If you’re reading this, chances are you love listening to music on a great pair of headphones. As an audiophile and headphone enthusiast myself, I understand the quest to find that perfect pair that makes your favorite tunes come alive. But with so many headphones on the market sporting all kinds of flashy tech specs, how do you cut through the marketing lingo and really determine which model best fits your listening preferences?
A lot of it comes down to understanding the headphone driver - that tiny little component inside each earcup that actually produces the soundwaves. The driver design has a huge impact on the sonic characteristics of any headphone. Getting to know the different driver types is key to finding your audio nirvana.
In this guide, we’ll demystify the major driver technologies and how they differ in real-world listening:
- Dynamic drivers - the classic headphone transducer that delivers thumping bass
- Planar magnetic drivers - providing ultra-detailed soundscapes
- Electrostatic drivers - lightning-fast response for analytical listening
- Balanced armature drivers - precision instruments for personal listening
- Exotic newcomers like graphene and Air Motion Transformers
You’ll also learn handy tips for choosing the right driver for your preferred music genre and listening environment. Whether you’re a bass head, an aspiring audiophile, or just want better sound for your buck - understanding headphone driver tech empowers you to become a smarter shopper on the quest for audio bliss. So plug in and let’s get educated!
The Old Faithful - Dynamic Drivers
As the classic driver design that's been around for decades, dynamic drivers are the ubiquitous workhorses found in everything from budget portables to hi-fi headphones costing thousands. Chances are, your very first pair of cans had these trusty transducers inside.
A Piston Pumps Air - The Dynamic Driver Anatomy
Before we dive into their sonic attributes, let's peek into the anatomy of dynamic drivers first:
- Diaphragm - This thin surface physically moves back and forth to displace air. The diaphragm material affects sound - paper diaphragms tend to be warmer and more textured while plastic films and metal like beryllium can yield more detail.
- Voice coil - A lightweight coil of wire attached to the diaphragm and suspended in the field of a powerful magnet. Electric audio signals in the voice coil interact with the permanent magnet to draw the coil either towards or away - thus vibrating the attached diaphragm to pump soundwaves into your ear canals.
- Chassis/Basket - The rigid metal structure that houses the magnet, voice coil and related components. Better damping in premium baskets reduces unwanted resonance for cleaner sound.
- Magnets - Potent magnets like neodymium allow smaller yet more powerful drivers. But vintage listeners swear by the sweet sound of big, old-school ferrofluid magnets while eschewing new-fangled materials.
- Earpads - The super cushy cushions between the drivers and your ears heavily impact comfort. But earpad materials like velour vs. leather also absorb and reflect different sound frequencies, fine-tuning that coveted 'house sound'.
- Headband - Allows adjustment for the perfect, custom fit around your head and ears. An overlooking yet vital aspect for long-term comfort.
So in essence, the dynamic driver is an electromechanical piston, converting electric energy into acoustic waves we hear as lifelike musical soundscapes.
Advantages - Deep Bass and Soundstage
What makes dynamic drivers so ubiquitously used? Their classic cone design yields some key advantages:
- Weighty bass - Their relatively large diaphragms can displace bigger volumes of air, delivering solid low frequency response for that visceral, moving-air bass feeling.
- Spacious sound - An open, rounded soundstage is a hallmark of quality dynamic driver cans. You get a nice sense of space as if you're looking into the recording venue.
And given their simpler construction compared to more exotic driver designs, dynamic headphone are generally the most affordable as well - great for budget-minded music lovers.
Disadvantages - Distortion and Limited Detail
On the other hand, dynamic drivers also come with some inherent compromises:
- Distortion - Pushing big diaphragms leads to some distortion or breakup affecting detail and accuracy
- Limited resolution - Dynamic drivers may lack the speed and transient response required by more complex musical passages. Some fine sonic textures end up smoothed over rather than sharply defined.
So savvy listeners looking for absolute detail over thumpy bass may want to consider other high-resolution driver technologies outlined later in this guide.
