Looking to learn about the different types of headphones? In this blog/infographic we will offer you a basic understanding of headphones! - jump to infographic
If you love music as much as we do, chances are you are already fully aware of the awesomeness of a nice pair of headphones, but how much about headphones do you really know? First and foremost, the term “headphone” can be used to describe a vast array of products, some of which look completely different than others (see image below), but at their core, headphones can be described simply as a personal listening device that can be worn on or around the head, that provide audio to the listener’s ears.
They are described as electroacoustic transducers, which can convert electrical signals to corresponding sounds for the listener. In contrast with a loudspeaker, headphones allow the listener to enjoy their music and other audio privately, and without emitting it to everyone else (this is less true with open-back headphones, but we will get to that a little later). Now that we know exactly what headphones are, let’s learn more about their history!jump to headphone types infographic
Before the invention of the amplifier, “earpieces” were the only available method to listen to audio signals. It is agreed upon that the initial successful earpiece was created in 1910 by Nathaniel Baldwin, who, incredibly, designed and built them by hand in his kitchen, and was able to sell the technology to the US Navy!
By 1919, some very sensitive headphones were beginning to be produced for use in early radio work. Sound quality was crude at best, because no damping was used (a requirement for high sensitivity). Early headphones often lacked padding and were extremely tight fitting, making them a burden on the wearer. Impedance levels varied, and was dependent on the industry-- 75 ohms for headphones being used in telephone work, and levels of up to 1000-2000 ohms for headphones being used in early wireless radio. Radio work required more sensitive headphones because of the use of crystal sets and triode receivers.
Also, did you know that early headphones were sort of dangerous? Due to headphones being a part of the vacuum tube’s plate circuit, it carried with it dangerously high voltages. Combined with the fact that headphones at the time used bare electrical connections meant that anyone wearing them could get shocked if they touched the bare connections while adjusting their headset! (We’re happy that that is no longer an issue)
Fast forward to the 1940’s and we receive the very first stereo headphones, produced by John C. Koss (perhaps you have heard of Koss Headphones?), an audiophile and musician. Koss’s invention started headphones down the path of having a wider variety of uses, and, ultimately, generating a greater number of people who would be interested in owning a pair.
Since then, many manufacturer’s have patented their own headphone technologies, and the headphone has continued to evolve into what we currently know and love today. For example, the 3.5mm headphone jack has been commonly found on headphones since Sony released the EFM-117J’s in 1964 and has gotten consistently more popular since...well, until Apple decided to get rid of the 3.5mm jack on their upcoming iPhone 7.
Now that we have learned a little more about the evolution of headphones, let’s discuss the three distinct styles of headphones currently on the market today: in-ear headphones, on-ear headphones, and over-ear headphones.jump to headphone types infographic
In-Ear headphones, often referred to as earbuds, are becoming increasingly popular with consumers due to their excellent portability! Perfect for the gym or going for a run, in-ear headphones can easily fit into your ear canals, creating a tight seal to keep out virtually all unwanted noise, without weighing you down or limiting your mobility. The invention of wireless earbuds, which connect to your audio devices via Bluetooth, are making in-ear headphones even better for the aforementioned activities, as now you won’t be able to snag your cord on the gym equipment/obstacles/other people.
In contrast, On-Ear headphones do not physically enter the wearer’s ear, they simply rest ON the ear itself, with a headband going across the head to keep the pads in place on the ears. This style of headphone is often extremely comfortable, as they are usually padded in soft material to cushion the ear during use. They often prove useful in a semi-public environment like a work office, as they allow the wearer to still hear a fair amount of outside noise (like if your co-worker is saying your name to get your attention), but while still delivering excellent sound reproduction with a decent bass response.
As previously discussed, On-Ear headphones (also known as earpads) rest comfortably on the wearer’s ears and offer solid sound with minimal sound isolation. Over-Ear headphones (also known as earcups), perhaps the most well-known and iconic headphone style of them all, completely cover the entire ear, and offer a headband to keep the cups in place.
Visually similar, Over-Ear headphones are regularly larger and weightier than On-Ear headphones, and acoustically, Over-Ear headphones almost always offer a superior, richer sound, with greater bass response and superior sound isolation than their On-Ear counterparts at similar price points. Over-Ear headphones were designed for intimate home listening or professional studio use, where the wearer is only interested in the music, and wishes to block out everything else, and to experience the most accurate audio reproduction possible.
The two most different styles of headphones in terms of appearance (In-Ear headphones are tiny, Over-Ear headphones are massive) actually have more in common than you might guess. If you put the care and money into selecting an audiophile-grade pair of earbuds featuring multiple drivers, you can have insanely detailed sound reproduction, including a surprisingly rich bass response, elegant mid-range and trebles, and excellent soundstage, comparable to some of the finest Over-Ear headphones on the market. Of course, at the most expensive end of the headphone market, the greatest pairs of headphones today are almost all of the Over-Ear variety, with models ranging into the tens of thousands of dollars, though that’s not to say you can’t spend thousands on an In-Ear pair as well. Ultimately, you can find near flawless sound reproduction in both In-Ear and Over-Ear headphones, but where you’ll be using them is what should guide which style is best for your needs.
One more crucial detail that we must discuss concerning Over-Ear headphones is that they can be further broken down into two separate categories, Open-Back Headphones and Closed-Back Headphones. Each with their own pros & cons.
Closed-Back headphone earcups completely surround the ear and are made of a solid material (traditionally either metal or plastic). This not only keeps unwanted outside noise out, but also keeps whatever the wearer is listening to in. These attributes makes Closed-Back headphones fairly well suited for public use, as you can listen to whatever you want without fear of bugging the people near you. Unfortunately, this closed nature can negatively impact how the wearer hears their music. Closed systems cannot achieve the same level of soundstage as a pair of headphones offering an Open-Back design, which can lead to a darker, more muffled sound profile.
Open-Back headphone earcups also cover the entire ear; however, the outer casing of an Open-Back headphone is often made with some variety of metal or plastic mesh, loaded with tiny holes that allow for the escape of sound/air. While this sound leakage can be heard by anyone around you (making Open-Back headphones not so good for public use), the physics of an open system allow for greater soundstage and an overall superior audio reproduction.