The Ultimate Headphone/Earphone Buyer’s Guide 2021


So you’re wondering which headphones or earphones you should buy, rent or otherwise try out. In this comprehensive buyer’s guide, we’ll go through everything worth considering before you make any decisions about a pair of headphones or earphones.

If you’ve found yourself asking, “which headphones should I buy?” this extensive resource is for you.

Please feel free to jump around this article and to read all additional resources I have provided links to.

With that, let’s get into this comprehensive headphones buyer’s guide to help you in your next microphone purchase!

Related articles:
Top 13 Best Headphone Brands In The World
Top 14 Best Earphone/Earbud Brands In The World

Headphones/Earphones Database
Headphones/Headsets Brands Database


Table Of Contents


What Is Your Headphones Budget?

The first thing to consider when making any purchase is your budget. Money can be a touchy subject for some, and so I’ll keep this section brief.

I would never advise anyone to overspend on any audio equipment. Know what you can realistically afford, and do your best to stay within those limitations, whatever they may be.

Headphones, like many audio devices, range significantly in price. The market is rather large, and so there should be a good selection for any budget.

Note that some retailers offer payment plans, which could be an option.

Consider the cost to benefit ratio of the purchase of the headphones. For example, if the headphones are needed for business, perhaps stretching the budget is more appropriate. On the other hand, if you don’t plan on making money with the headphones, perhaps a more conservative budget is appropriate.

Also, consider any additional accessories or upkeep that may be required for your headphones.

Only you can determine your budget. All I’m here to say is that you should consider it.

Related My New Microphone article:
How Much Do Headphones/Earphones Cost? (+ Pricing Examples)

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What Is The Intended Application Of The Headphones?

Before deciding on which headphones or earphones you should buy, be sure to consider the intended applications. There are plenty of applications for headphones and, therefore, a wide variety of headphone designs on the market.

Though we’ll discuss popular headphone/earphone applications in a later section, here is a short list of common applications and the typical options for each application:

Audio mixing & mastering: consider natural-sounding over-ear open-back headphones with wired connectivity.

In-ear monitoring: consider electrodynamic and balanced armature earphones.

Casual listening: consider any style of headphones or earphones with wired or wireless connectivity.

Listening in noisy environments: consider over-ear closed-back headphones with active noise-cancellation (ANC).

Audiophile listening: consider high-end electromagnetic, planar magnetic and electrostatic headphones along with a dedicated headphone amplifier.

During exercise: consider wireless and wired options with electrodynamic or even bone conduction drivers.

Gaming & entertainment systems: consider over-ear headphones/headsets with pseudo surround sound capabilities with wired or wireless connectivity.

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Circumaural Vs. Supra-aural Headphones

When choosing a pair of headphones (not earphones), the form factor is an important factor to consider.

Over-ear (circumaural) headphones have earcups that sit over the ear, making contact around the ear. On-ear (supra-aural) headphones sit on the ear rather than encompassing around the ear.

The form factor is an obvious difference and plays a role in overall sonic performance and comfort.

Circumaural (over-ear) headphones are often preferred for the following reasons:

  • They’re often more comfortable. Having a padded earcup around the ear puts less (if any) pressure on the ear cartlidge.
  • They do a better job at passive sound isolation. Because the earcup fits over the ear, less driver sound leaves the earcup and less external noise enters the earcup, thereby improving overall the signal-to-noise ratio for the listener.

Supra-aural (on-ear) headphones are often preferred for the following reasons:

  • They’re less bulky. This makes them light on the ears and head, easy to store, and easy to transport compared to circumaural headphones.
  • They allow external noise and air circulation in the listener’s ear, helping to keep listeners aware of their surrounding while also keeping their ears cool.

Of course, these are generalizations. However, the points listed above can certainly help you choose the best option for your circumstance.

Circumaural designs are great for general listening purposes and largely outperform supraaural designs in sound quality. Practically all high-end headphones are designed with circumaural earcups. However, they may be a bit bulky to take in public, for transporting or for sport/exercise.

Supra-aural headphones are great for those on the go since they’re compact and easy to take on and off. They also allow some amount of external noise is, making them good options for out in public. That being said, they do tend to leak sound, so people in your vicinity may be able to hear what you’re listening to. Because they sit directly on the ears, they may cause discomfort over time, especially if the padding isn’t sufficient.

