Shopping for earbuds is a strange process. Most consumers will pick a pair based on three qualifications:

  1. Design (whoa, that looks SO cool!)
  2. Price
  3. Brand Equity

Though these three are definitely significant deciding factors in the purchasing process, there are many other factors that we must bring into consideration. Most consumers overlook the technical specifications marked on the packaging of earbuds. It would do well for the manufacturers to educate us on the significance of these terms. Knowing what these aspects mean will make you a much more intelligent consumer. Don’t take this knowledge for granted either; most employees at electronics retailers themselves do not know what these details mean. Knowledge is power, and I believe when you supply yourself with the right knowledge, you are on a much better path toward independence in buying, and you will be able to more accurately assess whether a pair will deliver the kind of power you have come to respect and love.

  1. Frequency: You see this on every package of earbuds. You’ll see numbers like 60hz-25khz, 15hz-20khz. What does all of this mean? Well the sound is measured in hertz.  The lower the hertz, the more bass the speaker will deliver; therefore, a speaker that promises you 15hz is going to have  much deeper bass than one that delivers at a starting range of 60hz. The higher the hertz, the more treble. Usually, the khz (kilohertz) don’t matter, because the specs are thrown so far out of proportion that there really isn’t an argument. A human ear can only hear up to roughly 20khz, and even that number is enough to make someone deaf.  That having been said, we mustn’t just rate the quality of a pair of earbuds on the frequency alone.
  2. Impedance: Your earbuds run on electricity, and they can certainly wear out over time if you don’t have a strong enough pair. That having been said, electricity itself carries a vibrational frequency. Vibrations emit sound. The type of sound electricity emits isn’t the most attractive; it lets out a hiss. In order to eliminate hiss, we need impedance. Impedance is measured in ohms, and my personal rule of thumb is: the higher the ohms, the lower the phones. In other words, a high impedance means a much clearer set of earbuds. You want to buy a pair of headphones with the highest impedance you can afford so that all you hear is music. This guy explains impedance and ohms very well. Check out the video.

  3. Sensitivity:  Sensitivity is measured in decibels and sound pressure levels (dbSPL). Let’s not make this complicated. The lowest audible sound is at 0db. This is as close to as total silence as it can get while still giving us the ability to hear something. You don’t want to go higher than 85db’s, because this can cause hearing loss. When buying a pair of earbuds, you’ll want something that can get loud, but you don’t need anything obnoxiously loud. That having been said, most people love their music loud, and the sounds may certainly exceed 85db’s. Just make sure you keep exposure to such volumes at a minimum. The rule of thumb is that if somebody has to shout in order for you to hear him or her, your music is too loud. Loudness is nice, but retaining hearing ability throughout old age is even nicer.
  4. Nominal Power Handling Capacity: You need to know how much power your earbuds can take before they wear out. Wouldn’t it be nice if the packaging indicated something that revealed such information? It does! Maximum power is simply the highest beating your earbuds can take before sounding like they just exploded in the microwave.  Operate your earbuds at lower power levels, and you will have a much longer lasting set; e.g., play your earbuds at a comfortable level of volume.
  5. Drivers: Drivers are probably the BIGGEST reason why over-the-ear headphones sound significantly better than earbuds that are sold for the exact same price. The fact is, over-the-ear headphones are big enough for manufacturers to easily place the appropriate sized drivers for the best possible sound. In order to get excellent sound in earbuds, we must place powerful drivers in them as well. The issue is, though, that earbuds are so small that building appropriate drivers for them is tricky. Nonetheless, the stronger the driver, the better the overall sound. Drivers tend to really boost the bass, and they give an overall richer experience. They really thrust a lot of power into the earbuds. Over-the-ears normally have four drivers. Each driver is meant to target a different audio quality: bass, mids, and treble. Cheap earbuds usually have 2 drivers, and that is why I advised you against buying a cheap pair. Because of the size of earbuds, it makes it also more expensive to add additional drivers. If you add power to these drivers, the earbuds will certainly go up in price. In hindsight, the $300 Beats headphones by Dr. Dre have a 40mm driver set within them. The Ultimate Ear Pro 18’s, in direct comparison, cost nearly $1400. The main reason they are priced to high is that each earbud has six drivers.

