6 Types of Headphone Drivers Explained

diagram of triple driver earbudsHeadphone drivers are a crucial component when it comes to producing sound through an audio device. The driver will be the primary factor when it comes to sound quality in a headphone. There are different types of drivers available, each with their unique construction and material, which means that each class will have different performance qualities.

Types of Headphone Drivers

We will be taking a look at the different types of headphone drivers as well as determining the advantages and disadvantages of each variation. At the moment, there are a total of six drivers present in the market. We will be discussing each driver below.

Balanced Armature Headphone Drivers

1MORE Triple Driver in-Ear Earphones Hi-Res Headphones with High Resolution, Bass Driven Sound, MEMS Mic, in-Line Remote, High Fidelity for Smartphones/PC/Tablet - Silver
1MORE Triple Driver in-Ear (two balanced armatures and a separate dynamic driver) -Image: Amazon

Balanced armature drivers, or BA drivers for short, are one of the oldest types of headphone drivers in the market. It has made some strides in design as the first-gen versions were significantly larger than modern versions found today.

Nowadays, the BA driver is considered to be the most compact driver available to manufacturers. Its small size makes it an excellent driver for most IEMs (In-ear monitors).

The small size of the BA drivers also allows manufacturers to install up to four drivers within a headphone. For customized headphones, this number can reach up to 15 armatures depending on user preference. Strength in number is entirely accurate when talking about the BA driver, and that is where they truly shine.

One downside of the BA driver is its difficulty in reproducing a quality bass response. Unlike other drivers, the BA driver does not displace air, which translates to better isolation from ambient noise at the expense of a weaker bass. The 1More Triple Driver features two balanced armatures and a separate dynamic driver. This made it to the top of our list for best earbuds under $100

Pros:

  • Sound reproduction by BA drivers is exceptionally detailed.
  • BA driver frequency can be tuned to suit the listener’s preference.
  • It has an excellent performance in reproducing treble frequency.

Cons:

  • BA drivers, on its own, will not be able to provide a satisfying bass response.
  • Users who prefer bass-heavy music will be disappointed with the BA driver’s performance.
  • BA driver headphones are slightly more expensive than dynamic driver headphones.

Dynamic Headphone Drivers

Shure SE215-CL Sound Isolating Earphones with Single Dynamic MicroDriver
Shure SE215-CL with Single Dynamic MicroDriver (Image: Amazon)

If you ever pass by a headphone at a store, it most likely uses the dynamic driver. This driver has become the most commonly used type in the market and is the most affordable as well.

The dynamic driver stays true to its name as it is quite versatile. Dynamic drivers can come in a more compact size for IEMs and larger variations designed for home stereo systems.

The dynamic driver differs from BA drivers in that it displaces air when it reproduces sound. This allows dynamic drivers to produce a better bass response in the process. The higher bass quality makes the dynamic driver an excellent choice for those who enjoy heart-thumping beats. The Shure SE215-CL is a popular sound-isolating earbud that uses a  Single Dynamic MicroDriver.

Pros:

  • Dynamic driver headphones are quite affordable and an excellent choice for casual music lovers.
  • This driver type can reproduce excellent levels of bass response without the need for above-average power output.

Cons:

  • Dynamic drivers are susceptible to distortion issues when you hit high volume levels due to the metallic components used.

Planar Magnetic Drivers

HIFIMAN HE-400I Over Ear Full-Size Planar Magnetic Headphones Adjustable Headphone with Comfortable Earpads Open-Back Design Easy Cable Swapping
HIFIMAN HE-400I Planar Magnetic Headphones (Image: Amazon)

The planar magnetic drive also goes by the name of isodynamic drivers. This type of driver consists of two major parts: the diaphragm circuit and the magnet. Planar magnetic drivers are unique and can offer far better sound reproduction than the dynamic driver. Think of the planar magnetic driver as a souped-up version of the dynamic driver.