There are other design aspects to be aware of when making a headphone purchasing decision, which we’ll get to next.

For my top circumaural and supra-aural headphone picks, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 5 Best Circumaural (Over-Ear) Headphones Under $500
Top 5 Best Circumaural (Over-Ear) Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Circumaural (Over-Ear) Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Supra-Aural (On-Ear) Headphones Under $500
Top 5 Best Supra-Aural (On-Ear) Headphones Under $250
Top 5 Best Supra-Aural (On-Ear) Headphones Under $100

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Closed-Back Vs. Open-Back Headphones

In the previous section, we discussed circumaural (over-ear) and supra-aural (on-ear) headphones. Both these headphone form factor types can have closed-back or open-back designs. However, the distinction between open and closed back is typically reserved for circumaural designs.

The terms “closed-back” and “open-back” refer to the earcup or shell of a pair of headphones. As the names would suggest, a closed-back design has a solid shell that physically separates the headphone driver from the external environment. In contrast, an open-back design has perforated or open shells that allow the external environment and the headphone driver to react together.

As we’ve discussed previously, supra-aural designs leak sound to the environment by not sitting flush against the skull. Therefore, closed and open-back designs aren’t as critical to noise-cancellation.

On the other hand, circumaural designs, which are designed to completely enclose the ears of the listener, will performance differences between open and closed-back designs are notable.

Closed-back headphones have sealed earcups and, generally speaking, have the following traits:

  • Passive noise-cancellation blocks environmental sound/noise from entering the ear cup and the listener’s ears.
  • Possibility for active noise-cancellation.
  • Narrower stereo image or “closed sound”.
  • Traps heat around the ear.
  • Heavier weight than open-back headphones.

Conversely, open-back headphones have sealed earcups and, generally speaking, have the following traits:

  • Allows sound to enter and escape the earcups. This means that the listener will be able to hear the external environment in some capacity and that people around the listener will be able to hear the headphone playback in some capacity.
  • Since there’s no passive isolation, active noice-cancellation is impractical.
  • Wider stereo image or “open sound”.
  • Allows the ears to breathe, making them cooler.
  • Lighter weight than closed-back headphones.

So, if you’re at all interested in noise-cancellation, closed-back circumaural headphones are for you. Closed-back headphones are also great for listening in environments where there are other people since there will be much less headphone bleed to the environment (just don’t turn up too loud).

Open-back headphones are often preferred for their open and natural sound and are often chosen for longer listening situations. However, when in a group or out in noisy environments, the lack of isolation can be detrimental to both the listener and those around the listener.

There are plenty of superb open and closed-back headphone options for mixing. However, the generally more natural sound of open-back headphones is certainly a benefit (so long as there isn’t too much extraneous noise in the listening environment).

Semi-open headphones, as the name suggests, are a hybrid between closed-back and open-back headphones. However, this is more a marketing term than a technical term. A “semi-open-back” design is simply an open-back design with additional obstructions. The ear cups are either open to the external environment, or they aren’t. That being said, they’re worth noting.

For my top closed-back and open-back headphone picks, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
The Complete Guide To Open-Back & Closed-Back Headphones
Top 5 Best Open Back Headphones Under $500
Top 5 Best Open Back Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Open Back Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Closed-Back Headphones Under $500
Top 5 Best Closed-Back Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Closed-Back Headphones Under $100

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Earphones

Of source, there are also earphones that we must consider. If you’re only interested in headphones, feel free to skip this section.

Earphones fit either directly into the ear or rest on the inner part of the ear. This is, of course, different from headphones, which either sit on the ear (supra-aural) or fit over the ear (circumaural).

Earphones are much smaller than headphones and are often much cheaper. They do not require a headband, which further reduces their size.

Earphones are generally chosen over headphones for the following reasons:

  • Cheaper
  • Lighter
  • More versatile
  • More concealable
  • More comfortable
  • Easier for execising

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Headphone Comfort

After sound quality, comfort is probably the most important factor for a pair of headphones/earphones. If they aren’t comfortable, it’ll be difficult to enjoy them, even if they sound great.

Here are a few things to consider when choosing a comfortable pair of headphones:

  • Weight
  • Size
  • Supra-aural or circumaural
  • Adjustability of headband
  • Adjustability of earcups
  • Contact pressure
  • Earpad material
  • Earcup material
  • Headband material
  • Breathability
  • Wireless/wired connectivity
  • Length of cable (if applicable)

Here are a few things to consider when choosing a comfortable pair of earphones:

  • Eartip style
  • Eartip material
  • Eartip options
  • General fit
  • Wireless/wired connectivity
  • Earwings

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Wired Or Wireless Headphones?