    Ultimate Ears Pro 18: $1,350

  6. Lows, Mids, and Highs: Just to give you an example of how all of this information ties in together,  read the following information taken from Headwize:
Extreme bottom below 32 Hz
Low bass, bottom octave 20 to 40 Hz
Midbass 40 to 80 Hz
Upper bass 80 to 160 Hz
Lower midrange 160 to 320 Hz
Midrange 320 to 2,560 Hz
Upper midrange 2,560 to 5,120 Hz
Highs, lower highs 5,120 to 10,240 Hz
Extreme highs, top octave
10,240 to 20,000 Hz

As you can see, 20khz is WAY too high for our ears, so you do not have to really shop around for earbuds that indicate a high level of kilohertz. Ideally, you would want a pair of earbuds that has a very low bass (hz) and a very high treble (also in hz, but towards the higher end of the spectrum where you may see kilohertz instead). The greater the range, the more dynamic the earbuds will be. It is good to know all of this information as part of the complete picture; however, your eyes should be focused more on the drivers themselves. If the drivers are excellent, then great hz-khz ratings will only boost the endeavor. If the drivers are poor, then no amount of hertz or kilohertz will give you a good pair of earbuds.

In conclusion, when shopping for earbuds, the most important thing to look for is the number of drivers a set has. After that, look at the decibel rating, because a high decibel rating guarantees greater sound levels. It is pleasing to look at the number of hertz, but realize that most of these numbers are thrown in just for the glitter factor: manufacturers know that customers love to see big numbers when buying products. These numbers don’t mean a thing if the drivers aren’t there.



Footnotes:

Comparison, By. “What Does “Frequency Reponse” Mean? – AVS Forum.” AVS Forum. Web. 21 Aug. 2010. <http://www.avsforum.com/avs-vb/showthread.php?t=1030102>.

“Cool..the Innards of AKG K340 Headphones.. – AudioKarma.org Home Audio Stereo Discussion Forums.” Audiokarma Home Audio Stereo Forums. Web. 21 Aug. 2010. <http://www.audiokarma.org/forums/showthread.php?t=60502>.

“Giz Explains: Why You Can’t Get Decent Earphones for Less Than $100.” Gizmodo, the Gadget Guide. Web. 21 Aug. 2010. <http://gizmodo.com/5371253/giz-explains-why-you-cant-get-decent-earphones-for-less-than-100>.

“Headphones.” Headphones – Microphones – Headsets: Beyerdynamic. Web. 21 Aug. 2010. <http://north-america.beyerdynamic.com/service/faqs/headphones.html>.

“HeadWize – Article: Judging Headphones For Accuracy (A HeadWize Headphone Guide).” HeadWize – Breaking News. Web. 21 Aug. 2010. <http://gilmore2.chem.northwestern.edu/articles/judging_art.htm>.

“How to Evaulate Specs for Different Earbuds?” ILounge Forums. Web. 21 Aug. 2010. <http://forums.ilounge.com/ear-headphones/231283-how-evaulate-specs-different-earbuds.html>.

“HowStuffWorks “What Is a Decibel and How Is It Measured?”" HowStuffWorks – Learn How Everything Works! Web. 21 Aug. 2010. <http://www.howstuffworks.com/question124.htm>.

“Monster Beats By Dr. Dre Studio Headphones Review by Chris Chiarella on BigPictureBigSound.” BigPictureBigSound – The Site for Home Theater and Movie Reviews. Web. 21 Aug. 2010. <http://www.bigpicturebigsound.com/Monster_Beats_By_Dr_Dre_Studio_Headphones.shtml>.

Patel, By Nilay. “Ultimate Ears 18 Pro Headphones Feature Six Drivers per Ear.” Engadget. Web. 21 Aug. 2010. <http://www.engadget.com/2010/01/14/ultimate-ears-18-pro-headphones-feature-six-drivers-per-ear/>.

“Please Explain Headphone “sensitivity” – Head-Fi.org Community.” Head-Fi.org – Headphone Forums and Reviews for Audiophiles. Web. 21 Aug. 2010. <http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/17179/please-explain-headphone-sensitivity>.

“Please Explain Headphone “sensitivity” – Head-Fi.org Community.” Head-Fi.org – Headphone Forums and Reviews for Audiophiles. Web. 21 Aug. 2010. <http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/17179/please-explain-headphone-sensitivity>.

“Ultimate Ears | UE 18 Pro Custom In-Ear Monitors.” Ultimate Ears | The Earphone Choice of the World’s Top Touring Musicians. Web. 21 Aug. 2010. <http://ultimateears.com/en-us/products/18-pro#description>.

