The author of the article is Daniel Oziębała
Headphones – types
There are several basic types, namely:
circumaural / over-ear
They cover all ears ensuring great sound dispersion throughout the ear. This allows for great passive isolation of ambient sounds (depending on the earmuffs used), headphone stability and listening comfort. Examples of headphones of this type are Somic V2 (open design) and Sennheiser HD 600.
nauszne / on-ear
A slightly more mobile version of the circumaural headphones. They provide less isolation of ambient sounds, and people close to us can hear what we are listening to, but are equally comfortable, and also provide slightly better ear ventilation than the circumaural headphones. Examples of constructions Audictus Achiever, Audio-Technica ATH-AR3BT
earbuds / earphones
Headphones that enter the ear, but not into the canal, which results in an average isolation of ambient sounds, poorer sound quality, and less comfort depending on the person, but it is a more personal matter. Examples of such headphones are Apple EarPods and AirPods.
intrathecal / in-ear
This type of headphone is inserted directly into the ear canal. These types of headphones use earbuds to help ensure a stable and properly tight position of the headphones in the ear. This provides good insulation and sound quality, but has a negative effect on hearing. Listening loudly to music can degrade hearing in a fairly short time. This is manifested by pain and / or noise. Noise usually passes quickly, but it's better not to underestimate them and give your ears a rest. Of course, this also applies to other types of headphones, but it is intrathecal headphones that are the most harmful. Examples of such headphones are Lypertek TEVI or Apple AirPods Pro.
The types listed above are divided into several types of constructions:
This type of construction is characterized by very low isolation of ambient sounds, but provides excellent air circulation in the shells. This results in great sound but limited bass. This type of construction is particularly popular with the audiophile group.
They are a combination of open and closed headphones. This provides a slightly better – but still poor – isolation of ambient sounds, which also hears what we listen to. Such headphones, at least in theory, provide more even, balanced and clear sound with a softer bass than closed headphones.
Air circulation is very limited, so you can achieve good passive insulation and massive bass. Unfortunately, the sound can be less spatial and colored, which means bass boost, vocals, etc.
The headphones are also divided according to the type of membrane used. However, the guide is intended to be simple, so let's limit ourselves to the fact that most consumer headphones use dynamic membranes.
In terms of sound quality, the division is simple and follows the scheme a> b> d> c. In this way it is easy to notice that the best sound is offered by the circumaural headphones, and the best mobility is offered by smaller headphones, e.g. in-ear.
Headphones – basic parameters
Since we have explained to ourselves what are the types of headphones it is worth checking what the various designations in practice mean.
An example specification might look like this:
- Transmitters: 45 mm, dynamic, closed,
- Format: semi-portable, reduced around the ear
- Bluetooth: 5.0 + aptX, SBC, AAC
- Impedance: 47 Ω
- Frequency range: 5 Hz – 40 kHz
- sensitivity: 100 dB / mW
- plug: 3.5 mm mini jack, micro USB
- Weight (without cable): 261 g
It may seem complicated at first glance, but in reality it is not.
45 mm (or other value, e.g. 32mm, 53mm, 70mm) – membrane size
In theory, a larger membrane = better sound quality. In practice … there are many complications. The membranes set the air in motion. Hence, a larger membrane can move larger amounts of air, which offers stronger, more powerful bass. Does this mean that you need a large membrane? No, because there are plenty of other very important aspects. The key materials are (plastic, graphene, etc.) about which manufacturers rarely report, as well as tuning headphones. For most people, it is probably the last aspect that will be the most important when choosing headphones, but more on that in a moment.