When buying a pair of headphones or earphones, it’s important to ask whether wireless connectivity is a must or not. It’s also good to know the basics of wireless headphone connectivity to make a more informed decision regarding your purchase.

In the case of wireless headphones/earphones, the headphones will be the receiver, and the playback device will either be connected to a transmitter or will be the transmitter itself.

In the case of wired headphones/earphones, the headphones will be connected directly to the playback device, DAC or headphone amplifier via a cable.

Wireless headphones give us freedom from cables—no more tangles, no more pulling the earphones out unexpectedly, and no more damage between the headphone plug and jack connectors.

However, wireless connectivity requires batteries, which require charging and/or replacing. Additionally, connecting/pairing wireless headphones can take time, and the wireless connection may be subjected to interference. Additionally, the built-in receiver, digital-analog converter (if applicable), and amplifier of a wireless pair of headphones/earphones may not be of the highest quality.

So there are pros and cons to wireless and wired headphones.

Wired headphones are fairly straightforward and are subject to impedance, which we’ll discuss later. In this section, let’s discuss wireless headphones in a bit more detail.

Bluetooth Vs. Infrared Wireless Headphones

Bluetooth wireless connectivity is the most popular method of connecting headphones wireless.

Bluetooth uses 79 distinct frequencies within the 2.400 to 2.485 GHz radio frequency range to transmit information. It can change this frequency 1600 times per second to avoid interference with other Bluetooth connections.

Bluetooth audio is sent via pulse-shift keying modulation (PSK).

There are different Bluetooth versions as the standard continues to evolve. Fortunately, The Bluetooth Special Interest Group and the engineers behind the development of Bluetooth technology ensure cross-compatibility between versions.

Most Bluetooth headphones are either Class 1 or Class 2 devices. This means that the signal transfer between them and their paired device has a maximum permitted power of 100 mW (Class 1) or 2.5 mW (Class 2) and a signal range of about 100m (330 ft) for Class 1 or 10 m (33 ft) for Class 2.

Infrared wireless connectivity is less common but worth mentioning.

Infrared (IR) waves are electromagnetic waves in the frequency band of 300 GHz to 430 THz. IR waves have higher frequencies than RF waves and, therefore, have shorter wavelengths.

IR wireless connectivity is dependent on line-of-sight. If any physical objects are eclipsing the IR transmitter from the IR receiver, there will be no signal transmission. Furthermore, the transmission range is only good up to about 10 m (32 ft) instead of the 91 m (300 ft) or more available to RF.

This short-range line-of-sight is a huge disadvantage for many applications but can be a great benefit if privacy is wanted. IR headphones are generally used in small rooms and connect wirelessly to televisions and other sound sources in movie theatres, boardrooms, and courtrooms.

Wireless Vs. True Wireless Earphones

Wireless headphones and earphones receive a stereo signal wirelessly, process it, and send the left and right channels to the appropriate drivers. To do so, the receiver must be physically connected to both drivers.

True wireless, on the other hand, has an independent receiver for each of the stereo channels. This allows earphones to be physically separate from one another, hence the name “true wireless.”

For more content on wired and wireless headphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
An In-Depth Look Into How Headphone Cables Carry Audio
How Do Wireless Headphones Work? + Bluetooth & True Wireless

How Bluetooth Headphones Work & How To Pair Them To Devices
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $200
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $100
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $50
Top 5 Best Wireless Headphones Under $500
Top 5 Best Wireless Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Wireless Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones/Earbuds Under $200
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones/Earbuds Under $100
How To Store Earphones Tangle-Free/Damage-Free (7 Methods)

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Active Noise Cancelling In Headphones

Headphones with active noise cancelling (ANC) are equipped with technology to effectively reduce the environmental noise around the listener for a clearer, more enjoyable listening experience.

ANC methods include real-time recording of external noise that is added to the audio signal out-of-phase to cancel out noise.

Active noise cancellation is really only practical in circumaural closed-back headphones and tight-fitting earphones. The earcups (or eartips) must provide passive isolation from exterior sound.

