The Theory and Practice of Modern Headphones

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Modern headphones come in a broad array of types, with designs optimised for active use, acoustic quality, and comfort. Professionals and audiophiles will want to consider in-ear monitors (IEMs) and over-ear headphones for their superior audio quality and noise-cancelling abilities. Casual users often want earbuds or traditional on-ear headphones. When choosing your pair, consider not only factors such as affordability and aesthetics but also how you will use them. 

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From the Walkman to Bluetooth

Headphones have come a long way since the 1970s, when Sony engineers were discouraged from building the first set for the Walkman tape player because nobody could imagine why someone would want to listen to music through headphones. As technology has advanced, headphone components have become smaller and better suited for today's compact designs, such as earbuds. The advent of Bluetooth technology made headphones even more portable and comfortable.

Headphones have to pack the noise-transmitting technology of speakers into a very small design. The basic concept is the same, but headphones don't need to be as powerful because they don't have to transmit sound as far—just the distance from the earpiece to your eardrum.

The wires in the headphones carry the audio signal from the source (either through a 3.5mm connection or a wireless source such as Bluetooth) to the earpiece. Within the earpiece are elements, including coils and magnets, that move in response to the signal to create sound waves. 

Headphones with noise-cancelling abilities often rely on a seal to keep out extraneous sound; that seal occurs either around your ears or inside the ear canal, such as with IEMs and some earbuds. Some headphones produce white noise continuously to cancel unwanted sounds.

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In-Ear Headphones


Earbuds are perhaps the most popular type of headphone, and the market supports a huge variety of them. Some are low-cost and easy to replace, while others contain special technology that makes them more costly. Some have microphones built in, some have remote controls, and some have volume switches. These features add functionality, allowing you to take, make, and end calls as well as adjust the volume of music and skip through your playlist without taking out your MP3 player.

Basic earbuds are a good choice for anyone who values a small form factor since they can be stashed in a pocket easily and are unlikely to break if carried loose in a backpack. Consider keeping one set in the car, one at your desk, and some backups at home.**


In-ear monitors (IEMs) are basically high-end earbuds, but they mount to a collar and fit snugly inside the ear canal. High-end IEMs have tips that can mould directly to the contours of the ear, providing ideal passive noise blocking. These headphones are most commonly used by professional musicians and those who value a high-fidelity audio experience. Some are custom fitted while others come with a selection of tips for the best possible fit.

IEMs fit very well inside the ears so they block out noise and keep out sweat. Choose them for visits to the gym and for jogging in safe areas without traffic. They're also good for people who work in noisy locations such as airports and construction sites. IEMs connect through standard 3.5mm jacks, so they're compatible with just about any device.

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On-Ear Headphones

On-ear, or supra-aural, headphones are the classic form of headphones. They use decades-old (and hence very reliable and affordable) technology to provide generally good sound, though they may lack in bass response. They're usually lightweight and portable, so they don't press too hard on users' ears. They strike a decent balance between affordability, quality, comfort, and durability.

These headphones are ideal for people with sensitive ears, children, and seniors who may have trouble hearing through conventional earbuds. They're also good for people who don't like the sensation of having an object inside their ear canal. Be aware that others may be able to hear what you're listening to with on-ear headphones, as they don't provide the acoustic seal of in-ear varieties. If you prefer headphones that stand out visually as much as they do acoustically, you'll probably want an on-ear model. They have the largest surface area, with plenty of space on the band and earpieces for big graphics. There are many on-ear headphones with designs that appeal to artists as well as anyone interested in pop culture or who just wants a unique look.

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Over-Ear Headphones

Over-ear headphones deliver impressive sound quality by completely encasing your ears and actively blocking out ambient sound. They tend to be bulky, but they make up for it with high fidelity and lifelike bass. Often, these types of headphones have frame-mounted boom microphones and other built-in accessories that make them ideal for gamers and other computer users. They are the headphones of choice for serious audiophiles as well as professionals who don't need the ear canal sealing protection of IEMs.

These headphones are also preferred by music aficionados who live in flats and can't listen to music through speakers or those who need excellent sound quality to mix audio on a computer. Over-ear models are the most common type of headphone for gaming, offering both power and clarity. They're best for at-home use, since their size makes them inconvenient to carry. When packing them, be sure to use a protective case, since they are apt to be more fragile than other types of headphones.

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Wired vs Wireless Headphones

Every type of headphone is available in both wired and wireless versions. Wireless versions, often powered by Bluetooth, are popular for running, hiking, and doing yard work since they allow great freedom of movement. Wired headphones offer less freedom, but they are more economical. You may prefer wired headphones since there are no pairing or connectivity issues to consider.

The headset has come a long way since its humble Walkman beginnings. With new technological advancements and the introduction of lighter materials, headphones continue to improve. Consider the way you want to use them, and look for a set that suits your needs today.