Headphones Glossary (2023)

If you’re an audiophile or just passionate about headphones, it’s essential to understand the terminology used in this world.

This glossary will help you navigate the jargon and make better-informed decisions when shopping for headphones.

Let’s dive into the ultimate headphones glossary.

Headphones Glossary

Active Noise Cancelling (ANC)

Active Noise Cancelling technology works by using built-in microphones to capture external noise. The headphones then generate an inverse sound wave to eliminate unwanted noise.

ANC is particularly effective at reducing low-frequency, steady noise, such as airplane engines or traffic. However, it may be less effective against sudden, high-frequency sounds like conversations or sirens.

ANC headphones are popular among commuters and travelers due to their noise-reduction capabilities.

Ambient Sound Mode

Ambient Sound Mode is a feature that allows users to hear external sounds without removing their headphones.

This is achieved using built-in microphones to pick up ambient noises and feed them through the headphones’ speakers, effectively blending the external sounds with the audio playback.

This feature is particularly useful for maintaining situational awareness, such as while jogging or walking in busy areas, where hearing potential hazards or approaching vehicles is essential.

Balanced Armature (BA)

Balanced Armature drivers are a type of driver technology primarily used in high-quality in-ear monitors (IEMs). BA drivers comprise a tiny armature suspended within a magnetic field, with a diaphragm attached.

When an electrical current is applied, the armature moves, causing the diaphragm to produce sound. BA drivers are known for their precision and ability to reproduce intricate audio details.

Due to their small size, multiple BA drivers can be used in a single IEM to cover a wider frequency range, making them popular among audiophiles and musicians.

Closed-Back Headphones

Closed-back headphones feature a sealed design on the back of their ear cups, preventing sound from escaping or entering. This design results in better passive noise isolation.

This makes them ideal for use in noisy environments or when you don’t want to disturb others around you.

Closed-back headphones tend to have more bass and a clearer, focused sound. But they can sometimes be less open-sounding than open-back headphones.


Circumaural, or over-ear headphones, have large ear cups that fully encircle the ears. This design provides better passive noise isolation and comfort by reducing ear pressure.

Audiophiles often prefer over-ear headphones for their sound quality and are commonly used in professional audio settings, such as recording studios.

However, they can be bulkier and less portable than on-ear or in-ear headphones.

Decibel (dB)

A decibel is a unit of measurement for sound intensity. In the context of headphones, decibels indicate the maximum volume a pair can produce without distortion.

Higher dB values typically mean that headphones can produce louder sound levels. However, prolonged exposure to high decibel levels can cause hearing damage. It is essential to listen at safe volume levels to protect your hearing.


A driver is a primary component within headphones that converts an electrical signal into sound waves. Drivers can be made using various technologies, including:

  • Dynamic
  • Planar magnetic
  • Electrostatic

Each driver type has unique characteristics that can impact sound quality, frequency response, and overall listening experience.

Dynamic Driver

Dynamic drivers are the most common type of driver used in headphones. They consist of a moving coil attached to a diaphragm suspended within a magnetic field.

When an electrical current is applied, the coil moves, causing the diaphragm to produce sound. Dynamic drivers are versatile and can produce a wide range of sound profiles, from bass-heavy to balanced.

They are generally more affordable and can be found in various consumer headphones.


Earbuds are compact headphones that sit just outside the ear canal without sealing it. This design allows minimal noise isolation, as external sounds can easily enter the ear.

Earbuds are often included as a free accessory with smartphones and portable devices due to their low cost and compact size.

However, they generally offer lower sound quality and less comfort compared to in-ear monitors or over-ear headphones.


Earpads are the cushioning material found on the ear cups of over-ear and on-ear headphones. They provide comfort and contribute to passive noise isolation by creating a seal around the ears.

Earpads can be made from various materials, including:

  • Foam
  • Memory foam
  • Leather
  • Synthetic leather
  • Fabric

Each material offers different levels of comfort, durability, and noise isolation.

