An Introduction to Premium Headphones

Sennheiser HD820 over-ear, closed-back headphones

The current headphone market is more crowded than ever, with a vast array of options, features, designs and finishes. This is great news for music fans as there is quite literally something for every consumer, across a wide range of prices. Today, however, we’d like to shine a spotlight on ‘premium’ or ‘high-end’ headphones, highlighting some of the key features that make them stand apart from the crowd and why they might be a great option for you if you’re serious about sound.

Firstly, it’s helpful to touch briefly upon a few of the common types of headphones you’re likely to encounter in your quest for sonic greatness. It also bears mentioning that these are merely guidelines, and at the end of the day what you think sounds best is all that truly matters.

With headphones that sit around your ears (over-ear) or on them (on-ear), there are two types of basic design – closed-back and open back.

As the name suggests, closed-back headphones have solid earcups, with sound unable to escape from the backs. This design is great for keeping the music ‘inside’ your head and not disturbing others. They’re also a lot more effective in blocking outside noise, making them the default choice for Noise Cancelling headphones. In terms of sound quality, closed-back headphones use the internally reflected sound to generate a punchier bass. The downside is that they often don’t sound as spacious as open-back designs.

Open-back headphones do away with the familiar ‘shell’ of the closed-back design, covering the space with a grille instead. By doing this, air is able to pass through the headphones, resulting in a sound that’s broader and more spacious: they literally sound more ‘open’. The only downside to this is that they are more susceptible to ‘leaking’ sound, which means others around you will hear whatever you’re listening to. They also let more outside noise in. For this reason, open-back headphones are best used for home listening and not on the move. While this might make them seem a bit specific, the clarity and depth that open-back headphones offer can be stunning for dedicated listening sessions.

The Audeze LCD-X are a great example of both open-back and planar magnet design

Whether open or closed-back, a highlight of a sizeable number of premium headphones is planar magnetic driver units. Without getting overly technical, most modern headphones use a ‘dynamic driver’ design, where a recognisable cone-shaped driver is moved by a powered magnet behind the driver. In a planar magnet design, the driver is flat, and pushed and pulled by magnets on either side. The major sonic difference is in the bass – planar magnets tend to have less ‘punch’ at the bottom end but can often be heard to give a more accurate bass performance and a more linear balance throughout the frequency range.

Premium wireless headphones often distinguish themselves by using a higher quality, lossless connection. The buzz word of the moment is ‘Snapdragon’, which is Qualcomm’s latest, AI-based sound processor. Lossless audio means that you hear far more detail, making it the perfect partner for premium headphone designs and Hi-Res music. Other wireless enhancing technologies to be on the lookout for include aptX HD, aptX Adaptive and LDAC, all of which transform the sound of your music.

So far, we’ve talked about over-ear and on-ear models. While these designs are what most people associate with hi-fi listening, there are many manufacturers making premium in-ear models, designed to be equally impressive for at home listening as they are on-the-go. The vast majority of these are closed-back, making them especially suitable for travel.

An exciting new technology to feature in an increasing number of in-ear headphones is sound personalisation. Once again, this makes the best use of AI technology to first measure and then adapt to your individual hearing. With audio that’s truly unique to you, you get to hear the headphone’s optimal sound, each and every time you listen.

Campfire Audio Atlas in-ear headphones

There are so many benefits that come with buying premium headphones, and chief among these is a massive step-up in sound quality. By using premium materials, cutting-edge production methods and custom-designed components, manufacturers are able to produce headphones that allow you to hear your cherished music in an entirely new way. Vinyl comes alive in the warm and vibrantly rich detail that the format is famous for, revealing secrets that you’ve never heard before. If you’re listening to your digital music in Hi-Res formats, premium headphones are the perfect pairing to get that crisp and clear sound you’re after too.

Another key benefit is build quality. A higher price tag allows the manufacturers to lavish more time on the details and materials. This results in an impeccable fit and finish, with luxurious and unique designs that you’ll want to display proudly.

Focal Celestee over-ear, closed-back headphones

So, after all of this, you might be asking “why?”. Why bother with a high-end set of headphones when a cheap and cheerful set will do the job well enough. Chances are, if you’ve made it this far in this article, you care enough about sound in a way that “well enough” doesn’t always cut it, and therein lies the reason; If you love music, if you love the way that putting on your favourite records make you feel, the way it can transform your day in an instant, then you likely care greatly about how that music sounds.

Maybe you’re after an upgrade to get the most out of your Hi-Res music streaming subscription, transforming the commute into the office from a chore into more of a pleasure, allowing you to focus on how great your favourite tunes sound all three-dimensional in high resolution. Perhaps you already have a stellar hi-fi and want to have an extension of that same phenomenal sound for periods of dedicated personal listening, getting totally lost in the music.

Mark Levinson No.5909 closed-back headphones

While they may be more expensive than some of their more basic counterparts, premium high-end headphones are an investment – much like your music collection – that can provide years of enjoyment, fun and excitement, something that long outlasts the initial number on the price tag.

See our full range of headphones here. If you would like to try some headphones out before you buy, get in touch with your local Richer Sounds store who will be happy to help.