When I was selling high-end headphones (in North America) people would often ask me what was the best headphone for them. To answer that it often required having an informed discussion around what different types of headphones existed and then how those might best apply to them.
Generally, the types of headphones fell into two categories.
The first, the physical make up of the headphone e.g. Open back vs Closed back.
The second, the type of headphone driver e.g. Dynamic or Planar Magnetic
I also used to have a full glossary of headphone types which I should resurrect at some point and post here on the site as you could also throw in Supra-aural vs Circumaural headphones.
So in this post, I want to go through all the different types of headphones including the physical makeup and the type of audio production and driver.
First, let’s talk about the types of headphones relating to sound production or driver types.
Different Types of Headphone Driver
Dynamic Driver Headphones
Dynamic drivers are the most common in both headphones and earphones. There are a few reasons for this including their long history of development and the cost to make them is lower than other drivers.
Don’t be fooled though – this doesn’t make them a poor cousin to other headphone drivers. Dynamic drivers have also had a lot of development put into them as competition has driven headphone brands to produce the best dynamic sound possible.
A typical dynamic driver in a headphone is made up of:
- a magnet (usually neodymium)
- a diaphragm – this is attached to the voice coil
- a voice coil
The magnet interacts with the voice coil. The voice coil moves in directions based on the current and this moves the diaphragm which creates sound through the movement of sound. Make sense?
I have a few favorite dynamic driver headphones including my fostex, my old Sennheiser HD598, HD600 and my Beyerdynamic DT-1990 Pro are my absolute favorites.
The DT-1990 Pro from Beyerdynamic have Tesla drivers but this relates to the special magnetic set up which is special to Beyerdynamic but they are still dynamic drivers.
At high volumes, Dynamic drivers can distort. This is their main weak point and as almost 50% of 12-35-year-olds listen to sound at unsafe levels on their personal devices (en.wikipedia.org)it’s possible they are experiencing distortion and hearing loss…turn it down, kids. You can’t get your hearing back once it’s damaged.
The amount of development over the years has produced some amazing headphone audio. Dynamic drivers can produce great bass without having to be driven too hard so at lower ohms with a smartphone you can get some really punchy bottom end.
Planar Magnetic Driver Headphones
Planar Magnetic Drivers, well, we’re still in the magnets here. In fact, it’s hard to escape the magnets with almost any form of audio production.
Planar Magnetic headphones are similar to dynamic driver headphones in that they use a magnetic field to make a diaphragm move to create sound via air movement.
As they use a much larger diaphragm they require more power and have more magnets. So, don’t think you can just plug these headphones into your iPhone and get a great sound. You’ll be disappointed.
You’ll really need a solid headphone amp, DAC Amp or HiFi amp to make these really sing. There are some brands working hard at making Planar Magnetic headphones that have low impedance for use with more readily available consumer devices but, you’ll want to make sure you’re buying these models as opposed to the higher impedance models.
Planar Magnetic headphones can be more expensive. They can also be heavier as they have more magnets in them. On the whole, they are not aimed at portable use or for use with personal devices but there are some companies like Audeze and Oppo making units as low as 32 Ohms for personal audio consumers.
In brief – big sound, low distortion and excellent Bass reproduction make these an excellent choice if you have the money and don’t mind the bulkier size they tend to model.
Bone Conduction (Magnetostriction)
Bone conduction headphones are often popular with sports enthusiasts or swimmers where the option to have closed-back or a big set of cans on your ears is not an option.
Effectively it’s where the audio frequencies are transferred to the eardrum via bone vibrations. I’ve included a few different models in our list of the best cycling headphones and the best swimming headphones.
The main benefit of bone conduction headphones is that you can leave the main entrance to the ear free allowing you to enjoy your music but also be able to hear things around you, hence why they made our cycle headphone list as you don’t want to lose connection to the sounds of the world around you.
