Music Review and Recommendation
Tuesday October 21st 2014

Know Your Headphones

Lets face it, when you stand there looking at a new pair of headphones, you don’t have any idea what the specs on the back mean. It’s like reading the ingredients to food, you recognize one or two of them, the rest sound like rocket science. With that in mind, I’v decided to write an informational on what the specs mean, and what a basic pair should have.

Just for convenience, I’m going to use the specs off of the Piiq Clipons I recently reviewed.

For basic construction, we have design, chord length and plug type.

Design: this is usually pretty obvious just looking at the actual product; these will be in-ear, ear buds, on ear, and over ear. The Piiq Clipons are considered in-ear, they do a decent job canceling out sound but you can still hear muffled screams when someone needs you.

Chord Length: the chord is usually wrapped up in the packaging, so I recommend checking this on over ear/on ear headphones. The typical chord length is designed to reach comfortably from the ear to pocket of an average person, and leave plenty of mobility; ear bud Chord length is typically just under 4 feet (3.9-ish). On over ear/on ear, it’s important to check because these headphones are frequently used in studios where they need plenty of reach. The Sony Monitor headphones sport a 6.6 ft cable. Chord Design: rarely more than two options available, “Y” or “Single sided”.

Plug type: two things to consider when looking at plug type, size and plating. First off size, the size depends on what it can actually plug into. The standard Mp3 player allows a 3.5 mm jack, older phones allow 2.5 mm jacks, and studio equipment typically calls for 6.35 mm jacks. You can buy adapters to go up or down a size. When you’re looking at plating, I recommend going for gold, it makes a good conductor and will help you avoid corrosion of contacts in your audio source (gold is pretty much industry standard).

Next the inner workings of your headphones, this is the typically more confusing. We’ll cover driver size, impedance, sensitivity, frequency response, and power handling capacity.

Driver size: the size of the driver mostly corresponds to frequency reproduction. Larger drivers are better at producing lower frequencies (sub/”bass”) because they can push more air. Smaller drivers are better at creating a higher frequency (tweeters/”treble”) because they move faster with more control. Larger driver does not mean better sound.

Frequency: the frequency rating is the spectrum the headphone can actually reproduce, even if you can’t hear it. The average headphone has a rating somewhere in the range of 20Hz-20kHz; the average human typically can’t hear more than 64Hz- 23kHz (if that). The larger the rating on the headphone the more you’ll get out of the song, higher highs, lower lows (that lost hi-hat hit). Headphones rated for 5Hz-45kHz are better off used by your dog, as their hearing range actually goes up to 45kHz (or maybe to read the artists mind). Test your frequency range here, make sure your speakers are rated for it.

Impedance: the total opposition to alternating current by an electrical circuit: in other words, low impedance headphones will be louder with the low output voltages of portable media players. Due to higher impedance, high quality headphones typically require a headphone amp. While it is possible, portable headphones really shouldn’t have an impedance higher than 64 ohms (16 ohms at 1kHz is usually standard for portable Mp3 players). Headsets with higher impedance are typically used in studios with recording equipment (75-150 ohms).

Sensitivity: how much power it takes to get sound through the headphones; when you turn up the volume on an Mp3 player, it is sending more power to the headphones. Sensitivity uses decibels/milliwatt (dB/mw) for measurement, it’s saying how much sound is created per milliwatt provided.  Most headphones will be rated way higher than you actually need, the Piiq Clipons are rated at 102dB/mw. Warning: the human ear may experience hearing loss if sound is sustained above 85 dB.

Power Handling Capacity: measured in mw, this is the upper limit on how much power you can put through the headphones without blowing the speakers.

Bonus links:

burninwave.com: breaking in, or in the audiophile community, burning in, creates a noticeable difference by exercising and loosening the diaphragm of new headphones (“cans”). A lot of headphones come pre-burned in, higher quality ones do not.

Head-fi.org: great audiophile community, they provide headphone reviews and rankings. Their forums can be very useful if you have a question.

headphone.com: provides reviews and decent deals on headphones, as well as a “test lab“.

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