Music blares from alarm clocks in the morning, makes our commutes a bit more tolerable, and emanates from our speakers during parties on the weekend. Music is a powerful medium that has the ability to make us experience emotions. In order to listen to music, you need speakers. When you’re on the go, you need an MP3 player (or smartphone) and a set of headphones or earphones.This leaves us with a few questions: What are the advantages and disadvantages of headphones and earphones? How are earphones different from earbuds? Which is better: active noise cancellation or passive noise isolation? With the decline of the MP3 player and the rise of the smartphone as a portable music player, we felt this was an opportune time to educate you, our readers, on the various earphone and headphone options available.
Headphones and earphones are fundamentally different. They provide the user with a different listening experience, with the distinguishing factor being presentation of the music. The main advantage of headphones is that there is more air flow, which some people feel creates a bigger sound. There are a few negatives associated with owning a pair of headphones. They are bulky, heavy, and tend to mat down your hair (a consideration if you are heading into the office).
There are two types of headphones: circumaural headphones and supra-aural headphones. Circumaural headphones completely encompass the user’s ears, while supra-aural headphones rest on top of one’s ears. Circumaural headphones are better at isolating unwanted sound, but they can get very warm after wearing them for a while. Supra-aural headphones shipped with early cassette and cd players, and are a little less bulky than circumaural headphones.
With recent advances in technology, earphones are for audiophiles, too. Earphones come in a couple of varieties: there are earbuds and in-ear monitors, also known as canalphones. Earbuds provide little noise isolation, if any, and are commonly bundled with MP3 players. Quite simply, the sound quality one experiences with an earbud is poor.
In-ear monitors (IEMs), frequently referred to as canalphones, are designed to be placed just inside the user’s ear canal. Most brands of IEMs include both rubber and foam eartips in their packaging. IEMs are small, light, and perfect for listening to music while commuting or on the go. One of the major benefits of IEMs is passive noise isolation, which eliminates background noise. Passive noise isolation is achieved by creating a tight seal in the user’s ear canal. Based on my experience with IEMs, passive noise isolation is successful at blocking out 95% of background noise, even with music set to a low volume. This seal also serves another function: it creates a sealed chamber to achieve a more complete acoustic sound.
The transducer inside an IEM is colloquially known as a driver. There are dynamic drivers and armature drivers. Dynamic drivers are found in cheap earbuds, but there are a few companies that specialize in producing high-end dynamic drivers. The main benefit of high-end dynamic drivers is increased bass response. Armature drivers are smaller in size than dynamic drivers, and are generally used in groups of 2 or 3 in very high-end IEMs. These IEMs have multiple armature drivers because each drivers is dedicated to a specific range — one driver may handle bass, while another will focus solely on treble. IEMs with a single armature driver tend to have a very flat response, unlike high-end dynamic drivers. IEMs with multiple armature drivers are generally considered to be the best type of IEM. They are, however, quite expensive.
Active Noise Cancellation vs. Passive Noise Isolation
Background noise can be a pesky thing when you’re trying to jam-out to your favorite tunes. Solution? Noise canceling headphones. Headphones that feature active noise cancellation technology have garnered a lot of attention over the past few years because they fight noise with counter-noise. However, this technology does have its drawbacks. While they are great at silencing unwanted noise on an airplane, they are less effective when used on a crowded bus or busy street. They also require a battery, and headphones that employ active noise cancellation technology tend to be a bit bulky. Most importantly, the technology is fundamentally flawed. The counter-noise produced by active noise cancellation headphones naturally blocks out some of the music you actually want to hear. Therefore, the sound quality of these headphones is usually second-rate. Passive noise isolation is preferred by many because it provides significantly better noise reduction without sacrificing sound quality.
I hope you find this article informative! Stay tuned for reviews of our favorite headphones and earphones.