Everyday Listening - Sony MDR-7506, Sennheiser HD600 and Beyerdynamic DT770
As mainstream all-rounder headphones under $500, the Sony MDR-7506, Sennheiser HD600 and Beyerdynamic DT770 showcase pleasing dynamic driver sound - nice bass kick, open soundstages and smooth, non-fatiguing listening that works for most music without veering into hyper detail.
The Sony MDR-7506 is a studio classic with a relatively flat response perfect for audio mixing while enjoying zoomy rock guitars and punchy beats. Meanwhile the Sennheiser HD600 reins in the highs a tad for silky audiophile listening. And the Beyerdynamic DT770 adds glittering treble detail to round out a near-perfect sub-$500 trio to cover a wide range of musical tastes with dynamic aplomb.
Just don't expect the last word in pinpoint detail compared to the exotic driver designs outlined later. Within their price bracket, all three model lines sound sublime with different tunings to suit varying preferences.
Sonic Holograms - Planar Magnetic Drivers
While dynamic drivers excel at lush bass and mids, their moving-coil design ultimately limits high frequency detail retrieval. Enter a fascinating alternative - planar magnetic drivers. Instead of paper or plastic cones, these use an ultra-thin, lightning-fast diaphragm floating light as a leaf between two rows of powerful neodymium magnets. The results are highly detailed sonic holograms that audiophiles crave.
Flat Magic - The Planar Advantage
Rather than pistons, the entire diaphragm is the radiating surface suspended in a carefully shaped magnetic field. Miniature audio signals flow through a printed circuit trace pattern bonded right onto the film-like diaphragm material. This interaction causes the entire surface to move and undulate in unison as one rigid panel.
Compared to dynamic drivers, this flat planar diaphragm reacts extremely uniformly with low distortion across its surface. Vibrations dissipate instantly rather than propagating unevenly. The outcome is startling transparency and pinpoint signal accuracy - every guitar pluck, subtle vocal warble and textured nuance etched holographically clear as if projected in 3D space all around you.
Disadvantages - Bulk Over Bass
Planar magnetic phones do have some practical trade-offs. Their light diaphragm suspended openly cannot move enough air mass to match the authoritative bass slam of a sealed dynamic driver. The bass takes on a tighter, drier quality rather than brute visceral impact.
And mounting large planar elements often results in bigger, bulkier headphones usually best suited for home listening rather than portable use. You'll get breathtaking imaging over pounding head-rattling bass.
But for detail-addicted audiophiles seeking that elusive "you are there" hyper-realism from acoustic instruments, vocals and small jazz combos, a planar open-back design is a must-try.
Cinematic Sound - Audeze, Hifiman and Monoprice
Dedicated companies have brought planar technology from the rarefied realm of six-figure speakers into merely expensive yet attainable audiophile headphones - now finally approaching almost affordable!
The $1699 Audeze LCD-2 offers silky precision imaging with satisfyingly extended bass in a handsome wood chassis for a cinematic listening experience.
Meanwhile, Hifiman models like the very popular $499 HE400i sacrifice some low-end oomph in favor of supremely airy openness with vivid life-like detail shining across vast sonic vistas.
Finally, upstarts like $299 Monoprice M1060 prove audiophile-pleasing planar sound need not break budgets. Their humble cans' shocking resolution and imaging punches far above their price, rivaling elite flagships costing 5 times more.
So shop around and experience planar sound first-hand if you pine after hyper-detailed sonic journeys shaking every auditory neuron over simple head-banging bass. Your music collection will never sound the same again.
Lightning Speed - Electrostatic Drivers
Just when you thought planar magnetic headphones set the resolution bar sky high, along comes an even more exotic driver technology - the electrostatic. Used in six-figure statement speakers, this ultra-specialized design promises even more ethereal levels of detail along with featherweight comfort...for a princely sum.
