Headphone Classification Guide

Headphone Backing Types

Headphones can either be open or closed back.

Open

Open headphones have open backs to allow for air to move in and out of the cups.

Pros:

  • Better sound stage in comparison to closed headphones.
  • Usually flatter frequency response due to lack of cup resonances.

Cons:

  • Sound leaks out so people can hear what you’re listening to.
  • Little to no isolation.

Examples:

Closed

Closed headphones have closed backs to seal air in the cups.

Pros:

  • Better isolation than open headphones
  • Less sound leakage

Cons:

  • Limited sound stage in comparison to open headphones
  • Sealed earcups can be microphonic, meaning hits, raps or objects hitting the earcup can cause loud noises in the user’s ear.

Examples:

Form Factors

Circumaural (Full Sized/Over-ear)

Circumaural headphones have earpads that lay around the ear to create a seal between the headphone and the ear.

Pros:

  • Foobar

Cons:

  • Rods on eyeglasses may sometimes be uncomfortable with circumaural headphones, or break the seal on the headphone, altering the sound

Examples:

Supra-aural (Portable/On-ear)

Supraaural headphones have earpads that lay flat against the ear

Pros:

  • Foobar

Cons:

  • Foobar

Examples:

Universal IEMs (In-Ear Monitors)

A universal IEM is placed directly in the ear canal, and has an eartip (usually silicone or foam), that creates an airtight seal between the headphone driver/ear system

Pros:

  • Offers extensive isolation

Cons:

  • IEM’s can be quite microphonic, amplifying mechanical noises in the cable, creating loud noises that interferes with the music

Examples:

Custom IEMs (In Ear Monitors)

Pros:

  • Comfort: they are molded directly to fit your ear, so there is ideally no pressure and they should “fit like a glove”
  • No need to purchase ear tips
  • Can generally be customized to your liking (different colors, images, materials)
  • Generally have replaceable cables
  • Very good isolation

Cons:

  • Can be very expensive (especially for high end)
  • Requires custom ear mold from an audiologist, which can add to the expense and hassle
  • Made to order, so there can be longer wait times between order and arrival
  • Limited resale value
  • Cannot share with others
  • Possibility of fit not being perfect and requiring refits

Examples:

Earbuds

An earbud sits in the outer ear, or just inside the ear canal, but are not designed to create a seal between the headphone and the ear

Pros:

  • Little isolation can be an advantage in situations where the wearer needs to remain aware of the surroundings

Cons:

  • Little isolation and considerable leakage may make them unsuitable for certain portable use
  • Often has weak bass response compared to IEM’s

Examples:

Transducer Technology

Dynamic

Pros:

  • Foobar

Cons:

  • Foobar

Examples:

  • Foobar

Planar Magnetic

A planar magnetic speaker is made with a diaphragm containing a conductive trace, where the diaphragm is then suspended in a strong magnetic field. When current flows through the conductive trace, interaction between the static magnetic field of the magnet system and the magnetic field formed around the trace interacts, forcing the diaphragm to move, creating sound. For a more in-depth look, please consult InnerFidelity’s article about planar magnetic headphones

Note: Planar magnetic headphones are sometimes (erroneously) referred to as “orthodynamic” headphones. Orthodynamic is a Yamaha trademark/marketing term used for their own planar magnetic headphones.

Pros:

  • Low moving mass provides good impulse response, and often very low levels of distortion
  • Headphone load is very nearly purely resistive, making them less dependent on amplifier output impedance

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Strong magnet forces can make assembly/disassembly quite difficult, and are not often suited for DIY repair
  • Some models, like the HiFiMAN HE-6 can be extremely power hungry

Examples:

Electrostatic

An electrostatic driver is created by the force exerted on a diaphragm/membrane suspended in an electrostatic field – for a longer explanation, please consult Wikipedia’s article on electrostatic loudspeakers

Pros:

  • Low moving mass provides good impulse response, and often very low levels of distortion

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Requires bias voltage/step up transformer in addition to the amplifier, further increasing cost

Examples:

Balanced Armature

Pros:

  • Foobar

Cons:

  • Foobar

Examples:

  • Foobar