If external sound can reach the listener’s ear unobstructed, then ANC will not be nearly as effective.

With that said, ANC utilizes active circuitry to effectively produce an “anti-noise” signal in the headphone driver that cancels environmental noise by means of phase cancellation.

The ANC “anti-noise” circuit includes microphones that pick up the sound, a delay/phase-flip circuit to produce a signal that is out-of-phase with the noise, an amplifier that adjusts the anti-noise signal to match the actual noise level, and a summing amp that combines the intended audio with the anti-noise signal.

So the noise is effectively recorded and processed in real-time. A signal that cancels the noise is then introduced to the headphone drivers, which cancels out the noise while leaving the audio [ideally] unaffected.

Most headphones with ANC will have the option to turn the technology on and off.

ANC can help to reduce environmental distractions and improve clarity. However, it often loses its effectiveness in frequencies above the 1-2 kHz limit. It may also negatively impact the audio by introducing the anti-noise signal to the drivers. It all depends on the implementation of the design.

There are 3 general ANC circuit designs found in headphones:

Feed-forward ANC

Feed-forward active noise-cancelling works with a microphone placed on the outside of the headphones.

The microphone picks up external noise at the outside of the headphone body. This “noise signal” is then processed and summed with the intended audio at the headphone driver.

This system only reacts to external noise without any regard for the result of the summed audio and anti-noise signal.

Feedback ANC

Feedback active noise-cancelling works with a microphone placed on the inside of the headphone ear cup.

The microphone picks up sound within the ear cups of the headphones, capturing the noise within the earcup along with the actual sound of the intended audio signal.

With this design, the ANC circuit can constantly readjust its anti-noise signal to cancel the noise more effectively.

Hybrid ANC

Hybrid active noise-cancellation combines the two methods mentioned above with a microphone to the interior and to the exterior of the headphone earcup.

Hybrid systems, though more expensive, offer the benefits of both feed-forward and feedback systems without some of the cons.

For more information on noise-cancelling headphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
How Do Noise-Cancelling Headphones Work? (PNC & ANC)
Passive Vs. Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Do Noise-Cancelling Headphones Work With Or Without Music?
Top 5 Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones Under $500
Top 5 Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Noise Cancelling Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Noise Cancelling Earphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Noise Cancelling Earphones Under $100

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Headphone Frequency Response

Frequency response is an important specification to understand when looking for a new pair of headphones.

The audible range of audible frequencies for human hearing is universally accepted as 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. Therefore, if a pair of headphones is to produce the full range of audible frequencies, it must extend to or beyond this range.

The headphone frequency response range signifies the range of frequencies a pair of headphones is capable of producing. Most headphones will be able to produce frequencies beyond this range.

However, a range doesn’t tell the entire story. There will likely be peaks and valleys in the frequency-dependent sensitivity of the headphones across the frequency response range.

Unfortunately, it is rare for manufacturers to publish detailed frequency response graphs for their headphones. Rather, we must look to third-party testers for these graphs in our attempt to make an educated purchasing decision.

For more information on headphone frequency response, check out my article What Is Headphone Frequency Response & What Is A Good Range?

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Headphone Impedance

Headphone impedance is perhaps the most important specification to understand with any given pair of headphones or earphones.

Technically speaking, impedance is the combination of electrical resistance (DC) and reactance (AC) in a system and is measured in ohms (Ω).

When it comes to the headphone specification, impedance gives us an idea of how much power the headphones will need to get to a reasonable listening volume.

The higher the impedance, the more power the headphones need.

Headphone impedance specifications can be generalized in the following ways:

  • 32 Ω and below: the headphones will work well with consumer devices (relatively low-level) such as smartphones, laptops, etc. without issue.
  • 32 Ω to about 100 Ω: the headphones may suffer slightly when connected to consumer devices or low-level headphone output jacks though not necessarily. Headphones in this range would likely benefit from a headphone amplifier, though a headphone amp is not vital to getting good results.
  • 100 Ω and above: the headphones will require a headphone amplifier to properly drive their high-impedance drivers and produce their optimal result.

High-impedance headphones are typically more expensive, require extra gear (amplifier), and are less portable.

However, since they’re capable of handling stronger electrical signals, they inherently handle a greater dynamic range and reproduce sound more accurately.

Many professional and audiophile-grade headphones are high impedance, and all electrostatic headphones have very high impedance ratings.

