This post will be pretty lengthy, so I will be dividing it up into several sections.
About headphone recommendation posts
Intro to audio
A note about resistance and cabling
I have been noticing an increase in the number of headphone related posts on this forum. This increased seems to directly coincide with when Logan started making videos related to audio. He seems to be the driving force behind this sudden interest in audio here. I am not against that at all. In fact, I was an audiophile long before I became interested in technology/computers. Getting people interested in audio is something that I myself have done. I am the friend of a friend that people go to when they have a question about headphones and whatnot. All of that to say that I am glad that more people are becoming involved in the audio world. However, I see a problem here as well. Because this is not a website dedicated to audio, there are many people here who don’t have any sort of background/experience in it. That is well and good for getting more people interested, but it is not so good for getting decent recommendations for audio equipment. Most of the comments that I see on audio posts don’t seem to be coming from much experience or understanding of the audio side of things. I understand that audiophiles can seem very snobbish and intimidating, and I know that to many, I will seem to be one of the snobs, I'm sure, but I am only bothering to write/post this for the betterment of the people here on this site because I have an interest in the site and the people on it. I am only trying to help here.
About headphones recommendation posts
I know that audiophile forums seem like a daunting place, but if you have a question that you want answered, there is no better place to go. Regardless of whether or not you plan to use this forum or one dedicated to audio (I personally like head-fi), there is a number of required things to know before someone can make a recommendation for headphones.
- Budget. Just like with a computer build, they need to know how much you are ok with spending. If you are ok with spending $200 but would prefer to keep it closer to $100 if possible, say so. The people who comment are there to work with you to help you get what you are looking for, so just let them know.
- Where/How are you going to be using the headphones, and what form factor are you ok with getting (in-ear, on-ear, around-ear)? Are you only going to be using these at your house/your computer? Do you plan to use them on the go? Is isolation important? Do you have an dac and/or amp? Will you be plugging them straight into your computer or your mp3 player/phone? If you have an amp, what kind? If you plan on using it with your mp3 player/phones, what kind? Are you ok with spending some of your budget on other hardware such as an amp? We really need to know the context to be able to give a decent recommendation.
- What kind of music do you listen to? What is it exactly that you plan on listening to with these new headphones? Different headphones do well with different things, so we need to know what you are planning to ask from your headphones in order to give a good recommendation. A headphone suited for electronica won’t be suited for something like classical.
Intro to audio
As the interest in audio here has been growing recently, I am sure that many of you will already be aware of the basics of the hardware, but for those who don’t know, here are the fundamentals.
The most important piece of hardware in your audio line up is the thing that is actually making the sound. That could be several things, the basics being including headphones, iems, and speakers. Each of these is, in its simplest form, a different way of housing a driver. The driver is the piece which is physically moving in order to make the sound waves.
Headphones should be familiar to everyone. What may be less familiar is that fact that there are different types of headphones. There are circumaural and supra-aural. Those terms mean around-ear and on-ear respectively. Circumaural are also known as full sized headphones/cans and are more typical for home/stationary use. Super-aural don’t actually encompass your ear and instead sit directly on top of your ear. This usually means that they are smaller and lighter, making them the preferred headphones for mobile use.
Headphones can also be open-back, closed-back, and semi open. This simply describes the state of the material which is behind the driver of the headphone. The material can be completely sealed off (closed), completely open to the air via a mesh or some other method (open), or somewhere in-between the two (semi-open). Closed headphones are generally accepted to have more bass and have a more fun sound, while opened headphones are generally accepted to have more detail and a larger soundstage. This isn’t always the case, but it is the general rule of thumb.
Iem is probably a term which most people aren’t familiar with, however, it is very common in the audio world. It is what most people would call earbuds. It stands for in-ear monitor. While the “monitor” part isn’t entirely accurate, the term iem is what has stuck. In audio, there is a differentiation made between iems and earbuds. In audio terminology, an iem goes into the ear canal while an earbud sits just inside of the ear. Think of the old stock iphone earbuds. That is the style which is known as earbuds. There is also a form of iem known as “customs” which is quite literally a custom iem made specifically for your ear canal. This requires that a mold be made of your ear and then be sent into the manufacturer. Of course, this costs more money, but it is generally accepted as being the way to get the absolute best performance from iems. Many iems, custom or not will have more than one driver present in the housing. The reasoning behind this is so that a single driver doesn’t have to be responsible for all of the sound being required of the iem. Each driver will take responsibility for a different range of frequencies. This is much like how subwoofers work.
