Planar magnetic headphones (also known as orthodynamic headphones) provide affordability, quality sound and a host of other listening benefits. So their rise in popularity amongst the audiophile community is of no surprise. In this article, we are going to talk you through the technology, what to consider when purchasing and our recommendations of the best planar magnetic headphones on the market today.
What Are Planar Magnetic Headphones?
Planar magnetic driver technology has been around for many years, but over recent years there has been a rise in popularity in its use. From the outside, you may not be able to see many differences between planar magnetic headphones and those with more traditional dynamic drivers.
One visual difference is that they often come with larger ear cups to accommodate the size of the driver. A planar magnetic driver will usually consist of two layers of magnets positioned on either side of a thin diaphragm containing many small conductors.
How Do Planar Magnetic Drivers Work?
Sound is created using vibrations that travel through the ear canal in waves, these then cause the eardrum to vibrate which the brain then interprets as the sound we hear. Inside planar magnetic driven headphones, there is an electrostatic thin diaphragm film containing extremely thin wires that receive signals causing it to move back and forth.
This back and forth motion works thanks to the evenly spaced magnets positioned on either side of the electrically charged diaphragm, the electromagnetic force holds the diaphragm perfectly within its field. Thanks to this precise movement there is less distortion in the sound you hear as the sound waves are created and travel evenly.
Headphone Drivers: Which Is Best? – Planar Magnetic Vs Dynamic Vs Electrostatic
Since we have already explained how planar magnetic drivers work let’s jump straight into their pros and cons.
Pros and Cons – Planar magnetic headphones are kind of the in-between of dynamic and electrostatic drivers. The design of the driver provides great clarity in the audio you receive, with the first-rate transient response – which is very important for clear bass. Unfortunately, the earcups are quite large and heavy to accommodate the driver’s structure, so be mindful that this may cause your ears to become tired after a time.
In comparison to dynamic drivers, they offer much lower distortion to your sound, thanks to the flat (planar) orientation of the magnets and diaphragm. This ensures sound waves are created evenly, creating extremely lifelike audio. The below diagram demonstrates that although planar magnetic distortion levels fluctuate, they are generally lower than dynamic drivers.
How dynamic drivers work – These drivers are the same as what is used in HiFi speaker systems but on a much smaller scale. They work by sending a signal through an ultra-thin coil of wire to create a magnetic field reacting with small magnets within the earcups. This electromagnetic force causes the voice coils to move extremely fast which causes the drivers’ diaphragm to move with it, compressing and decompressing air to create the sound waves you hear.
Pros and Cons – The most common driver used in headphone manufacturing, they can be built on a budget and still deliver decent quality audio. This reflects in the pricing available to the consumer, although high-end versions are available they cater to the budget market as well.
The biggest con however is the potential for non-linear distortion. This occurs due to the way in which the diaphragm is moved only by the voice coil attachments, which can distort the diaphragm’s shape. Unlike crackly signal interference, this simply alters the way in which the sound was intended to be heard. That being said they can create incredible levels of bass if that is a preference for you.
The below images demonstrate the bass response delivered by both dynamic and planar magnetic headphones. Although both deliver bass well, planar magnetic drivers will be less overpowering thanks to their ultrathin diaphragm.
How electrostatic drivers work – Unlike planar and dynamic drivers, electrostatic drivers do not use additional metal conductors to make the diaphragm move. Instead, an ultra-thin sheet of electrically charged material (usually mylar) is positioned between two conductive plates allowing the diaphragm to moved as a whole when creating sound waves. An electrostatic-specific amp, also known as an energizer, is needed to boost the voltage of the signal to combat the high impedance.
Source: Trusted Reviews
Pros and Cons – Many audiophiles will agree that you cannot beat the clarity of sounds delivered by electrostatic headphones. If you are looking for near-perfect detail to your audio, the build of electrostatic headphones allows them to deliver just that. However, the small range of motion does limit its bass capabilities in comparison to planar magnetic and dynamic drivers.
On top of this, electrostatic headphones are notoriously expensive and unlike high street headphones, can cost tens of thousands of pounds. If you are willing to splash the cash in order to invest in almost faultless sound, you will also have to also be prepared for the larger and heavier structure of the headset to accommodate the precision-driven architecture.
Planar Magnetic In-Ear Earbuds?
In-ear planar magnetic headphones are much less common than the typical over-ear designs available on the market. Due to the much smaller structure of earbuds, they are unable to hold drivers of the same size as the earcups on over-ear or on-ear headphones.
