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Headphone impedance is rarely discussed but it has a big effect on sound quality.
Are low or high impedance headphones better?
Here’s everything you need to know about headphone impedance.
The overwhelming majority of people looking to buy new headphones aren’t going to focus on output impedance at all.
And all of them are making a huge mistake without even realizing it!
Truth be told, the impact that impedance has on headphones is astronomical.
It really is a make-or-break kind of feature that determines the performance of the headphones in a bunch of different ways which we’ll cover in just a moment. Just know that if the impedance of your headphones isn’t properly matched with the right equipment, things are going to sound very wrong indeed!
Luckily though, with the help of the information in this detailed breakdown you’re going to learn everything there is to know about impedance in headphones, and how to choose the right pair for you.
We will uncover the impact that impedance has, why some headphones have higher impedance than others, the difference between source and power load impedance. We’ll also answer lots of your common questions around headphone impedance.
By the time you’re done with this comprehensive guide, you’ll know EXACTLY what it takes to land the perfect set of headphones for you.
Let’s jump right in!
Headphone Impedance 101
What Is Headphone Impedance?
To put it simply, because headphones are an electronic device and use electricity as a power source they are (naturally) going to have some resistance to the electrical current running through them. Impedance is strongly linked to resistance, but factors in a few other things as well.
It doesn’t take impedance levels to be “out of whack” very much for your expensive, fancy, studio-quality headphones to sound worse than a pair of earbuds you pick up at the airport for $15.
Thankfully though, it really doesn’t take much to understand impedance and the impact that it has on your audio equipment – especially your headphones.
All electric devices have a natural resistance just by the nature of the construction materials used, particularly when it comes to wiring.
Making things a little tricky, though, is that you’ll never know how well your headphones are dialed in as far as impedance goes until you plug them into an active sound source.
Most of the time you’ll find the audio goes very soft on an otherwise great pair of headphones that sound fantastic when hooked up to different sound sources.
Sometimes, though, the end result is really inconsistent and wild – sounds that fluctuate from whisper quiet to overwhelmingly loud and then back again – though these problems usually happen when power levels fluctuate from a source, too.
The Beyerdynamic Dt770 Pros are notorious for confusing the uninitiated with their array of ohm options. They come in 32 ohms, 80 ohms and 250 ohms.
What Kind of Impact Will Impedance Have on Sound Quality?
Interestingly enough, though, lower impedance headphones aren’t going to sound good at all if you connect them to high-quality audio receivers or studio-grade sound equipment.
These kinds of audio output sources have a lot of electrical juice running through them and at least some of that electricity is going to be transferred over… pumping anywhere north of 100 ohms up to 600 ohms or more. This could (quite literally) blow the doors off of low impedance headphones.
Just as high impedance headphones would sound terrible connected to a smartphone with low power output, low impedance headphones would sound just as bad when connected to higher power output options.
The trick here is to really hit that sweet spot somewhere in between, especially if you’re looking for a new pair of headphones that you’re going to use with a variety of different audio outputs.
But we’ll dig deeper into that in just a moment.
For now, it’s important to know that there’s definitely going to be a huge impact on sound quality depending on the kind of impedance you are dealing with.
It’s not unusual for impedance mismatches to cause audio soundstages to be dramatically enhanced on some sources and not others, for the bass response to be all over the place, and for the mids to be washed out and almost impossible to hear.
Why Do Some Headphones Run Low Impedance and Others Run High?
One of the biggest reasons that popular headphone options today are designed with low impedance in mind is because of how common it is for people to listen to music off of their phones or mobile devices.
The days of firing up your favorite music on a legit home sound system and jacking in with studio-quality headphones to listen to the entire album in one sitting have pretty much disappeared forever.
People today are listening to music, podcasts, audiobooks, and everything else on the go with their phones. It’s more accessible, it’s more widely available, and it’s a whole lot more convenient than lugging around even an iPod! Because the market is demanding headphones that work well with low impedance in mind that’s what the headphone manufacturers are pumping out.
These lower impedance level options have better sound quality when paired with these devices to be sure – but serious audiophile fans are starting to feel a little left out in the cold for sure.
The overwhelming majority of high impedance headphone options today are high-end…with a price tag to match!
Making things tougher for people to pull the trigger on that kind of purchase is the impedance mismatch you’ll have using higher impedance headphones with smartphones that just don’t have the “juice” to make your headphones come alive.
Source and Power Load Impedance Details
Before we get any deeper in the weeds, though, it’s important to understand that the actual amount of impedance your headphones are going to be dealing with will always be dictated by the audio source you are plugged into.
If you are rocking and rolling with Air Pods (or any other wireless headphones, for that matter), ohm output impedance isn’t going to matter much at all.
Serious audiophiles, though, won’t be caught dead wearing wireless headphones unless absolutely necessary.
These are the people that want to hear every note, feel every vibration, and really soak in the music in the best detail possible. These people are probably already very aware of impedance and how it affects their listening experience.
It’s also important to remember, however, that any amplifiers that are connected along the way are likely going to increase the amount of power pushed through to your headphones, too.
Sure, your headphones might be plugged into a relatively low powered audio source. But if that same source is connected to an amplifier or a receiver with a lot of extra juice behind it, then your necessary impedance balance needs to match that perfectly.
As a general rule of thumb, traditional headphone jack impedances are pegged pretty much between 0.1 ohms and 24 ohms. That ohm rating can bump up to 120 or above in a hurry when you’re using headphones that have dedicated amplifiers.
Then, throw electrostatic headphones into the mix and things get really crazy (though that’s a little bit beyond the scope of this quick guide).
Just remember that when you are looking to purchase a new pair of headphones, you need to think about the source that you’re going to be connecting to most often. It’s also important to consider any amplifiers that are connected to the source, too.
