Music has always been extremely popular, but it wasn’t until fairly recently with the advent of the smartphone that people had their music with them literally 24/7. So what type of headphone should you be using? With portable cassette players, radios, and cd players, people had to add an extra device and an extra step to their day all of which makes owning headphones a necessity. Now more cars are coming without CD players because the main source of music and data is done through streaming. The other fairly recent advance is in compression and data prices: gigabytes of data that a few years ago were amazingly expensive now are de rigueur on all but the most entry level devices, and new file compression formats mean even more music can fit on those devices. While some may think smartphone addiction is a problem, I won’t be touching on this here. What I’ll be outlining is the types of headphones, pros and cons of each type, and a few reviews for comparison sake.
While headphones have been around since the late 1800s, the first truly musical headphones were made in 1958 by John C. Koss to be used with a portable phonograph that he wanted to rent to patients in hospitals. Their sound quality was quite good compared to previous headphones, which were made more for communication than anything else. The 1979 introduction of the Sony Walkman paved the way for smaller and lighter headphones out of convenience.
There are three main headphone types.
- In-ear headphones- Often called earbuds, this type of headphone has a snug fit and is well suited for exercise and portable use. In-ear headphones are typically very small and easy to carry, have good noise isolation, and are typically not very expensive. The drawback to many in-ear headphones is fit: If there are air gaps around the ear canal sound isolation will be poor and response of the headphone will not be correct. Another problem with improper fit is that the headphones become uncomfortable to wear. Professional in-ear headphones, often referred to as IEMs, or in-ear monitors, are fitted the same way a hearing aid is: with an impression of the wearer’s ear canal to mold the headphone casing to the wearer. While this fit is perfect, custom IEMs typically carry an extremely high price tag and are only useful to one person’s ear canal.
There are technically two other types of headphones. Circumaural headphones completely surround the ear, and supra-aural headphones press against the ears. Under those distinctions are the real criteria that matter- whether the headphones themselves are open or closed.
- Open-back headphones- Just as the name suggests, open back headphones are not sealed. Noise isolation is poor, but since the drivers can move more freely, the soundstage sounds “wider.” Because they are open, they tend to make your ears sweat less and are more comfortable for long-term use. For listening chair use and quiet settings, open-back headphones are quite good, especially when listening to live music.
- Closed-back headphones- The ear cups on closed back headphones are sealed, so ambient noise isolation is typically good. The other plus is that bass response is typically slightly more aggressive than open back headphones. The downside is a sound signature that is less expansive and wide. It sounds more like the sound is coming from inside your head rather than from all around you. Closed back headphones are a great compromise for daily use, especially for those who find in-ear headphones uncomfortable, or who take their headphones on and off frequently.
Stay tuned for more articles, we’ve only gotten started!