Headphones are incredibly common in this day and age. In 2019, the global earphones and headphones market was worth $25.1 billion, with a projected annual growth rate of 20.3% from 2020 to 2027. Many people listen to music largely or entirely with headphones, but can headphones provide the same hi-fi experience as a good pair of speakers?
Headphones and speakers offer different listening experiences. Hi-fi headphones come in various forms (closed-back vs. open-back), are generally cheaper, and allow for a more personalized listening experience. Speakers are better for imaging and sharing sounds with others in the room.
This article will explain the differences between headphones and speakers. We’ll talk about how both headphones and speakers produce sound. We’ll also provide some pointers on how you can get the hi-fi headphone experience that best suits your needs and preferences.
Types of Hi-Fi Headphones
Both speakers and headphones come in different shapes and sizes. Choosing the right hi-fi headphone can become confusing. Here are a few of the differences you should consider.
Closed-Back or Open Back?
- Closed-back headphones are the most common style of headphones. The sealed earcup backs ensure that no air or sound escapes, but they also do a better job of keeping sound out. Studio musicians generally use closed-back headphones while recording because they allow them to hear the sound without disturbing their bandmates.
- Open-back headphones have vents or mesh on the back of their cups, giving them a more open and spacious sound. Mixing and mastering engineers prefer open-back headphones because their sound more closely resembles the audio from speakers. But that open back means that others can hear your music too.
On-Ear, Over-Ear, or In-Ear?
- On-ear headphones rest on top of your ears. They’re smaller and lighter than over-ear headphones and less likely to make you sweat. But they’re not as good at keeping sound in or out. They may not be the best choice if you listen in a noisy environment or in offices or libraries where you might disturb nearby people.
- Over-ear headphones cover your ears entirely. They’re heavier and bulkier than other headphone models, and their snug fit can become tiring with prolonged usage. But while their padding might sometimes get uncomfortably warm, it also keeps in sound. Padding provides superior sound for you and means nearby people aren’t troubled by your music choices.
- In-ear headphones, as their name suggests, go in your ear. They’re the lightest and smallest of headphones and are more convenient for workouts, shopping, or commutes. In-ear headphones are not generally associated with superior sound quality, but recent advances are challenging that stereotype.
Hi-Fi Headphones & Headphone Drivers
Both speakers and headphones make their music with drivers. A driver takes the electronic signal produced by your listening device and transforms it into sound. Headphones have smaller drivers than speakers, but the basic principles and techniques they use are identical.
Conventional Headphone Drivers
Conventional headphone drivers use a cone-shaped diaphragm constructed from various materials. At the small end of the cone, we find a voice coil of tightly wrapped insulated wire and a magnet. When current flows through the voice coil, it produces a magnetic field, which causes the diaphragm to move back and forth, creating sound waves.
Most speakers use conventional drivers. They use a cabinet to produce higher volume, similar to how the body of a violin or guitar amplifies the sound of vibrating strings. Headphones use ear cup-sized cabinets — it’d be hard to work with speakers strapped to your ears! But since they don’t have to fill a room, headphones can be smaller.
Planar Magnetic Drivers
Planar magnetic drivers use thin metal film with conductors attached or etched into the diaphragm. This film is suspended between two magnets. When current passes through the field, the magnetic field changes, making the film vibrate. Planar magnetic headphones are more expensive to produce but offer less distortion than conventional drivers.
Magnepan speaker designers have used planar magnetic technology for decades. Magnepan speakers have received many reviews praising their accurate, airy sound.
Electrostatic drivers use an electrical field to move a thin, statically charged membrane. With a step-transformer to provide the needed voltage, electrostatic drivers produce very accurate sound. The Stax SR-Lambda Professional, a well-regarded electrostatic headphone, was rated at 0.007% total harmonic distortion (THD). Most loudspeakers have a THD well above 1%.
The Quad ESL 57, one of the first legendary hi-fi speakers, used electrostatic technology. ESL 57s and later Quad models remain highly sought after by audiophiles.
Electrostatic headphones require additional amplification. But every headphone will benefit from a headphone amplifier. More power to your headphones means a clearer signal at any volume. The headphone jacks on your phone or computer offer little power and are prone to distortion and interference caused by nearby electronic activity.
Portable Headphone Amp/DAC
A portable headphone amp/DAC takes the digital signal from your phone and converts it using its own digital/analog converter (DAC). The converters used in phones are generally inferior to those in dedicated DACs. A dedicated DAC will give your headphones a stronger and cleaner signal, something hi-fi headphones deserve.
Desktop Headphone Amplifier
A desktop headphone amplifier can improve your home listening experience too! Some of the best hi-fi headphones require more power than a typical audio out jack can provide. A desktop amplifier will handle their challenging current needs and give you the dynamic and lifelike performance hi-fi headphone users want and expect.
Advantages of Hi-Fi Headphones
There are a few things headphones do better than speakers.
Hi-Fi Headphones Are Cheaper
The most expensive headphone on the market, the Sennheiser HE-1 (formerly known as the Orpheus), will set you back $59,000. That may not seem cheap, but by speaker standards, it’s a bargain. Wilson WAMM Master Chronosonic costs $685,000 a pair. And the HE-1 comes with its amplifier, while Wilson expects you to buy your equipment!
Stereophile’s 2020 Loudspeaker of the Year, the Magico M2, costs $56,000. The 2020 Headphone of the Year award was a tie between the $3,200 RAAL-Requisite SR1a and Focal Stellia Headphones that costs nearly the same. But you can get legendary headphones like the Sennheiser HD600 Professional Headphones for a fraction of the cost.
Hi-Fi Headphones Are Smaller
The Wilson Chronsonics are over 7 feet (2.13 m) tall and weigh over 900 pounds (408.23 kg) each. You probably can’t fit them into your living space, and you certainly can’t carry them to work in your handbag. Hi-fi headphones let you listen to music in a wide variety of places.
Because headphones send the sound directly to your ears, you don’t have to worry about your room getting in the way of your music. Room modes can blur your music, suck out your bass, and emphasize or suppress frequencies. None of these problems apply to headphone-listening.
Advantages of Speakers
There are also a few places where speakers take the lead over headphones.
You Can’t Share the Music
Sometimes you want to listen to music alone. Sometimes you want to make sure your neighbors or cubicle mates don’t hear your playlist. But once in a while, you want to impress your friends with your hi-fi system.
Headphones won’t let you shake the walls playing hip-hop at a party. You can’t have quiet conversations with friends over jazz in your living room using headphones. Even the best hi-fi headphones are intended for one pair of ears.
The best speakers have a stunning reputation for their imaging. Not only does the band sound like they’re in the room, but you can also envision the guitar player in front of the drummer and the choir singing from the balcony.
With headphones, the sound is more two-dimensional. You hear music coming from the left and right but have less sense of depth. Open-back headphones come closer to a speaker’s soundstage, but the best imaging will still come from speakers.
Hi-fi headphones and hi-fi speakers share many technologies. There are times when you want to hear music on speakers and times when headphones are more appropriate. With a bit of research, you can get the best possible sound on both your headphones and your speakers.