How supplies and drivers have an effect on audio high quality

At first look, the recipe to create new audio gear appears reduce and dry — decide speaker drivers, design a shell to accommodate mentioned drivers, outline connectivity and add the electronics, accommodate peripheral gear like a growth mic, and also you’re able to earn a living on a brand new product vary. However as our favourite headphones for Android will show, it’s by no means that straightforward, and there are a number of the reason why headphones and earbuds with related specs on paper typically sound very completely different, particularly if they arrive from completely different manufacturers.

There are a lot of components that have an effect on how your audio sounds, and they’re largely the identical, whether or not you are utilizing headphones or pro-tier earbuds which sit deeper within the ear canal and are sometimes often known as in-ear screens or IEMs. Elements starting from the design and development of IEMs and headphones to your alternative of DAC can all have a perceptible impression on the sound profile, which might make issues complicated if you’re looking for a set of recent cans. The information will introduce the various kinds of drivers and supplies typically utilized in headphones and IEMs and clarify how they work in tandem to create sound.


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Magnets take the wheel

Headphone speaker drivers convert electrical present into vibrations, which creates audible sound, making them one of many greatest determinants of sound output. Nonetheless, not all drivers are created equal, and there are just a few completely different variations to think about, from dynamic to electrostatic. This is how they differ from each other.

Dynamic drivers

Proper off the bat, you’ll discover dynamic drivers inside an amazing majority of headphones, earbuds, and IEMs throughout value factors as a result of they’re inexpensive and compact full-range drivers. This implies they excel at reproducing virtually all of the audible frequencies for the human ear, starting from 20Hz to twenty,000Hz (or 20kHz), with some fashions just like the Kinera Imperial Norn claiming to go even wider, all the way in which as much as 40kHz, which is past the audible spectrum of the human ear.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t imply to say they sound implausible throughout the spectrum. Characteristically, dynamic drivers wrestle essentially the most with element and readability retention within the higher midrange of the frequency band, the place most feminine vocals and cymbals hit. For brevity, we cannot get into the phrases used to describe sound signatures in nice element right here, however dynamic drivers aren’t formulaic — you’ll see bigger drivers ship punchier bass, and types typically mess around with materials decisions for the motive force to additional alter the sound output. Pricier materials decisions like these we see on the Sennheiser HD 800 S evidently assist masks the technological inadequacies.

Balanced Armature drivers

Balanced Armature drivers (BA) are usually present in IEMs as a result of they’re smaller by design — as a substitute of that includes a vibrating diaphragm hooked up to an electromagnetic coil like in dynamic drivers, these have a smaller suspended coil vibrating between two electromagnets. In contrast to dynamic drivers, BAs excel at correct illustration of high-frequency sounds, making for a usually vibrant sound profile. Their Achilles heel is the lackluster bass response, which lacks the oomph and tightness to impress.

A lifestyle image of green KZ AZ 16 Pro IEMs against a white background

Supply: KZ Acoustics 

As such, you’ll typically discover BAs paired with dynamic or electrostatic drivers to compensate in what’s often known as a hybrid driver configuration with a number of speaker models per facet. Audio manufacturers, particularly these catering to discerning audiophiles, typically use hybrid configurations whereby every driver is optimized to deal with a sure vary of frequencies. Even among the many inexpensive fashions, merchandise just like the KZ AS16 Professional with eight balanced armature drivers per facet aren’t extraordinary. Nonetheless, hybrid drivers are normally solely seen in IEMs and never a lot in headphones.

Planar magnetic drivers

Trying away from IEMs for a minute, one can find planar magnetic drivers are a sizzling favourite within the high-end headphone market, and for all the best causes. Within the design division, this expertise is the polar reverse of BA drivers, that includes large electromagnets with a vibrating diaphragm suspended between them to provide sound. The dimensions restriction largely relegates these drivers to on-ear and over-ear headphones, however the acoustic constancy compensates for misplaced portability and the normally steep costs, after which some.

Because the total diaphragm responds to the electromagnets, you’ll discover planar magnetic drivers delivering matchless sound readability and element retention throughout the audible frequency vary. They normally have a flat and immersive sound signature, with equal emphasis on the decrease and higher midrange frequencies the place most devices focus, making them a staple for studio monitor headphones just like the Hifiman Sundara. Nonetheless, these giant electromagnets on both facet want a robust driver present, or they gained’t get loud sufficient or really feel missing within the sub-bass, which suggests a overwhelming majority of planar magnetic headphones should be paired with a very good amplifier.

Electrostatic drivers

Deeper pockets could land you a tête-à-tête with speaker driver royalty that electrostatic drivers are. These are sometimes thought to be the head of client audio expertise, that includes a fragile development comprising skinny electromagnetic plates with a vibrating membrane between them. Headphones just like the Audeze CRBN that includes electrostatic drivers are sometimes prohibitively costly due to such complicated development.

For those who’re prepared to pay the value, you will get a pair of headphones with correct and quick response from the drivers. Electrostatic drivers ship an immersive expertise and sound high quality that’s most true to the unique recording. Because the development shares similarities with planar magnetic drivers, electrostatic headphones additionally require highly effective amplifiers to drive the magnets and produce the most effective outcomes.