You’re not going to get the best audio quality from these. They are a compromise so you can have some music on the go, but it’s not going to be anywhere near what a decent set of headphones with any driver is going to give you.
Gives you music where music might not otherwise be possible like when cycling or swimming. This kind of tech is also good for people who may need hearing assistance where their hearing is limited or diminished.
You know when you rub a balloon on your hair it goes all crazy with static? Well, I used to but I have less hair these days. Anyway, this is electrostatic charge and Electrostatic Headphones use this kind of charge for audio reproduction.
The net result is the same as the Planar Magnetic and Dynamic Drivers in that there is movement as the diaphragm is moved which creates the sound from air movement.
Electrostatic headphones are not the ones you will find in your local Best Buy or airport electronic vending machine as they are not very common and only true fans seem to have them on their headphone stands.
The complexity of the drivers due to the energizers gives a great sound stage but they are just not very accessible.
Expensive and large in size they also require a well-matched amplifier to make them give their best.
Wide-open and liberated sound-stage these headphones also give a really nice distortion-free sound.
What about Balance Armature Drivers?
Because in this post we are focused specifically on Headphones, and not earphones, earbuds or in-ear monitors I will not go into balanced armature (BA) drivers here. If you would like to know more about them drop us a question in the comments and we can get into it there.
A quick note also on Headphone impedance…
Impedance in it’s most basic form is the amount of power you need to drive the headphones. The lower the impedance (measured in ohms) the easier it is to drive them. e.g. a typical consumer headphone or IEM will have an impedance of around 32 ohms or slightly above. This means that even your smartphone will be able to produce a strong, solid sound with good volume.
A headphone with an ohms rating of 300 ohms, like the Sennheiser HD 650s for example, requires more power. For this you are better of using your home HiFi Amp, Studio rack or a decent Headphone Amp to power to get the best audio results. If you use high impedance headphones with a smartphone like an iPhone you’ll still get a decent sound but nowhere near the quality or volume of a more powerful source driver.
Different types of Headphone Form Factor
Open-back headphones are common in all driver types. It essentially means the back of the headphones ear-cup is open, or semi-open (We could have listed semi-open back headphones as well but let’s not get too lost in the weeds).
This typically means there is some air movement and some audio spill out the back of the cans.
Open-back headphones like the Sennheiser HD800s and HD 650s, the Beyerdynamic DT-1990 Pro and the Philips SHB9500 produce a wonderful open sound stage and natural effect.
Some lament open-back headphones, that they lack oomph and punch but if you get the right set the bass response can be deep, rich and rewarding.
While I believe all genres can be appreciated, some believe that Open Back suit Jazz, Classical and Acoustic music. My DT-1990-Pro have masses of punch so my opinion differs to some.
Sounds spill out the back and can be heard from people around you so these are not the headphones for an open planned office, nor for commuting.
Oddly enough Open back headphones are typically what you will see audio editors and sound engineers wearing in the studio. The Beyerdynamic DT-770 Pro being one of the most prolific headphones in-studio use.
The benefits to Open back headphones is that they don’t get hot over long listening periods and their sound stage is typically wide and more natural.
Closed-back headphones are closed. This means all the sound is contained in the earcup. This can often mean they produce tight and impactful bass. My Fostex TH-X00 are an excellent example of this and they product sublime bass with their natural wood back earcup.
Closed-back headphones can get hot with long use but are excellent choices for the office. If you throw in some active noise cancelling like the Bose 700 or Sony WH‑1000xm4 and Bluetooth Wireless you have a powerful combination.
Can get hot over long listening periods.
When done right they contain bass frequencies in a way that creates more impact and oomph. Excellent for commuting or travelling. Can be used in open office spaces to create privacy and avoid your workmates hearing your music. Closed-back headphones are available in noise-cancelling and Bluetooth wireless which makes them a really popular choice these days. All the portability, none of the outside noises and active noise-canceling to leave you to enjoy your music in peace.
