Ever been confused by the marketing and technical descriptions of headphones?
Here’s a glossary with short, simple explanations.
Balanced armature: A type of headphone driver, starting to be used more frequently across a wide range of price points. Balanced armature designs often have a pleasing, delicate sound.
Closed-back: The opposite of open-back, closed-back is a more traditional design where the back of the headphone driver is sealed (or close to it), so sound doesn’t leak out. These offer better noise isolation, and the people around you generally can’t hear what you’re listening to. Check out Open-Back Vs. Closed-Back Headphones.
Driver: This is the part of the headphone that makes the sound. It’s a broad term, and can refer to balanced, armature, planar magnetic drivers, electrostatic, and more.
Earbud: Visually similar to in-ear headphones, but tend to rest in the cup of the ear, not going into the ear canal. Apple’s Earpods are this type.
In-ear: Similar to earbuds, these headphones fit snugly in your ear canal. Almost all come with multiple tips to ensure a good, and comfortable, fit with most ear types. Everyone’s ears are different, so be sure to try multiple tips to get the best fit, otherwise sound quality and comfort will suffer.
Neodymium magnet: A type of magnet, used to move a headphone (or speaker) driver. Neodymium magnets tend to be very strong for their weight, but more expensive.
Noise Cancelling: These use electronic processing to create an inverse sound wave to cancel outside noise. Check out Are Noise Cancelling Headphones Worth It? and Noise Cancelling Vs. Noise Isolating Headphones.
Noise Isolating: These use a secure fit to physically reduce the ambient noise. Most commonly used to describe certain in-ear headphones, but some over-ear headphones can also be noise isolating. And if you’ve been reading from the top down, you can probably guess this next sentence: Check out Are Noise Cancelling Headphones Worth It? and Noise Cancelling Vs. Noise Isolating Headphones.
On-ear: Headphones that rest on the outside of your ear. Smaller than over-ear.
Open-back: These have a design where the back of the driver is open to the world. You hear all of the sound coming from the driver directly, and some of what it’s sending outwards. This mix makes the overall sound more natural, open, and “big.” People near you can hear what you’re listening to. Check out Open-Back Vs. Closed-Back Headphones.
Over-ear: Big headphones designed to fit your entire ear inside. Check out 5 Great Over-Ear Headphones.
Planar Magnetic: Instead of a cone-shaped driver, planar magnetic drivers are flat, with conductors embedded in them. This entire diaphragm moves. There are pros and cons, but some of the best sounding headphones are planar magnetic designs. Check out my review of the planar magnetic Audeze LCD 3, which has a more extensive explanation. There are a couple of Electrostatic headphones on the market, which also have a flat diaphragm, but use an electric field to move it.
Tips: These fit on the end of in-ear headphones, and come in multiple shapes, sizes, and materials. Fit is crucial with in-ear headphones, so make sure you try multiple tips to find the best for your ear. There is little correlation between head size and ear canal size.
That’s the basics. Anything you think I missed? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it!