The 7 Reasons Why Headphones Sound Better Than Speakers


If you want to know why most headphones sound better than most speakers, you’re at the right place. I created this article because I want to buy a new set of cans, and while I was researching the best headphones to purchase, I thought to myself, “why in most cases do headphones sound better than speakers?”

Most headphones sound better than most speakers because

Headphones:

  1. Don’t have room interference
  2. Have very low distortion
  3. Provide perfect L+R separation
  4. Require little air movement
  5. Have a single driver optimized for the entire audio spectrum
  6. Are much cheaper to create
  7. Even cheap headphones can produce very low frequencies

But does that mean that speakers are bad and should not be used?… Not exactly.

Okay, continuing with the specifics. We have a lot to cover!

The headphone experience

Headphones and speakers are like two separate worlds here is why:

A) Great headphones offer good dynamics and very good detail; it’s almost like you’re looking music under the microscope. You will be able to hear things you’ve never heard before.

B) Headphones also offer a pure microphone perspective, said differently, when you are listening to music through headphones, you hear it exactly how it was created. 

C) With headphones, you hear precisely how the microphone’s diaphragm captures sound (in the purest way possible). That sound that is being transmitted through the headphone’s diaphragm reaches your ears via your eardrums. There is no space or room interference because the distance between the headphones’ diaphragm and your ear is minimal. This is not the case with speakers but more on that later.

D) Also, If we want to talk money, headphones are much cheaper to produce compared to speakers. 

A good $250 headphone such as the AKG K702  will offer you outstanding quality; you will be able to hear all the lows, mids, and highs with great detail. But a $250 dollar speaker will likely produce much lower quality.

That said, there are a few excellent studio monitors (speaker) exceptions that lean towards the $300 range, such as the famous Yamaha HS5This monitor offers outstanding value for its price and can be compared to much more expensive models! 

Do you hate loosing money? Then check out this amazing article and you will learn all about the BEST headphone and speakers that you can buy WITHOUT overspending.

The Speaker Experience

Speakers compared to headphones offer a very different experience. I find speakers (or studio monitors) to be a very powerful listening tool. 

A) Big speakers can produce very high-volume. You can feel the sound waves traveling and hitting your body; you can also feel the bass in your chest.

This is a unique experience that you cant get with headphones. 

B) Another difference is that with speakers, you can hear both the left and right channels simultaneously; the sound blends together it bounces off the walls, floor, and ceiling, which adds a new dimension to our listening experience.

This Is How Your Room Affects the Sound of Your Speakers

An important distinction about speakers: To some extent, the sound of the speakers is determined by the room they are in.

You can take listen to the same pair of speakers in three different rooms, and you will likely get three different sounds.

This is because when you’re playing music through your speakers, you’re not only hearing the speakers, but you also hear the room. You are hearing the sound bouncing off the walls, the ceiling the floor, you hear all the reflections that are created within your room. 

How to Optimize Your Room for the Perfect Listening Experience

If you want to optimize your room that you can enjoy music more, I suggest you do the following.

Follow the 70-30 rule. About 70% of the material inside the room should absorb sound in about 30% should be material that reflects sound. 

  • Materials that absorb sound are materials that have a soft surface. These are examples of great sound-absorbing material: couches, curtains, carpets, books, matrasses, etc. 
  • Material that will reflect sound is almost everything with a hard surface such as the glass in the windows, a desc, walls, doors, etc. 

There are brands that specialize in sound treatment, such as Auralex. These kinds of brands sell products like bass traps, acoustic panels that are made from wood, fabric, and foam. Their products are designed to sound-treat rooms and provide optimum listening experience.

That said, there is no need to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars for sound treatment. 

You can create your own sound-treated room just by strategically placing sound-absorbing and sound-reflecting items in your room. One thing that you want less off is echo. You hear echo in half-empty and empty rooms. Also, we’ve talked about the 70-30 rule; if you follow this rule, I guarantee your listening experience will drastically improve!

But if you don’t have enough sound-absorbing materials in your room, then you can use the following items:

Thick moving blankets: Thick moving blankets are ideal for reducing echo. Hang them from the ceiling to cover the biggest part of your walls.

Studiofoam: there exist cheap Studiofoam, and expensive Studiofoam as there exist Studiofoam that work and Studiofoam that doesn’t. Every room is different, that’s why you have to experiment but as a rule of thump place the foam opposite of your speakers.

Again if you follow the 70-30 rule, you’ll probably won’t need any “pro” material to treat your room acoustically—That’s why before spending any money, try to use what you’ve already got.

The 4 Elements That Affect the Final Speaker’s Sound & Why Headphones Are Not Affected by Them

 We will now look at the four elements that affect the final speaker listening experience. We will also see why headphones are not affected by these elements making everything much more simple. 

We have touched upon a few of these elements before, but now we will dive in a bit deeper.

1) Element No1: Room Acoustics

As we already mentioned, room acoustics play a huge part in what you hear. Room acoustics, as the name suggests, is determined by the size and shape of the room. 

Otherwise said, room acoustics describes how sound waves behave and interact with a room as well as all the objects in that room. 

Because no two rooms are exactly the same, each room will require a different amount and a different placement of reflective and absorbent materials. As we already saw, these materials can be everyday stuff such as a couch or curtains or professional material that is specifically created for sound treatment such as bass traps or studio foam.

As you might have noticed, that room acoustics can take some effort to master. 

The Headphone Solution

With headphones, the room acoustics problem is solved immediately because the “room” consists of the space between the headphone and your ears. That space is so small, and it’s very easy to control. Thus there is no room interference when using headphones.

2) Element No2: Reflections

The second area we want to master is reflections.

