Everything You Need to Know About Headphone Drivers

No doubt about it, headphones are awesome. But if you’re searching for high-quality headphones, you may feel like you’re looking for a needle in a haystack. There are too many designs available on the market. Looking at the specifications may not make things any easier. In this post, we are shedding more light on the Bluetooth headphone driver unit —the component responsible for creating sound—and discussing how features such as the Bluetooth headphone driver size affect performance.

Let’s get rolling.

Jump to a section:

What is a Headphone Driver Unit?

How Does a Headphone Audio Driver Impact the Sound? Does the Size and Number of Drivers Matter?

6 Types of Headphone Drivers

Which Headphone Driver is Best Suited for You?

Choose the Best Headphone Drivers

What is a Headphone Driver Unit?

The driver is the most important feature in headphones because it converts electrical signals into sound. To put it simply, the driver creates the sound you hear. You can think of headphone driver units as tiny loudspeakers in your ear. A driver is usually made up of three components that work together to create sound.

The magnet: This is responsible for creating a magnetic field. The sound quality can be enhanced by the performance of the magnet in the magnetic circuit. Bluetooth headphone driver magnets are usually made of cobalt or ferrite but sometimes rare materials are used to make stronger magnets.

Voice coils: Every time an electric current passes through the voice coils, they move the diaphragm to generate the sound you hear. Voice coils perform the important role of converting electrical signals into sound. They are usually made from different materials, not just regular copper wire, for better sound quality. The materials include HI-OFC (a type of oxygen-free copper) and PCOCC (Pure Copper By Ohno Continuous Casting).

The diaphragm: This usually vibrates to produce sound waves. A diaphragm is a transducer whose work is to convert mechanical vibrations into sounds. It is usually made of a thin membrane (or a sheet of different materials) and is suspended at its edges. When a diaphragm is vibrated by electricity, it beats against the air and creates sound waves.

A headphone audio driver is usually shaped like a disc. Moreover, a headphone driver size differs depending on the required sound output and the make.

How Does a Headphone Audio Driver Impact the Sound? Does the Size and Number of Drivers Matter?

Wireless technology has come incredibly far

Generally, a larger Bluetooth headphone driver unit produces better bass. However, you shouldn’t take this to mean that headphones with large drivers emit better sound than those with small drivers. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When it comes to the sound quality of headphones, there are a myriad of factors that come into play. Headphone driver size does alter things, but not how you might expect!

A headphone driver unit has a diameter between 20mm and 50mm. The size dictates the loudness of the headphone. But many people have a misconception that headphone drivers of a bigger size automatically produce better sound quality. This is not the case.

While a bigger headphone driver unit has a bigger diaphragm, this only means that the bass may be a little bit better. However, headphones with large drivers usually have difficulty reproducing high frequencies.

Yes, larger drivers are capable of generating louder sound, but this does not mean that they deliver better sound. The most important features are the driver unit’s quality and the variation of the materials inside.

Think about this for a minute.

Many reputable companies manufacture tiny earbuds with very small headphone driver size. However, these earbuds produce incredible sound that’s just as good as that produced by headphones with larger drivers.

Some headphones usually have more than one audio driver to control the various ranges of frequencies. While a single driver can emit sound ranging between 20Hz and 20kHz, it has its limitations. This is the reason why multiple drivers may be used. If more than one driver is used, the range of frequencies is segregated through filtering and each driver concentrates on a particular range.

But just like the headphone driver size has no impact on the sound quality, multiple drivers don’t make a headphone great automatically. For instance, if a headphone with four drivers is poorly-built, it won’t hold its own against a well-built, single-driver headphone.

So, what should you look at, if not the driver size?

There are three important things to look at: the headphone driver unit enclosure, its tuning, and the ear padding. Look for drivers that have been made with high-quality, flexible material that does not break at high power levels.

Most of the popular headphones these days feature quality driver material. Cheaper materials cannot withstand high power and easily distort or break. In addition, the type of padding used and the enclosure of the cup have a greater impact on the sound quality than the size of the driver.

6 Types of Headphone Drivers

Dynamic Headphone Driver Unit showing headphone driver size

1.    Dynamic Drivers (Moving Coil Drivers)

These are the most common type of Bluetooth headphone driver on the market and are available at relatively low prices. They create sound by using the physics of electromagnetism and magnetism to create movement.

Every dynamic driver has three important components: a voice coil, a diaphragm attached to the voice coil and a neodymium magnet.

This is how the driver works.

The neodymium magnet magnetizes the voice coil, turning it into an electromagnet. The voice coil creates a magnetic field once it receives current, and the magnetic field travels in directions that are determined by the flow of the current.

The magnetic field causes the voice coil to rapidly move backwards and forwards. As a result, the diaphragm attached to the voice coil moves and displaces the air around it, producing sound. A high volume is usually caused by a large air displacement.

A dynamic driver is very good at creating a bass response because of its great ability to displace air. And because it has a simple mechanism, it is very effective and does not require a lot of power to attain high volume.

However, a dynamic driver has one major downside: at high volume, it can distort audio (non-linear distortion). But good engineering can rectify this negative feature. In fact, some of the high-end headphones on the market use dynamic drivers.

2.    Planar Magnetic Drivers

You’ll find planar magnetic drivers in most open-back over-ear headphones. They are normally installed in high-end headphones and are extremely thin.

How do they work?

Just like dynamic drivers, they utilize magnetic fields to produce sound. But instead of triggering the voice coil like dynamic drivers, the magnetic field directly activates the diaphragm to generate sound.

Larger or more magnets may be used, because the entire diaphragm must be evenly vibrated. But this makes the headphones heavy and not portable. Extra power may also be needed from the audio source or you may have to buy an external amplifier.