Similar to the dynamic drivers, the PM driver also incorporates the use of magnetic fields when it comes to producing sound. Where it differs is with its diaphragm design which has a coil that goes around the diaphragm rather than being attached to it. The PM driver also features multiple magnets that sandwich the driver’s diaphragm.

Once the electric current is applied, the coil, magnets, and diaphragm generate an electromagnetic force that vibrates the diaphragm which will then produce sound, hence, the “planar” name. The planar magnetic driver is also considerably more lightweight than the dynamic driver.

Due to its unique construction, the PM driver’s ability to reproduce sound will fall on its construction quality. The stronger/better quality the magnet, coil, and current, the better the sound it reproduces. High-end 

Pros:

  • PM driver headphones can deliver top-notch bass response, similar to that of the dynamic driver.
  • This type of driver is excellent with its low-distortion capability and impressive sound quality production even at higher volume levels.

Cons:

  • PM driver headphones are usually bulkier and heavier than other driver types.
  • PM drivers will require a headphone amp to fully experience its max potential.

Electrostatic Drivers

Massdrop x Koss ESP/95X Electrostatic Headphone System with Electrostatic Energizer (Amplifier)
Massdrop Koss ESP/95X Electrostatic Headphone with Electrostatic Energizer (Amplifier) – Image: Amazon

If you are not familiar with electrostatic drivers, this type of driver is quite rare as it can headphones that incorporate this type of driver can be tremendously expensive. The high price can be attributed to its use of a specially designed amplification known as energizers.

This particular technology might be expensive, but it also means that electrostatic driver headphones produce the best quality sound. As the name implies, electrostatic drivers utilize static electricity to reproduce music.

The diaphragm is once again sandwiched, but this time it is in-between two electrodes. Once electrical sound passes through the electrode, it will generate an electrical field that will cause the diaphragm to vibrate back and forth between the two electrodes to produce sound.

The fact that electrostatic drivers altogether drop the use of any metallic part means it can produce sound without any distortion issues. This makes electrostatic headphones highly sought after by audiophiles that prefer only the best quality audio.

Pros:

  • Electrostatic driver headphones are known for their exceptional soundstage quality.
  • Headphones that use electrostatic drivers are pretty much immune to distortions.

Cons:

  • Electrostatic driver headphones are large and quite bulky.
  • Headphones that have this type of driver are costly.

Bone Conduction Drivers

AfterShokz Titanium Open Ear Wireless Bone Conduction Headphones, Slate Grey, AS600SG
AfterShokz Bone Conduction Headphones (Image: Amazon)

A relatively new type of driver that is becoming quite popular in the headphone industry, the bone conduction driver takes a widely different approach with how it reproduces sound. Rather than reproducing sound through traditional means, BC drivers use vibrations directed towards your bones (specifically the temporal and jawbones) to produce sound.

BC driver headphones also have a completely different design as it needs to be pressed against your face to make proper contact with your bones. It needs to be placed about an inch in front of your ears to send the sound vibrations into your inner ear accurately.

BC drivers are excellent for preventing sound leakage as it does not reproduce sound in the traditional sense. If you are familiar with the Codec from the Metal Gear games, this is pretty much that. It stimulates the eardrums through vibrations, which then will be translated into music/sound by your brain.

This type of driver technology can also be seen as an excellent alternative for people who have hearing problems. It is also a suitable driver type for those who need to still be aware of their surroundings while listening to music or having a conversation. Click here to see our list of Best Bone Conduction Headphones.

Pros:

  • A perfect solution for people with hearing problems.
  • BC driver headphones completely mitigate sound leakage problems.

Cons:

  • This type of driver has limited sound fidelity.

Hybrid Drivers

The hybrid driver is a combination of a BA (balanced armature) driver and a dynamic driver. Headphones that use hybrid drivers will have more than a couple of drivers installed which equates to a better quality sound being reproduced.

As you can expect, combining BA drivers with dynamic drivers results in having the best of both worlds. You will get the highly detailed sound of BA drivers while also achieving an excellent level of bass response that dynamic drivers are known to deliver.

