Whether we admit it or not, some of us are always buying new earphones. Others just get frustrated with a pair of earphones that are simply wrong for them. However, earphones really can be one-time investments, especially with the price tags some come in.
Knowing the lingo and understanding the specifications are the most crucial things if you want to find what you really need. This post is here to help you buy earphones, with their specifications regarded – a much ignored pre-buy chore.
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Types of Earphones
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of earphone specifications, first let’s take a look at what type of earphones you might want to get.
1. In-ear earphones
In-ear earphones (a.k.a. earbuds) are of two kinds: the ones that sit in the peripherals of ear cavities, and the ones that get stuffed into the ear canals.
Both have their cons. The first kind can cause pain if it’s too big for your ear cavity or puts too much pressure on the ear foldings.
The second kind, less painful (because of the silicone tip), can be uncomfortable if the earbud doesn’t fit you right: if it’s too big or small, it’ll slip out. For some, just the stuffing of ear canals itself can be discomforting. Luckily, there are many earbud tips available online (for both kinds) that you can use to get the right fit or added padding.
Most prefer the second kind, because of its noise-reducing design: it’s basically like wearing earplugs! But, does that mean you should go only for the second kind? No.
If you frequently use earphones while commuting don’t buy those that reduce or cancel noise. Be aurally aware of your environment. The first kind of earphones will give you a right amount of sound without blocking outside noise to a dangerous level.
The downside of it would be that if your earphones allow too much outside noise in you might have to increase the volume to reduce that noise. You can avoid this by making sure your earphones fit you correctly, then you would get decent noise reduction without completely shutting out the outside world.
2. On-ear earphones
On-ear earphones are also called headphones because of the headbands. They are also of two kinds: the ones that are pressed against your ears and the ones that enclose the ears (a.k.a over-ear headphones).
The first kind is usually lightweight, ideal for small ears and head. The second kind can be both light- and heavy-weighted but in the light-weighted versions the ear portion may not be big enough for big ears.
If the lightweight ones fit you go for those. The padding won’t hurt you if the headband fits your head perfectly. And, the lighter the better—makes it easier to carry.
But, for most cases, especially for men, the second kind suits better. Just make sure the ear portion of the headphones cover at least 95% of your ears so that you can wear them comfortably for long periods of time.
Both kinds are ideal for working or watching videos; they block the outside noise (think of earmuffs). They won’t harm your ears or make you go bald if the headphones put just enough pressure to stay on the head, and not more. Look for headphones with adjustable headbands if you’re not trying them on before purchasing (although it’s much recommended that you do so—try them on).
3. Wireless earphones
All kinds of earphones come with wireless options but you’ll need to pay extra bucks for that.
So, is it worth buying a wireless earphone? If you mostly use your earphones with a portable device, such as a laptop or a phone then yes—adios to wires! If you use earphones while exercising (not crossing the street, just saying) that’s a yes, too.
In a nutshell, if mobility is involved vote “yeah” for wireless. But, if you use earphones only at your workstation you don’t need wireless.
Also, know one thing about wireless earphones… Most of them give poorer quality sound over the wireless technology used in them. Wireless coverage, too, varies with the wireless technology used by the manufacturer.
So, do you avoid wireless earphones entirely then? Absolutely not. They do reproduce quality sound, just not as good as when they’re plugged. The pro of being mobile (and getting rid of tangly wires) can overcome that con, depending on how you use your earphones.
From magnets to the wireless technology used, there are quite a few specifications for an earphone. What do they mean? What their value should be? And, which ones do you need to pay attention to? Let’s check these attributes in the following.
1. Acoustic system
In earphone specs, “acoustic” represents the design of an earphone. A closed acoustic system (e.g.: Sony MDR-ZX110AP) stops noise from passing through the earphones to/from outside. On the other hand, an open acoustic system (e.g.: Philips SHP9500) doesn’t; other people around you can easily hear what you’re hearing.
Note that closed acoustics doesn’t equal noise cancellation, or is 100% noise-proof, or that outsiders can’t hear what you’re playing at all. If the volume is high sound will leak. Only good-fit closed acoustic earphones can reduce noise efficiently!
This spec is found mostly in the second kind of on-ear headphones we mentioned earlier. Now, most of those headphones are only closed, and that is also what generally preferred by consumers.
2. Frequency response
Frequency response refers to the frequency range your earphone can cover. The bigger the range, the better.
