For the vast majority of us that can’t just get a $50,000 Sennheiser Orpheus and get the literal best headphones money can buy, our personal audio journey is more about getting the most enjoyment in our music from the audio gear we can afford.
Unless you already know exactly what you want and how you want to get there, the upgrade path for headphones is often unclear.
Besides just buying better headphones, there are dozens of companies out there that are more than happy to sell you a box or some other paraphernalia that’s supposed to make your listening experience better.
But we’re not here today to talk about amps and DACs like they’re wine and cheese pairings, much less join the ceaseless debate on whether cables make a difference or not (the answer is that they simply don’t unless they’re broken).
We’re here to talk about a much more tangible upgrade: earpads.
Why Do You Need New Earpads?
While the sound quality is and always will be core to the hobby, using headphones is as much a tactile experience as it is an auditory one.
From their weight to the materials they use, to how much pressure you get on the top and sides of your head, just as much time is spent feeling headphones as it is listening to them. And earpads are a huge part of that fit and comfort factor.
Think of all the times you’ve worn really comfortable headphones.
Big and spacious, plush, and with that sinking-in sensation as the memory foam slowly compresses. Or maybe they’re a bit on the firmer side but felt really light and handled the heat well because they used velour or mesh fabric.
Alternatively, think of all the times you’ve put on a pair of headphones and didn’t like how they felt.
Maybe they were on-ears and were too small for your tastes. Maybe they felt too shallow that your ears would touch the drivers. Maybe you’ve been using them for so long that their foam isn’t as soft as it once was.
Earpads are responsible for all of that—and that’s exactly why they’re so important.
With just a simple swap of your earpads, you could breathe new life into old headphones just like reupholstering would an old sofa.
Depending on what you get, you may even find some earpads that improve your experience even more.
Types of Headphone Earpads
One quick look at the market and you’ll find that there are twice as many headphone earpads you can buy as there are actual headphones. That’s because headphones need a pair of earpads.
Jokes aside, though, there are a ton of options out there that you can find for most headphones, and the more popular the headphone, the more earpads you’ll find.
But not all earpads are made the same.
As we’ve found, earpads will usually fall into one of two categories depending on how they’re made and what they’re intended for replacement earpads and upgrade earpads.
Replacement earpads are the earpads you’d usually get when the original ones on your headphones have worn out. They’re intended to replace the original earpads and should provide as close to the original fit and feel as possible.
Among these, you’ll also find two sub-types: first-party replacements and third-party replacements.
As the name implies, first-party replacement earpads are made and bought from whoever made your headphones—basically just spare parts. If there was any pair of earpads that provided that “new headphone” experience, it would be the ones made by their original manufacturer.
Now, there are some caveats to this.
First-party replacement earpads are often pretty expensive — Beyerdynamic sells their DT770 velour pads for about $35, for instance — and that’s assuming the manufacturer even sells them in the first place.
A lot of headphones simply don’t have any first-party replacements. Beats are notorious for these, especially as their earpads have annoying extra plastic bits to create a proprietary locking mechanism.
Thankfully, third-party manufacturers are more than happy to oblige with replacement earpads of their own.
Brands like Geekria and Misodiko go to great lengths to recreate earpads for a huge range of headphones — yes, even the ones with annoying mechanisms.
From my experience, their designs are indeed quite accurate to the original, and they get the added bonus of being cheaper than first-party options when those are available to compare.
Replacement earpads are all well and good, but ultimately they just restore the original experience of using your headphones.
What if you wanted to go beyond that? That’s where upgrade earpads come in.
As the name suggests, upgrade earpads are meant to improve the experience of wearing headphones beyond stock.
Through a combination of material choices, changes in geometry, and other tweaks, manufacturers like Dekoni and Yaxi either fix problems with the headphones as stock or introduce new qualities that may be more desirable to listeners.
What You Look For in Upgrade Earpads
As you can imagine, being unrestricted by trying to replicate the stock sound means upgrading earpads can vary quite a bit in their design.
