low frequencies and surround spatial recognition, rather than pure audio quality.

      Mad Catz F.R.E.Q. 9
      The Mad Catz F.R.E.Q. 9, one of the best wireless gaming headsets, at least mic-wise.
  • Communication Headsets:

    • Like gaming headsets, these communication headsets also ABSOLUTELY NEED to have a mic. However, unlike the aforementioned kind, they should have a very compact form factor instead of being huge, and they also ought to be wireless/bluetooth-compatible and have a HUGE signal range with signal quality as stable as possible. Sound quality is normally not even a concern for these guys. In fact, a lot of them come in mono form!

      Voyager Edge UC
      The Plantronics Voyager Edge UC, a hi-end regular communication headset.
    • In case of aviation headsets however, they don’t need to be wireless and they can be large, but they need to be extremely durable and have top-notch isolation!

      Bose A-20
      The Bose A-20, a professional aviation headset. I normally don’t like Bose, but they do excel at this particular field.

Ok guys, now that we are done talking about the types of headphones, let’s dig a little bit deeper into the construction of one!

Headphones Anatomy


 

  • Drivers/Diaphragms:

    • This is widely considered to be the most important part of a pair of headphones or a headset, the mechanism from which sound actually comes. A diaphragm‘s most important qualities are its material and its thickness (the general rule of thumb is that the thinner a diaphragm is, the better it is, although there’s a limit to this, as proven by Sennheiser), while the driver itself can come in many forms, such as electrostatic drivers (the most prestigious kind, found in some top-end headphones, mostly the ones from Stax), planar magnetic drivers (the second most prestigious kind, found in some hi-end and top-end headphones, most notably the ones from HiFiMan), balanced armature drivers (normally found in high-quality in-ear monitors as secondary drivers), dynamic drivers (drivers used in most headphones, from cheap low-end cans with commodity drivers to top-end phones like the HD800), etc. but I support I won’t dig too deep into them here.

      HD 555 - HD 595 driver
      The driver of the Sennheiser HD555 AND HD595. The fact that these two headphones used the same drivers was one of the most scandalous pieces of info in the headphones community.
  • Audio Processor:

    • Most musical headphones only have tiny (and I mean TINY) audio-processing boards inside as part of the driver mechanism, but some headphones, especially gaming headsets, also have a discrete APU (audio processing unit) inside the earcups or the USB connector to work out tasks such as processing virtual surround sound (see below). The Sennheiser Orpheus CE in particular also uses a headphones amp INSIDE the earcups to “eliminate any distortion caused by (the premium silver) cabling”, because that thing is just ridiculously garish.

      Each G5200 Ad
      The EACH G5200 gaming headset has TWO APUs. Too bad it’s just some cheap Chinese knockoff.
  • Housing:

    • The housing is the exterior of the earcups, where the driver is held and the earpad is stuck upon. Cheaper headphones tend to have housings made entirely out of plastic, but more serious pairs should have housings made of metal (most commonly brushed aluminium), or at least have the back made of it.This applies to both earphones and headphones with a headband.

      V-Moda M-100
      V-Moda headphones are known to have nigh-indestructible housings, with replaceable “shields” made of metal. This here is the M-100, their flagship model.
  • Earpads:

    • The earpads are the most significant part to determine your headphones’ comfort, with basic specs such as their clamping force, their short-term and long-term comfort, and of course, their materials, which include:
      • Foam Earpads without any cover are often regarded as the most basic kind of earpads. They are often found in cheap brandless cans to lower-midrange pairs from respected headphone brands like Sennheiser, Koss, etc. Portable on-ear headphones are generally more prone to this treatment.

        Koss PortaPro.jpg
        The Koss PortaPro, one of the most popular and best-sounding portable headphones in the world, and it’s a prime example of lower-midrange headphones with the pure-foam treatment.
      • Pleather Earpads are the next least desirable kind of earpads, with covers made of plastic leather. They are often easy to deteriorate (after a few months to a year, the pleather layer will all wear off, revealing the foam core and turning your earpads into a monstrosity), and are generally less comfortable and hotter than the two materials discussed below.

