One of the vital components of headphones is a driver — the unit responsible for the sound reproduction in a headphone.

Sound does vary based on the type of headphone driver, with certain drivers delivering the best sound. Since each headphone driver makes use of different materials & techniques for sound reproduction, each has its pros and cons.

Shopping around for the best and most affordable headphones to buy, is not easy as you need to take many things into cognizance. And when you add the different types of headphone drivers to the mix, it only gets more confusing. Fortunately, this guide explains various driver technologies and what to expect from each.

There are 6 headphone drivers currently on the market:

 planar magnetic, dynamic moving-coil, electrostatic, balanced armature, electromagnetic (bone conducting), and hybrid drivers. Let’s learn more!

What’s a Driver?

A driver, as the name suggests, is a small speaker unit, which drives the sound down the ear canal. It’s an electromagnetic (EM) device translating electrical signals into audible sound.

You’ll find its presence crucial for any headphones to work. As the different sizes of headphones and in-ear monitors show, drivers, which are also called transducers, also have various sizes, just like they’ve different technologies and capabilities.

What Are the Headphone Driver Types?

As said earlier, we’ve 6 types of headphone drivers:

  • Planar Magnetic
  • Dynamic Moving-Coil
  • Electrostatic
  • Balanced Armature
  • Magnetostriction (Bone Conducting) and
  • Hybrid Drivers

Planar Magnetic Drivers

Audeze iSINE10 in-Ear Semi-Open Headphone with Analog 3.5mm Cable, Black
  • MAXIMUM CLARITY: Hear every beat with maximum clarity. These headphones are built using our proprietary technology, delivering vivid sound, deep bass and balanced treble.
  • GREAT AUDIO EVERYWHERE: The lightweight, modern industrial design of the iSINE10 is exceptionally durable, delivering great sound wherever you go.
  • SUPERIOR RESOLUTION: Our innovative planar magnetic drivers use NASA material to provide lower distortion, better bass response, and a wider soundstage than any other in-ear headphone.
  • DISTINCTIVE STYLE: Designed by our partners at BMW Designworks, the iSINE10s make a "stand out in the crowd" statement
  • The Audeze factory warranty only applies to our products purchased via an authorized dealer, and Bustoff (this seller) is NOT an authorized dealer/

Headphones with planar magnetic drivers have a unique look. The ear cup underbelly comes in a rectangular (instead of elliptical) shape.

Design and Features

  • More expensive than dynamic drivers
  • Feature more accurate sound reproduction
  • Less harmonic distortion
  • Usually need external power
  • Headphones with planar magnetic drivers are often heavier than those that have dynamic drivers

While planar magnetic drivers are often featured in open-back, over-ear headphones, there’s a rise in-ears with them as well. In a way, they work similarly to dynamic moving-coil drivers as they also make use of magnetic fields.

Instead of utilizing a coil, planar magnetic drivers comprise a large, flat, membrane with an embedded wire pattern. Also, instead of using a coil, the membrane’s moved directly by magnets, which it lies between.

Planar magnetic headphone models are typically pricier, heavier, and need more power to be driven. This is due to the larger diaphragm and magnets found in the models. Thus, they usually require an amplifier and are designed for use at the computer.

Distortion is mitigated because there’s even distribution of vibrations across the whole membrane. Through the reproduction of a more neutral frequency response, every sound aspect will be more accurately reproduced.

Also, by producing what’s known as a “planar wavefront” (which is a flat sound source), the sound that reaches the ears is less likely to bounce off or echo from your head strangely. This ensures that it’s easier to maintain the illusion you’re really listening to something going on around you in real life.

Pros

  • Wide frequency response
  • Very accurate & transparent
  • Somehow humidity-resistant
  • Feature Passive working principle

Cons

  • Costly
  • Typically need a headphone amplifier

Examples of Headphones with Planar Magnetic Drivers

  • Audeze iSINE10
  • Monolith M1060
  • HIFIMAN HE1000 V2

Dynamic Moving-Coil Drivers

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Apple AirPods with Charging Case (Wired)
  • Automatically on, automatically connected
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  • Double-tap to play or skip forward
  • New Apple H1 headphone chip delivers faster wireless connection to your devices

Dynamic drivers are normally found in consumer-oriented headphones, and that’s because they’re a cheap option.

Design and Features

  • Compact and lightweight design
  • Most affordable among all the types of drivers
  • Usually don’t need external power to function
  • Can create harmonic distortion

A magnet, which is usually neodymium, is affixed to the housing interior, creating a static magnetic field that interacts with the voice coil. This is then forced to oscillate towards & away from the resulting magnetic field. And this brings about vibrations and consequently sound waves.

As regards sound quality, this kind of headphone drivers adeptly reproduces low-end frequencies, but this creates undesirable harmonic distortion at louder volumes. Producing loud, low-frequency responses is tasking for dynamic drivers as their coil moment can be limited, which results in inaccurate sound reproduction.

Apart from this, if the drivers are too small, they can occasionally create strange distortions when they bounce sound off the ear at weird angles. While dynamic drivers are the worst-performing drivers we’re looking at in this post, they aren’t bad. However, if you’re willing to spend, there are better options on the market.