Transferring on from what’s inside headphones, the form and development of the shell holding these drivers play an equally vital position. Fortunately, the market is flooded with only a handful of variations. Whereas IEMs and earbuds function compact shells terminating in an ear tip that sits in your ear canal, headphones, owing to their bigger kind, have extra design variables to play with.

Open-back and closed-back designs

How ethereal would you like the sound to be?

On retailer cabinets, you’ll discover two configurations — open-back and closed-back — with a overwhelming majority utilizing the latter strategy. If the entrance of a driver is pointed towards your ears, the title means that an open-back design leaves the opposite finish open to the weather. This design has just a few apparent advantages, comparable to a roomy and pure sound signature, as if you’re listening to music from bookshelf audio system that transfer along with your head. To boost the listening expertise additional, it’s possible you’ll typically discover open-back headphones paired with high-end planar magnetic or electrostatic drivers.

An image of Grado headphones with a USB-C dongle DAC on a wooden desk

Grado SR60e open-back headphones

Open-back cans don’t toast your ears in warmth and moisture both, as a result of air, and therefore sound, freely flows across the driver. This lets you hear sounds out of your environment as properly — an impact true-wireless earbuds attempt to replicate with exterior mics and transparency modes. Nonetheless, the openness makes them unsuitable for noisy environments or shared areas the place sound leakage might compromise your privateness.

Closed-back headphones, then again, higher isolate you from ambient noise and usually have much less audio leakage. Closed-back cans may additionally get a bit heat contained in the earcups throughout longer periods. You might also discover a barely punchier bass response with this design as a result of the drivers have a restricted quantity for reverberation.

On-ear and over-ear designs

Consolation is paramount, in any case

Whereas closed-back and open-back designs have their professionals and cons, you would possibly discover how the earcups on these fashions differ drastically in dimension, and that’s as a result of all of them match in a different way. On-ear headphones are arguably the preferred design, with earcup cushions urgent towards your ears. They provide first rate noise isolation and a compact dimension, however in addition they trigger discomfort after prolonged utilization and endure from sound leakage. Nonetheless, the design makes use of fewer supplies and is a well-liked alternative for transportable wired and wi-fi headphones with dynamic drivers, particularly fashions on a funds, such because the Audio-Technica ATH-M60x.

Sony WH-1000XM5 over-ear headphones mounted on a model shaped like a human head

Over-ear headphones utterly cowl the ear

Bigger electrostatic and planar magnetic drivers are normally featured in over-ear headphones due to their sheer dimension. Nonetheless, the over-ear design additionally makes for a extra satisfying expertise, with earcup cushions creating an ideal seal in your head, enveloping your ear utterly. On closed-back headphones, this can be a recipe for toasty sizzling ears, however for the complete period, it is tolerable, and also you get implausible consolation and noise isolation. Moveable over-ear headphones just like the Apple AirPods Max are a rarity, and you may seemingly discover them in house theaters, desktop setups, studios, planes, and different areas the place the voluminous design is not a problem.


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Materials decisions for the shell

There’s at all times plastic, however generally materials decisions matter

Though supplies utilized in speaker driver development are maybe an important factor of headphones, the supplies used to make the shell are maybe simply as vital. In any case, there is a purpose subwoofers and bookshelf audio system are normally product of wooden, whereas full-range drivers in headphones function plastic shells.

Plastic is the go-to alternative for many producers for its formability, coloration variations, and low manufacturing price. Nonetheless, it typically sounds uninspiring and would not lend a taste to the music you are listening to. Some designs could introduce undesirable resonance, however that is not noticeable until you already know what to pay attention for.

Extra premium headphones could function sturdier metallic shells or derivatives from wooden and different natural supplies, just like the Grado Hemp headphones and Meze Audio 99 Classics Walnut end. Nonetheless, the probabilities for design variation and dimension are constrained right here as a result of metals and wooden are denser than plastics, creating heavier headphones, which might get uncomfortable. An open-back design can avoid wasting weight however can even rob the headphones of the novel materials’s signature reverb traits.

Aluminum headphones with tan accents on a dark wooden desk with ports, controls,a nd other buttons visible

Grasp and Dynamic MH40 Wi-fi makes use of light-weight aluminum

Naturally sourced wooden typically absorbs greater frequencies, making a heat, mellow sound signature appropriate for informal music listening, taking the sting off string devices and scratchy vocals. On the different finish of the spectrum, metals are inclined to dampen resonance but in addition intensify the upper frequencies, making a vibrant or energetic sound signature.

The selection of supplies issues rather less with IEMs as a result of they enclose a smaller again house for the sound to resonate in. Nonetheless, you’ll discover IEM manufacturers experimenting with quite a lot of supplies, starting from aerospace-grade aluminum on the RHA MA650 to 3D-printed resin shells on fashions from Linsoul and Kinera.

Choose your subsequent headphones or IEMs properly

New headphones don’t want to interrupt the financial institution

Green Fairphone headphones on a coffee table with a plant and sunlit window in the backdrop

Collectively, all these parameters could complicate a seemingly easy headphone buy, however there’s no denying shoppers are spoiled for alternative within the audiophile market in the present day, and excellence doesn’t essentially command a steep value, particularly if you already know what to search for.

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