Just know that, although higher impedance headphones may have greater potential clarity and performance, they’ll also require more from the headphone amplifier of DAC.

Note that while wireless headphones/earphones do technically have impedance ratings, their internal amplifiers/receivers are designed to work specifically with the drivers. Therefore, impedance specifications aren’t critical in wireless units.

To learn more about headphone impedance and all other headphone specs, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
The Complete Guide To Understanding Headphone Impedance
Full List: Headphone/Earphone Specifications w/ Examples

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Types Of Headphone Drivers

Headphones are transducers, meaning they convert one form of energy (in this case, audio signals) into another form of energy (in this case, sound waves). There are numerous transducer types found in headphones, but the main 5 worth noting are as follows:

Please note that, like many sections of this buyer’s guide, I’ll be generalizing in the following paragraphs.

Electrodynamic Headphone Drivers

An electrodynamic headphone is defined by its voice-coil-style driver. It acts as a transducer, converting audio signals (electrical energy) into sound waves (mechanical wave energy) with electromagnetism.

Electrodynamic drivers are the most common type of headphone driver and share the same basic design as most loudspeaker drivers.

A coil of conductive material is attached to the driver diaphragm and suspended in a magnetic field. As the audio signal passes through the voice coil, a coinciding alternating electromagnetic field is produced. This changing field interacts with the permanent magnet and moves the diaphragm. The diaphragm moves inward and outward, producing sound waves according to the information in the audio signal.

For more information on electrodynamic headphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
Complete Illustrated Guide To Moving-Coil Dynamic Headphones
Top 5 Best Moving-Coil/Dynamic Headphones Under $500
Top 5 Best Moving-Coil/Dynamic Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Moving-Coil/Dynamic Headphones Under $100

Electrodynamic drivers are relatively inexpensive to produce, are pretty rugged, and can sound accurate with proper damping and headphone design. These points are all reasons why this headphone type is the most popular.

Furthermore, electrodynamic drivers are typically driven by regular headphone amplifiers or DACs and do not require special units to drive them properly.

Most earphones and headphones you’ll find on the market are electrodynamic, from wired and wireless earbuds to open/closed-back, circum/supra-aural headphones. If they have a different driver type, it will usually be listed early in the product description.

In terms of applications, electrodynamic headphones and earphones are found in any and all situations where headphones are needed.

Electrostatic Headphone Drivers

Electrostatic headphones are transducers that convert audio signals (electrical energy) into sound waves (mechanical wave energy) and work on electrostatic principles. Audio signals cause varying electric fields in the driver that move the diaphragm and produce corresponding sound waves.

The diaphragm of an electrostatic headphone driver is generally a thin polyester film with a conductive coating. It can be biased with an external high voltage supply or by an electret design.

The diaphragm is placed between two stator/grid plates. The audio signal is sent to both plates in opposite polarity. As one plate becomes more positive (and the other more negative), the charged diaphragm is repelled by the positive plate and attracted by the negative plate. The audio signal, then, causes the diaphragm to move, which pushes/pulls air and ultimately produces sound waves.

For more information on electrostatic headphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
Complete Guide To Electrostatic Headphones (With Examples)
Top 5 Best Electrostatic Headphones

Electrostatic headphone drivers have extremely high impedance ratings typically above 100 kΩ (100,000 Ω) and sensitivity ratings around 100 dB SPL/100V. They, therefore, require very high voltage signals. These signal levels are unattainable with typical headphone jacks and even with professional headphone amplifiers.

The design of the headphones and the amplifiers are relatively expensive, and electrostatic headphones are among the most expensive on the market.

There’s a reason why they continue being manufactured, however. Electrostatic headphones are cherished for their low distortion, wide frequency response, superb transient response, and interchangeability with different headphone amplifiers.

Though there’s no doubt that electrostatic headphones sound amazing, the poor portability factor combined with the high price tags makes them rare. That being said, if you’re an audiophile with some extra cash, a nice pair of electrostatic headphones could be for you!

Planar Magnetic Headphone Drivers

Planar magnetic headphones are transducers that convert electrical energy (audio signals) into mechanical wave energy (sound waves) via electromagnetic principles. Their planar drivers are designed with thin electrical conductors embedded on a diaphragm that vibrates between two magnetic arrays.

These headphones are similar to the aforementioned electrodynamic headphones in the fact that they both work on electromagnetic induction. However, rather than having a bulky voice coil, planar magnetic diaphragms have embedded serpentine conductive traces.