And having multiple brands trying to make the same thing makes for comparisons, and therefore competition.
If you’ve read my recent reviews on the Brainwavz Gaming Earpads and the Yaxi Stpad2, there are four categories that we think upgrade earpads should improve on over the stock earpads: fit, comfort, isolation, and sound. We’ll break these down in the following sections.
Fit is the most basic requirement for any upgrade earpad—after all, what would be the point of buying earpads if your ears still don’t fit them very well?
But there’s another aspect to upgrading earpads that most tend to overlook, and this is how easy they are to actually install in the headphones.
Sure, earpads are meant to be something you put on and forget about, but this process should still only take a few seconds at most.
This is especially important for upgrading earpads that are meant to be compatible with multiple headphones. It’s one thing to have the same pad dimensions, but each headphone has its own earcup design and, in turn, a mounting point for the earpads.
Some headphones have an especially tight groove that can make it very difficult for some earpads to fit if not specifically designed for it.
While earpad makers do (or otherwise should) try to maintain a list of compatible headphones for their earpads, it’s still often better to check on reviews for fit impressions with specific headphones before you find yourself spending 5 minutes to put a single pair on your headphones.
This may or may not be based on personal experience.
Following that on the list, any earpad with the confidence to call itself an upgrade should at least be more comfortable to wear than the stock earpads.
Like the fit, though, there are different ways you could approach what “more comfortable” is.
As an example, I live in a hot and humid area, which makes leather and pleather earpads on any headphone just annoying to have on, regardless of whether they feel nice to wear.
Having earpads made of fabric like velour or mesh, then, is a major improvement for me.
On the other hand, someone can have the opposite problem — that is, strongly disliking the feel of fabric earpads and much preferring the flatter texture of leather.
Leather and pleather earpads are also known and widely used for providing very good isolation compared to velour, which is another area that upgraded earpads can improve on.
How well an earpad is isolated against outside noise can be affected by a whole laundry list of design details. The outer pad material is one of them, but the density and porosity of the foam on the inside are just as important.
Slight changes in the shape of the earpads also have an effect, since this changes how much material is between the ears and the outside.
While more isolation is often a goal for upgrading earpads, this isn’t universal.
Open-back headphones are inherently designed to not block out any outside noise, so upgrade earpads have no business trying to improve noise isolation.
More importantly, some people might just prefer other qualities of the earpads and are willing to give up a bit of noise reduction for it.
One reason for trading off noise isolation in their upgrade earpads is the change it makes to the sound.
Unlike cables that can cost well into the hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, $50 upgrade earpads can make noticeable and sometimes drastic changes to a headphone’s sound signature.
As an example, it’s generally the case that leather earpads tend to tilt a headphone’s sound towards more of a V-shape — firmer, punchier bass and brighter treble — because of how it reflects audio waves in its interior space.
Velour and fabric earpads, by contrast, are a lot less dense than leather and allow some airflow into and out of its interior space.
This usually makes the headphone sound leaner as its bass is absorbed into the fabric instead of being reflected toward the ears.
How this all works opens us up to an entire barrel of worms on acoustics and materials science that I have neither the time nor experience to explain.
The bottom line is that these different upgrade earpads do make a difference.
The goal of being an audiophile is to get the most enjoyable listening experience from the audio gear that you have.
Whether your headphones are $20 or $2,000, their earpads can and will wear out eventually.
And while there’s nothing stopping you from sticking with your old earpads, there’s also no doubt that replacing them with fresh ones will make your listening experience better.
Now, would spending the extra money on upgrade earpads be worth it? That depends on what you want to get out of your headphones.
I should make it clear that earpads can’t work miracles — they won’t magically make your headphones sound like something else on their own.
But if your headphones are just missing that little something to be just right, a new set of earpads might be something you need.
At the very least, they make more of a difference than cables.
Tech enthusiast since childhood with a passion for finding the perfect gadget or accessory for the job. Always happy to share knowledge on electronics and digital trends. Music lover, 5K runner, instinctive optimizer. Impressed by fit and finish. Inspired by art and engineering.