On the bright side, dynamic drivers are easier for powering compared with other types. Owing to this, there are lots of affordable headphone models on the market, which don’t need a DAC or an amp for optimal playback.

Variations in the sound quality of dynamic drivers are due to different materials used as well as the housing architecture.

Pros

  • Rugged design
  • Relatively cheap to produce
  • Come with a passive working principle
  • Somehow humidity-resistant
  • Different form factors & sizes (headphones & earphones)
  • Typically don’t need headphone amplifiers

Cons

  • Poorer high-end response
  • Due to resonant frequencies, they need significant damping & tuning
  • Less accuracy in transient response as a result of diaphragm mass & inertia
  • Spherical wavefront and distortion as a result of non-linear movement

Examples of Headphones with Dynamic Moving-Coil Drivers

  • Beyerdynamic DT 990
  • Sennheiser HD 280 Pro
  • Apple AirPods

Electrostatic Drivers

Shure KSE1500 Electrostatic Earphone System, Earbuds Matched to DAC with EQ Control - Electrostatic Technology is the Most Precise Transient Response Available
  • The first application of electrostatic technology for Sound Isolating Earphones (patent pending) featuring a single MicroDriver design
  • Extremely high correlation to the source audio provides unmatched audio clarity and detail. Frequency Response 10 Hz to 50 kHz
  • 4-band parametric EQ features five preset settings and four customizable settings to manage audio playback preferences
  • Integrated USB-rechargeable battery can conveniently charge from provided wall charger or computer, even when streaming USB audio from computer
  • Lightweight, ergonomic earphone shape minimizes ear fatigue while comfortable Sound Isolating sleeves block up to 37 dB of ambient noise

This is also one of the 6 types of headphone drivers you should know.

Design and Features

  • Costly
  • There are no moving parts mitigating against almost any perceptible distortion
  • Need specialized amplifier
  • Bulky and heavy headphones
  • Respond to subtle changes in audio to deliver accurate sound

Electrostatic headphones are not only rare but also costly, and they make use of static electricity for creating an electric field. This electric field draws and repels the thin diaphragm to and from 2 metal plates sandwiching it. Each of the plates is perforated to force airflow.

This movement, along with the constantly changing electric signal that moves the diaphragm, produces sound.

Headphones with electrostatic drivers are pricier compared with the standard dynamic driver, and they need a specialized amplifier, which only pushes up the overall cost.

Due to the absence of moving metal components, these drivers can create a virtually distortion-free sound. The accuracy is much sought after, but it isn’t realistic to create on a grand scale for consumers generally.

Owing to their sheer expense and the fact that they need customized amplifiers to even work, it’s mainly enthusiasts that seek electrostatic driver headphones.

Pros

  • Wide frequency response
  • Great transient response & excellent clarity

Cons

  • Pricey
  • Need dedicated headphone amplifiers
  • Portability is poor

Examples of Headphones with Electrostatic Driver

Balanced Armature Drivers

These drivers are much smaller compared with the other types as their modern domain is restricted to in-ear headphones.

Design and Features

  • Great treble response
  • Smaller & more efficient compared with dynamic drivers
  • Can delegate a range of frequencies to each armature (for multiple armature in-ear monitors)
  • Pricier compared dynamic moving-coil drivers

In balanced armature (BA) drivers, a magnetic armature sits on a pivot & rotates between 2 magnets. No net force is on the armature when it’s centered within the magnetic field. So, the armature is specifically balanced at this point.

The magnetization drives the armature to rotate from the pivot when an electric current is sent through the coil, wrapped around the armature, and this motion makes the diaphragm move & produce sound waves.

While it needs a small force for the armature to stay in that balanced position, the process is still a moderately efficient one. To ensure optimal reproduction, a proper seal is vital and certain headphone models, such as the 1More Triple-Driver in-Ear, make use of multiple armature drivers.

By doing this, they can delegate a certain range of frequencies to each armature. Typically, bass notes will be handled by an individual driver, while the rest will be handled by 1 – 3 other drivers.

As these often put the best performance with treble range frequencies or the ones less than 20 hertz, this expertise in balanced armature earbuds aids enhanced low-end reproduction.

Pros

  • Great transient response
  • Miniature size
  • Feature Passive working principle
  • Don’t need dedicated amplifiers

Cons

  • Fragility
  • Feature narrow frequency response
  • Balanced armature earphones often need multiple BA drivers

Examples of Headphone with Balanced Armature Drivers

  • 1MORE Quad Driver
  • FiiO FA7
  • Westone UM Pro 30

Magnetostriction (Bone Conducting) Drivers

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AfterShokz Titanium Bone Conduction Wireless Bluetooth Headphones, Ocean Blue
  • Open-Ear Design - Patented bone conduction technology delivers audio through the cheekbone, keeping you connected and aware of your surroundings.
  • Secure & Comfortable - An open-ear design enables bud-free listening and a partial titanium frame keeps the headphones in place through any activity.
  • Multifunction Button - Easy controls to play, pause, skip, activate voice assistant, and answer calls.
  • Sweatproof - IP55 certified to repel sweat, dust, and moisture. Perfect for withstanding even the rainiest runs.
  • 6-Hour Battery Life - 6 hours of continuous music and calls on a single charge.