Is a very important and personal aspect of headphones. It is this that causes the face (banana) to be painted while using one of the headphones, while the "meh" and the image of disgust on others. Just like tuning musical instruments, so are tuning headphones to achieve the desired sound. Some prefer headphones with strong bass and "colored" vocals or the sound of instruments (e.g. Sony XB900N headphones, or very popular 1000mx3), and others will reach for headphones with a more natural, balanced tuning (for example Audio-Technica ATH SR50BT), which for many people may seem flat. Tuning has its pros and cons. Flat tuning allows you to hear more details, flavors and nuances, while low-frequency headphones can strongly emphasize the bass, thereby drowning out the rest of the sounds. A very popular tuning type is the "V" tuning, in which the bass and treble are slightly raised in terms of midrange (vocals, instruments).
NC / ANC
- NC is "noise canceling," or noise reduction. The "NC" designation usually indicates that the headphones have a sealed design that provides moderate isolation of ambient sounds. Such isolation will not fully suppress the sound of a streetcar or car passing by, but will reduce it so that it disturbs us less.
- ANC – it is an active noise reduction which, apart from the sealed construction, is equipped with a set of microphones. These microphones listen for what is happening around and try to create a sound that will drown out those sounds. So, ANC headphones constantly produce sound that is supposed to drown out the sounds around us, e.g. conversation, radio, etc.
Very simple topic. Newer = better. End. We move on.
Well, at least you would like to write. Unfortunately, the case is different. Many people do not know this, and the manufacturers do not inform, but BT 5.0 and 5.1 focus primarily on Bluetooth LE (Low Energy). What the hell is this? Energy-saving BT version for the Internet of Things. It is not used for audio transmission.
For headphones, BT 5.1 may be useful because it allows you to enter the location of the headphones (this does not bother manufacturers who can offer this type of solution also in headphones using older Bluetooth versions). As a result, all promises of super-fast music transmission and 120m coverage can be inserted between pages. First is the choice. Either a faster transfer or a better range, but, as I said, it doesn't really translate into music. That's why you shouldn't be afraid of headphones with BT 4.0, because the loss compared to those with BT 5.0 is … almost zero3.
The codec is the tool responsible for processing the audio signal in accordance with specific requirements and criteria. The most popular codecs are:
- compulsory SBC – it is part of the poor opinion about the sound quality of wireless headphones. "Accomplished" because producers, who use this codec, "are" to blame. Contrary to appearances, this is not a bad format, which you can see on the test attached below. This format gives a lot of freedom in choosing the amount of data to be sent. For iOS, these values range from 229 to 328kbps. For Mac OS, 477kbps can be obtained quite easily. It is worth knowing, however, that the sound transmitted by the SBC codec may have an empty sound, and female vocals may be deprived of the natural tone of the voice.
- aptX – is a format using solutions other than SBC. It offers better sound quality and, depending on the device, a higher bitrate, i.e. the amount of data transferred. Standard bitrate – 352kbsps. It is a low-resource solution offering better sound quality than SBC.
- aptX HD – this is a better version of aptX. It offers a much higher bitrate and more bit * (24 instead of 16). Standard bitrate – 576kbps
- AAC – lossy format. It requires quite resource-consuming psychoacoustic analysis of sound, however – at least according to theory – it provides good sound quality already at 250kbps bitrate (this value is used by Apple in iPhones), but also allows you to achieve values of the order of 320kbps (and more). AAC performs best on Apple devices, thanks to which AAC on iPhone makes sense. Android is doing much worse here and aptX codec is a much better choice here1
- LDAC – it is a technology mainly used by Sony. Standard bitrate – 990kbps. In theory, it should provide the best sound quality, but few headphones use this standard.
* (bits determine how loud the sound can be. In practice, hardly any equipment allows you to use the 16-bit recording capabilities, and the music itself often doesn't reach for them. Most classical music uses it, which can reach values of the order of 60 decibels of the difference between the quietest and loudest Popular music to a much lesser degree, and 17 decibels are considered very good dynamics, although many albums have very low values of 5 dB)
The above descriptions can say a lot, but nothing can replace practical comparison. To check how they work in practice, I encourage you to check my comparative material, in which I have included 34 songs that compare sound quality using SBC, aptX and aptX HD codecs. I encourage you to download files, close your eyes and check if you can hear the differences between them *. The audio in the materials is in lossless quality, and the materials themselves are available at this link.