“What Do Headphone Specifications Mean? – Home Entertainment, Headphones.” PC World. Web. 21 Aug. 2010. <http://www.pcworld.idg.com.au/article/296352/what_do_headphone_specifications_mean_/>.

“YouTube – Understanding Ohm Loads and Impedances – Audio.” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. Web. 21 Aug. 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nFwAUe8SSk&feature=related>.


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21 comments until now

  1. [...] choosing a pair of earbuds, most consumers look only at the earbud specs and the style. While these two things are very important, many consumers overlook one of the most [...]

  2. Thank you for a down-to-earth description on how to purchase earbuds and headphones. I, now, truly know what to look for when going to buy. Great article.

  3. Woah this was a fantastic explenation :O! Very ‘down to earth’, simple to understand and very useful informaion. Thankyou so much (:

  4. This is a must read for everyone that wants to choose a good pair of earbuds and headphones

  5. I've Lost My Buds!

    This was really helpful, thanks!

  6. muchas gracias for the information now i konw to not def waste my money on beats lol instead i can around 3 or 4 other type of headphones..thank you sir

  7. A couple of points on your article.
    a) I am wondering what you are talking about with impedance? ‘The type of sound electricity emits….a hiss’ erm, no. The electricity going to your headphones, has exactly the same sound as your are hearing (look at the basics physics behind a speaker). The closest I can think of to what you say is a 50Hz hum from mains – nothing to do with headphones though.

    The reason high quality headphones have high impedances is usually because they are designed to run of pro gear (which runs at a higher voltage).
    A higher impedance will reduce the volume when run on normal mp3′s, thats about all that can really be said on here. check http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jan03/articles/impedanceworkshop.asp for more info on it:)

    b) People CAN hear over 20kHz, theoretically I think its about 22k that you can hear in its pure tone, however what does make a difference is that even though you cannot hear the tone itself above 20kHz, it does make a difference. This is partially behind mp3′s poor sound compared to a CD, or vinyl. There’s a number of psychological affects that show this.

  8. How can you figure out how many drivers headphones have?

  9. Dwight Gresham

    I was looking at ear buds today and came to the conclusion that I needed more information. I knew that I knew nothing and now I an armed with information. All I can say is thank you. Your information is greatly appreciated.

  10. 1. “The higher the hertz, the more treble. Usually, the khz (kilohertz) don’t matter, because the specs are thrown so far out of proportion that there really isn’t an argument. A human ear can only hear up to roughly 20khz, and even that number is enough to make someone deaf.”
    A. How can you say that Khz don’t matter? If hearing range is 20-20k and the human voice lies exactly in the middle of that range at approx. 1Khz, how can you state that Khz don’t matter? If you ignore 1Khz to 2o Khz you not only say that the human voice or in music the vocal track/singer does not matter but you in essence took away 1/2 of the human frequency range of the ear!!!!! I can say for sure that this not only matters but matters more than 1Khz down to 20Hz. If you were to say that 1Khz down didn’t matter you would still be wrong, but for the average listener it would be less of a loss to have no bass but still be able to hear the mid to high frequencies where important things like the human voice, guitar, piano, snare drum, cymbals, keyboards, wind instruments such as sax, horns, trumpets and even harmonica, those are just a few of the things you would not hear if we considered those frequencies above 1Khz to be irrelevant, and thus cut them out.
    B. “A human ear can only hear up to roughly 20khz, and even that number is enough to make someone deaf.” —The frequency determines the tonality of the sound (if a sound is low or high frequency 20Hz-20Khz, bass or treble), and the amplitude (volume or power) determines the amount of electrical energy it takes to convert that power into sound. Therefore frequency cannot make someone deaf, because if you do not add volume to the frequency you choose you cannot hear bass or treble if the volume is silent.

    2. “In order to eliminate hiss, we need impendence. Impendence is measured in ohms, and my personal rule of thumb is: the higher the ohms, the lower the phones. In other words, a high impendence means a much clearer set of earbuds. You want to buy a pair of headphones with the highest impendence you can afford so that all you hear is music.”
    A. The higher the ohms which measures resistance, means that if you send 100 watts of power from your amplifier to a speaker that has an ohm level (level of resistance will reduce the amount of power left to get out of the speaker) of 32 ohms (again, a higher number means that it resists more and less power is left to provide sound), so if you send that same 100w from your amp to a 16 ohm speaker the resistance of that power of a 100w is less so there is more power left over to create sound. You never want to choose he highest impedance you can afford because this will give you less and less power or volume and therefore less clarity in the reproduction of the original sound source (in this example your amplifier, or more so in a real world example today, an iPod which has a small amplifier built in to send sound out to your earbuds.