These headphones are the odd-balls when it comes to the headphone driver types. Unlike the other types of drivers, magnetostriction drivers don’t contain a diaphragm producing sound waves for the ears to hear.

Instead, they create vibrations, which get transmitted to the bones in the heads and work to stimulate the inner ears, instead of the outer ears.

Design and Features

  • Feature passive working principle
  • Portable and lightweight design
  • Don’t operate on EM or electrostatic principles, but on piezoelectric principles

Magnetostriction headphones neither work on EM nor electrostatic principles. Instead, they operate on piezoelectric principles.

Basically, the bone conduction driver’s audio is transmitted to a piezoelectric crystal, instead of the audio signal being sent to a diaphragm or a conductive coil.

This piezoelectric crystal is positioned between 2 metal plates, connected to the audio source, and both plates become part of the audio circuit.

Since the alternating current (AC) of the audio signal passes through the plates, it’s applied to the piezoelectric crystal, which shrinks & expands accordingly.

As the structure of this crystal expands and contracts, it converts the electrical energy from the audio signals into mechanical energy, which comes in the form of vibrations as well as sound waves.

If the piezoelectric crystal establishes contact with a solid (such as over the listener’s jaw/cheekbones), then it will be observed that the vibrations will extend into the solid. In bone conduction headphones, this implies that the bones of the skull vibrate along, depending on the audio signal, and the vibrations will get into the inner ear as they bypass the ear canal totally, and make the inner ear send electrical impulses to your brain, representing the audio signal.

Pros

  • Don’t cause much airborne noise
  • Feature passive working principle
  • Portable and lightweight design

Cons

  • Relatively poor audio quality
  • Not isolating

Examples of Headphones with Magnetostriction (Bone Conducting) Drivers

  • Aftershokz Titanium

Hybrid Drivers

1MORE Active Noise Cancelling Wireless Earbuds,Dual Driver ANC PRO Bluetooth Wireless Earphones,WNR, 20H Playtime,IPX5 Waterproof,4 Mics for Phone Call Work,Home Office
  • TWO LEVELS OF ACTIVE NOISE CANCELLATION: Hybrid ANC technology with 4 active noise cancelling microphones achieves precise and comprehensive noise reduction up to 35dB. Block out the distractions and become the master of your environment.
  • WIND NOISE RESISTANCE MODE: Our meticulously crafted earbuds feature Wind Noise Resistance (WNR) mode which suppresses the microphonics caused by wind efficiently for an immersive listening experience.
  • HI-RES CERTIFIED SOUND: This hybrid dual driver design with a balanced armature delivers stunning detail and clarity. Hi-Res certified sound compatible with LDAC and AAC restores every note to its original brilliance.
  • 10-MINUTE CHARGE FOR 3-HOUR USE: These earbuds are ready for 20 hours of playtime with ANC off and 15 hours with ANC on. With fast charge functionality, enjoy an additional 3 hours of use on only 10 minutes of charge time.
  • IPX5 WATER/SWEAT RESISTANT: With an IPX5 rating, these earbuds can survive even the toughest of outdoor conditions giving you the confidence to take these with you anywhere.

A hybrid driver is also one of the 6 types of headphone drivers you should know. As the name implies, they pair a dynamic and balanced armature together.

Design and Features

Hybrid drivers will incorporate 2 or more drivers for producing a well-received sound signature. By using 2 or more drivers, every sound frequency can be well-represented, which delivers a vibrant & detailed sound that offers the warmth and bass, which a lot of users are looking for.

Examples of Headphones with Hybrid Drivers

  • Sony XBAH1 Hybrid 2-Way Driver In-Ear Headphones
  • 1MORE Dual Driver ANC Pro Wireless Headphones
  • 1MORE Dual Driver BT ANC In-Ear Headphones
  • 1MORE Quad Driver In-Ear Headphones

Which of the Headphone Driver Type Is the Best?

Just as you do for all things, in the case of the types of headphone drivers, you also need to carry out a cost-benefit analysis. Of course, you can blindly assert electrostatic drivers are best, but that’d amount to sheer oversimplification.

Assuming the majority of us have some budget constraints and don’t require the most accurate frequency response, the best choice would be dynamic drivers as they’re cost-effective and also versatile.

Whether you require an audio device that’s very affordable & functional or luxurious & analytical, your best bet is dynamic drivers.

In a Nutshell

A driver’s a small speaker unit driving the sound down the ear canal. Drivers are an EM device translating electrical signals into audible sound.

They’re among the vital components of headphones since they represent the unit responsible for the sound reproduction in a headphone. Sound does vary depending on the headphone driver type, with certain drivers offering optimal sound quality.

We’ve 6 types of headphone drivers currently on the market:  planar magnetic, dynamic moving-coil, electrostatic, balanced armature, magnetostriction (bone conducting), and hybrid drivers.

In the sections above, we’re outlined the features, design, pros, and cons of these drivers. We also listed some good examples of headphones, which each driver type power.

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