Deconstructing headphone specifications

- Prajesh SJB Rana, Kathmandu
Because everyone’s ear-canal is different, the kind of sound you hear can differ greatly from someone else

Mar 22, 2016-Shopping for headphones or earphones can be quite a daunting task. In Kathmandu, we have the tendency to go to shops in New Road or Mahaboudha to physically try-out the headphones before spending money on it. Physically testing out earphones is fine but what about when you’re shopping online or when you just don’t have the time to physically visit stores? Online headphone shopping can be quite confusing because of the different specifications come coupled with. As normal headphone users, there is very little we can take away from all the information. 

Understanding all of the headphones’ specifications can help you shop smart. Headphone manufactures often have all the information on what kind of frequency response you get from their products but, eventually, because everyone’s ear-canal is different, the kind of sound you hear can differ greatly from someone else. So, it is better for you to actually listen to the headphones physically but if you don’t have that kind of luxury, the manufacturer specifications can give you a lot of information on how the headphones will sound. Here is a basic guide on how to understand these cryptic headphone specifications. 

Frequency Response

The frequency response is the most important value that you need to keep an eye out for. They are ranged values and most common headphones and earphones come with a frequency response of 20–20,000Hz. This value is the range of frequencies that the headphone can represent well and anything frequency below or above this range will not be reproduced at all and even if they are, they won’t sound very good. These values are what we normally understand as highs and lows. The lows being the lower deep bass values whereas the highs being the sharp trebles. The lower value represents the bass and the higher value represents the treble, to put it simply. So, depending on your tastes, if you prefer deeper base, a lower value of around 15Hz will give you a much deeper bass but if you want go for cleaner treble, consider a higher value of 28,000 Hz. A very important value that most manufactures’ leave out if the dB value that needs to follow the frequency response, this value will tell you what frequency response the headphones will give you at a certain sound level. Although, normal people above the age of 20 can’t really hear frequencies below 20Hz and above 20,000Hz, the sound will feel alive and heavy nonetheless. The sound will feel 

better, if the frequencies 

are stretched a bit farther from the normal hearing range. 


This value is a little tough to understand and if you’re just looking for an earphone to pair with your phone or portable media player, this value will make little difference unless it’s very high. Impedance is the amount of electrical resistance of the headphone and is measured in Ohms (O).Most headphones come with an impedance value of 32O or less, best for portable players but if you’re pairing the headphones with home amplifiers or AC-powered amps, the impedance value of 32O is not enough. AC-powered amps are better at producing deeper base and better sound all together and you need a pair of headphones to match the sound produced by the amplifier. To achieve the best sync between your headphone and your amplifier, you need to match your amplifier’s impedance output with the headphone, a concept called impedance matching. Understanding how impedance works is simple, the higher the value the more power your player will need to push the headphones to a certain volume level. Since portable players don’t amplify sound as much as AC-powered amplifiers do, they need headphones with lower impedance value to easily produce louder sound at lower amplification. 


Sensitivity is the value that determines how loud of a sound you’ll get for a certain voltage value. This generally defines how loud or soft the pair of earphones is going to be. This specification comes in the form of 100 dB/mW, which is quite normal. These values aren’t always consistent with all manufacturers but when you find it, the normal range above should be good enough, but if you want higher volume, you can even opt for a pair of headphones with higher sensitivity. 

Closed or Open

Headphones and earphones usually come in two different types, closed or open. Closed-type headphones are the ones that completely cover your ear and closed-typed earphones are the in-ear types. Closed earphones restrict any ambient sounds from disrupting your music by sitting snug over your ears or inside your ears, leading to very concentrated music that feels isolated. Open earphones don’t restrict ambient sound because they don’t sit sung on your inside your ear, like the Apple Earpods. These type of earphones let ambient sound filter in while you’re listening to music and because of this, you will have to go for higher volume to compensate but will also provide a much open sound that doesn’t feel isolated. Take into consideration that if noise-pollution can be quite a problem for open headphones and especially in Kathmandu, where almost every vehicle on the road is honking randomly, open headphones might not be ideal in the Nepali context and you might be better off opting for a more isolated pair that filters out the noise. 

Understanding all of these values is not very simple and unless you know exactly what to expect from these values physically, your expectation might vary. But experience is the best teacher, so next time you buy a pair of headphones or earphones, take a look at all the values and keep them in mind. They’ll help you set a benchmark on what you expect from these values and your next purchase might just be easier once you’ve understood what these values represent in real-world use. 

If your technological devices are giving you a hard time or if you’re just curious about certain technological questions, please drop us an email at and we’ll try to answer your questions as best we can.

It is better for you to actually listen 

to the headphones physically but if you 

don’t have that kind of luxury, the 

manufacturer specifications can give 

you a lot of information

Published: 22-03-2016 09:13

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