After spending some time digging through headphone reviews and articles online, it’s likely you’ve run into a group of planar magnetic fanatics along the way. The encounter may leave you wondering “How does planar technology work? What have they heard that has send them spiraling into dizzying rants in online forums, trying to convince complete strangers to jump ship from their more typical headphones with dynamic drivers?”
Simply put, a dynamic driver uses a voice coil to push a cone back and forth to displace air. Planar magnetic drivers contain a wire that is coiled back and forth for the full length of a flat (planar) driver and attached to a thin film. When the electric signal hits the diaphragm, it reacts with magnets and vibrates, resulting in unique audible characteristics that cannot be found in a dynamic driver.
While some dynamic drivers take a moment to stop moving due to momentum, planar speakers can stop on a dime, resulting in a crisp sound that’s refreshing to the ear. Typically, with PM headphones, the bass purrs and is provided both accurately, and in spades. The polished high-end of a fast driver reveals details you may have never noticed, even in some of the most familiar recordings in your library. The frequency ranges appear to be seamless from bottom to top, and imaging accuracy doesn’t seem to suffer either, as they have the potential to offer a wide open sound stage. Additionally, the separation of instruments is pronounced, with a “velvety blackness” occupying the space between them.
Planars play nicely with vocals, strings, small ensembles, and (surprisingly enough) electronic music. The first time you hear a planar, it’s recommended to remain seated, as it could knock you right off your feet. Surely at this point planars sound too good to be true, with no real audible caveat, so what’s the catch?
There are three major downfalls to a planar driver: Dynamics, maybe they’re too revealing, and you need to feed them quality amplification. When it comes to dynamics, you may miss a bit of the slam of a dynamic driver when listening to rock music. As an example, you may not feel fully the impact of a dramatic drum hit during a solo.
Switching to planars, you may also miss how forgiving your old headphones were. If your recording isn’t mastered well, or is stored as a lossy format, you will hear it and you will hate it. Lastly, planars typically have a higher impedance than the majority of dynamic headphones. For this reason, a dedicated headphone amplifier is typically required to supply ample current and reap the full benefits of the driver.
Until recent years, planar drivers were only found in costly high-end headphones and remained an elusive technology for those of us with shallow pockets. Today, however, there are several manufacturers filling the gap between spendy audiophiles and thrifty hobbyists, providing high performance headphones at an obtainable price point:
What would a planar headphone list be without Audeze making an appearance? As a brand, they are known for high end, high-performance planar headphones, with their massive form factor hidden behind a hefty price tag. Up until the 2016 release of the Sine On-Ear, you would have been looking in the ballpark of $1000+ to join the elite ranks of happy Audeze owners.
While other models remain hulking, expensive behemoths, this offering from their lineup is lightweight and foldable, making it a great travel companion. It is true that their appearance is a bit unsuspecting for a pair of $500 headphones, but they do feature a sturdy aluminum frame that should keep these headphones kickin’ along your journey.
A noteworthy and welcome accessory, costing only $120, is their Cipher Lightning cable for iPhone owners. The cable features a built in DAC, amp, and a DSP (i.e. “fancy EQ”) that can be modified by way of a nifty phone app. The inclusion of the DSP allows you to either fine-tune it toward a flatter response, or fun-tune a smiley for your more bass heavy, less refined endeavors. Sure, $120 seems a bit much for a cable, but given what is built into it, you can save yourself a pretty penny going this route without the need to carry a bulky (in comparison) portable DAC/Amp.
Monolith by Monoprice M1060 Over Ear – $299-329 (Open/Closed Back)
It seems that every time price points are challenged in audio, Monoprice rears its beautiful, economically minded head. Their rebuttal to such challenges lies within the aptly named Monolith line, which continues to make a statement with each new product release. That statement has been made abundantly clear: High performance does not always come with a high price tag.
Making waves yet again, the M1060 packs a serious punch at a great price. With planars, size absolutely does matter, and because of this the 1060 comes fitted with a 106mm driver. The sizable driver allows them to dig into those lower frequencies with gusto.
