Choosing the best pair of headphones for your classroom, lab or library is important, so we have put this information together to help you decide which ones are right for your school.
Audio Types (Stereo or Mono)
Consumer vs Commercial
Drivers (aka Transducers or Speakers)
Plugs and Adapters
Headphone Audio Types
Mono Headphones – Also called Monaural. The best way to describe mono headphones is that they send the exact sound signal to both ears. In other words, it is a single sound source and it seems to be coming from one direction. Mono Headphones are used on older cassette players and record players with a mono output. If your device is currently using a headphone with a plug that has one band it is most likely a mono device. It should be noted that most mono devices use the “bigger” ¼” (diameter) plugs.
Stereo Headphones – The best way to describe stereo headphones is that they send a different sound signal to each ear. This dual sound source will produce sound that is spatial or “3 Dimensional” coming from many directions. Stereo headphones are used with computers, CD players, CD/Cassette Players, MP3's and Ipod's, and televisions with stereo outputs. If your device is currently using a headphone with a plug that has two bands, it is most likely a stereo device. It should be noted that most stereo devices use the “smaller” 3.5mm (diameter) plugs.
Here is a good illustration: If you were listening to a recording of a train approaching from a distance, with stereo headphones you could tell if it was coming from the left or the right. With a mono headphone you would only get a sense that it was far away and getting closer and then passing you, but you would not know whether it was coming from the left to right, right to left or straight at you.
You should not use a mono headphone with a stereo source (or vice versa) because the associated grounding problems could possibly damage your equipment.
Consumer vs Commercial Headphones
Stay away from the leading consumer headphones if you plan to have multiple users share them in a computer lab, music room, or language lab. We have studied most of the leading consumer brands and although they produce good sound, most of these models we tested are lacking in the durability department. They range from the obvious, like thin or even dainty cords that will not stand up to the rigors of frequent student use, to the less obvious, like having fully or semi-exposed speaker drivers that can be rendered useless by accidental perforation of the diaphragm. Stick with the manufacturers who make specialty headphones for education. They will have thicker cords and plug designs, along with slotted baffles (covers) or other means to protect the sensitive driver diaphragm. Consumer brands will not have a warranty for use in schools. (See warranty issues)
There are several other features that differentiate a consumer model from an educational model, but it is suffice to say that warranty issues, cord designs and unprotected drivers should disqualify most of the brands sold in consumer electronic stores.
Headphone comfort is subjective, depending upon the size and shape the student’s head and ears and how long they will be worn. The most important thing you can do is select models that were designed with an adjustment range to fit kids or adults. The student should be able to find a comfortable position with these models. The ear cushions are another factor to consider. (See Ear Pads)
Don’t get too caught up in what type of drivers the headphones have. Dynamic drivers are the dominant technology used today and are a good choice.
The drivers are the primary producer of sound in a headphone. The drivers are really just miniature speakers (also called transducers). The vast majority of headphones (90%) manufactured today use a dynamic driver (also called electro-dynamic). It consists of a magnet and oscillation coil attached to a diaphragm. The diaphragm is actuated by audio current moving through the coil in the magnetic field. This design is popular because they are easy to manufacture and will produce excellent sound at extremely low voltages.
The other 10% of headphones produced will use a balanced armature or electrostatic driver or some variation thereof. The balanced armature drivers are used only for some ear buds and all canal-phones that are inserted directly in the ear canal, which are obviously not a good choice for schools because of hygiene and the inherent hearing loss risks associated with these models. The electrostatic drivers use the same technology used in some loudspeakers (only miniaturized) and require much higher voltages and special amplifiers. These headphones would be too expensive for most school budgets and the higher voltages needed to drive these…well we just wouldn’t recommend these models for a school.
Like the driver design, it is our belief, one should not get too caught up in the magnet type.
The majority of magnets used in the headphone drivers are made of one of these three materials:
1. Neodymium - This material is considered the best as it will produce a magnet that is strong will last a very long time in almost any application or environment. It is the rarest material, so it is also the most expensive.
2. Cobalt - This material is considered to be very close to the properties and quality of neodymium. It is considered by most manufacturers to be the best choice because of it's quality, availability and it is relatively inexpensive when compared to other materials.
