Choosing a pair of headphones can be a bewildering process, even for the more technically minded. This article discusses some of the common questions that arise, hopefully arming you with the knowledge to make a more informed and confident decision when looking for headphones.

Headphones with S-Gear


For many of us, playing guitar with headphones is a necessity. Often it isn’t possible to fire-up a loud guitar amp at home, or perhaps our music space is small with poor acoustics. Good quality monitor speakers can be expensive and will only deliver their full potential in an appropriately treated room.

I often prefer using headphones for critical listening to guitar sounds. With guitar I am interested in the mid-range detail of the sound and a good pair of headphones can provide a clear and intimate listening experience for these dominant mid-range frequencies. For longer listening sessions I also find that using headphones can be less tiring on the ears. When playing electric guitar through studio monitors, there is a tendency to increase the volume to overcome the instrument string noise and fight against less than perfect room acoustics.

Whatever the reasons for using headphones, the good news is that there are some very good products available which provide an excellent listening experience for relatively low cost. We consider traditional wired headphone options, not the Bluetooth phones that are intended for wireless listening on mobile devices.

A good starting point when choosing a pair of headphones is to consider your priorities. These might be recording, mixing, critical listening, isolation from external noise or preventing bleed so as not to irritate others nearby.


Open, closed, and semi-open back headphone designs


These terms refer to the physical design of the headphone enclosure. Closed back designs typically provide good isolation and are ideal for monitoring when recording with microphones or for use in noisy environments. Closed back designs often have pronounced bass frequencies, as a result of the sealed enclosure, this is not necessarily a problem if the phones sound pleasing, and your priority is isolation.

Open back designs can provide an excellent solution for critical listening. The sound reproduction is natural, especially in the low and mid-range frequencies. Open designs do not provide much isolation from external noise, and headphone bleed can be problematic for recording, particularly with sensitive microphones. You might also be concerned that others around you are irritated by the extraneous noise coming from open back phones.

A word on comfort, closed back designs seal the air around the ears and can quickly become hot and uncomfortable. Open or semi-open designs allow air movement and are considerably more comfortable for long sessions. Another practical consideration is whether the ear pads can be removed and cleaned or perhaps replaced.


Headphone impedance

Headphone impedance can be confusing, some models of headphones come in two or three different impedance options, which one is best for your purposes? and does it matter?

A simple explanation is that lower impedance headphones typically require less power to achieve a certain sound pressure level, whereas higher impedance headphones require more power to drive them but can produce lower distortion and a more accurate transient response, due to better electrical damping of the headphone driver.

Lower impedance phones (typically 32 ohms) are also suitable for use with mobile or battery powered devices. High impedance phones are often considered for professional use, however, the headphone output circuit in most audio interface devices can drive higher impedance (typically 250 Ohms) headphones with very acceptable results.


Dedicated headphone amplifier

The headphone output on a typical audio device employs a small amplifier circuit with additional current drive capability (to develop enough voltage across the headphone drivers).

A dedicated professional quality headphone amp on the other hand, will provide more power to drive high impedance headphones and typically a much lower output impedance for better electrical damping with low impedance phones.


Technical notes


Impedance is the electrical resistance presented by the headphones measured in ohms. Impedance is frequency dependant, so the quoted ‘nominal impedance’ is a value chosen to represent the impedance for the purpose of matching to a source. (Note that there are accepted standards that specify how impedance and other headphone specifications are derived).

Electrical damping is the control that the amplifier has over the movement of the headphone driver. An undamped speaker will ring at its resonant frequency (ringing is when the system continues to oscillate after the signal has been taken away). Low impedance headphones are likely to be less electrically damped, and more prone to ringing and distortion. In order to achieve good electrical damping, the amplifier output impedance must be several times lower than the impedance of the headphones.

You might also see headphone sensitivity specified. The quoted figure (dBSPL) corresponds to the efficiency of the headphones, higher sensitivity will result in higher sound pressure level for a given power applied. Whether a pair of headphones sounds good at the upper end of the rated dBSPL depends on the headphone and amplifier design. The figure, however, gives you some idea of what to expect.


Final thoughts


The best thing you can do when choosing a pair of headphones is to try them with the device that you intend to use them with. Trust what your ears tell you over and above the specification and price tag. That said, we don’t always have the chance to audition products before we purchase. The good news is that the most popular products are all very good and most likely you will not be disappointed.

If you are putting together a music solution and your budget is limited, I would recommend allocating funds for a good pair of wired headphones. My personal choice is for open backed phones, I use the Beyer Dynamic DT 990 Pro 250 Ohms which I find excellent. I appreciate the comfort over longer sessions and natural sound reproduction for detail and analytical listening. I will occasionally use the DT770 Pro 250 Ohms closed back phones for better isolation.

There are many opinions as to what is good and bad with the subjective sound of different products. Keep in mind that we do adapt and ‘get used to’ the sound signature of different listening systems and this is fine and good.

Happy listening and remember to be kind to your ears!

Mike Scuffham