        Beats Pro
        The Beats Pro uses pleather pads. Sorry folks, but even my cheap HD 238 used velour pads before I modded it.
      • Velour/Velvet/Felt Earpads are one of the two “premium” kinds of earpads. Some say these are more comfortable than leather earpads, and some say otherwise. Nevertheless, they are known to be cooler than leather earpads, though they may not seem as classy.

        ATH-R70x
        The new ATH-R70x, one of the best headphones from the world-famous bang-for-buck brand Audio-Technica, and one of their few models that have velour pads. That means this should be good! (UPDATE: Unrelated but I’m just so excited to tell you this: this has officially become my new headphones!!! >w<)
      • Leather Earpads are the most classy kind of earpads, but they are hotter than velour pads. Comfort-wise, some say these are better, and some say velour pads are better, so it all comes to the quality of the pads themselves I guess.

        HiFiMan HE-1000
        The HE-1000 from the summit-end brand HiFiMan, which uses both a leather headband and leather earpads.
  • Earphone Tips:

    • In-ear monitors and some serious earbuds can use universal earphone tips. These are detachable, replaceable, and come in different sizes such as S, M, L or XL. Materials used in these tips include foam, silicone, and… whatever those high-class Comply tips are made of (seem to be special foams together with some very delicately engineered structure). An interesting thing to note though, is that for earphone tips, aside from comfort, a tip’s material and size can also greatly affect, surprise surprise, SOUND QUALITY!!! Yes, next time you go shopping for earphones and accessories, remember that those expensive Tx-500 tips can in fact give you a much more lifelike sound than those Bose IEM tips.

      Tx-500
      The Comply Tx-500 Isolation Plus tips, $20 a Medium clamshell. Even the most luxurious of earphone tips can’t avoid cheap plastic packaging, I suppose…
  • Headband:

    • Like earpads, the headband is also instrumental for your headphones’ comfort, and it can also come in different materials, mostly the same materials used in earpads, namely pure foam, pleather, velour, and leather. However, for a headband, the material is not as important as its structure, which affects the top of your head much more noticeably. On a side note, some headphones don’t even have discrete headband paddings, and instead just use the arc structure to support your head (some of them are fortunately made of leather, though).

      AKG K702
      Although it’s one of my favorite headphones, the bumps on the AKG K702’s headband made it unbearably uncomfortable to some. However, others also saw it as fitting and comfy.
  • Microphone:

    • A built-in microphone is all it needs to transform a “pair of headphones” into a “headset”, since it also gives the user the ability to speak, instead of just listen. However, most headset microphones are uni-directional, and unlike professional microphones, their concern is mostly just noise cancellation.

      ModMic
      This hear ModMic is one of the most popular headphones mods, which is also the easiest way to transform your musical headphones into a stylish gaming headset, because you are a gamer who actually cares about sound quality! Kudos to you.
  • Controlling Module:

    • Some headphones, most notably earphones and gaming headsets, also have built-in controlling modules in the cable to make calls, adjust the volume, turn on surround sound, or whatever.

      Razer Tiamat 7.1
      One of the most outrageous controlling modules go to the Razer Tiamat 7.1. It’s one of my LEAST favorite headphones, but I have to admit the controlling module makes it LOOKS like it’s really serious!

Audio Channels


Before we get to how people can assess something’s sound quality, let’s go over the formats in which sound can be projected first, which include:

  • Mono:

    • A Mono sound file means that sound is only projected through one single channel, and likewise, mono audio equipments (like the communication headsets above, as well as some mini speakers) can only project sound through one stream. There’s no separation whatsoever, so you’ll hear the same sound on both of your ears. While it’s pretty obsolete by now when it comes to audio-heavy tasks, mono audio is still often used in voice calls and such.

      X-Mini II
      Aside from the aforementioned Jabra headsets, speakers like the X-Mini series also project mono sound.
  • Stereo:

    • Most music files go by the Stereo format, which has two separate streams, one for the “left” channel (meant to be heard by the left ear) and one for the “right” channel (meant to be heard by the right ear). Since humans only have two ears, Stereo is also the standard sound format, and unless stated otherwise, is the default audio format in videos, games, and music alike. Moreover, most if not all music files, even the highest-quality ones (DXD 32-bit), are in essence (not entirely, but I don’t want to dig too much into details here) stereo.
    • As for stereo audio equipments, they can come in different flavors, namely “2.0 channels” (speaker sets with only left and right speakers, or most headphones) and “2.1 channels” (speaker sets with left and right speakers, along with a subwoofer for projecting really low frequencies).