    3. “Sensitivity is measured in decibels and sound pressure levels (dbSPL). Let’s not make this complicated. The lowest audible sound is at 0db.”—In review of the two most important principles of audio, frequency range 20Hz-20khz determines the lowest (bassiest) tone and the highest tone (treble) the ear can hear. Volume (measured in decibels) determines the amount of power/energy/or electricity needed to send to any given frequency to produce or reproduce sound. Also, the lowest audible sound is not 0db, that can easily be proven by opening the equalizer built into iTunes and seeing that the volume fader/knob goes down from 0db to -12db. If the ear could not hear anything below 0db itunes would never bother to have anything below 0db and the fader/knob would only go from 0db to +12db.

    4. “In hindsight, the $300 Beats headphones by Dr. Dre have a 40mm driver set within them.”—Although Dre’s beats reproduce bass well, they do not reproduce it accurately. By intentional design Dre’s headphones accentuate the low bass frequencies as that is the most important part of Rap/Hip-Hop instrumentation. The ideal earbud would be one that neither accentuates nor reduces the actual signal/sound/frequency you originally provide. For example if you turn on your EQ in itunes and increase the volume at 60hz (where the kick drum lies) +1db Dre’s headphones would probably output more than that such as +2db or +3db. How much a product enhances or reduces any given frequency is an intentional decision made by the manufacturer, in this case, Monster (the same company that makes high quality speaker cables) partnered with the head of Sony Records, Jimmy Lovine, and Dr. Dre as they had worked together for many years during Dre’s solo career. Per them their intention was to bring to the consumer public what they hear in the studio. The problem with this is that not only are they working with millions of dollars of analog and digital gear, that sound is being recorded, stored and listened back to at at least 4 times the bit rate and sample rate of audio put out on CD to the public (CD is 16 bit, 44.1Khz sample rate). In addition to hearing the complete spectrum from 20hz-20khz they are listening through subwoofers that are 5 feet tall, with 18″ woofers that are permanently built into the studio walls, thus acting as an even bigger “speaker cabinet”. So you have the head of Sony records and one of the biggest stars in music “trying to maintain the integrity of their art, commerce, and careers” by not only bouncing the quality down to 1/4 of what it actually is in the studio, just get CD quality to the public. Unfortunately Sony did everything wrong historically to protect their own investments and drive the consumer market based on the pro market. Sony and Phillips both had technology to replace the cassette tape as early as 1897 with a new digital format called the DAT tape or Digital Audio Tape. This was the first medium that allowed digital storage, even though it was still recorded to, mixed, and played back on analog technology. Sony and Phillips could have come to an agreement on tech specs that would hit the consumer market, however they fought each other in court and with other countries overseas. They spent so long fighting to try to be the market power, as they knew the financial impact/profitablity it would on have once it hit the outside world, that they never released it to the public. The sad part of this was that the DAT was not only digital, but it could record at CD quality 16bit 44.1Khz sample rate, 24 bit, and 32 all three, with variable adjustment. We could have gone from cassette tape to 16 bit, 48, 44.1 or 32kHz sampling rate back in 1987. This would have been far superior to cassettes and the medium we are still stuck with today. So Sony, one of the biggest companies in the business to this day, not only gave us an inferior medium to what the DAT could already do in ’87, but had created CD technology as far back as 1974! Please explain why Sony would not go to the CD first many years earlier, then to DAT, and then super audio CD (similar to HD Blu Ray). Did they intentionally keep the cassette technology to cash in on you having to re-buy your favorite cassettes every few years due to the fact that tape has to drag over a tape head for playback, not only demagnetizing the cassette itself thus introducing an increase in the noise floor level, along with hissing, crackling, buzzing and all of the other things we do not like about old analog technology. So in addition to Sny not bringing the most current technology to their own market, a huge customer base with few major label players, they also did not move into the digital age and allowed people/companies like Napster (a teenage kid at the time) to put digital music on the web for sharing and sale. Two things Sony was so deadset against that they sued and attempted to shut down not only Napster, but similar sites. The problem with this was once Napster introduced the world to digital file sharing and distribution/sales, the face of industry had already changed. Sony at the minimum at that point could have spent the money necessary to protect the industry they created and dominated, their own artists, their advertising and distribution partners, let alone brought a far superior technology to their consumers. They did not do that at all. They tried to hold back the world and eventually with pretty much no other choice partnered with Aplle iTunes to bring terrible quality mp3s. Even if the files were sold to iTunes at CD quality, those files were then compressed to a smaller sample rate, transfer rate, and file size. All so kids can fit 100,000 songs on their iPods. So Sony not only profited on multiple copies of cassettes, didn’t bring digital audio to the market when they could have around 1974 with the CD and 1987 with the DAT. To this day we still have nothing better than 16bit 44.1Khz CD, even though we had VCR players and Dolby Digital Surround Sound in 1985 bringing the theater experience into the home. Although we have Blu Ray DVD, 1080i LED backlit display Flatscreens up to 80″ a 1/4 thick on the wall, and 9.1 Dolby we are still stuck with CD and mp3. So in essence Sony a corporation that was founded in 1946, did not bring us from phonographs in 1857 to the 78 rpm LP in 1925 to the CD in 1974 to DAT in 1987 to Super Audio CD in 1999 allowing what would essentially have been “Blu Ray” CD, another technology Sony failed to the public efficiently. It would have allowed 64 times the audio sampling rate of that of the CD, seriously 64 times that of CD??? Yet 15 years later we are listening to mp3s? Could we as a society do any more to drop the ball on audio? We have allowed Sony, a 19 year old kid named Napster, Itunes, and the 15 year old iPod customer base to dictate audio industry standards for far too long and people like Dr. Dre, Jimmy Lovine at Sony, and Monster Cable Company are not helping matters much. We could have been pushing the envelope forward from Super Audio CD for the last 15 years, and if we would’ve imagine the rates we could sample today if we were already capable of 64 times that of CD 15 years ago?