Headphones with planar magnetic drivers have a higher price tag, but the sound the drivers offer is of a higher quality. It has a good transient response with almost no distortion. The bass response is excellent because the diaphragm is large and thin and the electromagnetic force is strong, hence a large amount of air is displaced.

3.    Electrostatic Drivers

Electrostatic drivers make the most of static electricity. They are found in rare, open-back headphones that utilize static electricity to produce an electric field. The electric field creates vibrations which cause the diaphragm to push and pull against the conductive plates (electrodes) it is located between. This movement causes air to be pushed through the perforations. This action and the constantly changing electric signal create sound waves that the ear understands.

Electrostatic headphone drivers are quite complicated and need special amplifiers (energizers). They are not common and are more expensive than other headphone drivers. They limit the portability of headphones. However, when it comes to sound quality, they surpass expectations. The drivers can produce better sound than all other drivers, which is why headphones that have them are more expensive.

4.    Balanced Armature Drivers

Because these drivers are small—much smaller than dynamic drivers—they are only used in in-ear monitors. They are also more expensive than dynamic drivers. A balanced armature driver comprises a miniature arm in a coil of wire encircled by two magnets: one at the top and one at the bottom. These magnets dictate the movement of the miniature arm (the armature).

The armature sits on a pivot and revolves around the two magnets. When there is no net force on it—when it is centered between the two magnets—we say the armature is balanced.

When electric current flows through the coil, it causes the armature to pivot towards either magnet. This movement moves the diaphragm, and as a result, sound is produced.

However, because balanced armature drivers do not displace air to generate sound, there’s a lack of bass response. For this reason, many in-ear monitors have multiple balanced armature drivers and one dynamic driver.

5.    Magnetostriction or Bone Conduction Drivers

While bone conduction technology is relatively new, it is quickly gaining ground. Bone conduction drivers do not work like other headphone drivers—which pass sound through your ears. They let you enjoy your music by vibrating on your face’s bones—the temporal bones and the jaw bones.

There are two types of bone conduction drivers: mechanical and magnetostriction. Both work the same way: they have to be pressed against the bones in your face (approximately 1 inch in front of your ears) in order to pass sound to your inner ear using vibrations.

Bone conduction drivers bypass the eardrum and send vibrations directly to the inner ear. When the vibrations enter the cochlea, you hear the sound. In a nutshell, they do the work done by your eardrums.

This type of headphone audio driver is very helpful to individuals with hearing loss caused by a damaged eardrum. Joggers who need to be aware of their surroundings also find bone conduction headphones helpful. However, this headphone audio driver has one big shortcoming: it just doesn’t sound as good as other drivers!

6.    Hybrid Drivers

A hybrid driver is a combination of a dynamic driver and a balanced armature driver. Some hybrid headphones have multiple dynamic drivers and balanced armature drivers. The balanced armatures reproduce mid, high mid, and high frequencies effectively while the dynamic drivers reproduce low mid and low frequencies effectively.

Headphone manufacturers use hybrid drivers to produce headphones for specific audio frequencies. The use of two or more drivers ensures every sound frequency is well represented. The sound is vibrant, detailed, and has the warmth and bass many audiophiles seek. However, you’ll rarely find these drivers in wireless headphones.

Which Headphone Driver is Best Suited for You?

Dynamic Drivers Planar Magnetic Headphones Electrostatic Drivers Balanced Armature Drivers   Bone Conduction Drivers Hybrid Drivers
These are the most common drivers, and also the lowest priced. Just like dynamic drivers, they produce sound using magnetic fields. Usually found in top-notch open-back headphones and more expensive than dynamic drivers. These are smaller than dynamic drivers and are only used in in-ear monitors. These allow you to hear external sounds as you listen to music and can be used underwater. If you want advanced Bluetooth headphone drivers, it’s hybrid drivers.
They are highly functional and do not require a lot of power to attain a high volume. They offer excellent sound quality with little distortion. However, you need an amplifier to power them. They are suitable for purist audiophiles as they offer phenomenal sound quality. They don’t create sound by displacing air, so additional drivers are needed for a better bass response. They use bone conduction technology to bypass the eardrum and send vibrations straight to the inner ear. They combine dynamic drivers and balanced armature drivers for better sound quality.
Many high-quality headphones, like TaoTronics headphones, feature dynamic drivers. They contain large or multiple magnets, making headphones heavy. They are bulky, not portable, and require an amplifier for additional power. They can be tuned for optimal sound quality in specific frequencies, but the range is limited. They do not offer high-quality reproduction of sound as other drivers. They are mostly used in wired headphones, usually over-ear headphones.

Bonus Tip: How to Clean a Headphone Driver Unit?

  1. Hold your headphones firmly. The mesh side should face downwards.
  2. Take a soft, dry toothbrush and gently brush the metal mesh to remove any dirt.
  3. Tap the side without the mesh (the logo side) to remove any debris that is stuck.
  4. Attach a little Blu-Tack to a bent paper clip and use it to remove the remaining fragments.
  5. Dampen a tiny cloth with hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol (do not douse it) and wipe the mesh and the wires.

Choose the Best Headphone Drivers

Wired vs. Wireless Audio and bluetooth headphone driver

Over the last few years, headphones have become increasingly popular. There are numerous types of Bluetooth headphone driver available, and you can easily get confused deciding which one to get. Since drivers determine the sound quality, it’s what you should look at. But remember, headphone driver size isn’t everything! Get a pair of headphones with high-quality drivers and truly enjoy listening to music.

Check out TaoTronics range of incredible headphones today!

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Rebecca Lee has a penchant for writing about all things audio-related for TaoTronics. Her editorial endeavors include testing out the latest headphones to write in-depth product reviews that benefit our readers.

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