Best headphones of October 2017

Top 10 headphones

How to choose the best headphones

Whether you are an audiophile who loves the alluring sound quality of on-ear or over-ear headphones, or a sporty type who wants a pair of light-weight in-ear headphones, there are plenty of options. The sound signature, form factor and the loads of other extra features manufacturers add to provide you with the best listening experience, such as wireless transmission, are only a few of the aspects you should take into account when looking for the best headphones of 2017. Below are the most important aspects that you should take a look at when you go shopping for a pair:

Types of headphones

Most of us wear our headphones for long periods of time. When watching movies, listening to our favorite tunes, or even just to serve as a fashion statement when outdoors. This leads to the issue of comfort and build strength. Some full-size headphones (over-ear and on-ear) are built with cushions surrounding the neckband for added comfort. There are also ear-fitting headphones (in-ear and earbud), which are small enough to be carried just about anywhere since they can easily fit in a pocket. There are of course some drawbacks. Here’s a list of advantages and disadvantages of full-sized and ear-fitting headphones:

 

Full-size

(over-ear and on-ear)

Ear-fitting

(in-ear and earbud)

Sound Quality

Bigger drivers produce more bass and are generally better sounding than their smaller-size counterparts.

Much smaller drivers produce much less bass and have less potential in creating quality sound.

Comfort

Full-size headphones are much heftier and can become uncomfortable if worn for long periods of time.

Ear-fitting headphones fit into the outer ear or ear canal. They are also much lighter.

Portability

Full-size headphones are bigger and heavier. While some of them have foldable designs, they are still considerably harder to carry.

Ear-fitting headphones are much smaller and lighter. They can easily fit in  a small bag, purse, or pocket. 

Repairability

Full-size headphones are composed of big sections which can easily be replaced when damaged. There are also some which have detachable cables, for easy replacement.

Ear-fitting headphones are made-up of very small parts which are usually glued together. In most cases, damaged ear-fitting headphones are better replaced or sent back to the manufacturer for repair if the damage is covered by the warranty.

There are also subtypes for each of the two headphone sizes. They don’t differ that much (if at all) in terms of size, but each have their advantages and disadvantages:

Full-size Headphones

  • Over-ear: This type of full-size headphone has ear pads shaped to go around the ears, so that the earcups which hold the drivers completely cover the ears. Compared to on-ear headphones, these are typically heavier and bulkier, though not by much. Since it fully encloses the ears, it has more potential for heavier bass, better surround sound, and, if designed to do so, it can also block external noise more effectively than on-ear headphones. Another downside is that it also traps body heat around the ears.
  • On-ear: Instead of going around the ear, on-ear headphones have ear pads which fit on the ears. These headphones are usually a bit smaller and lighter compared to over-ear headphones. The disadvantages come from the fact that the pads press on the ears of the user. This results in a far less effective noise isolation and uncomfortable fit due to the clamping force on the ears. On the other hand, it is less susceptible to trapping body heat around the ears.

Ear-Fitting Headphones

  • In-ear: This type of headphone has earplugs that extend into the ear canals. The earplugs are designed to mold into the shape of the ear canals to form a perfect seal. This leads to superior noise-isolation and better bass reproduction. On the other hand, the perfect seal also makes the user unaware of the surroundings and in places where environmental noise is important (e.g. on the road), it is not advisable to wear in-ear headphones.
  • Earbud: Instead of extending into the ear canals, earbuds rest in the outer ear. As a downside, there is so much room for ambient noise to seep into the ears of the user, and the bass is compromised as well since there is no perfect seal. They are also said to be uncomfortable to wear based on feedback from users, as compared to in-ear headphones. Since there’s so much environmental noise that can pass through, users tend to put the volume at dangerously high levels, leading to a higher risk of hearing loss. On the other hand, earbuds make users more aware of their environment and they are also typically the cheapest type of headphone.