The audio signal (alternating current) passes through the conductor, causing a varying magnetic field within the conductor and diaphragm. The varying magnetic field interacts with the permanent magnetic fields of the magnetic arrays, thereby moving the diaphragm due to the attraction and repulsions between the magnetic arrays. This produces sound waves according to the audio signal.

Planar magnetic drivers are much more accurate since they produce planar wavefronts instead of spherical wavefronts (as electrodynamic drivers do).

For more information on planar magnetic headphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
Complete Guide To Planar Magnetic Headphones (With Examples)
Top 5 Best Planar Magnetic Headphones

Planar magnetic headphones are generally most expensive than electrodynamic types but less expensive than electrostatic types. They sound amazing with low distortion and accurate transient and frequency response. They’re also relatively easy to drive, though a dedicated headphone amplifier may improve their sound quality.

There are fewer options for planar magnetic headphones on the market, but they’re worth the price for their superb sound. They make great choices for audiophiles, mixing engineers and general music lovers alike.

Balanced Armature Headphone Drivers

Balanced armature (BA) drivers work on electromagnetic principles with a coil wound around a moveable armature coupled to a diaphragm.

As we’d expect from reading the previous electromagnetic driver types, the audio signal passed through the conductive coil, which causes the suspended armature to oscillate within a magnetic field. The diaphragm, coupled to the armature via the drive pin, moves with the audio signal, producing sound waves that represent the audio.

For more information on balanced armature earphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
The Complete Guide To Balanced Armature IEMs/Earphones
Top 5 Best Balanced Armature In-Ear Monitors
Top 5 Best Balanced Armature In-Ear Monitors Under $500

These drivers are rather complicated, and it most often takes several of them (with crossovers) to reproduce the entire audible frequency range in a single pair of in-ear monitors.

Balanced armature drivers are really only practical in in-ear monitoring systems. They’re highly efficient and sensitive, are miniature and offer a great deal of variety in design.

Bone Conduction Headphone Drivers

Bone conduction drivers (and, by extension, headphones) are transducers that convert electrical energy (audio signals) into mechanical wave energy (physical vibrations). They do so with piezoelectric drivers coupled to the listener’s jaw and/or cheekbones. The vibrations extend to the inner ear and are interpreted as sound.

Bone conduction headphones send vibrations directly to the listener’s inner ear through their skull rather than producing sound waves that enter the ear canal and interact with the eardrum.

For more information on bone conduction headphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
Complete Guide To Bone Conduction Headphones (With Examples)
Top 5 Best Bone Conduction Headphones

Because bone conduction headphones bypass the eardrum entirely, they make an excellent choice for those with damaged hearing and those who need to hear their environment while wearing the headphones.

For that reason, bone conduction headphones are becoming popular with outdoor joggers and hikers.

The piezoelectric drivers are also naturally water-resistance, and there are some bone conduction headphones on the market design specifically for swimming.

For more content on headphone types and drivers, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
How Do Headphones Work? (Illustrated Guide For All HP Types)
What Is A Headphone Driver? (How All 5 Driver Types Work)

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Common Headphone Applications

To add even more value to you, let’s consider some common headphone applications and what type of headphones or earphones best suit them. In this section, we’ll be discussing the following common headphone applications:

Studio Recording

Headphones are invaluable monitoring devices in the studio, not only for the engineers but also for the performers. There are plenty of great headphone options for studio recording situations.

In many cases, headphones will be used for monitoring in conjunction with a live microphone. To avoid headphone bleed (when the microphone picks up the sound from the headphones), it’s often best to choose a pair of closed-back circumaural headphones.

These headphones should be comfortable enough for long recording sessions and be adjustable in order to accommodate different performers.

Attention should be paid to the sound of the headphones as well. Accurate monitoring is good monitoring.

In general, the electrodynamic headphone driver type is the best option.

Let’s consider a few common sources we’ll encounter in the studio.

Voiceover

Voiceover and dialogue recording often benefits greatly from proper monitoring. Allowing the talent to hear themselves in their headphones is important. Providing cues, playback, and other auditory elements in the performance is essential in obtaining the perfect take.

When recording voiceover, we’re trying to capture the cleanest takes possible. This can be tricky when there is additional audio information being played through the headphones, which the mic can pick up.

