The 10 Best Headphones
How Do Headphones Work?
Headphones operate by either connecting to an audio source (e.g., a CD player, an iPod, or a laptop, etc.), or converting sound that has been delivered through the air waves. In every case, some type of signal is received. That signal is, in turn, converted through an ear piece with varying levels of fidelity. Each headphone’s precision is based upon a number of factors, all of which are ultimately connected to what is known as a frequency response.
One of the key aspects that affects a headphone’s performance is known as impedance. Impedance refers to resistance, or how much voltage a pair of headphones requires in order to convert a piece of audio that’s being fed to it from an outside source. If the source requires an extreme amount of voltage, then the converted audio will probably sound extremely poor.
One other key factor is sensitivity, which refers to how loudly an earphone can reproduce an incoming signal. Sensitivity is complicated (it is actually measured by a unit which is known as "decibels of sound pressure level per milliwatt"), but the bottom line is that it determines incoming volume based on the quality and compatibility of a source (e.g., a turntable, or a stereo, etc.). If you've got low impedance, high sensitivity, and a pair of headphones with top-notch frequency response, chances are you're dealing with some excellent sound.
Picking a Pair of Cans Without Using Your Ears
As you can see from our selection, when we talk about headphones, the category breaks down into two classes: over-the-ear, and on-the-ear headphones. Each style has its benefits over the other, which we will discuss momentarily, but keep in mind that the decision between the two classes is almost entirely one of a personal preference. Also, since we can't very well reach through your computer and hand you a pair to try out for yourself, we're going to focus more on the build differences among our rated cans.
The biggest class difference that you would notice before you even plugged a pair into your stereo is the feel on the ear. Over-the-ear headphones, as their name implies, fit completely over your ear, encapsulating it in an isolated world of sound. Depending on the material out of which the internal ear cup is made, this style of headphone can pretty effectively cancel out a lot of sound on a purely physical basis. That does not mean, however, that all over-the-ear headphones can be classified as noise-canceling headphones, as those utilize a set of microphones and speakers working in concert to counter any external vibrating frequencies.
On-the-ear headphones, on the other hand, sit on top of the ear. A lot of consumers find these to be less comfortable than over-the-ear models, as they tend to press the ears toward the head with a little more force. They are, however, significantly more breathable, as your ears won't feel trapped inside a cup. As far as sound quality goes, on-the-ear models can't provide the same levels of natural or augmented noise cancelation as their counterparts, but they can achieve the same level of sound fidelity.
Another important point in the build of a given pair of headphones is their ability to collapse. More and more you've probably noticed an increasing number of people using high-fidelity headphones in public. That's because, despite their size while in use, many of these headphones can fold flat, and will fit nicely into a backpack, messenger bag, or purse. If you plan on taking your new headphones out into the world, look for a pair that can break down nicely.
A Brief History of the Headphone in America
Do you know what a pair of electroacoustic transducers is? I'll give you a hint: these are the reason that you visited this page. Electro-acoustic transduction is an antiquated way of describing the early science behind headphones. What it refers to is the conversion of incoming waves into a corresponding sound. Headphones operate by either connecting to an audio source (e.g., a record player or an amplifier), or transducing radio waves that have been transmitted through the air.
Early headphones were an extension of the ear piece. Headphones were largely preferable because of their ability to isolate sound while canceling outside noise. The first pair of headphones was developed in 1910 by a Mormon named Nathaniel Baldwin. Baldwin designed his earphones in the kitchen. He never patented them, which was unfortunate, given he sold his innovation to the U.S. Navy for a song.
In the 1920s, headphones were used by the U.S. military and AM radio operators. They expanded to the consumer market in the 1940s, when a Jazz musician named John C. Koss invented the first pair that could be plugged into a stereo. From there, the headphone market shifted, surging upward until it reached a point where at least one pair of headphones could be found in almost every American home.
Today's headphones are somewhat similar in appearance to what the originals looked like during the early 1900s. The primary difference being that technology has allowed for stronger acoustic conversion, along with wireless compatibility, and an entire range of innovations that weren't even possible before.