      Final Sonorous VI
      The Final Sonorous VI, my personal dream headphones. Needless to say, they are stereo.
  • Virtual Surround:

    • Surround sound is sound projected through multiple channels, namely 5.1 channels (center speaker, left and right front speakers, left and right back speakers, and a subwoofer) or 7.1 channels (all the aforementioned speakers, together with left and right speakers. Not “front left” or “back right”, just “left” and “right”). Despite the cool premise, it’s actually pretty useless for music since, as mentioned above, humans only have two ears. However, it’s very effective for movies, some of which have actual surround audio files with 6 or even 8 streams, and especially games, where each object in the game space can act as a sound source (also called “3D sound”, which is a gaming thing. Don’t confuse it with simply “surround sound”).
    • Among surround sound systems, virtual surround sound systems are in fact stereo systems that can simulate the sense of space given by surround sound systems, using software and audio processors. Please note, again, that this is done completely through the audio processor and its software, and NOT through the speakers/headphones’ drivers themselves, so don’t fall for those “virtual surround sound gaming headset” traps. They are just stereo headsets with a built-in audio processor that can upmix stereo sound into surround sound, and you can get the very same effect, most of the time even better, by buying a virtual-surround-capable sound card/DAC. Moreover, some programs (like PowerDVD) also have virtual surround algorithms that don’t require discrete sound cards, and can work perfectly with just your stock Realtek chip.

      Cloud II with mic
      The Kingston HyperX Cloud II, a very popular virtual surround gaming headset right now.
  • True Surround:

    • Then there are the True Surround audio equipments, which actually have multiple speakers or drivers to output each channel properly. For speakers, this can be a great thing. For headphones, however, not so much. Like I said, humans only have 2 ears, and headphones are so close to your ears that a good stereo pair will always be better than a “true surround” pair at the same price range, even at sound image or spatial reproduction. So remember, guys, it’s not the quantity that counts, it’s the quality that counts.

      Roccat Kave 5.1 analog
      A Roccat Kave XTD 5.1 Analog, the only half-decent true surround gaming headset I could find.

 

Sound Quality


Alright, now here’s the truly important part: what to look for in terms of sound quality. I’m not a professional headphones reviewer myself, so I don’t know all of the terms out there, obviously. However, since I have also looked into headphones for quite a while, I will try my best to tell you the basics, what I’ve managed to accumulate:

  • Bass/Lows:

    • The bass, also called the lows, is perhaps the most noticeable part of everything that’s related to sound quality, and is also what most people tend to care about right now. What it is is pretty obvious, but how can we describe it? Well, when discussing bass, you may come across adjectives such as “tight“, which means that the bass is short, crispy, definite and satisfying but doesn’t necessarily cut off too early, “loose“, which means that the bass drags out unnecessarily with a lot of reverb, “clean“, which means the bass sounds clear and authentic, “muddy“, which means the bass is overwhelming and hide some of the lower mids (see below), “slow” and “fast“, which denote the feeling you get about the same song’s tempo while experiencing different kinds of bass. Likewise, a bass’ depth (how low of a frequency can the headphones clearly reproduce) and volume/amount are also major concerns.
  • Mids:

    • The middle frequencies, also known simply as the mids, are perhaps the most common frequencies, covering most vocals and a wide range of instruments including pianos, guitars, violins, trumpets, saxophones, etc., and even most synths. While discussing mids, you can use words such as “forward“, which means the mids make you feel like the artists are closer to you (note that this is also related to soundstage and sound image, see below), “recessed“, which means the opposite, “warm“, which means the vocals and instruments sound thicker and have more reverb, often stirring up more emotions, and “cold“, which means the vocals and instruments sound more natural,
  • Highs:

    • The highs include brighter instruments such as chimes, bells, piccolos, some cymbals and snares, as well as many sound effects. While regularly harder to notice than the other two bands, highs are still an important part of your music, and when discussing them, you can utilize terms like “airy“, which means they give you a fantastical and enchanting feeling,  as well as an enhanced sense of space, “lively/vivid“, which… is pretty self-explanatory, “dim/rolled off“, which means the highs are hard to listen to, “shrill/harsh“, which means they are ear-piercingly loud and unclean, “bright“, which means the song feels more vivid, energetic and engaging (note that this is an adjective for the overall sound quality, but the amount and quality of the highs and upper mids are most of what makes it), and “dark/laid back“, which means the song is more relaxing and easier to listen to.
  • Details:

    • This part is pretty self-explanatory: When reviewing a pair of headphones, you should also state how many details in the music you can hear using the pair.
  • Soundstage:

    • Simply put, soundstage is the “sense of space” you can get from your headphones, the width and depth of the stage you can imagine while you’re listening to your precious music.
  • Sound Image / Separation:

    • Likewise, sound image is the actual stage that you can imagine, including the arrangement and position of the instruments and artists, and in many cases even the environment and architecture of the stage! “Separation”, which in this case is the ability to distinguish one instrument from each other clearly, also contributes a lot to this.
  • Distortion / Noise:

    • While this shouldn’t even exist in truly high-quality pairs, it’s still of utmost importance to note whether there’s any distortion or noise, any blatantly “electric” or “static” sounds going on in any of the bands when you are listening or reviewing headphones.

 

Some Headphones Brands Worth Considering


 

  • Sennheiser is my personal favorite (even though my current pair is not from them), and it’s also the most versatile company on this list. They have all kinds of headphones, ranging from in-ears to on-ears and over-ears, from premium audiophilic headphones to gaming headsets, wireless headphones and Bluetooth in-ears, and heck, from one of the cheapest earphones in the world (costing only 5 – 7 USD at times) to THE MOST EXPENSIVE HEADPHONES (and dac/amp, for that matter) IN THE WORLD, BAR-NONE! This brand is from Germany, and as the saying goes, when it comes to headphones, it’s either Germany or Japan.
  • AKG is also one of my favorite brands, specializing in studio headphones and microphones. Their high-quality headphones are known to be quite “cold“, but they offer the best amount of details and authenticity for their price, and thus are most suitable for mastering or analytical listening. This brand is from Austria
  • Final (also known as Final Audio Design) is a luxurious earphones brand from Japan, though they’ve also recently started making full-size headphones. Some of their earphones and headphones are known for teeth-gnathingly high prices and the use of glamorous casings made with gold or silver, but others are known for delivering top-end sound for… “only” hi-end price, while still retaining the noble designs. Their Sonorous VI is currently my personal dream headphones. They also made speakers in the past, and in fact, they were behind one of the top 10 most expensive speakers set in history!
  • Beyerdynamic is another respectable German brand, with many headphones in the hi-end section.
  • Grado is an American brand whose headphones span a wide range of prices. Most of their headphones utilize a classic, wooden look and are heavily tuned for warm, emotional sound suitable for classical music or traditional light music.
  • V-Moda is perhaps the most modern brand in this list. It’s an American brand whose headphones are mostly in the lower-midrange to midrange price brackets, and are aimed towards the DJs and electronic music lovers market. As such, they have quite edgy designs, near-indestructible durability, and bassy, meaty sound suitable for raving tunes.
  • Shure is yet another American microphones and headphones manufacturer, covering a wide range of prices. Their headphones are especially known for delivering great bang for the buck!
  • Audio-Technica is also a Japanese brand, but unlike Final, their headphones cover a very wide price range, and are marketed towards the modern audience with great bang for the buck, modern designs, and full, engaging sound! Their ATH-M50x is nothing short of legendary in the midrange section!
  • Plus, there are also many brands in the top-end section with insanely immersive (and expensive) headphones, both in-ear and full size. I know quite some of them, but I’ll let you find out about them for yourselves! 🙂

And that concluded my first special blog post! Headphones mean a lot to me, so I hope you enjoyed my humble share of information. Thank you for reading and supporting me again, and please look forward to my future headphones reviews, everyone! ^^

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Special Post I: An Introduction to Headphones

    1. Hmmm…. it depends on what your needs are. I don’t know Coby, so I can’t comment on whether they are good or bad. If you need something portable for on-the-go radio and cassette (who still uses them, though?!) listening, then I guess these products may do, but from an audio perspective, I simply cannot recommend it. 🙂 Plus, after some Googling it seems Coby is not that well-recognized even in this field, either. They’re simply not an audio company.

      Like

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