The padded headband and faux-leather ear pads give them a comfortable fit, well suited for long listening sessions. These features would have made for a welcome feature on the Audeze Sine, but alas that is not the case. Being a much larger headphone, the M1060 may not be as attractive to users on the go. That being said, if you can budge on size constraints, you will be rewarded.
Welcome back Audeze! Long time no see. Not all users are looking for a music-only listening experience, and for those on the hunt for multi-purpose headphones, the Mobius are a great fit with some really cool features. There is a removable microphone, and the connectivity options are fantastic. Compliant with both Xbox and PS4, they can be connected to your devices via Bluetooth, analog (3.5mm) or USB.
The mobius features a switchable 3D surround sound mode, allowing you to hear that fella with a knife sneaking up on you from the bushes. One of the coolest features of the headphones is the built-in head tracking. Similar to virtual reality, this is a really neat feature intended to further enhance the immersive experience. When listening to music, just take off the microphone and switch from 3D to flat, and you can still experience the fantastic listening experience we have come to expect from Audeze.
Hifiman 400i – $179
Hifiman has been providing planar headphones with a great response for quite some time, and are no strangers to planar enthusiasts. The 400i is a well known and celebrated model, and the reduced price makes this an incredible deal in regards to sound quality and comfort in this entry-level range.
In the comfort department, Hifiman provides pleather and velour ear pads, which should suffice for extended sessions. The size makes them ideal for those with glasses, a commonly ignored aspect of headphone design.
I must note, Hifiman has a spotty record on quality control and build quality, but their ability to produce life-like sound and price makes this an attractive option. If these were at their full retail price of $400, they likely would not have been included in the list due to these unfortunate downfalls.
Fostex T50RP MK3 – $159
Giving you a taste of planar at under $200, Fostex has already managed an impressive feat with the T50RP MK3. The sound and comfort of these headphones out of the box are not going to perform at the level of most of the headphones on this list. Even still, if it is your first introduction to planars, you are likely to be amazed with their amount of detail.
Though offered at an extraordinary price, you will need to factor in amplification to the overall cost of your setup. This particular pair has turned amplification from a strong recommendation to a strict requirement. Some lower end amps, though fantastic values, may struggle when demanded to supply a decent current to this set.
The ear pads are not going to be as comfortable as some of the more luxurious models listed, but again, this is a budget option that still provides the crisp, detailed presentation that planar drivers are known for. Coming in at less than a pound, the light weight lends to the comfort of the headphones overall. There is plenty of modification information available online, and the low price of the T50 would allow you to give some extra attention to these details as you see fit. Better yet, these are said to be a dream come true for the mod community. If you like to tinker a bit, these are sure to get your gears turning.
You can buy some sets pre-modified, such as the Dekoni Blue x Fostex drop on Massdrop, or the ZMF x Vibro MKII. Both of those additional options also fall well below our target of $600, but you may be left waiting for the opportunity to purchase them. The standard T50 is readily available at $159.
Audeze iSine LX/10/20 – $199-$599
Ope, looks like we’ve hit three Audeze entries so far. Can someone give these guys an award or something? Actually, the iSine in-ears alone won the 2017 Twice Picks Award as well as being the honoree for the 2017 CES Innovation Award.
No strangers to the game and veterans of providing joy to every type of user, Audeze has offered three in ear models; the iSine LX, 10, and 20. All reasonably priced, the 20 will come with my highest recommendation as it provides a clear and defined jump from the 10 and LX. While the 10 and LX benefit from a bit of EQ and are highly recommended to be used with the Cipher cable for the built in DSP, the 20 is going to offer clean performance right out of the box.
The iSine 20 provides the user with a blank canvas for which they can pour any variety of music in great detail. The wide open soundstage that they offer is shocking for an in ear, and some have gone as far to compare its abilities against on-ear open backed headphones. This is not known to be as present in the iSine LX or 10, but coming in at $189 and $279, they cost roughly 30-50% less than the 20. There is definitely a good bit of value in that, but if you can make the stretch, your efforts will definitely pay off by selecting the more refined 20.