As long as you keep these things in mind, you’ll be good to go.
Is There a Sweet Spot of Ohms My Headphones Should Hit?
If you are wondering whether or not there is a “sweet spot” as far as impedance or ohms, the answer is yes (most of the time) – but not always.
On the one hand, if you’re going to be listening to music more casually on a regular basis (usually on a smartphone, tablet, or computer) you can get away with headphones rated for between 8 and 32 ohms.
Those kinds of low impedance headphones are going to work wonders on “underpowered” audio devices, helping you to hear the music clearly in a way that is tough to do without higher impedance options.
Stick to headphones rated at 32 ohms or lower and you’ll be able to listen to music on pretty much any mobile device from here on out without any issue.
On the other hand, if you’re going to be listening to music through serious audio equipment, you’re going to need higher impedance headphones that can stand up to that kind of power without flinching. If you’re a serious producer or just have a killer sound system, then this might be you!
Depending on your equipment, though, you may be able to get away with headphone options that don’t require less current to operate effectively but still aren’t considered “power-hungry”.
If your gear really pushes a lot of power, though – and your sound sources are connected to headphone amplifier setups, for example – then you’re going to want something that can keep pace.
This is where those heavy-duty headphones (including electrostatic headphones) come into play. These are headphones that can handle up to 600 ohms without skipping a beat.
As we have highlighted a couple of times already, though, the most important thing you can do is to really focus on source impedance information, baseline headphone impedance information, and pulling off effective impedance matching.
If there’s really only one thing that you take away from this detailed guide hopefully it’s this – nothing is more important than impedance matching. So it’s not so much the impedance of your headphones or amp individually that matters, it’s whether or not they are compatible. So if you’re not keeping this in mind, you can forget about headphone amp details, headphone sensitivity details, whether your headphones use planar magnetic technology or not, etc.
Once you get your audio source and headphones in perfect harmony, you will finally realize just how things are supposed to sound.
What Else To Look For Before Buying Headphones
There are a couple of other things you want to look for aside from impedance levels before you splash out on a new pair of headphones.
Let’s dig a little deeper into these other features right now.
Frequency responsiveness looks like a big piece of the puzzle when it comes time to buy a new pair of headphones – but it really isn’t.
This specification (generally) lets you know what kind of frequency range your headphones are capable of reproducing accurately.
The thing is, most headphones will cover the exact same range of 20 Hz to 20 kHz. This is simply because this is the range of frequencies we can hear with the human ear. Most of the time, the manufacturer will just slap this on to make things seem more technical but it’s really just a guess.
If you’re buying high-end headphones, you’ll find the manufacturers actually do the research here and publish this information on their website or on the box the headphones come in. Because their customers are highly discerning and want to inspect every detail and feature before purchasing, it makes sense for these manufacturers to be prepared here.
If you are going to be purchasing higher impedance headphones it’s important that you find a pair that offers a lot of sound efficiency, too.
The efficiency rating of your headphones basically lets you know how good it is at not wasting power.
The reason this is so important with high impedance headphones is that you need something with a high-efficiency rating to guarantee that you don’t lose a lot of volume. If you have high impedance headphones with poor efficiency, they will require much more volume and there’s a chance your device won’t be able to handle it.
Really great headphones, regardless of impedance, have sky-high isolation capabilities. These are the types of headphones you want to look for as a general rule.
Headphone manufacturers have come a long way in the last few years when it comes to sound isolation.
Today it’s possible to get your hands on headphones that can isolate almost all ambient noise, eliminating a lot of “sound creep” completely and giving listeners a purer experience at the same time.
Don’t confuse isolation capabilities with noise-canceling technology, though. The two are pretty different even if they have similar goals in providing you with a cleaner audio experience at the end of the day.
Open style headphones have absolutely zero isolation capabilities. Closed headphones give you a little bit of isolation, with in-ear or earbud-style headphones providing the most isolation of the bunch.
A higher level of isolation also insulates sound within the headphones themselves, helping to prevent sound leakage that could irritate people around you.
100% wireless or wireless/wired hybrid headphones are super popular these days, and it’s not hard to understand why.
They’re super convenient, very comfortable, and feature technology that has grown by leaps and bounds in just the last 15 years. It’s almost impossible to go through a normal day and not bump into someone that has wireless headphones plugged into their ears.
Where older wireless headphones took advantage of infrared technology to transmit sound (and had terrible sound quality because of it), today’s next-generation wireless headphones almost always use RF or Bluetooth to handle the heavy lifting on sound transmission.
RF (Radio Frequency) wireless headphones almost exclusively broadcast across the 900 MHz band which is all right for casual listening most of the time. However, this frequency bandwidth is notorious for dropping signals and degrading sound quality over long distances.
Bluetooth (especially the latest version of Bluetooth) is a lot more secure, a lot more consistent, and capable of better data transmissions overall.
At the same time, as convenient and as impressive wireless technology with Bluetooth is right now it still can’t hold a candle to the audio quality you get out of wired headphones.
If you’re going to go for a wireless option it’s not a bad idea to get your hands on a hybrid setup that can use a standard headphone jack. This is not only useful for the built-in redundancy should the battery on your headset die, but also lets you enjoy higher-quality audio whenever you plug-in, too.
Noise Cancellation Tech
Noise cancellation technology is another cool little feature you might want your new headphones to include.
Noise cancellation technology uses microphones built into the headphones that “listens” for ambient noises, using onboard technology to insert out of phase audio signals in the background that cancels those noises out.
At higher frequencies, though, noise cancellation technology becomes a bit more aggressive and works to actively isolate your ears from ambient noises in a way that can have mixed results.
Unsurprisingly, some headphone manufacturers do noise cancellation better than others. You’ll want to do a bit of research and diligence in this department if you’re going to go down that road.