Some high-end headphones even feature replaceable earpads, allowing users to customize their listening experience.

Electrostatic Driver

Electrostatic drivers are a type of driver technology used in high-end headphones. They use an ultra-thin diaphragm between two stators, which generate a static electric field when an audio signal is applied.

The diaphragm moves in response to the electric field, producing sound waves. Electrostatic drivers are known for their precise and natural sound reproduction, with minimal distortion and extended frequency response.

However, they are typically more expensive and require a specialized amplifier to function correctly.

Frequency Response

Frequency response refers to the range of frequencies a pair of headphones can reproduce, measured in Hertz (Hz). Human hearing typically ranges from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, and most headphones aim to cover this spectrum.

A wider frequency response can indicate a more accurate sound reproduction, but it’s essential to consider other factors like driver technology and tuning when assessing overall sound quality.

Some headphones may emphasize certain frequencies to create a specific sound signature, such as bass-heavy or treble-focused.


Impedance, measured in ohms (Ω), refers to the electrical resistance of a pair of headphones. Lower-impedance headphones (below 32 Ω) are easier to drive and require less power.

This makes them suitable for portable devices like smartphones and MP3 players. Higher-impedance headphones (above 100 Ω) often require more power to function optimally and may need a dedicated amplifier.

High-impedance headphones can offer better sound quality and lower distortion but may be less convenient for portable use.

In-Ear Monitors (IEMs)

In-Ear Monitors are earphones that fit snugly inside the ear canal, providing excellent noise isolation and sound quality.

IEMs use various driver technologies, including balanced armature, dynamic, or hybrid designs, to produce accurate sound reproduction.

They are popular among musicians and audio professionals due to their ability to isolate the listener from external noise.

It allows for critical listening even in noisy environments. IEMs often come with multiple ear tips to ensure a comfortable and secure fit.

Noise Isolation

Noise isolation refers to a headphone’s ability to block out external noise. This can be achieved passively through the design and materials used or actively through noise-cancelling technology.

In-ear monitors and over-ear headphones typically offer better passive noise isolation due to their seals around or inside the ear.

Noise isolation is essential for providing an immersive listening experience and preventing sound leakage, which can be disruptive to those around you.

Open-Back Headphones

Open-back headphones feature an open design on the back of the ear cups, allowing air to flow freely in and out. This design results in a more natural soundstage and improved audio quality but can cause sound leakage.

This makes them less suitable for public or noisy environments. Open-back headphones are used by audiophiles and professionals to make music sound better. They let you hear the music in a room as if it was coming from speakers.

Over-Ear Headphones

Over-ear or circumaural headphones have large ear cups that fully encircle the ears. This design is good at keeping noise out and making it comfortable and good-sounding. It puts pressure on your ears, making a seal that blocks noise.

Audiophiles often prefer over-ear headphones, commonly used in professional audio settings, such as recording studios. However, they can be bulkier and less portable than on-ear or in-ear headphones.

On-Ear Headphones

On-ear or supra-aural headphones have smaller ear cups that rest directly on the ears without fully enclosing them. This design provides less noise isolation but is generally more compact and portable than over-ear headphones.

On-ear headphones can be a good choice for casual listening or commuting, but they may be less comfortable for extended listening sessions due to the pressure applied to the ears.

Planar Magnetic Driver

Planar magnetic drivers are a type of driver technology that uses a thin, flat diaphragm with a conductive trace pattern and magnets to generate sound.

When an electrical current is applied to the diaphragm, it interacts with the magnetic field, causing it to move and produce sound waves.

Planar magnetic drivers are known for their accurate and detailed audio reproduction, low distortion, and excellent transient response.

They are often found in high-end headphones but can be more expensive and heavier than dynamic drivers.


Soundstage refers to audio’s perceived space and depth, creating the illusion of a live performance or a three-dimensional sound environment.