Choosing the right pair of headphones can help tremendously in combatting headphone bleed. Opting for a closed-back circumaural pair of properly fitted (fitting around the entire ear, closing the ear off from the environment) is key.

Beyond that, be careful not to monitor too loud. Even these headphones can bleed into the environment.

Vocals

When recording vocals in the studio, it’s critical that the vocalist can monitor themselves and the music to sing on time and in key. Using an iso booth and closed-back headphones at moderate volumes can make this possible without having too much of the headphone signal picked up by the microphone.

That being said, a bit of headphone bleed won’t be disastrous in the context of the larger mix.

Drums

Drums are naturally loud. Therefore, it’s important the headphones chosen from drummers in the studio can attenuate as much of the acoustic drum sound as possible while still offering decent monitoring of the drums and all other instruments.

Again, opting for a pair of closed-back circumaural headphones with a proper fit is the best bet.

Electronic Instruments

When recording purely electronic instrument signals (like synthesizers or direct-inject guitar and bass), we don’t have to worry about headphone bleed in a microphone.

The best headphone options for monitoring, then, are the ones that offer the best sound for the performer. For example, open-back headphones may sound more natural, so perhaps they’ll be better for a synth player.

Mixing & Mastering In The Studio

When mixing and mastering, it’s best to listen to the mix on as many playback systems as possible. By that logic, having multiple sets of studio monitors and headphones is ideal.

That being said, circumaural open-back headphones generally offer the most natural soundstage, making them fantastic choices for the studio. Studio control rooms tend to be acoustically treated, and if the mixing engineer is alone, the environmental interaction should be minimal on the sound of the open-back headphones.

Electrodynamic headphones are great, as are planar magnetic headphones.

Mixing Live

While mixing live, it’s best to have as much isolation from the environment as possible when making mixing decisions with headphones.

Of course, we also have the actual sound system to base our mix on. However, room acoustics can skew our perception of what’s actually going on with individual elements of a mix and the mix as a whole.

So choosing a sturdy pair of closed-back circumaural headphones is a great idea for mixing live. They can give us a sense of the direct mix and provide isolation from the environmental noise when it comes to troubleshooting with pre-fade listens.

In-Ear Monitoring

In-ear monitoring for musicians and other performers is often done with balanced armature IEMs and/or with electromagnetic earphones. Some IEMs include both driver types in multi-drivers earpieces.

Music Listening & Entertainment

When it comes to general music listening and entertainment, the headphone options are nearly limitless.

Many audiophiles enjoy the natural sound of electrostatic headphone systems. Planar magnetic headphones also tend to sound superb.

Of course, electromagnetic headphones are still the most popular.

If you’re out of the house, perhaps a pair of earphones or supra-aural headphones would be a better choice for their lightweight and compact form factors.

Consider active noise cancellation and wireless connectivity if you’d like.

Exercising

Earbuds are often the best choice for exercising. Wireless and true wireless options offer the most freedom from the playback device.

Of course, larger headphones are also popular, though they are more likely to move around and potentially fall off during exercise. Opt for active noise-cancelling if it will help you get in the zone.

Bone conduction headphones can be an optimal choice when exercising outdoors, as they keep the ear canals clear and allow the listener to hear the environment relatively clearly.

Nore that headphones and bone conduction headphones can also be wireless.

For my top headphones for exercising picks, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $50
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $100
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $200

Top 10 Best Headphones/Earphones For Hiking (Hikers’ Movement article)

Gaming

Headsets are technically more popular for gaming, but they’re essentially headphones with a built-in microphone.

Some headphones/headsets offer pseudo surround sound, which is compatible with certain games and gaming systems.

Of course, it’s important to purchase a gaming headset that is compatible with your system. Choose between wired and wireless options.

Most of these headsets are built with electrodynamic drivers.

For my top gaming headset picks, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 13 Best Headset Brands (Gaming, Aviation, Communication)
Top 5 Best Headsets For Gaming Under $400
Top 5 Best Headsets For Gaming Under $200
Top 5 Best Headsets For Gaming Under $100
Top 5 Best Headsets For Gaming Under $50

Podcasting

The best headphones for podcasting are the same as the best headphones for voiceover. Choose an affordable pair that fits well, sounds good, and offers isolation from the environment to reduce headphone bleed in the microphone.