Electric Energy to Diaphragm Motion
True to their name, electrostatic drivers use static electric charge rather than magnets to drive an ultra-thin diaphragm skinned with conductive material. This diaphragm floats between two metal plates called stators which carry a fixed electric charge. Audio signals introduce a variable charge between the diaphragm and stators - causing the diaphragm to be attracted and repelled rapidly based on the signal.
So rather than voice coils and magnets, it is pure electrostatic force that vibrates the diaphragm to move air and create sound.
Lightning Fast Speed
This electrically driven ultra-thin and low mass diaphragm reacts 50x faster with lower distortion than planar designs - capable of perfectly tracing insane transient spikes and the most vanishingly faint musical whispers. Every microscopic detail emerges with crystalline precision from a completely silent background. The sound is the very antithesis of typical closed-back dynamic warmth, but the resolution can be almost too revealing without ultra-perfect source material.
Besides stratospheric prices, the main downside is electrostatic headphones require a special energizer amplifier to polarize the electrically charged diaphragm. These amps can add over $1000 themselves. And most models remain firmly in the realm of home use only rather than portable listening.
But for well-heeled audiophiles, the promise of vanishingly low distortion and almost infinite high-frequency response lends electrostats an allure nothing else replicates for classical, acoustic and vocal genres.
Stratospheric Sound - Stax, Sennheiser and Koss
Brands that have attained electrostatic nirvana include the Stax SR-007 - a detail demon that excels with chamber jazz and classical.
The legendary Sennheiser HE-1 redefines what headphones can do across all music genres - for $60,000!
While the Koss ESP-950 brings electrostatic magic more down to earth under $2000.
So while too costly for casual listening, every serious headphone connoisseur deserves an electrostatic audition to hear the extreme limits of headphone fidelity firsthand. The sound is that transformational.
Precise & Personal - Balanced Armature Drivers
Moving into tiny transducers designed for inner-ear listening, we discover balanced armatures. Originally created for hearing aids in the 1970s, balanced armature (BA) drivers cram impressive sound quality into a tiny package perfect for in-ear monitors and earbuds.
Unlike dynamic drivers, balanced armatures operate based on a delicately balanced lever principle rather than moving mass. At their heart is a tiny armature reed made of specialist alloys suspended in the field of two very powerful neodymium magnets, much like a planar driver shrunken to Lilliputian dimensions.
Audio signals in the surrounding miniaturized coil cause this reed to rapidly vibrate, transmitting motion to an even smaller diaphragm just 1-2mm across that literally pumps sound directly into eardrums at intimate, personal proximity.
Given their lightning-fast response thanks to low mass, balanced armature drivers focus more on crystalline precision over brute bass force. They excel at reproducing micro-details and textures in vocals and lead instruments across jazz, classical and acoustic genres.
Their diminutive form allows headphone makers to combine multiple balanced armatures covering various frequency bands just like a miniaturized speaker crossover - enabling rich, multi-layered sound from something small enough to wear comfortably inside your ear canal for hours without fatigue.
The catch is balanced armatures fight an uphill battle trying to deliver strong bass given their miniature size. Achieving extended low frequencies requires clever acoustic tuning and damping strategies including ports, tubes and filters to properly augment the drivers' natural capabilities without distortion or muddiness. Most single balanced armature earphones roll off sharply below 200Hz. So true full-range reference performance remains extraordinarily difficult at micro-scale.
Scientific Wonders - Etymotic, Shure and Westone
Newcomers like Etymotic first popularized balanced armature performance starting in the mid 1980’s with their ER4 earphone - an accurate, analytical tour-de-force that wowed audiophiles seeking scientific truth.
Multi-BA specialists Shure then unlocked far richer musicality fusing multiple balanced armatures together as perfected in their 4-driver SE846 flagship - an in-ear monitoring legend with lush detail.
