Best headphones: Our top picks for personal listening

Whether you're looking for an over-the-ear, on-ear, or in-ear model, we'll help you find the perfect pair.

best headphones Rob Schultz / IDG
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Headphone technologies explained

You will encounter lots of other jargon--and no shortage of marketing hype--when you shop for headphones. Here are explanations of some of the most common terms:

Dynamic driver: Most headphones on the market today use dynamic drivers, which are similar to the round cones or tweeters you see in loudspeakers.

Balanced armature: You’ll find balanced armature designs in in-ear monitors. First developed for hearing aids, a balanced-armature architecture relies on an electrical signal to vibrate a small reed or paddle thousands of times per second.

The Aurvana Trio includes two balanced Armature drivers and a dynamic driver for the bass frequencie Aurvana

The Aurvana Trio in-ear-headphone includes two balanced-armature drivers, plus a dynamic driver for reproducing bass frequencies.

The reed is “balanced” between two magnets, hence the name “balanced armature.” Some headphones have multiple armatures, each functioning within a certain frequency range for better performance. Balanced armature drivers don’t reproduce bass frequencies well. You’ll typically see balanced armature designs using a dynamic driver for the bass frequencies.

Planar magnetic drivers: A planar magnetic design uses an extremely thin and light diaphragm to reproduce sound. A magnetic system drives the entire surface of the diaphragm evenly in a pull-push manner.

Oppo’s PM-2 use planar magnetic technology to recreate the music. You can see the planar magnetic dr Theo Nicolakis

Oppo’s PM-2 use planar magnetic technology to recreate the music. You can see the planar magnetic driver behind the ear pad.

Planar magnetic designs are typically found in over-the-ear headphones and have the reputation for being able to resolve fine musical details and creating a sense of space and depth in the music. The drawback to some planar magnetic models is that they present high impedance to the source device and are thus too difficult for some mobile devices to drive. Check the capabilities of your source device before you buy this type of headphone. You can also use them with a headphone amplifier.

Electrostatic drivers: Electrostatic drivers consist of a thin electrically charged diaphragm. The diaphragm is normally suspended between two perforated plates, and an electrical signal is then passed through the plates to move the diaphragm in a push-pull manner towards one of them. Like planar magnetic designs, some electrostatic headphones present high impedance levels to the source and are therefore hard to drive. Here again, check the capabilities of your source device before you buy this type of headphone or use a headphone amplifier.

Noise-cancelling technologies explained

If you travel or find yourself in noisy environments frequently, you might be interested in a headphone that offers noise cancellation. Here are explanations of the three primary means by which this is accomplished:

Passive noise cancellation: This isn’t a technology per se; rather, It refers to how much ambient noise a headphone will block out. In-ear headphones with memory-foam tips and closed-back over-the-ear headphones offer the best passive noise cancellation. They're also the least likely to color the music you're listening to.

Active noise cancellation: A sound wave is similar to the ripples in a pond. Toss a pebble in the pond and then introduce inverse ripples and you'll effectively smooth out the pond’s surface. Active noise cancellation (ANC) works in a similar manner. Microphones mounted on the headphones analyze ambient sound waves and then produce inverse sound waves that will cancel them out.

As you might expect, the ANC technologies from some are incredibly effective; others, less so. We’ve tested models from AKG, Bose, JBL, Libratone, and Sony and found them to be very good. Some individuals find that ANC-enabled headphones exert pressure on their ears, creating a similar sensation to being under water. If you find ANC headphones to be uncomfortable, you’ll prefer a model with good passive noise cancellation.

Active noise cancelling technology works wonders in high-noise environments like planes and trains. Sony

Active noise cancelling technology works wonders in high-noise environments like planes and trains.

Adaptive noise cancellation: You might think of this as a smarter form of active noise cancellation. It operates on the same principles, but adapts to your surroundings to apply more or less of the effect and to even bring in sounds from the outside world.

Sony’s 1000XM2 headphones pair with an app that uses your smart device’s GPS functions to fine-tune Theo Nicolakis

Sony’s 1000XM2 headphones pair with an app that uses your smart device’s GPS functions to fine-tune some of the headphone’s adaptive noise cancelling features.

Some adaptive noise-cancelling solutions even take into account how fast you're moving, the air pressure around you, and whether you’re likely in a plane, taking a walk, or holding a conversation. Many operate in conjunction with a mobile app on your smartphone.

More of our top headphone picks

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