The complete guide to earphones / headphones

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Welcome to my complete guide to earphones / headphones. This will explain every thing you need to know. Including different types, components and basic measurements like you see on most packaging.

Types                               {over ear, etc.}
Components                   {parts, cable, connector, etc.}
Basic Measurements     {freq. response, sensitivity, impedance}
Things to look out for    {fit, price, looks, sound, etc.}
Overview / Summary     {what I look for, what you want}


In the beginning there were head phones, big chunky speakers which were attached to the sides of your head by a head band, but over the past 10-15 years, like almost all technology they’ve improved dramatically.


There is now a wide variety of types, each with their own benefits;

In-the-ear or earbuds; These are small speakers which sit just inside the ear. These are the most common in use today, as they are lightweight and cheaper to produce.
A variant of these are canalphones or in-canal earphones, these have small rubber/plastic piece which sits in the ear canal. These reduce sound leakage and increase the bass by directing it straight to your ear drum.

Headphones; These have two larger speakers which go over the ears and are attached via a headband. These can produce a more sound, and they help to block out external sound as they completely cover the ear, but they are more bulky so harder to store .

Clip on; These have speakers similar to headphones, which cover the ear, but instead of having a head band to hold them in place, they have clips which go around the ears to hold them in place. They tend to be uncomfortable to wear for long periods, and the bass does not sound as good.

Over the ear; These have speakers like earbuds, but are held in place with clips that go over the ears, similar to clip ons.

Noise-cancelling; The style of these earphones can be any of the above, but they have an additional signal processor with a miniature microphone, this picks up the ambient sound and creates an inverted signal to send to the earphones which negates any external noises. They are best at cancelling low frequency noise such as airplane engines. The drawback being in order to do this they need their own power source. This is usually done by having a little power pack built into the earphones. Sound quality can vary from make to make; poorly designed systems can produce muffled quality music.


Earphones basically consist of 3 main components;

The actual speakers; There are two basic types; dynamic and electrostatic (static) driver.
The dynamic-driver earphones use the same technology as dynamic-driver loudspeakers; these represent the most common type of speakers based on the use of a cone-type diaphragm attached to a voice coil.
In electrostatic-driver earphones the diaphragm is no longer a cone but a thin sheet of stretched Mylar that is subject to changing electrostatic charge.
What ever technology is use, the end-result is always a vibrating diaphragm that moves to displace air to create sound.
Electrostatic headphones are capable of delivering exceptional sound detail, especially in the high-end of the sound spectrum, with very low distortion; but these tend to be very expensive. In general, dynamic type headsets represent a more affordable solution.

The cable/wire; There is variety of type of cable used these days, but some of the most common are dual cabled {These have 2 separate wires coming out of the connectors, each one carries the signal to a separate speaker}, and single cable {These have a single wire coming out of the connector, but the wire contains 3 cores to carry the signal for both speakers}
Single cabled wires are more common these days, as they are easier to add things like in-line volume controls & allow extra cores to be added for example adding microphones to mobile phone headsets.

The connector; This is the metal tip that you insert into your iPod, Walkman, phone, etc. They are either straight and ‘L’ shaped depending on where the plug on your machine is. The ‘L’ shaped connector usually last better during daily use, as the pressure applied to where the wire joins the connector is reduced. They can vary in size. You need to check which one your machine uses. The standard sizes currently are 2.5mm; this is usually used for mobile phones, and some of the smaller MP3 players.  3.5mm, this is the most common size, and is used on iPods, walkmans, some mobile phones, and most home stereo systems. The last size is 6.5mm (1/4” in old money) and used to be common on home stereos, but not so these days. It is still used with more industrial recording systems. One thing to look out for is if the connector is gold plated, as gold has a lower resistance level, it results in a better connection to the music player.


Some or all of these are shown usually shown on the packaging, and can used as an overall guide to what the manufacture’s believe the capabilities of the earphones are. However the common opinion is that these can be misleading, as the sounds produced are a relatively subjective experience.

Weight; (eg. 8.5grams) Lighter earphones are more comfortable to wear, especially for long periods.

Frequency response; (eg. 20Hz to 20Khz/20,000Hz) This is a guide to how much of audio spectrum the earphones can produce. The smaller number refers to lower notes (bass tones) and larger to higher notes (treble).
The bigger the gap between the two numbers the more of the spectrum the earphones can produce.
Most human ears have an audible bandwidth of 20Hz to 20KHz.

Distortion; (eg. 1%) How accurately the headphones reproduce sounds and given in a percentage of signal distorted. Lower is better - 1% distortion or less (at maximum power). Tests have shown that 1% distortion is at the threshold of audibility.
Sensitivity; (eg. 104db / 40mW) This shows the loudness of the earphones, and is measured in decibels per milliwatt. A higher db number means they take less power to make them sound as loud as other earphones. When using them on MP3 player & walkmans you should look for at least 90db or more.

Impedance; (eg. 32 Ohms) This is a measure of the load on the amplifier and stated in Ohms. This is less important if you just want some for your MP3 player. It should be considered if you are looking to plug several sets of earphones into a single appliance, for example home recording studio. Most common earphones have a rating of less than 100 Ohms. The higher the rating the more power may be required to power the earphones.


Fit; This is crucial, especially if you are planning on buying in-the-ear, or canal phones, as a bad fit will mean the sound quality is reduced, and the sound leakage (the amount of sound others can hear) increases.
It’s basically down to personal choice, and the natural shape of your ears. Find one you like.

Price; Obviously this plays a factor in any purchase decisions, but don’t just assume because you’re paying more, you will get better quality. Earphones can range from £5 to £100; unless you’re a full blooded audiophile then you’ll probably be looking at £15 to £50.

Sound; Most people know the basics of sound - “treble” (high-pitched sounds), “bass” (low-pitched sounds), and “midrange” (everything in between) are what many people listen for in music, though earphone sound is actually much more complex than that. You should look out for clear sound with no distortion, smooth even frequency response (with no little highs and lows). If buying “Megabass” headphones which normal boost the mid-bass, but can make it sound a bit more “fuzzy”. Obviously this is the most subjective element of all earphones, so ideally you should try-before-you-buy.

Durability; This factor is important if the earphones are for portable stereos & MP3 players. Most ultra-lightweight earphones tend to be fragile, so they often come with protective cases to hold them when not in use.
Cords (especially thin ones) have a tendency to become stretched when stepped on, or if the player gets dropped. This can lead to intermittent sound quality.
Connectors also have a tendency to stop working if there is a lot of wear around the join, especially if you wrap the cable around your player when not in use. This risk can be reduced if you get earphone with an ‘L’ shaped connector.


Well as I’ve said a few times sound is a subjective experience. So trying out a few types before you make your final selection is a good idea, especially if you are planning buy some of the more expenses earphones.
Things to check;
Are they comfortable to wear?
Do they have a frequency response suitable for your style of music?
Are they durable enough for your needs? eg. if planning on using during exercise;
Check out the connector and cabling; Are they well made? ‘L’ shaped? Gold plated?

I hope this guide has been informative,

and if you’ve learnt something new, PLEASE CLICK ON [YES], your vote counts!

Kind regards,
Rob Croft (eBay Id: Robert.Croft)

Please check out my eBay home page; [Robert.Croft]

or check out items I'm selling at the moment;  [My items for sale]

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