Headphones have always had three advantages over stereo systems; price, portability, and sound quality. A pair of headphones can offer you a taste of high end sound at a small fraction of the price. A great pair of headphones like the Denon AH-D2000 for $349 retail gives you performance found in $5,000 and up stereo systems.
Why is that? First off the headphones remove the room from the equation. Room acoustics have more to do with your stereo systems sound than anything else you own because of sound reflections, bass nulls and peaks, and poor speaker positioning. Second with headphones you do not need multiple large components and cables to drive them. Generally headphones are wired closer to the source than a stereo system is to its speakers.
There are different kinds of headphones to choose from. To aid in the process I have compiled a list of words you will come across when headphone shopping. Pay special attention to impedance and sensitivity.
Cans: Slang term for headphones.
Circumaural: The headphone ear pads completely surround the ear. Also: “over the ear.”
Connector Type: Headphones come with different sizes of connectors and adapters. Common sizes include 1/8 inch (mini) 1/4 inch (standard) or balanced (XLR).
Cups: Referring to the hard outer enclosure of the actual headphones. Found on larger headphones and not in-ear models.
Diaphragm: Like a speaker cone, the diaphragm moves air back and forth to create sound. Typically the larger the diaphragm, the more bass the headphone will produce.
Ear buds: Ear buds sit in your outer ear and not in the ear. They can be found with clips that rest around the ear so they don’t fall out.
Frequency Response: A measurement of the range of frequencies that the headphones can produce. Human hearing ranges from 20Hz (deep bass) to 20kHz (very high notes). Most headphones can easily accomplish the full range of human hearing with the large top end models producing bass as low as 5Hz and highs beyond 45kHz!
Headphone amplifier: All products that have a headphone output use built-in headphone amplifiers to power your headphones. There are differences in the quantity and the quality of power in each product; the ultimate solution is an external headphone amplifier.
IEM: In Ear Monitors. Also known as canal style headphones. The most portable and easiest to power headphones available. they also offer isolation from the outside world because they are filling your ear canal.
Impedance: A measurement of resistance. Low impedance headphones usually measure from 15 ohms to 150 ohms. High impedance headphones measure higher than 150. A low impedance headphone from 11 ohms to 75 ohms can be easily driven to play loud by a portable music player headphone output. High impedance headphones require more voltage to play as loud, which usually requires a better headphone amplifier. Either low or high impedance headphones can benefit from a headphone amp.
Isolation: Headphones provide noise isolation from the environment around you. It is measured in decibels (dB) in negative increments. An in ear canal headphone can bring down noise by -20dB, as much if not more than most noise canceling headphones. Sealed circumaural headphones can bring down noise by -12dB. Open air, supra aural, and ear buds do not reject much noise.
Noise Cancelling: Usually involves a microphone and a processor that analyzes sound around the listener and “cancels out” the noise by creating a similar noise with opposite phase. Requires battery power. This feature can be found in all styles of headphones.
Open Air: This style of headphone is where the cup does not fully enclose the headphone diaphragm. The sound is allowed to go towards the listener and towards the outside environment. Usually has less bass than sealed headphones with more emphasis on midrange and high end clarity. Grado and Sennheiser are two of the largest examples of this design.
Sealed: This style of headphone has sealed cups that enclose the headphone diaphragm. Usually provides more bass output and some isolation from outside noise. Most DJ and recording studio headphones are sealed circumaural style. See Denon for good examples of this.
Sensitivity: the sound pressure level produced by 1 milliwatt of power to your headphones. The higher the number the less power the headphones need to play loud. A measurement of over 100dB means the headphone will play loud without the need for a lot of power. Lower sensitivity rated headphone will benefit from a headphone amp.
Supra-aural: The headphone ear pads sit on top of the ear. Also known as “on ear.”
Universal Fit: Refers to in ear monitors that have different sleeve tips that fit in the ear and are generally regarded to as a universal fit. The opposite of this would be Custom Fit where an audiologist takes an impression of your ear and creates a sleeve formed to your ear canal.
Now here are some of the most notable and well-regarded headphones that are currently on the market. In the interest of full disclosure , these are all models that ListenUp sells online and in our stores.
Grado SR-60i: Famous supra-aural open air design. One of the greatest deals ever. Many people’s first pair of audiophile headphones were Grado SR-60s.
Grado SR-225i: A few clicks up on the Grado scale with refined driver diaphragms and housings and better cable.
Grado RS-1: Reference class headphone. Should be played with a headphone amp.
Denon AH-C452: Great value IEM with good tonal balance and low bass response.
Denon AH-NC732: Noise canceling and good sounding.
Denon AH-D1001: IMHO the best bang for the buck in headphones today.
Denon AH-D2000: The jumping off point into reference class sound and quality in a sealed circumaural headphone. A slightly recessed mid range but gobs off bass when it is in the music. Sounds great even with an iPod but benefits from an amp.
Denon AH-D5000: A refined version of the AH-D2000 with a warmer tone and a bit more midrange. Definitely deserves a good headphone amp.
Sennheiser HD-600: Classic reference headphone.
Sennheiser HD-650: Ditto.
Shure SE-530: Probably the best universal fit IEM on the market. Not cheap but worth every penny. Doesn’t need a headphone amp for more power but deserves one for greater clarity and less noise.