Audio Global Viewpoint – April 2017

Picking the Right Headphones for the Job

Many audio professionals think headphones are just headphones. Pick ones that are comfortable and you are ready to go. But there are important differences between models that determine which type should be used for specific applications

Headphones are known in the audio industry as a “mature” product. They have been around a long, long time. For many users, they are out of sight, out of mind. Many pros get accustomed to a favorite headphone model that is comfortable and continue using it for years.

The origins of headphones are not known. We do know that in 1888, opera lovers used primitive headphones to hear live music at home via telephone transmission. Telephone operators and the U.S. Navy were among the first professional users.

Early headphones were often called tin-cans and inferior in every way to today's models.

Early headphones were often called tin-cans and inferior in every way to today's models.

In 1910, Nathaniel Baldwin started making what we’d recognize as modern headphones in his kitchen. The Navy loved them and wanted to move Baldwin into an East Coast plant. But Baldwin couldn’t leave Utah. He was a polygamist.

In the 1920s, headphones were used by broadcasters and for radio receivers. By the 1930s, Beyerdynamic began marketing headphones, though early acceptance was limited.

Koss SP3 stereo headphones.

Koss SP3 stereo headphones.

In 1958, musician/entrepreneur John Koss introduced the first stereo headphones, the Koss SP/3. The Milwaukee-based company still makes headphones today.

In 1975, Sony introduced the Walkman portable music player, and the first supra-aural headphones that weighed 75 percent less than earlier models. Headphone sales took off. Then came mobile phones. Headphones have become a massive business today, with thousands of models available.

Basically, according to the website Reverb, an audio community, there are two main types of headphones professionals should be aware of. Each works best in a specific area.

Popular closed-back design headphones.

Popular closed-back design headphones.

Closed-back headphone designs

Closed-back headphones block ambient noise and are designed to prevent sound from “leaking” out, though cheaper models of headphones offer less isolation. In the closed design, the outer part of the headphones have a hard enclosure and big cups to cover the ears.

In general terms, closed-back headphones are designed to isolate the listener from noises in the outside world. Do not confuse them with active-noise-canceling technology, which are mainly designed for consumer use. Closed designs use the physical structure of the closed-back to reduce noise. Most good closed-back over-the-ear headphones provide around 10dB of non-electronic noise reduction.

Closed-back headphones are normally chosen by broadcasters, podcasters or others who do not want the sound of their headphones to bleed into the nearby microphone. They are also excellent for those who want to concentrate in an isolated listening experience.

Popular open-back design headphones.

Popular open-back design headphones.

Open-back headphone designs

Open-back headphones, on the other hand, have ports that allow sound to enter and exit through the ear cups. Engineers tend to choose them because the sound can be more natural, open and accurate. They offer a wide stereo image and increased depth of field.

For mixing and mastering, the sound produced by open-back headphones more closely approximate monitor speakers and is more realistic. The advantage is acoustic accuracy, said Michael Johns, a Shure headphone product manager.

The downside to the open-back design is that everyone can hear what you’re listening to and any ambient sound gets right in and mixes with the audio. This is the reason open-back headphones sound significantly larger — or more open — than closed-back headphones.

The difference between open- and closed-back phones is so different that some professionals use both types, depending on the situation they find themselves in.

Headphone sensitivity

Also, in choosing headphones, pay attention to the impedance and sensitivity. Lower impedance means a headphone can be driven by a consumer or mobile device because it requires less voltage to get the best output.

Headphones with lower sensitivity and a higher impedance are better suited for professional applications where a headphone amplifier is available. Since these models require more voltage, they don’t work as well with portable consumer devices.

Rupert Neve RNHP headphone amp.

Rupert Neve RNHP headphone amp.

Also, consider a headphone amp to improve all headphone sound. It is often better to spend more money on the headphone amplifier than the headphones themselves, since a good amplifier can enhance headphones dramatically.

Finally, seasoned engineers warn others not to listen on headphones at too loud a volume for too long. If you crank the level to 120 decibels, you can experience hearing loss in less than 90 minutes. That could limit your professional career rather dramatically.

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