Reflections are created when sound hits a hard surface and then bounces off that surface the type of surface, and its placement in the room will determine the amount and direction of the reflections.

As we already mentioned, every hard surface can be a reflective surface, to prevent this, we need to have a substantial amount of absorbent materials but also non-flat surface materials within the room. That’s why in professional and home studio’s you often see sound diffusers such as this one:

However, reflections are also a good thing. It is reflections that allow the sound from each speaker to bounce around in a room, helping us to hear both speakers with each ear.

The Headphone Solution

Again with headphones, this problem is immediately solved because the reflections that occur from headphones are unnoticeable plus headphones provide perfect separation meaning that each ear hears the sound intended for it.

3) Element No3: Air Movement

Sound travels through the air; if there is no air, there is no sound (Fun fact: in space, there is no sound because sound needs molecules to travel through).

Speakers produce sound through movement. Bigger speakers will move more than small speakers. Thus, the size of the speaker has a direct impact on the maximum volume that the speaker can produce but also on the type of frequencies that speakers can recreate. 

As an example, to reproduce lower frequencies, we need larger speakers that complete bigger and slower movements. In contrast, high frequencies can be produced by small speakers that move faster.

That is the reason why each speaker has a tweeter, a woofer, and sometimes a subwoofer. Each part of the speaker is designed to reproduce a different part of the audio frequency spectrum.

  • A tweeter is for high frequencies (2.000 Hz – 20.000 Hz)
  • A woofer is for mid and low frequencies ( 20 Hz – 2.000 Hz)
  • A subwoofer is for very low frequencies ( 20 Hz -200 Hz)

The Headphone Solution

Because headphones have just one small driver, they don’t require a lot of air movement to produce high volume.

4) Tweeter and Woofer Blend

As you already know, a speaker has a tweeter, a woofer, and sometimes a subwoofer, and each component is designed for a specific frequency band. The difficult part is having a speaker that can successfully and harmonious blend different frequency bands together. This is the job of the crossover.

The crossover is a component found within most speakers. Its function is to take one input signal and divide it into two or three output signals.

These signals consist of separate bands of low mid and high frequencies. 

The separation process is vital because the tweeter, the woofer, and subwoofer are each designed to work on different frequencies. The crossover makes sure that each speaker’s component receives the correct frequency band.

The Headphone Solution

With headphones, you don’t have this problem. There is no band separation because it is possible to create a single headphone driver that is optimized for the entire audio frequency spectrum (20Hz-20.000Hz). This adds a layer of simplicity and removes the compromises we face with speakers.

The Reason Why Most $200 Headphones Sound Much Better Than Most $200 Speakers

And if someone is wondering why most $200 headphones sound a lot better than most $200 speakers, it is because headphones are much cheaper and simpler to create. They don’t have three different drivers, nor a cross over, they are smaller and require fewer materials. 

There is at some point, however, a balance achieved between headphones, speakers, and between sound quality and price. 

I know for a fact that if I take my Yamaha HS50M ($300 speaker) and compare them to cans that also cost $300, the final result will be very similar.

  • Yes, my speakers (or should I say studio monitors) will likely not deliver the microscopic detail the AKG K701 

  • or the AKG K702,

  • (click on the links to visit Amazon), but my Yamaha’s do offer an excellent detailed and balanced sound!

By the way, if you wish to purchase the Yamahas HS50M, unfortunately, I must let you down since they are discontinued. However, Yamaha has created a new updated version, the HS5. 

They launched a whole new collection the HS5, HS7, and HS8 (click on the links to visit Amazon). The only difference between these monitors is size, and the bigger the monitor, the more bass it has. Otherwise, they are exactly the same.

The Right Way of Comparing Headphones and Speakes

Headphones and speakers are like apples and oranges; however, if you want to compare the two should follow strict volume guidelines. In other words, make sure that both headphones and speakers have the same level of volume.

  • You may have heard of the loudness war in music. This was a few years ago when mastering engineers kept increasing the volume of each song, the reason they did that is because the louder the song, the more appealing it seems. Our brain perceives high-volume songs to sound better than low volume songs.
  • As a rule of thumb, when comparing headphones and speakers, try keeping the volume levels around 70dB. I suggest you download an android (or iPhone) level meter or dB meter app to measure your speaker’s volume, then using your speaker’s volume as a reference AB test your headphones.
  • The way I do it is I put on a song I am familiar with, I listen to it for a few seconds through my speakers, then I quickly switch to my headphones and adjuster the volume until it matches my speaker’s volume.

NOTE: You should always strive to achieve the same output volume levels no matter if you’re comparing speakers with speakers, headphones with headphones, or speakers wit headphones.

My Opinion and 2 Cents on Headphones VS Speakers

First of all, each tool is designed for a different purpose, both headphones and speakers are useful not only to the music producer but also to the audiophile!

  • Headphones are a great magnification device for audio but what they lack is the visceral feel of the loudspeaker; in other words, headphones are great for listening for small details and immersing yourself into the music. 

When I listen to music through loudspeakers, I can feel the music in my gut. I get a complete sense of my surroundings. I don’t have to be at a live concert to experience that feeling; just by sitting home and listening to music through my Yamaha HS50M, I can feel the emotion at a much higher level than I would feel it with headphones. 

That’s why I believe emotion in music is much better translated through speakers. Headphones seem kind of sterile to me.

Conclusion

There you have it. 

Most headphones sound better than most speakers because, headphones:

  1. Don’t have room interference
  2. Have very low distortion
  3. Provide perfect L+R separation
  4. Require little air movement
  5. Have a single driver optimized for the entire audio spectrum
  6. Are much cheaper to create
  7. Even cheap headphones can produce very low frequencies

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