Types of Headphone Drivers and How They Differ

With so many different types of Headphones and headphone drivers, it can be intimidating to find a good pair of headphones and differentiate them. There are numerous factors to consider, including fit and finish, as well as size and style. But, at the end of the day, it’s all about how they sound and whether or not they’re worth the money.

But how can you tell which headphones sound better without trying them on? Headphone drivers—the components responsible for the sound you hear—come into play here. While it’s impossible to fully assess a headphone’s sound without first hearing it, knowing what type of driver it contains can help.

Types of Headphone Drivers and How They Differ

What Is a Headphone Driver?

Let’s take a look at how headphone drivers work before we get into the different types. The physical electric component that produces the sound you hear is known as a headphone driver. It’s like there’s a tiny loudspeaker in both of your headphones’ shells.

Let’s say you put on your headphones and listen to a Spotify song. The digital track is first converted into analog electrical signals by your device. Then, by vibrating a thin film inside the drivers called a diaphragm, your headphones convert these electrical signals into audible sound waves.

The audio output converts electrical signals into radio waves in the case of wireless headphones. These radio waves are then picked up by your headphones and converted back into electrical signals. As previously stated, the headphone drivers take over from there.

Headphone drivers differ depending on how this conversion is accomplished.

Types of Headphone Drivers and How They Work

There are six different types of headphone drivers. To convert electrical signals into sound waves, they each use different mechanisms. The material and mechanism used by these drivers determine the sound quality and cost.

1. Dynamic or Moving Coil

A magnet, a voice coil, and a diaphragm are the three main components of dynamic drivers. A copper coil that conducts electrical signals is known as a voice coil. The electromagnetic field is created when the electrically charged coil interacts with the magnetic field of the magnet.

The voice coil vibrates, as does the diaphragm, depending on the audio played. This rapid movement causes air displacement, which causes sound waves to be produced—the more air displaced, the louder the sound produced.

The most common type of headphone driver is dynamic, which can be found in In-Ear Monitor earphones (IEMs), earbuds, and headphones. They are more cost-effective because they require less energy and amplification to function. The best way to get loud bass with a dark or warm sound signature is to use dynamic drivers.

If you like EDM or hip-hop, dynamic drivers headphones are a good choice. However, at higher volumes, they tend to sound distorted and do not adequately represent higher frequencies. Regardless of what you’re playing, a high-quality and well-engineered dynamic driver can sound great.

2. Balanced Armature

Types of Headphone Drivers and How They Differ

A mechanism suspends a metal “arm” inside a coil in balanced armature drivers. The diaphragm is attached to the arm, and the duo is perfectly balanced between two magnets. The arm acts as an electromagnet and repels and attracts the two magnets when electrical signals flow through the coil.

The diaphragm vibrates as a result of the arm movement, producing sound waves. It’s worth noting, however, that because these drivers don’t displace air, they don’t have a lot of bass.

Balanced armature drivers are smaller than dynamic drivers and can handle higher frequencies better. In fact, they were created for hearing aids but quickly found a home in the audio industry due to their obvious benefits. They’re now widely used in IEMs.

They are more expensive than dynamic drivers due to their complicated mechanism. You’ll love them if you’re someone who listens to music intently and expects a lot of clarity and detail.

3. Planar Magnetic

Types of Headphone Drivers and How They Differ

Planar magnetic drivers work in the same way as dynamic drivers, but instead of magnetizing the voice coil, they magnetize a coil-attached disc-shaped diaphragm. When electrical signals pass through the disc-shaped diaphragm between magnets, the diaphragm begins to move inside the magnetic fields.

The diaphragm’s attraction and repulsion cause air displacement, which results in sound waves. Planar magnetic headphones are bulky, expensive, and better for home use because they require more or stronger magnets to magnetize the diaphragm evenly.

When compared to dynamic drivers, planar drivers use larger magnets and displace more air, resulting in a thumpy and accurate bass. There is less distortion and they perform better at high frequencies thanks to the flat diaphragm, making them a better choice than dynamic drivers if you’re willing to pay a little more.

4. Electrostatic

Electrostatic drivers work in a different way than the ones we’ve seen before. Two metal plates with tiny gaps for air and a diaphragm or membrane make up an electrostatic driver. Between these metal plates is the diaphragm.

The charge of electrical signals passing through metal plates alternates between positive and negative. The diaphragm moves back and forth between the metal plates as a result of this. This causes air to be displaced, resulting in sound. There is less distortion because metal surfaces do not move.

Electrostatic drivers are preferred by audio purists because they produce more natural and realistic sounds than any other driver. These drivers, however, necessitate a lot of amplification, which makes them quite expensive.

5. Magnetostriction or Bone Conduction

Types of Headphone Drivers and How They Differ

All the drivers we have seen so far vibrate a diaphragm to produce soundwaves that travel through your eardrums.

But bone conduction drivers vibrate your temporal bones—the bones just above your ears—to send the vibration to your inner ear, completely removing the eardrums from the equation.

Bone conduction drivers use the piezoelectric property of bones, which allows vibrations to pass through them. A major advantage of these drivers is that they can be used by people who have middle-ear hearing difficulties—this is why they are also used in hearing aids.

You will still be able to hear your surroundings because bone-conduction headphones do not block your ears. This makes them useful in situations where you need to keep an eye on your surroundings.

When driving in traffic, for example, you don’t need to pause or remove your headphones because you can hear everything around you.

These are also used in military communications to allow soldiers to receive orders without losing sight of their surroundings. In terms of sound quality, however, they are no match for traditional drivers.

6. Hybrid Drivers

Types of Headphone Drivers and How They Differ

Because some drivers aren’t good at handling certain frequencies, using just one type of driver might not be enough. Hybrid drivers are useful in this situation.

Hybrid driver headphones have two or more types of drivers and are better able to produce clear sound by compensating for the shortcomings of one type of driver with another.

In addition, hybrid drivers will employ two or more drivers to produce a pleasing sound signature. The use of two or more drivers ensures that every sound frequency is accurately represented, resulting in a vibrant and detailed sound with the warmth and bass that many people crave.

Which Headphone Driver is the Best?

Sound quality should be the most important consideration when purchasing headphones. There are, however, other factors to consider, such as cost and availability. If you’re looking for a pair of headphones that sound good but aren’t too expensive, dynamic drivers are a good choice.

Electrostatic headphones are the best of all if you’re an audiophile who values realistic sound and doesn’t mind spending a lot of money. Planar magnetic, balanced armature and hybrid headphones are your best bet if you want to enjoy the better sound without spending a fortune.


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