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Headphone Buying Guide: Jargon - What does it all mean?

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So, to make your purchase that little bit easier we thought we would put together a brief guide of what all the technical headphone jargon means:

Impedance
Measured in ohms, it’s the amount of resistance that is produced by the internal parts of the headphone - In terms of how this affects the headphone, basically the lower the resistance the easier it will be for your music player (phone, laptop, iPod, etc) to produce the sound that you hear. So, an headphone with a low resistance can play at a lower volume for comfortable hearing whereas an headphone with a higher resistance will need to be turned up to achieve the same volume level. Earphones & Headphones for portable use, eg: with a phone, mp3 player, iPod or laptop would typically have a resistance of 16 or 32 Ohms. Headphones for DJ use or at home with a HiFi / amplifier would typically have a resistance of 64 Ohms or above

Frequency Response
Frequency Response is a measure of the range of sound that the headphones will produce, shown in Hertz (Hz) - Most headphones will produce sound between 20 - 18,500 Hz. The frequency range for simplicity is split into 3 main regions:

• Lows, eg: Kick Drum or Bass Guitar
• Mids, eg: Snare or Vocals
• Highs, eg: High Hats, Violins or James Blunt

Headphones will produce sound above 18,500 Hz and below 20 Hz however usually as the overall range is increased outside of these points the price typically increases also, a point to note is that having an headphone with a range over 18,500 Hz has no real benefit as you are pushing the boundaries of what the human ear can process - Just as importantly at each end of the range as you approach the end the volume (or SPL) will roll-off also (SPL and Roll-Off are explained in the next section)

SPL
SPL - "Sound Pressure Level" or Volume ultimately is measured in dB (decibels), in just about all cases you will see on our site in the tech spec sections that this measure is taken at a frequency of 1 kHZ as this is the point at which most headphones reach their peak volume - Headphones will normally reach an SPL at 1 kHZ of between 100 - 120 dB

A point to note as described in the section above that all headphones have a roll-off at each end of the sound range, so although an headphone at 1 kHZ may give a peak volume of 115 dB, at say 10 Hz (bass end) it may only reach 100 dB, the diagram below gives an example of this, as you can see the roll-off (decrease in volume) is more extreme at the high end:



Transducer / Drivers
Often referred to as drivers or transducers, in essence this is the internal speaker part of the headphones. Most headphones will have 1 driver with measurements of 9 - 15mm. Single driver headphones of quality may also be referred to as having a full-range or wide-band single driver, Shure for example with the SE315 promote it as a single driver earphone with a tuned bass port

Twin or Double Driver headphones have 2 separate speakers in each earphone taking care of their part of the sound range, usually a woofer for the lows and a tweeter for the highs. Typically the earphone body is slightly larger, as is the cost but the sound is far superior to that of a single driver earphone

Triple Driver headphones, as above, however an extra woofer is added into the mix - The result being that the sound range is split into 3 and each part sent to its appropriate driver, the result is that your music will sound like never before, triple driver headphones are simply the best consumer headphones available

CrossOvers
A small electrical component in double / triple driver headphones to allow the sound range to be split up and sent to its appropriate driver

Cables
Not too much jargon when talking about cables, more considerations which relate to where and how you want to use your headphones. So, we’ll look at length, extensions, fixed or detachable, routing and weight:

• Length: The average portable headphones would have a cable length of about 1.2 - 1.5m, more than enough to reach into your coat or trouser pocket, whereas headphones for DJ or Home use would be between 1.5 - 3m and in some cases coiled for extra flexibility and movement

• Extensions: This is only a consideration if you want a cable length shorter than 1.2m maybe because your player is going to go in a shirt pocket or in an arm strap for jogging and you don’t want too much excess cable - Some earphone cables are made in 2 sections, the first is fixed to the headphones and is about 30cm in length, you would then have an extra cable of about 90cm in length giving better options for use