Different types of Headphone Ear Cups
On-ear – Supra-aural
On-ear ear cups are ones that rest on your ear. They are usually a soft foam that sits right on top of your ear to create the sound. These are less popular these days but some brands still make excellent examples. Bose had the SoundLink on-ear Bluetooth headphones and the Bose QuietComfort 3 as two of their on-ear models. B&W also had the popular P3 headphones which you could try at any Apple store for a long time.
These are fine but I personally don’t like the feel of the headphones on my ears. I’m just too used to over-the-ear headphones.
Over-Ear – Circumaural
Circumaural is the most common form of headphone available today. It is the over-ear headphone type that creates a seal around your ear and leaves your ear free of pressure. This is seen in the Bose 700, DT-1990-Pro, Sony range, Audio-Technica and most other popular models.
These are the most common form if you are choosing noise-cancelling models and Bluetooth wireless models.
They are also the most common type for passive dynamic driver headphones which covers +95% of the headphones on the consumer market.
Both on-ear and over-ear headphones are available in open-back and closed-back models.
Headphone Types – Features
Active Noise-cancelling headphones are really quite intelligent. In the early days around 1978, the first Bose team led by Dr. Amar G. Bose worked on headphones for pilots and created a negative soundwave process that actually negates any constant noise typically experienced when flying or being in any environment that has a constant noise element. (boseaviation.com)
They are able to reduce most external noise but really excel when it comes to the sound of wind or engine hum as it is easy to pin point the frequencies and target those for cancellation.
ANC Headphones like the Bose QC 35 ii, Bose 700, Sony WH‑1000xm4, Bowers & Wilkins PX7 and the Beats Studio3 are also closed-back over the ear (circumaural) headphones, so they also provide some passive noise-isolation.
Passive noise-isolation is really how a closed-back headphone naturally shuts our external noise. Similar to you putting your hands over your ear.
When you combine active noise-cancellation with a closed-back over-the-ear you get the best of both sides of noise cancellation.
Bluetooth Wireless Headphones
Bluetooth Wireless headphone have become quite ubiquitous. The don’t require a cable to be connected and in recent years have reached a quality of audio that is sufficient for most-all consumers. Audiophiles remain unsure but even they (we) are coming over to see that the quality combined with convenience are an excellent combination.
Essentially, Bluetooth Wireless Headphones are rechargable, wireless (no cord) headphones that allow you to connect to any Bluetooth audio source (iPhone, Android phone, tablet, Bluetooth DAP, laptop, runnng watch, apple watch etc) and stream music.
The codecs used for Bluetooth audio are constantly being updated and improved. aptX HD is popular but isn’t currently available to iPhone owners. Most Android device owners can take advantage of it.
Well…that sounds like an oxymoron really but they exist and they work. We’ve even done a list of swimming earphones and headphones you can get for your aqua activities.
Typically your best bet is a bone conducting unit but there are also earbuds which work. You will need a waterproof sound source which could come from a clip on MP3 player or the earphones themselves can hold MP3 tracks. Best outcome your apple watch or similar will use Bluetooth to play your music in the water.
AfterShokzXtrainerz, Aztine and Dobo are some of the brands you’ll come across that do bone condutor waterproof MP3 players or waterproof earbuds.
Don’t expect the world from these units. You’re not going to get a high quailty audio experience but it might surprise you and is better than no music at all.
Ideally, this article has answered all your questions about the different types of headphones you can get. We’ve looked at physical make up like open-back and closed back. We’ve looked at how they fit over or on your ears – circumaural and supra-aural. And, we’ve looked at some of the tech that comes with headphones like the driver types, impedance (ohms) and noise-cancelling options.
If that hasn’t answered your questions then let us know and we can fill in the blanks. Just ask in the comments below.
This isn’t a buying guide but we have plenty of those if you are looking at the best headphones, best headphones under a certain price or switching to earbuds vs headphones. Regardless, this is stuff you need to know when buying headphones too.