Lastly, there are speakers. For a desktop environment, a 2 or 2.1 system is common. For a living room/den/movie room, it is common to see 5.1 or 7.1 set ups. The numbers describe the number of speakers present in the setup, while the x.1 part means that there is a subwoofer. Subwoofers are perceived by the public as being a way of getting really loud bass, however that is not their intent. The purpose of having a subwoofer is so that the main speakers don’t have to reproduce the lower frequency sound waves. Alleviating them of this responsibility should allow them to perform better overall, making for a generally cleaner and faster reproduction of the audio. In order to power a speaker set up, you must have an appropriate amp. This could be built in with “powered” speakers, or come in the form of an external box, such as a receiver. Honestly, speakers aren’t my strong suit, so I won’t go into too much detail, lest I make a fool of myself.
Along with the headphones, iems, and speakers in your audio line up, there is everything which comes first. This includes the amp, the dac, and the storage media. For most people, the storage media is their hard drive or streaming via the internet. When stored on a computer, the music is in a digital state, represented by 1s and 0s (binary) in formats such as mp3, flac, and wav. This digital format can’t be used by the headphones (or iems or speakers) and must be converted to an analog signal first. The piece of hardware which converts the signal from digital to analog is known as the dac (digital-to-analog converter). Many of the snobbier audiophiles will say that you need a really expensive dac in order to get good sound. That isn’t actually the case. So long as the signal coming from the dac is clean in that it doesn’t have any sort of interference or other issues from the dac itself, it is fine. That is to say that you don’t need a really good dac, you just need one that does the job. Think of it like a hammer. You could get a really awesome hammer, but at the end of the day, you really only need something to drive a nail. So long as the nail gets driven effectively, it doesn’t really matter what brand is on the hammer. This isn’t the best analogy, but it is all I could come up with at the time.
The analog signal must then be sent from the dac to another piece of hardware which is capable of adjusting the signal strength to the appropriate strength. This piece of hardware is the amp. It works the same way that any amplifier works. It amplifies the signal strength, but it also allows you to control the strength and thereby control the volume. The amplifier is arguably the second most important piece of hardware in the lineup after the headphone itself (or iem or speaker, whatever). The amp needs to be able to supply enough power to drive the drivers in the headphones and (in many cases) do so without distorting or coloring the audio signal in any way. Many higher end amps will purposefully color the sound in order to get their product to stand out. Whether or not you want this coloration is completely up to you. Many people want as accurate sound as possible, while many others enjoy a colored reproduction. Others still will match the sound signature of their headphones to their amps in order to achieve the overall sound that they want. In the lower price brackets (which is to say under ~$200), the goal is almost always to get an accurate reproduction. This is because people who spend that amount generally don’t plan to spend much more. The colored amps are generally more expensive and seen as more of an extra than anything else.
Amps have two standard technologies implicated, and are often referred to based on the technology in the amp, tube amps and solid state amps. Solid state amps, as the name implies, uses only chips while tube amps, as the name implies, uses tubes. Tube amps are known for giving the sound a warm and smooth signature while solid state amps are known for their accurate and sometimes cold reproduction. Again, this is a general rule, but it is what people expect when they think of those two technologies.
Something that people seem to often focus on about amps is the resistance (rated in Ohms). The problem with high resistance amps is that it can distort the audio if it is too high relative to the resistance of the headphones used (iems generally have very small resistances). The general rule is to have a resistance of at least 8x that of your amp in your headphones. It is another case, like with dacs, where as long as it is good enough, it will be fine. After all, you can drive a nail with a rock. It is something to be aware of when purchasing an amp, but it really isn’t something to stress over.