Pros:

  • Hybrid headphones are well-rounded in all aspects.
  • This type of headphone is generally quite affordable.

Cons:

  • This driver can be considered a “Jack-of-all-Trades yet a master of none”.

Driver Type Comparisons

When it comes to overall sound quality, the electrostatic diver beats the rest by a wide margin. However, due to its high price tag, it is not something a casual music lover will be able to afford. The second place, in terms of sound quality, is the planar magnetic driver headphones with its balanced sound and larger soundstage. That being said, planar magnetic headphones are also known for their bulkier appearance.

The dynamic headphone is the most common and cheapest of the bunch. It can reproduce the best bass response. It is an excellent choice for use with smartphones and other portable media devices but is susceptible to sound distortion at max volume due to its use of metal components.

The balanced armature is an excellent neutral driver with splendid noise isolation. But this comes at the cost of subpar bass response. A good, well-rounded choice will be the hybrid driver headphone. It reproduces great vibrancy, robust bass response, and a reasonable price tag.

Multiple Drivers vs. Dual Driver vs. Single Driver

A common debate thread you will find in most headphone forums is with the use of single and various drivers. Which one is better? Which one produces the best quality sound? That is a big question as determining if multiple drivers are better than a single driver headphone cannot be answered based on the number of drivers used.

A single driver can produce sound between 20Hz to 20kHz, which is exceptionally loud if you prefer the highest volume level. As you would expect, having only a single driver doing all the work will have its shortcomings. A single driver producing a wide variety of frequency ranges can take its toll and might push some frequencies behind, giving sound reproduction an uneven result.

Having multiple drivers working together collectively will distribute sound reproduction evenly. This allows for a well-balanced response as each driver can focus on a specific range rather than stretching themselves too thin.

We also have dual drivers which we can consider as the middle ground in this category. It can match up to the sound production of single drivers while having the distortion reduction capability of a multiple driver headphone. Dual drivers are also known to offer higher efficiency and precision in producing high-end to the low-end frequency range.

What you need to keep in mind is that the number of drivers does not always equate to its overall quality. A poorly designed and constructed multiple driver headphone will not be able to hold a candle to a top-notch single driver.

Understanding the difference between a single, dual, and multiple driver headphones is crucial to make an informed decision on which one best suit your preferred listening experience.

What Does Driver Size in Headphones Mean?

Driver size is just one aspect that affects the overall performance of a headphone. Size does not matter that much unless you want a headphone that can produce a bigger sound. That being said, having multiple can provide the same range of frequency at, sometimes, a more compact package.

The construction and technology in developing the driver will have a far more significant impact compared to its size. The tuning and enclosure will also play a substantial part in the overall performance of the driver. The material used in the construction will also be a key factor here.

A driver, no matter, the size will deliver exceptional sound reproduction if it uses high-grade and flexible material that will be able to withstand high-power levels. If the driver incorporates subpar material into its design, it does not matter what the size of the driver is; it will experience significant levels of distortion whenever the volume is raised near or at the max level.

Overall, the size of the driver does matter, but not as much as you would expect. What you need to look for is the complete picture that the headphone is painting: size, material, construction, frequency response, and tuning.

All of these will determine the quality of sound the headphone will be able to deliver. Just remember the adage, “it is not the size of the boat, but the motion of the ocean” when it comes to a discussion about the size of the headphone driver.

Conclusion

Sennheiser HD 660 S - HiRes Audiophile Open Back Headphone
Sennheiser HD 660 S (Image: Amazon)

As you can see, there is a headphone designed for everybody. One that we highly recommend is the Sennheiser HD 660 S which uses a dynamic driver and can reproduce impeccable sound quality at a reasonable price tag.

For casual everyday use, a dynamic headphone is an excellent choice. For audiophile purists, the electrostatic driver headphone comes with an offer they can’t refuse. For those who are looking for something that offers the right balance between price and performance, you can check the rest of the headphone drivers listed above.  

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