• Fixed or Detachable: Again, only a consideration depending on the use you have planned for your headphones - Most headphones have a fixed cable, so headphones 1 end, jack plug the other which is more than ideal until you break or damage a cable. Top-end manufacturers such as Shure, Westone, Sleek Audio and Ultimate Ears have pro models that have detachable cables, ie: the cable and the headphones are separate parts, although mainly aimed at musicians that need to keep spares while performing they are equally suited to the consumer - A perfect scenario is snagging the cables 2 days before that 2 week trip or or worse still, you’re backpacking packing around Asia, how handy would having a spare cable be?? Equally as important, damaging a cable out of warranty, if the cable is the fixed type then they’ll be heading for the bin, if you have a detachable cable, replace the cable and you’re good-to-go

• Routing & Weight: Cables on headphones over the £50 mark are generally routed over the ear, just like musicians, the idea (and a good 1) is that the weight of the cable is supported by the top of the ear making it less likely that the cable weight and movement will pull the earphone out of the ear - Cables are also then kept out of the way. This also means that the cables can be thicker, heavier and therefore stronger, top-end Shure SE cables are now also kevlar re-inforced, a serious bit of kit! Lightweight cables, typically used when cables aren’t routed over the ear are generally thinner (to keep weight down) but can sometimes be weaker as a down side

Jack Plugs
For portable headphones they will always be the standard 3.5mm (usually gold-plated), suitable for all iPods, iPhones, iPads, PCs, TVs, Laptops, NetBooks, MP3 Players and many more - Home stereos or DJ equipment would usually require an adaptor to take the jack up to 6.3mm, some headphones include these although they are widely available as an accessory. Jack plug shapes are generally straight to cater for iPod / iPhone cases however the preferred option would be a right-angled style for strength and to aid the life of the earphone

Sound Isolating (Passive)
Sound Isolation is the amount of outside sound the earphone will block out when sealed within the ear canal, measured in dB - Typically sound reductions would be in the region of 25 - 35 dB. There are many reasons why sound isolating headphones have become the norm and so popular, the seal with the ear enhances the sound quality to levels you wouldn’t believe possible when comparing them to say the standard apple headphones especially at the lower end, outside sounds cannot leak into the ear canal which would spoil the music coming through but just as importantly, no matter what volume you have them at (safe though of course), people around you will not be able to hear your music! The term passive simply means no electronic parts are used, just your ear and a silicone / foam tip to produce the isolation

Noise Cancelling (Active)
More commonly found in headphones for travelling although there are a few headphones out there with the same tech - Noise cancelling uses electronics within the headphone itself or as part of the cable, therefore active, the idea is that these electronics pick up and listen to the noise outside of the headphone, process that and filter it out whilst sending the audio from your player through the headphones - Result, pure music, no noise!

Click-Mic
For headphones that need to be used with mobile phones such as a Blackberry or iPod, a Click-Mic is a small device on the earphone cable that allows you to answer / end calls, the callers voice is then put through to the headphones and the mic picks up your voice. For iPhones the click-mic can also control your iPod, it will stop and resume tracks, skip, rewind, etc.

Open Backed Headphones
Open Backed Headphones or Vented Headphones allow sound to pass through the ear-cup, this lends itself to creating a more natural sound stage - This will however mean that people around you will be able to hear the music and that if you are in a noisy environment you may hear whats going on around you - Most top-end audiophile headphones will be open-backed

Closed Backed Headphones
Closed Backed Headphones or Sealed Headphones are in essence the opposite of open-backed. They form a seal around the ear and the ear-cup is also sealed, this avoids sound leaking out or noise leaking in, this has increased sound isolation has great benefits if you are using them for DJ or Production use for example - A point to note however is that as the sound doesn’t leave the ear-cup it will bounce or reflect within the space it has and can lead to the sound being less natural or open as with the open-backed type above


If you would like any advice or assistance with what headphones to buy, please call our sales office on 01920 877 117

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