Finally, custom in-ear pioneers like Westone take personal sound to pinnacle performance levels packing up to 8 BAs into each side of moulded-to-your-ears earpieces. Made-for-you masterpieces like their AM50 and ES80 achieve reference-grade audio quality rivaling over-ear audiophile headphones...in a tiny form nestled ergonomically inside your ear canals.
So when ultimate portable high fidelity and noise isolation matters most, seek out such scientifically advanced in-ear monitors. Let your skull vibrate with resonance-free frequency bliss in your own private sonic universe.
The Future is Now - Graphene Drivers
Just when headphone tech seems matured, along comes a revolutionary material - graphene - that promises to rewrite the audio engineering rulebook for superior sound. Touted as the thinnest, lightest yet strongest material ever tested, leading audio firms race to harness graphene's almost alien abilities.
What is Graphene?
Graphene's unique structure as a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a 2D hexagonal honeycomb lattice is the ultimate form of structural efficiency and stability. This seemingly magical substance conducts electricity 200x better than copper while being over 100x stronger than steel by weight! Yet it remains incredibly light and thin - making perfect diaphragm material.
As the vital transducer inside headphones, revolutionizing diaphragm performance promises to unlock unforeseen levels of speed, accuracy and reliability. Early examples suggest graphene diaphragms several microns thin can move more air thanks to extreme stiffness while eliminating distortion-inducing breakup. Graphene may become the ultimate driver material.
Leading a Revolution
Graphene's unmatched strength-to-weight ratio lends it astonishing natural frequency response able to keep up with the strictest musical transient demands. Brands banking on this nano-stuff already demonstrate outstanding impulse precision for lifelike detail along with distortions vanishing below measurement limits even at higher volumes.
While still very early days, the future looks bright for graphene to sprinkle audio magic dust enabling headphones to emerge from decades-long engineering compromises.
Challenges to Adoption
But being an entirely new class of material, graphene still faces production challenges especially growing defect-free sheets large enough for wider use. This keeps costs higher for now limiting commercial examples to smaller headphone drivers best suited for in-ear designs. No graphene headphones yet.
Yet material science leaps ahead daily. We witness graphene transitioning from lab curiosity into ultra-expensive audiophile NOS DACs and cabling...and eventually mainstream applications. Other exotic diaphragm materials like nanotube films also promise trickle-down high-fidelity benefits in time. But graphene leads the charge thanks to intensive commercial R&D.
Get in Early - ORB Audio
Today, intrepid headphone pioneers like ORB Audio offer an early taste of graphene's promise while keeping costs almost attainable if not exactly cheap. Their $999 GrapheneQ in-ear monitors thrill listeners with expansive resolution across a wide frequency range once unheard of at this tiny scale.
Even notoriously hard-to-drive Planar Magnetic over-ears seem within graphene's reach soon. Indeed, never before has fundamental materials science itself been so readily upended for musical benefit inside a decade since early graphene tests.
So keep ears peeled for graphene landing in your next headphone upgrade. In the high-stakes race to build a better audio transducer, this form of pure carbon promises to utterly shatter limitations.
Picking Your Perfect Audio Match
With all the major headphone driver technologies now illuminated, it's time to pick the right pair matching your personal listening profile. Let's quickly recap key selection criteria:
Desired Sound Signature
This guides everything. Craving skull-rattling bass texture and impact? Seek big 50mm dynamic drivers optimized for pumping sub-frequencies. Want vivid microscopic musical detail like hearing a singer's lips smack between words? Consider lightning-fast planar magnetic or electrostatic models to reveal previously hidden studio production tricks. Need vocal intimacy in a portable form factor? Multiple wide-bandwidth balanced armatures designed for personal in-ear listening shine. Tailor driver type to your desired tonal balance and sonic priorities.
Primary Listening Environment
Closed-back dynamic drivers sporting snug, noise-isolating earpads work magic sealing out external sounds during commutes, travel or just for privacy at home. However, open-backed planar and electrostatic designs trade isolation for their single-note decay and pinpoint imaging capabilities. Such reference headphones only make sense in quiet spaces to fully hear their resolution feats without distraction. If you demand isolation plus high-fidelity, seek out planar models that manage to enclose the diaphragm yet still breathe openly around the ears.
