Buying Headphones

With the choice of designs greater than ever, we explain the different headphone types to help you select a model that’s right for your needs

Headphones have been around in one form or another for more than a century and were a regular part of hi-fi for at least 40 years before taking off and becoming the popular category that they are today. With events like CanJam held in major cities around the world and dedicated headphone zones at hi-fi showcases such as Headphone Haven at The UK Hi-Fi Show Live 2019 (26-27 October) becoming increasingly popular, how has the once humble headphone morphed into one of the biggest sectors of the hi-fi market?

Once considered a fall back if you couldn’t afford a fine pair of loudspeakers or – even if you could – a way to enjoy music at decent volume levels without annoying the neighbours or room-sharing relatives, headphones have become both an essential lifestyle accessory and, for a certain kind of audio fan, a delicious shortcut to hi-fi nirvana: true high-end sonics at more or less earthbound prices. A selfish pursuit to be sure, but one with great rewards. Where once upon a time the choice of headphones was limited to just a few specialist brands, it now seems that everyone is getting in on the action and the choice of cans you stick on your bonce says as much about you as the clothes you wear or the car you drive.

The number of devices using headphones has exploded in recent years and they have become a vital accessory. Where you might once have thought about upgrading the ones

The number of people that are using over-ear headphones on the move is on the increase

that came supplied with a Walkman, for example, you now have the possibility of using them with tablets, smartphones, laptops and gaming devices to say nothing of your hi-fi or portable audio player. Hi-res portable players and DACs are really taking off now and deserve a carefully matched set of headphones to unleash the full potential of the better-than-CD formats found on these quality audio playback devices – as you’ll see in our pick of top designs overleaf.

Today’s headphones have imbued that seminal design with seductive tech, sexy materials and, of course, the lure of celebrity-endorsed fashion status. At no other time in history have so many heads – especially young ones – felt the gentle embrace of pillowy ear pads and the gift of pulsating bass while going about their daily business. Some people, a growing number it seems, wouldn’t listen to music any other way. But where do you begin when it comes to selecting what’s best for you?

Choosing the right model

Probably the first consideration is to decide precisely what you want to use your headphones for. Though the distinctions between home and portable models are starting to diminish, you probably don’t want to be taking an unwieldy pair of transducers on the bus to work and similarly a set of in-ears probably won’t cut it for when you want to listen at home. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the main choices available to the headphone buyer.

If you’re unsure what sort of drivers your headphones use, chances are they’re more

than likely dynamic. Dynamic, or moving- coil, drivers are the headphone equivalent of the full-size driver you have in your loudspeakers. The signal is sent through a coil of ultra-thin wire to create a magnetic field that causes the voice coil to rapidly move. This in turn moves the diaphragm, which compresses and decompresses air so that the soundwaves produce music. Direct drivers are generally very good at creating large amounts of bass, but the down side is that as the diaphragm is pushed and pulled by the voice coil its shape changes, resulting in non-linear distortion.

Planar magnetic headphones use the interaction of two magnetic fields to cause motion. But instead of moving the voice coil, which in turn pulls the diaphragm, here the charged part is spread across the driver which is a thin, flat film. This means that instead of focusing the force on a small part, it’s spread across the entire diaphragm. This requires a larger ear cup and more magnets than a dynamic driver, which is why planar

Dynamic, drivers are the headphone equivalent of the full-size driver you have in your speakers

magnetic models are often heavier. Planar designs usually result in very low distortion sound and excellent transient response.

Widely regarded as the ultimate driver technology, electrostatic headphones are capable of flawless detail and very fast attack. While dynamic and planar drivers use metal conductors to move the diaphragm, here it moves itself directly. A very thin sheet of electrically charged mylar that’s just a few microns thick sits between two conductive plates – one positive and the other negatively charged. The sheet is then pushed and pulled between the plates to cause the vibration that creates soundwaves. The

MrSpeakers’ Voce (HFC440) is a superb electrostatic option

downside of electrostatic headphones is that they require a high-voltage power supply, meaning that you won’t be able to use them out and about on the move. They’re also considerably more expensive than rivals.

On- or over-ear options

As the name suggests, on-ear headphones sit on the ears, rather than covering them completely and come in a variety of designs. Correctly known as supra-aural headphones, they are invariably better suited to music on the move as they tend to be smaller and lighter and can often be folded up for easy storage when they’re not in use. When it comes to comfort, they are more likely to press against the ear to some degree, but on the flip side are less likely to heat it up than over-ear (circumaural) models.

Circumaural or over-ear headphones come with ear cups that are large enough to enclose the entire ear. Because of their larger size they have traditionally been considered better suited to home listening, but the number of people using over-ears on the move is on the increase. The larger ear cups coupled with the natural isolation means that bass is often more convincing and the hubbub of the outside world is kept at bay for complete immersion in your music. The downside all too often relates to comfort – which is more of an issue than you might imagine. Larger ear cups and headbands can warm up both the head and the ears during longer periods of use and if you wear glasses or earrings, some designs prove to be too uncomfortable. The way they fit your head will be very different to the way they fit someone else’s. As with any piece of hi-fi that you’re considering, an audition is always essential, and how it feels on your head is just as important as how it sounds.

Open- vs. closed-back designs

Headphones described as closed-back have ear cups with no vents or openings in the enclosure – keeping most of the sound within the cups. They tend to be less sonically satisfying and often have a sound that is more confined to within your head.

Open-back designs are precisely the opposite, so the back of the driver enclosure has vents that allow some sound to spill out. Each design has its benefits, but generally speaking open-back headphones have more air and a sense of spaciousness to the soundstage that extends outside of the ear cups placed upon the head. However, this design is unlikely to win you many friends on your commute, as some sound leaks out and you may also need to increase the volume to overcome any background noise.

Ditch the cables

Wireless headphones have a variety of different uses, but perhaps the most common are for around the home or if you’re one of those people that wants to do something crazy like exercise when listening

JBL’s Tune600BTNC (HFC 439) has impressive noise-cancelling

to music. In the past, signals were broadcast from the source device via RF or infrared, but those days of interference-prone signals are long gone and Bluetooth has taken up the mantle. The important consideration here concerns quality. The compression process that Bluetooth requires to send the signal means that music will be transmitted at a low resolution. Therefore, more discerning listeners should consider looking for Bluetooth models that support aptX, which attempts to get transmissions close to CD-quality The only other potential issue with Bluetooth headphones is that they require power to run, which means that you need to ensure your cans are always charged or you’re carrying a spare power source, as when the juice runs out, so does the music.

Noise-cancelling technology

Instead of isolating your ears from the noise of the outside world like many closed-back over-ear headphones manage to do passively, noise-cancelling headphones generate ‘anti-noise’ to cancel background sounds out. The technology was developed to mask invasive aircraft cabin noise when flying and all models require battery power to run the noise-cancelling circuitry, although some are flexible enough to allow you to listen in passive mode if it runs out. One problem is that the ‘anti-noise’ can add its own sonic signature to music, making it less than neutral for serious audio enthusiasts. Take a look at our roundup in HFC 429.

All in your head

As with buying any loudspeaker for your listening room, it’s important to try out any potential headphone and give it a proper listen before you buy. Comfort is important, and very often a particular design that works well for one person may not fit the shape of the head of another. There are plenty of dealers with dedicated environments to allow you to audition the wide range of models and accessories that are available, but Bedfordshire-based featured in our Dealer Visit back in HFC 396 is a specialist that allows you to experience an extensive range of serious headphones in fabulous surroundings