* it is worth using wired headphones. In addition, programs like KMPlayer do not offer good sound quality, so it's worth downloading the WAV folder and listening to examples using the AIMP (or other) program.
The higher the value, the more energy the headphones need to ensure adequate volume. If the value is too high for a smartphone or PC, the headphones will play very quietly and will not show their full potential. For smartphones, the standard is 16-32 Ohm, but there are also exceptions, e.g. Sony, which in some models uses values of the order of 47 Ohm. Some smartphones with a mini-jack connector can drive headphones with an impedance of 50-80 Ohm (and more)
Determines what bands the headphones cover. Low values cover the bass, medium values are responsible for the vocals and presentation of the instruments. In turn, high bands (above 2048 Hz5) are responsible for the treble (sound of the flute, soprano, etc.). For CDs, Spotify, Apple Music and many other sources it is 44.1 kHz, which means about 22 kHz (22 050 Hz) per ear. According to many studies, a person can hear sounds from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz2, and this value worsens with age (if you are curious how much you can hear, I encourage you to take the test available here – give your ears 10-15 minutes of rest before testing).
In addition, AAC and aptX codecs are limited to 20-20,000 Hz bands. However, this does not mean that values above 20,000 Hz are not needed. They allow you to provide a nicer, noise-free sound, although not always. Many people think that 96KHz or 192KHz is a much better sound quality. However, this is not entirely true. High bands (above 24,000 Hz) can cause many problems, undesirable effects and negatively affect the sound quality if you do not have the right equipment.
Other concepts that are worth knowing include
- TWS – "True Wireless" or truly wireless headphones. They do not have any cables, and charging takes place wirelessly in the case attached to them.
Contrary to appearances, more expensive = / = better. It often happens that headphones for PLN 400 sound better than those for PLN 1,200. And although this does not have to be completely true, it results, among others from tuning. Depending on your taste, cheap headphones with good bass may be more appealing than headphones that cost 2-3x more balanced balanced sound, or vice versa, cheap headphones with balanced sound may be more appealing than headphones with heavily exposed bass.
Looking for the right headphones for us, we are attacked from all over the world with various terms that can often be misleading. However, it is worth being aware that better presentation in terms of specifications does not mean better headphones, because their sound is influenced by many factors. From the usable side, these are the materials used and the size and matching of the headphones suitable for us. In the case of sound quality, these are the materials from which the membrane was made, as well as tuning the headphones. So choosing headphones is worth going to the store and listen to them with your own ears and judge for yourself whether they are suitable for us. However, it is worth considering before what type of headphones we are interested in and where we will use them.
Answers to several potential questions
I can't hear the difference between SBC, aptX, or the original file on wired headphones, but in my bluetooth headphones I can hear the difference without a problem. Why?
The answer is a) tuning b) signal converter (DSP). Manufacturers of wireless headphones use the systems responsible for signal processing SBC, aptX, aptX HD, or LDAC. Each of them has its own settings, so you can hear differences in sound
My music library is mainly MP3. Is it worth investing in headphones with aptX HD or LDAC?
MP3 is a lossy format. Heavily lossy. To listen to music saved in this format, all you need is AAC / aptX, and even SBC, which by definition – apart from energy efficiency and lightness – is to offer MP3-like sound quality4.
So when should you reach for aptX HD or LDAC?
When the music library contains lossless music (FLAC, ALAC, Aiff) or uses a streaming service offering somehow lossless (e.g. Tidal HiFi or Masters
3 b)bluetooth.org/docman/handlers/DownloadDoc.ashx?doc_id=421043 (page 291)
– test for hearing high sound bands (8-22kHz) – https://www.audiocheck.net/audiotests_frequencycheckhigh.php
– test for hearing low sound bands (10-200 Hz) – https://www.audiocheck.net/audiotests_frequencychecklow.php
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