6 types of helmet drivers and how they differ
Buying a good pair of headphones in a multitude of options can be quite overwhelming. There is so much to consider, from the fit and finish to the size and style. But what matters most in the end is how they actually sound and whether they are worth their price.
But how do you know which headphones sound the best without actually using them? This is where the headphone drivers come in, the components responsible for the sound you hear. While it’s impossible to fully judge the sound of a headset without listening to it, knowing what type of pilot it houses can provide useful information.
What is a helmet pilot?
Before we move on to the types of helmet drivers, let’s first take a look at how they work. A headphone driver is the physical electrical component that creates the sound you hear. It’s like a small speaker in the two shells of your headphones.
Suppose you plug in your headphones and play a song on Spotify. First, your device converts the digital track into analog electrical signals. Then your headphones transform these electrical signals into audible sound waves by vibrating a thin film inside the speakers called a diaphragm.
In the case of wireless headphones, the audio output converts electrical signals into radio waves. Your headphones then pick up these radio waves and transform them into electrical signals. Helmet pilots take it from there, as mentioned above.
Depending on how this conversion is done, headphone drivers vary.
Types of helmet drivers and how they work
There are six types of helmet drivers in total. Each of them uses different mechanisms to convert electrical signals into sound waves. The quality of sound produced and the cost depend on the material and mechanism used by these speakers.
1. Dynamic or moving coil
Dynamic pilots have three main components: a magnet, a voice coil, and a diaphragm. A voice coil is a copper coil that conducts electrical signals. The electrically charged coil interacts with the magnetic field of the magnet to produce an electromagnetic field.
Depending on the audio played, the voice coil vibrates and, with it, the diaphragm. This rapid movement causes air movement, which produces sound waves: the more the air moved, the louder the sound generated.
Dynamic drivers are the most common type of headphone driver and can be found in in-ear headphones (IEM), headphones, and earphones. They need less power and amplification to operate, which makes them cost effective. Dynamic drivers are best for producing strong bass with a dark or warm sound signature.
If you like EDM or hip-hop, headphones with dynamic drivers will serve you well. But the downside is that they tend to sound distorted at higher volumes and don’t represent higher frequencies well. That said, a high-quality, well-designed, dynamic driver can still look impressive no matter what you’re playing.
2. Balanced frame
Balanced armature pilots use a mechanism that suspends a metal “arm” inside a spool. This duo is perfectly balanced between two magnets, and the diaphragm is attached to the arm. When electrical signals pass through the coil, the arm acts like an electromagnet and pushes back and attracts against both magnets.
This movement in the arm vibrates the diaphragm, producing sound waves. However, it’s important to note that these speakers don’t move air, so they don’t have a powerful bass.
Compared to dynamic speakers, balanced armature speakers are small and can handle high frequencies better. In fact, they were originally designed for hearing aids, but quickly made their way into the audio industry given their obvious advantages. They are now widely used in EMPs.
Due to their complicated mechanism, they cost more than dynamic pilots. But if you’re someone who listens to music intently and demands tons of clarity and detail, you’ll love them.
3. Planar magnetic
Planar magnetic pilots use a mechanism similar to dynamic pilots, but instead of magnetizing the voice coil, a disc-shaped diaphragm attached to the coil is magnetized. The disc-shaped diaphragm is placed between magnets, and when electrical signals pass through it, the diaphragm begins to move within the magnetic fields.
This attraction and repulsion of the diaphragm causes air to move, producing sound waves. These pilots need more or more magnets to evenly magnetize the diaphragm, making planar magnetic headphones bulky, expensive, and better for home use.
Planar speakers use large magnets and move more air, producing powerful and precise bass compared to dynamic speakers. Due to the flat diaphragm there is less distortion and they also perform better at high frequencies, making them a better choice than dynamic drivers if you’re willing to pay a bit more.
Electrostatic pilots use a different mechanism than what we have seen so far. An electrostatic pilot has two metal plates with tiny spaces for air and a diaphragm or membrane. The diaphragm is placed between these metal plates.
When electrical signals pass through metal plates, their charge continues to alternate between positive and negative. According to this, the diaphragm moves back and forth between the metal plates. This causes air to move, which produces sound. Since there is no movement of the metal surfaces, there is less distortion.
Electrostatic drivers produce more natural and realistic sounds than any other driver, making them a favorite with audio purists. However, these drivers require heavy amplification, which makes them quite expensive.
5. Magnetostriction or bone conduction
All of the speakers we’ve seen so far vibrate a diaphragm to produce sound waves that pass through your eardrums. But bone conduction conductors vibrate your temporal bones – the bones just above your ears – to send the vibration to your inner ear, removing the eardrums completely from the equation.
Bone conduction conductors use the piezoelectric property of bones, which allows vibrations to pass through them. A major advantage of these drivers is that they can be used by people with hearing difficulties in the middle ear, which is why they are also used in hearing aids.
Because bone conduction headphones don’t block your ears, you will still be able to hear your surroundings. This makes them convenient to use in situations where you may want to be aware of the surroundings. For example, you don’t need to pause or take off your headphones when you’re in traffic because you can still hear everything around you.
These are also used in military communications to receive commands without losing situational awareness. However, they don’t stand a chance against conventional drivers in terms of sound quality.
Since some pilots do not handle specific frequencies well, using just one type of pilot may not cut it. This is where hybrid pilots come in. Headphones with two or more types of drivers are said to have a hybrid driver configuration; they are better able to produce clear sound because they correct the shortcomings of one type of driver over another.
Which helmet drivers to choose?
When choosing a pair of headphones, sound quality should be the ideal deciding factor. However, there are other things to consider, such as cost and availability. Dynamic drivers are an affordable option if you need a decent-sounding pair of headphones.
And if you’re an audiophile and admire realistic sounds and your budget isn’t an issue, then electrostatic headphones are the best of them all. But if you want to enjoy better sounds without spending a lot, then Planar, Balanced, and Hybrid Magnetic Headphones are your best choice.
There is so much to consider when shopping for new headphones, and we’re here to help you understand the lingo.
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