For my top podcasting headphone picks, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 5 Best Headphones For Podcasting Under $200
Top 5 Best Headphones For Podcasting Under $100

Sleeping

Wireless earphones are likely the best choice for sleeping. They won’t get caught and tangled during your sleep, and the tiny buds likely won’t put uncomfortable pressure on your head and ears.

For my top headphones for sleep, check out the following My New Microphone article:
Top 5 Best Earphones For Sleeping Under $250

Swimming

Yes, there are headphones for swimming on the market. These headphones have built-in audio players (Bluetooth won’t work underwater, and most playback devices are bulky and not waterproof).

These headphones are most built with bone conduction technology though some have electrodynamic drivers.

For my top headphones for swimming, check out the following My New Microphone article:
Top 3 Best Earphones For Swimming Under $200

Back to the Table Of Contents.


Know The Additional Costs Of Headphone Accessories

Headphone Amplifiers

A headphone amp is a relatively low-powered amplifier that balances the impedance and boosts the voltage of an audio signal to best match the connected headphone in which it sends the audio signal. Headphone amps allow many professional high-impedance headphones to reach their full potential.

Related My New Microphone articles:
What Is A Headphone Amplifier & Are Headphone Amps Worth It?
Top 11 Best Headphone Amplifier Brands In The World

Digital-Analog Converters (DACs)

As their name would suggest, digital-analog converters convert digital audio into analog audio. Much of the audio we listen to today (streaming, digital playback devices, CDs) is in digital formats. However, headphones require analog audio signals in order to produce sound.

Therefore, a quality DAC is required to convert the digital audio into high-quality analog audio signals. Many devices have adequate built-in DACs, but sometimes a standalone high-end DAC is required for optimal listening.

Related My New Microphone articles:
• Top 9 Best Portable DAC (Digital-Analog Converter) Brands
Top 11 Best Desktop DAC (Digital-Analog Converter) Brands

Replacement Earpads & Eartips

Earpads and eartips will eventually wear out, and replacing them will cost a relatively small fee.

Headphone Adapters

Headphone adapters allow other incompatible connectors to connect. They convert attributes of one connector to those of another. Typically, a headphone adapter will allow the interconnectivity between two the following connector sizes: 2.5mm, 3.5mm, 4.4mm or 6.35mm.

To learn more about headphone connectors, check out my article The Differences Between 2.5mm, 3.5mm & 6.35mm Headphone Jacks.

Headphone Cases

A headphone case is a soft or hard case that fits and protects the headphones or earphones when they are not in use.

Headphone Stands

A headphone stand will hold the headphones in an optimal and easily accessible position when they are not in use. Stands are helpful for keeping expensive headphones from poor storage conditions between uses.

Back to the Table Of Contents.


Best Headphones/Earphones By Type, Application & Price

Below is a list of My New Microphone articles regarding the best headphones/earphones by type, application, and price:
Top 5 Best Balanced Armature In-Ear Monitors
Top 5 Best Balanced Armature In-Ear Monitors Under $500
Top 5 Best Bone Conduction Headphones
Top 5 Best Circumaural (Over-Ear) Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Circumaural (Over-Ear) Headphones Under $200

Top 5 Best Circumaural (Over-Ear) Headphones Under $500
Top 5 Best Closed-Back Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Closed-Back Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Earphones For Sleeping Under $250
Top 3 Best Earphones For Swimming Under $200
Top 5 Best Electrostatic Headphones
Top 10 Best Headphones/Earphones For Hiking
Top 5 Best Headphones Under $50
Top 5 Best Headphones For Podcasting Under $100
Top 5 Best Headphones For Podcasting Under $200
Top 5 Best Moving-Coil/Dynamic Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Moving-Coil/Dynamic Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Moving-Coil/Dynamic Headphones Under $500
Top 5 Best Noise Cancelling Earphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Noise Cancelling Earphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Noise Cancelling Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones Under $500
Top 5 Best Open-Back Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Open-Back Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Open-Back Headphones Under $500
Top 5 Best Planar Magnetic Headphones
Top 5 Best Supra-Aural (On-Ear) Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Supra-Aural (On-Ear) Headphones Under $250
Top 5 Best Supra-Aural (On-Ear) Headphones Under $500
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones/Earbuds Under $100
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones/Earbuds Under $200
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $50
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $100
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $200
Top 5 Best Wireless Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Wireless Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Wireless Headphones Under $500


This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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