For instance, Sony WH-1000XM4 covers a larger frequency range of 4-24,000 Hz than Audio-Technica SPORT2BK with 15-24,000 Hz. A bigger difference between the minimum and maximum values indicates a larger range coverage.
Impedance is the earphone circuit’s resistance to the electrical signal. The more the impedance is, the less electric signal gets through and the less sound level is produced.
In most cases, it’s preferred to have less impedance in earphones, ideally less than 25 Ohms. If you use the earphones with a small portable device, such as a phone, that doesn’t come with powerful in-built amplifiers low impedance is fine.
However, if you use your earphones with devices that have built-in amplifiers, such as a sound system or DJing equipment, use earphones with high impedance, preferably over 35 Ohms (e.g. Audio-Technica PRO700MK2). High impedance earphones work the best with devices carrying heavy-duty amplifiers.
4. Magnet type
Sometimes in the specs, you’ll find magnet type with “Neodymium” (e.g.: Sony MDR-ZX300AP/B) or “Ferrite” (e.g.: Sony MDR-V150) as values. You don’t have to pay special attention to this specification.
Even though Neodymium is the magnet mostly used in modern electronics and is stronger that Ferrite, earphone manufacturers will design the circuit in a way that makes the most of the magnet type used. Magnet type might affect the production cost of the earphones but not too much for you to worry about.
Sensitivity, usually measured in dB/mW, means how much sound (in decibels/dB) can the earphone produce for one milliwatt of the electrical signal. The higher the sensitivity is, the higher the sound you’ll get. Earphone sensitivity values typically range from 80 to 110 dB.
Diaphragm is the thin membrane inside earphones that vibrate and produce sound. There are many shapes diaphragms are designed in: dome, cone, and horn. Diaphragm materials also vary.
There is no single material or shape that is absolutely desired over the other. It’s up to the manufacturers to produce the best sound with the material and design they’ve chosen to use.
7. Voice coil
Voice coil is the coil wire inside the earphones. It’s made of aluminium (e.g.: MEE M6 PRO), or copper-clad aluminium (e.g.: Sony MDRPQ4). Aluminium produces highly sensitive sound but since it can’t withstand long usage like copper can, CCAW is the most-used coil wire in earphones these days.
8. Wireless technology
There are a handful of wireless technologies used in earphones, let’s see them one by one.
Bluetooth® is the most commonly used wireless technology in earphones. A Bluetooth-enabled device can pair with any other Bluetooth-enabled device. You can generally pair with devices that are within a 10 meter radius.
Bluetooth® is a very secure wireless technology but the sound quality is not the best compared to what some other wireless technologies can offer. Get Bluetooth earphones if you don’t want to primarily use them with TV.
NFC (Near-Field Communication)
In addition to Bluetooth®, you might find a specification saying that the earphones support NFC, too.
With NFC-enabled earphones (e.g.: Bose SoundSport®), you can simply tap (bring it close to) another NFC-enabled device (such as an iPhone 6 and 7, the Samsung S and Note series, and more), and both devices will be paired immediately. It’s an advantage to have NFC earphones if you have NFC devices to pair it with.
RF (Radio Frequency)
Then, there are RF earphones (e.g.: Sennheiser RS120) as well. They work with a radio frequency that can cover a much larger area than Bluetooth®. The earphones come with a transmitter (charging station) into which you need to plug the audio device, then the transmitted audio will be received by the earphones.
This type of earphones are preferred for TV viewing or even while working on a desktop system. The sound quality will be much better than with Bluetooth®. However, the transmission might get some interference from other RF devices transmitting at the same frequency, something less likely to happen but still keep that in mind.
At times, infrared is also used in earphones (e.g.: Sennheiser IS410) but since you need to be in line of sight for it to work, this option isn’t preferred unless you want to use your earphone only for Home Theatres.
9. Noise cancellation
Noise cancelling earphones (e.g.: Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7B) don’t work simply by blocking outside noise. The earphones pick up outside noise and cancel it out while playing the sound. Noise cancelling earphones are great for audiophiles.
Finally, in which situation should you use the different earphones? If you want a good rule of thumb: wired earbuds for commuting; wireless earbuds for getting mobility at home, and for doing sports; wired headphones for working on a desktop for long hours; wireless headphones for working on a laptop for long hours, and for watching TV.
So, what kind of earphones do you prefer? And, how do you mostly use it? Do let us know in the comments section.