3. Ferrite – This material is the least expensive and is more susceptible to losing its magnetic properties than other materials. When this happens, there will be a degradation of sound quality. However, it is our opinion that a headphone used in a shared environment will not last long enough for this to become a factor. Many manufacturers will use this material when cost (or profitability) is the main criterion.
Most school headphones will have a volume control on either the cord or the ear cup. Some models will have volume controls on both ear cups so they can be independently adjusted. Some teachers, (mostly preschool) like to purchase models that do not have volume control, citing they must help the kids adjust them too much. It is our belief and the opinion of most educators, (judging from the models they choose to purchase from us), that a volume control is a good idea. With the amount of buttons, switches and dials these kids navigate on their video game controllers and personal listening devices, we think a volume control is not going to be a problem for today’s youngsters!
The volume levels allowed on headphones that were specifically designed for use in schools will not produce enough sound pressure to damage the child’s hearing. Most consumer models are designed to allow much higher volume.
There are 3 types of cord designs:
1) Straight – These cords come in a variety of lengths and are good for most applications in technology and listening center applications
2) Coiled – These cords are good for the flexibility they offer in expanding or contracting to various lengths from the sound source without having excess cord to deal with.
3) Combo Cords – These are a clever design that take some of the benefits from both styles. Coiled cords will tangle at the source they are plugged in to and also tangle up easier with other coiled headphones when they are stored. These cords are straight at both ends with a coil in the middle, eliminating these types of problems.
The most important thing to look for in a cord that will be used in a classroom headphone is the thickness of the cord and how it connects to the plug and the ear cup. Kids can be tough on the cords. Picking, chewing, and twisting, along with using the cords to yank the plug out of the jack, cause most headphone failures. The internal wires of the cord break and the connection of the driver and the audio source is lost. The manufactures who design educational headphones will pay more attention to these problems. Thick cords that are securely connected in all areas and are molded securely to the plug will give the headphone a better chance to survive longer.
Plugs and Adapters
Headphone plugs come in two sizes:
¼” diameter plugs are one and a quarter inch long.
3.5mm diameter plugs are a half inch long
The ¼” diameter plugs are used in older audio equipment. The 3.5mm plug is the type that is used with computer audio outputs and personal audio devices like ipods and mp3 players.
There are adapters available to convert one plug type to another.
Ear pads (aka Ear Cushions) are simply the portion of the headphone that rests on your ears. They are all made from either 100% foam, vinyl covered foam, latex, or leatherette covered foam (leatherette is a man made simulated leather). All are good choices except for the latex as some of your students may have an allergic reaction. All can be sterilized and cleaned with alcohol.
A consumer brand headphone will most likely not have the durability built in to survive the frequent use of a classroom or library. These brands are what you will find at an electronics store, national chain or some internet sites. Many buyers are not aware that warranties for these consumer brands are only for personal use and become voided once products are used in a school or commercial environment. The headphones we sell for use in a shared environment have at least a one year warranty for use in schools, churches, businesses, or any other commercial use. Our lightweight personal headphones are designed much more durable than a consumer model and are priced so low that each student can have their own headphones. Some of these personal models have sealable bags to help solve hygiene issues and free replacement ear pads. The personal models we offer can be used in a shared environment and are warranted for 3-6 months.
There are also educational headphones with a boom microphone. These are used primarily in language labs or with card readers. Because there are more failure points in these models, it is even more important to get a well designed and built product. Another popular educational headphone is a mono/stereo switchable model. These are the most versatile because they work with either stereo or monaural sources and include adapters so that they will work with ¼ inch or 3.5mm jacks.
Not all headphones will work with all types of computers. 99% will need a 3.5mm stereo plug. However, there are some IMAC’s that need a special, slightly longer plug. Some Macs and Imacs will not work with the headphones that have microphones because they do not have a microphone jack. If your MAC or IMAC does not have a microphone jack, you’re going to have problems with these models. (Most all of these problems were in some Mac’s and IMAC’s built prior to 2003.) So if your school is not running PC’s, it is advisable to check that the headphones you are buying are MAC/IMAC compatible. No sense in acquiring an unavoidable headache!