    p.s. I was also in the U.S. Military in 1989 using cells phones in the field. How because the Army had cell phone technology as early as the 1960s at minimum, how? Because the first mobile cell phone call from a car had already taken place in June of 1946!

    Unbelievable.

    To say the least.

    If you do not believe any of this information, simply go to Wikipedia and verify for yourself, if you do you will have read this information twice and will know enough to become a foot soldier in this Audio War we are in.

    Although I have been following audio for the last 35 years, have worked as an audiology tech testing hearing and installing hearing aids, but also paid 12K to go to Audio Engineering School in L.A. to work with big name clients. Thankfully even though I have learned a lot in my time it seems there is always something new to learn that keeps the flame inside of me burning for more and more Audio.

    Keep your Horns in the air, your Heart on your sleeves, and a Halo above your heads!

    Till next time, Mike.

  11. Thank you for the long and thought out response. Me and my readers really appreciate it.

  12. this was just what i was looking for! thanks a ton!!!!!!!!! :)

  13. Wow, a tonne of thanks. Will help many like me who’re looking to have a better qauntitative vs qualitative sense.

  14. Thank you… Just what I was looking for

  15. So basically what your saying is if I want to spend a hundred bucks on a pair of earbuds that I can’t find any good ones in that price range

  16. Thank you so much.

  17. Just thought I’d correct the author of this article by saying the correct term is “impedance”, there is no such thing as “impendence”

  18. Thank You for the correction

  19. Thank You,thank you to both the reviewer and Mikes 8/05 review. Though Mike seems a bit scorned with his rant on Sony and Philips screwing with the advancement of the audio industry, which I believe every word he wrote! Unfortunately not the place for it!! The review article was easy to understand and just enough tech jargon for us non-tech persons looking to buy earbuds. CHEERS!

    Regards,
    Kurt Coyle
    San Diego,CA. USA

  20. if you pay more than $5 for earbuds..you are retarded…unless you are a PROFESSIONAL…PS YOU ARE NOT A PROFESSIONAL MUSIC LISTENER STUPID.
    If you pay over $40 for headphones(driver/over the head cans)you are retarded.
    Don’t listen to these know-it-all in here as they are more retarded than you.

    your EQ does all the work if you have a brain

  21. thank you so much for the info. I live in a city where driving is last on the list we use public transport and therefore i alwasy’s us earphones. Also working out want to really hv sound in my ears not falling out…ect.

    Thank you

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