A wide soundstage can make distinguishing individual instruments and their placement within the mix easier, providing a more immersive and realistic listening experience.

Open-back headphones typically offer a wider soundstage than closed-back headphones due to their open design, allowing sound waves to interact with the environment.


Supra-aural is another term for on-ear headphones, where the ear cups rest directly on the ears without fully enclosing them.

This design results in less noise isolation but increased portability and is generally more compact than over-ear headphones.

On-ear headphones can be suitable for casual listening or commuting but may be less comfortable for extended use due to the pressure applied to the ears.

Total Harmonic Distortion (THD)

Total Harmonic Distortion measures the distortion introduced by headphones when reproducing sound. It is expressed as a percentage and represents the number of unwanted harmonics generated in the audio signal.

Lower THD values indicate a more accurate and clear audio reproduction with less distortion. High-quality headphones typically have very low THD values, ensuring a clean and precise listening experience.


A transducer is a general term for any device that converts one form of energy into another. In the context of headphones, the transducer converts electrical signals into sound waves.

Various transducer technologies exist, such as dynamic, planar magnetic, and electrostatic drivers, each with unique characteristics and impact on sound quality.

Wireless Headphones

Wireless headphones use Bluetooth or other wireless technologies to connect to audio sources, eliminating the need for a physical cable.

This offers increased convenience and freedom of movement, making them popular for sports and on-the-go use.

However, wireless headphones can sometimes suffer from lower sound quality and higher latency due to the compression and decompression of audio signals required for wireless transmission.

Wired Headphones

Wired headphones require a physical cable to connect to an audio source. They often provide better sound quality and lower latency than wireless alternatives. They do not use compression to send the audio data.

Wired headphones are popular among audiophiles and professionals for their audio fidelity and reliability. However, they may be less convenient for on-the-go use due to the need for a cable.

Bluetooth Codec

A Bluetooth codec is an algorithm that compresses and decompresses audio transmitted over a Bluetooth connection.

Common codecs include SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD, and LDAC, each offering varying audio quality and latency. Some codecs, like aptX and LDAC, are designed to provide higher sound quality and lower latency.

This makes them more suitable for high-quality audio streaming and real-time applications like gaming and video watching.


Latency refers to the delay between when an audio signal is transmitted and heard through headphones.

Lower latency is preferable, particularly for activities like gaming or watching videos, where audio synchronization with visuals is crucial.

Wired headphones typically have lower latency than wireless headphones due to the lack of audio compression and decompression required for wireless transmission.


Sensitivity, measured in decibels of Sound Pressure Level (dB SPL) per milliwatt (mW), refers to the loudness headphones can produce with a given amount of power.

Higher-sensitivity headphones are generally easier to drive and require less power, making them compatible with portable devices like smartphones and MP3 players.

However, excessively high sensitivity can sometimes result in distortion at high volume levels.

Amp (Amplifier)

An amplifier is a device used to boost the power of an audio signal, providing cleaner and louder sound. Some high-end headphones with high impedance require a dedicated amplifier for optimal performance.

Amplifiers can be standalone or integrated into other audio equipment, like DACs or audio interfaces.

An amplifier can improve sound quality and volume, particularly when paired with high-impedance or low-sensitivity headphones.

DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter)

A Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) is a device that converts a digital audio signal into an analog signal, which can then be sent to headphones or speakers.

High-quality DACs can improve sound quality by reducing jitter and other digital artifacts, particularly when paired with high-end headphones.

DACs can be standalone or integrated into other audio equipment, like amplifiers or audio interfaces.


Understanding the terminology in the headphones glossary is essential for both audiophiles and casual listeners.

With this knowledge, you can make informed decisions when purchasing headphones. This ensures you get the best sound quality, comfort, and features for your needs.

So whether you’re looking for noise-canceling headphones for your daily commute or high-end open-back headphones for critical listening, this glossary will be valuable.

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