Shopping around for headphones is confusing enough as is, and there are a lot of things you need to keep straight. Should you get on-ear headphones or in-ears? Is Bluetooth better or wired? While there’s plenty of reading to do on those questions, we’re here to give you a quick and easy breakdown of four different driver types: dynamic drivers, planar magnetic drivers, and electrostatic drivers, and balanced armature drivers.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on April 19, 2019, to include information pertaining to open-back headphones and understanding objective measurements.
What is a driver?
Before we start walking, we have to learn to crawl. As the name suggests, a driver is a small speaker unit that drives the sound down your ear canal. It’s an electromagnetic device that translates electrical signals into audible sound. Its presence is necessary for any pair of headphones to function. And as the varying sizes of headphones and IEMs show, drivers—or transducers—also differ in size.
- Most affordable of the three driver types
- Compact and lightweight
- Often don’t require external power
- Can create harmonic distortion
More often than not, dynamic drivers are found in consumer-oriented headphones. Why? Simply because they’re an affordable choice. A magnet—typically neodymium—affixed to the housing interior creates a static magnetic field. This interacts with the voice coil which is subsequently forced to oscillate towards and away from the created magnetic field. This creates vibrations and, thus, sound waves.
How do dynamic drivers affect my music?
As far as sound quality goes, dynamic drivers adeptly reproduce low-end frequencies. However, at louder volumes, this can create undesirable harmonic distortion. See, producing loud, low frequency responses is a tasking process on dynamic drivers coil moment can be limited, causing inaccurate sound reproduction. Additionally, if the drivers are too small, they can sometimes create weird distortions by bouncing sound off your ear at strange angles. Though they’re the worst-performing drivers discussed in the article, the truth is they’re not bad—but there are better out there if you’re willing to spend.
Variations in dynamic driver sound quality can be attributed to different materials used and the housing architecture.
Planar magnetic drivers
- Less harmonic distortion
- More accurate sound reproduction
- More expensive
- Headphones with planar magnetic drivers tend to be heavier than those with dynamic drivers
- Usually require external power
Headphones using planar magnetic drivers sport a distinct look: the ear cup underbelly features a rectangular—rather than elliptical—shape. Although planar magnetic drivers are typically found in open-back, over-ear headphones, we’re seeing an uptick of in-ears using them too.
In a sense, these operate similarly to dynamic drivers because they also use magnetic fields. Rather than using a coil, planar magnetic drivers consist of a large, flat, membrane that has an embedded wire pattern. Rather than using a coil, the membrane is directly moved by magnets it sits between.
Due to the larger diaphragm and magnets found in planar magnetic headphones, these models often cost more, are heavier, and require more power to be driven. Which means they usually need an amplifier, and are made to be used at the computer.
How do planar magnetic drivers affect my music?
Since vibrations are evenly distributed across the entire membrane, distortion is mitigated. By reproducing a more neutral frequency response, all aspects of sound will be more accurately reproduced. By creating what’s called a “planar wavefront” (a flat source of sound), the sound reaching your ears is less likely to echo or bounce off your head in a strange way, so it’s easier to maintain the illusion that you’re actually listening to something that’s happening around you in real life.
- No moving parts mitigates virtually any perceptible distortion
- Respond to subtle changes in audio for accurate sound
- Require specialized amplifier
- Bulky and heavy headphones
Electrostatic headphones are rare, expensive headphones that use static electricity to create an electric field. This draws and repels the thin diaphragm to and from a pair of metal plates that sandwich it. Each plate is perforated, forcing airflow. This movement in conjunction with the constantly changing electric signal moving the diaphragm creates sound.
Headphones that use electrostatic drivers are much more expensive than your standard dynamic driver and require a specialized amplifier, only increasing the overall cost.
How do electrostatic drivers affect my music?
The absence of moving metal components allows these drivers to produce a virtually distortion-free sound. While this accuracy is much sought after, it’s not realistic to produce on a grand scale for general consumers. The sheer expense and the fact that they require bespoke amplifiers to even work means that these are the domain of enthusiasts only.
Balanced armature drivers
- Smaller and more efficient than dynamic drivers
- Excellent treble response
- Can delegate range of frequencies to each armature (if multiple armature IEM)
- More expensive than dynamic drivers
Balanced armature drivers are much smaller than the others listed, because they’re modern domain is limited to in-ears. As with the others, the name describes how balanced armature drivers work. A magnetic armature rests on a pivot and rotates between two magnets. When it’s centered within the magnetic field, there’s “no net force on the armature.” In other words, it’s at this point that the armature is balanced.
When an electric current is sent through the coil, which is wrapped around the armature, the magnetization forces the armature to rotate from the pivot. This motion causes the diaphragm to move and create sound waves.
How do balanced armature drivers affect my music?
Although it requires quite a bit of force for the armature to remain in the balanced position, it’s still a fairly efficient process. A proper seal is imperative for optimal reproduction and some headphones, like the 1More Triple-Driver In-ear, use multiple armature drivers.
Doing so delegates certain range of frequencies to each armature—bass notes will usually be handled by an individual driver, and the rest will be handled by one to three others. Since these tend to perform best with treble range frequencies or those below 20Hz, this specialization in balanced armature earbuds allows for improved low-end reproduction.
Which driver is the best?
As with all things, you have to make a cost-benefit analysis. Sure, you could blindly say that electrostatic drivers are “best,” but that would be a gross oversimplification. Assuming that most of us operate within constrained budgets and don’t need the most accurate frequency response, dynamic drivers do make the most sense. They’re cost-effective and versatile. Whether you want something cheap and functional or luxurious and analytical, dynamic drivers have you covered.
Of course, if audio is your passion and you have the means to pursue that passion, planar magnetic, electrostatic, and balanced armature-driven headphones are worthy upgrades. Although these driver types require a bit more shopping around, there are plenty of options out there. And as demonstrated by the Monoprice Monolith 1060, not all planar magnetic headphones have to set you back thousands of dollars.
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