The way in which the audio is stored can be numerous. Generally speaking, there is physical media such as CDs and tapes and there is digital media in the form of various file formats such as mp3 and flac. When someone refers to CD quality, they are referring to uncompressed audio at 44.1 kHz, 16 bit. Many products will claim to be able to do things like 48 kHz or 96 kHz and 24 bit. This is largely seen to be unnecessary, though many of the snobbier audiophiles will claim to be able to tell some sort of difference between them. For all intents and purposes though, those numbers mean very little. You can look up more about this if you want, and I suggest that you take a look at the Moran/Meyers study as well as the article recently written about dacs on Tom’s Hardware.
Lossless audio formats such as wav and flac reproduce sound at CD quality. Other file formats such as mp3 compress this lossless audio into more compact formats for the sake of saving space. To give you an idea, flac is a lossless, compressed version of wav which only takes up about ¾ the space. An mp3 file, at the highest quality setting possible with mp3, 320 kbps, will take up only 1/3 of the space that a flac file does. The main thing that lossless file formats have over mp3 is the bitrate which is much higher with lossless. While mp3 can’t do anything over 320 kbps (kilobit per second), it isn’t uncommon for a flac file to have over 1,000 kbps in my experience. This “bit rate” represents the amount of data being transferred to the dac by the computer per second. So with 320 kbps, every second, the dac has 320 kilobits sent to it which is then converted to analog and sent to the amp. It is generally accepted that without training yourself to listen for the differences between 320 kbps mp3 and flac (or another lossless file format), the difference is largely negligible. This assertion can be assessed by “subtracting” the sound from an mp3 file from that of the flac format and listening to the resulting sound. This can be done in audio editors by changing the phase of one of the tracks, thereby cancelling out all sound which is the same in both tracks. The resulting sound is the mathematical difference between the two formats and what is lost when converting to a “lossy” format such as mp3. The resulting sound really isn’t much of anything. It is really only when you get down to bit rates around 128 kbps that the difference becomes really substantial (I can’t find the video where a guy did this during a talk which was then posted on youtube, but if I can find it, I will post it). The point is that the file format can have an impact on the audio quality, but the importance that many of the more snobby audiophiles place on lossless formats is largely unfounded. That said, there is no telling what has happened to the file from the time that it was lossless to the time that you get it as a low rate mp3, so it is better to grab the higher bit rate, preferably lossless version if available.
Lastly, portable players are referred to as daps (digital/analog player). If you plan on looking around forums for things about portable players or even posting about them in the form of a question, use the term dap. It is just one of the ways to make sure that everyone present is on the same page. The audiophile community has been using that term for quite a while now and aren’t likely to change. The same goes for all terminology. Speaking of which, head-fi has a wiki section which has a pages dedicated to terminology, if you ever feel lost while reading reviews, or want to be able to accurately describe sound.
A note about resistance and cabling
Many people exaggerate the importance that resistance makes. In general, the difference made by adding resistance isn't very much, at most, it tightens up the sound. Of course, that means that the higher resistance version of a particular headphones, like the dt770, would have a tighter sound signature with less intrusive bass than the lower resistance version. That change in audio comes at a price though, efficiency. The higher the resistance, the harder it is to drive the headphones. If you have an amp which can drive the higher resistance version well, then it doesn't really matter much. If you don't though, you would likely be better off with the lower resistance version.
Similarly to how the importance of the resistance of the headphone is largely exaggerated, the importance of the output impedance of amps is over stated. So long as the impedance is low enough so as to not distort the audio of the particular headphones that you are using, it doesn't make any difference as to which amp has the lower impedance. This harkens back to the hammer metaphor. The rule of thumb is that the resistance of the headphones should be about 8x that of the output impedance of the amp. That will prevent distortion. After that, differences are largely useless. If you are using very sensitive iems, then the differences could be important, but more often than not, it still shouldn't be a problem.
One thing that the more snobby audiophiles love to go on about is the cables that they use. By that, I mean that they will replace the cable attached to their headphones with a "better" cable, usually silver. I have seen people buy expensive power cables for their amps because people hype it. People will spend as much on cables as they do on the headphones themselves. The results are largely unfounded. I have yet to find a study (double blind, eliminating the placebo effect) that reports that there is a noticeable improvement in sound from the "better" cabling. There are plenty of studies to be found which found that the difference doesn't translate into any sort of real world results (none that are noticeable anyway).