Music Genres in Your Collection
What's your audio diet? Classical, jazz, folk and acoustic fans get the most return on investment from high-resolution transducer technologies like planar magnetic and electrostatic drivers to feel a guitar string squeak or standup bass resonate with rich woody tones. Meanwhile bass-loving fans of thumping EDM, hip hop, rock, pop and movie soundtracks may happily prefer greater visceral bass texture and impact from finely tuned large-diaphragm dynamic drivers even if ultimate detail suffers slightly. Consider your genre stable.
Set a Budget to Meet Expectations
As highlighted, exotic cutting-edge designs like planar magnetic, electrostatic and even flagship balanced armature in-ear monitors carry higher price tags given precision engineering and costlier ultra-pure materials. So factor final cost into expectations about just how lifelike instruments should sound for a given spend. While even affordable sub-$100 offerings today outperform headphones costing thousands just a short decade ago thanks to better magnets, diaphragms, damping and computational tuning.
Ultimately, any foray into better musical enjoyment first requires honest self-reflection on your listening DNA - what you hear, where you listen critically, and the audio flavors you crave. Analyze your profile before fixating on particular driver types or flashy tech specs alone. Then enjoy the musical revelation when science aligns with preference to bathe your brain in bliss!
Which type of driver is best for headphones?
There is no single "best" driver technology. It depends on your taste - such as preferring dynamic driver bass impact vs planar detail. Electrostats are technically impressive but very expensive. Most buyers are happy with a quality dynamic or planar headphone.
Which is better - a 10mm or 13mm driver?
Larger diameter drivers have potential for deeper bass extension. But good acoustic tuning matters more than just size. A well-designed 10mm driver can outperform a sloppy 13mm model. I'd focus more on overall headphone reviews rather than just driver dimensions.
What driver do I need for headphones?
For easy listening with solid bass, the common dynamic driver used in most headphones works fine. Models from Sennheiser, Sony and Beyerdynamic are safe choices. Seek out planar magnetic or electrostatic headphones if you value highly detailed treble and don't require massive bass.
Are bigger headphone drivers better?
Not necessarily - a larger driver diaphragm has potential for deeper bass but may have issues with high frequency control leading to brighter, fatiguing sound. Well-implemented smaller drivers can still perform very well. Driver design, magnets and diaphragm matter as much as raw size.
Do more drivers mean better sound?
Again, not always. Having multiple drivers per earcup allows tuning different frequency bands which can help achieve a more balanced overall sound. But more drivers also introduce potential interference and phase issues if not perfectly executed. Total headphone design trumps number of drivers alone.
Are neodymium drivers good?
Neodymium magnets enable smaller, lighter yet more powerful headphone driver motors. This allows large diaphragms to remain precisely controlled. Most quality headphones utilize neodymium magnets with excellent price/performance these days.
Are graphene drivers good?
Graphene demonstrates extremely promising initial results as perhaps the ultimate diaphragm material given unparalleled strength and flexibility. But we're still early in adoption so models remain limited and costly. Check back as graphene usage matures!
Find Your Audio Bliss
As we've explored, headphone technology has come a long way from crude moving iron drivers pumped out of bakelite cups. Engineers now craft high-tech transducers capable of reproducing the most delicate sonic textures for discerning audiophile ears.
Yet amidst all the technological marvels, the listening experience ultimately comes down to you - your own audio taste preferences, music collection and listening lifestyle. So use this guide to headphone driver types as a starting point to hone in on pairs best matching your budget and ears. Prioritize lifelike timbre and immersive imaging over mere specs. Then prepare for many blissful hours of musical discovery as your headphone quest unlocks new layers of instruments, vocals and recordings you may have missed before!