Aside from the size of the headphones, the choice of material is also important. After all, you don’t want everyone to see you rocking a cheap-looking device which may get damaged easily just after bringing it out once. Depending on your budget, you may see a combination of these materials on your headphones:

  • Plastic: Since it is the cheapest material readily available to manufacturers, a lot of headphones are made almost entirely of plastic. It is also much easier to mold during manufacturing than metal.
  • Rubber: Most headphones are usually covered with rubber. This acts as a protection, since rubber coating is more scratch-resistant than plastic and it can also serve as a form of a thin padding for comfort.
  • Foam: Most full-size headphones have foams on the earcups and headbands to provide a cushion between the headphones and the head of the user. Ear-fitting headphones may also have the ear tips made out of foam, so that the earphones can adjust to the specific shape of the ear.
  • Metal: Metals, such as aluminum, are also used on some headphones, especially in high-end ones. Metals are much denser and stronger than plastic. This results in headphones which have much better build and are much more resistant to everyday wear, especially if you take your headphones with you while travelling. This also usually results in better sound production if designed correctly, with a crisper and tighter sound signature, with less of the music sounding like it’s coming from an enclosed dome.

Sound quality

Physical qualities aside, it is also important to consider the specifications of the sound driver. After all, when buying headphones, we are mainly looking for a gadget which will deliver the best sound. There are a lot of driver specifications which are essential to know if you would like to estimate the performance of the headphones:

Frequency Range: A sound wave can be characterized by determining its frequency. A sound is introduced using a vibrating medium and the physical measurement of how fast that medium is vibrating is the audio frequency. The frequency of the sound determines the perceived pitch of the listener. Most young individuals can hear sounds with frequencies ranging from 20 to 20,000 Hz, although this range becomes smaller as an individual ages.

Since the normal hearing range is from 20 to 20,000 Hz, it is just fitting to make headphones which could produce sounds in those frequencies, although some headphones, especially high end ones, go beyond that range for a reason. Frequencies below 20 Hz can still produce significant vibrations even though they are inaudible. This gives the impression of a much deeper bass with the additional benefit of being more fun to listen to if you are a basshead. Frequencies higher than 20,000 Hz are both inaudible and cannot be felt. So why bother making headphones which can produce sounds above 20,000 Hz? The answer isn’t quite as straightforward. While the frequencies above 20,000 Hz cannot be detected at all by humans, headphones designed to operate at really high frequencies would tend to sound better at the audible upper frequency. It may not make sense at first, but to put it into perspective, imagine asking two people, one a weightlifter and the other an average person, to lift a heavy object. While both may be able to do it, and you might argue that the weightlifter’s power is overkill, the weightlifter would be able to do it effortlessly, while the average person might need all of his reserved energy to be able to do the job.

Impedance: Headphones are driven by the electrical current that comes from the source, which may be your phone, your laptop, and similar devices. Impedance is the measurement of the resistance of the driver to that electrical current. Which means the lower the impedance, the higher the volume would be at the same electrical input. On the other hand, high impedance headphones are much less susceptible to blow outs, which is when the electrical input is too much for the drivers to handle.

Choosing the right impedance depends on what device you will be using your headphones with. If the headphones will be plugged mostly in your smartphone, laptop, or iPod, a low impedance headphone is better since the sound amplifiers in these devices can only output a small amount of current. But if you are planning to plug the headphones in audio mixers, it is better to go for headphones with high impedance to avoid running the risk of damaging the audio drivers.

Most consumer headphones have impedances below 50 Ohms but professional-grade headphones have three digit impedances, like the Beyerdynamic DT880 Pro, rated at 250 Ohms. It is generally believed that the impedance of a headphone won’t affect the sound quality, although higher impedance headphones have much thinner voice coils (the moving electromagnets in the drivers) which means that there are less spaces in between each winding. Since there are not so many windings, the magnetic fields are stronger and the diaphragm of the driver can be much lighter, which leads to less distortions in sound production.

Sound Pressure Level (SPL): Also referred to as the headphone's sensitivity, it is the efficiency of the process of conversion from electrical current to audible sound waves. It is related to impedance in a way - both determine the loudness of the produced sound at a given electrical signal. However, while impedance is a technical measurement calculated using electrical instruments, SPL is a real-world measurement acquired through actual testing. In any way, the impedance predicts the SPL of the headphones. High impedance leads to lower SPL and vice versa. A higher SPL means that the headphones can produce sounds at a louder volume than headphones with lower SPL, when the electrical input is the same. This is particularly useful when using the headphones with portable devices that have weak built-in amplifiers.

Magnet type: Headphone manufacturers use ferrite magnets or neodymium magnets for the headphone drivers. There are just a few differences between the two, the most important one being the weight. Neodymium magnets are much lighter. Neodymium magnets can have the same magnetic force as ferrite magnets at just a fraction of the weight, and lighter headphones are of course more comfortable to wear.

By Xhander Franco

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