Brands such as Audeze and Ausounds have released in-ear planar magnetic headphones but in order to fit the drivers into their design, they are generally larger than earbuds with dynamic drivers.
While we understand that some people may find over-ear headphones uncomfortable and prefer the portability and discreet sizing of earbuds, some may find the bulkier design of planar magnetic earbuds makes them heavier on the ear-canal. However, if an impressive quality of sound is what you are searching for in an earbud, they are definitely worth considering,
Review of the Best Planar Magnetic Headphones
1. Audeze LCD-2 Classic Over Ear Open Back Headphone – Best Overall
Key Specifications – Style: Open-backed, Over-ear. Frequency Response: 10Hz-50Khz, Impedance 70ohms. Weight: 544g. Driver size: 100mm. Sound Pressure Level: >130dB
The Audeze LCD-2 Classic was released following the rise in popularity of their predecessor, the vintage Original LCD-2 which shot to audiophile fame after their introduction in 2008. A simpler design with a more affordable price point, the Classics delivers the same acclaimed sound as the renowned Originals but are much lighter and more comfortable for the wearer.
Despite being more comfortable they are still incredibly large, but Audeze’s newer steel suspension headband design and memory foam earpads help to combat wearer fatigue. This allows you to relax and appreciate the great bass response delivered by the 100mm Planar Magnetic drivers.The already generous soundstage is expanded by the open-back design, creating flawlessly lifelike acoustics.
The LCD-2 Classics have removed the Fazor elements previously seen in their original 2008 design, resulting in a lively and warm sound. As well as this the glass-infused nylon rings help to improve the sound quality even further. For the comfort, price-point and almost unmatched audio quality, you cannot get a much better overall set of Planar Magnetic headphones than the Audeze LCD-2 Classics.
- Open-backed design creates a spacious soundstage
- 100mm fast response ultra-thin diaphragm gives great bass
- Lively and warm audio experience
- Comfortable steel-suspension headband
- Fantastic clarity in the detail of your audio
- Extremely large ear cups
- Can feel heavy after long periods of use
2. Monolith M1060C Closed Back Planar Magnetic Over-Ear Headphones – Best Under $500
Key Specifications – Style: Closed-backed, Over-ear. Frequency Response: 10Hz-50Khz. Impedance: 18ohms. Weight: 483g. Driver size: 106mm. Sound Pressure Level >130dB
Monolith are another big player in the Planar Magnetic Headphone market, offering various designs and features so you can experience truly great audio. While some planar magnetic headphones can be eye-wateringly pricey, the M1060C offer the same high standard of quality, but for under $500.
Using their new symmetrical magnet structure, the driver operates much more efficiently within the closed-back earcups, delivering near perfect sound with low levels of distortion. While open-backed headphones offer a naturally bigger soundstage, the M1060Cs powerful drivers do well to create an immersive acoustical landscape within the closed cup. Allowing you to immerse yourself in your music without disturbing those around you or visa-versa.
With 106mm drivers, Monoliths headphones are again large and weighty, however the large, padded faux-leather earpads and headband are designed to keep you as comfortable as possible. Although reviewers have noted the build quality is not as strong as other planar magnetic headphones on the market, the sound quality cannot be faulted for such an affordable price.
Another impressive thing to note about the M1060C is the weight. Weighing in at 483g, for a closed-back planar magnetic headphone these are, although heavier than standard dynamic headphones, much more lightweight than other designs of this calibre on the market.
- Available for under $500
- Symmetrical magnet driver structure lowers distortion
- Powerful drivers create large soundstage in closed back design
- Comfortable, padded earcups and headband
- Closed-back provides great passive noise cancellation
- Lower build quality
- Large and heavy design
3. Monolith M1070 Over Ear Open Back Planar Headphones – Best Open Back
Key Specifications – Style: Open-backed, Over-ear. Frequency Response: 5Hz-50Khz. Impedance: 60ohms. Weight: 580g. Driver size: 106mm. Sound Pressure Level >130dB
Another fantastic option from Monolith, the M1070 is designed with an open-back grille to allow air to pass in and out of the earcups, reducing air pressure that can often lead to sound distortion. The airy and spacious design also provides a wider soundstage than closed-back designs, creating an incredibly lifelike, immersive experience as you listen.
Also featuring 106mm Planar Magnetic drivers and a linear symmetrical magnet set up, the design of the M1070 is also quite large and bulky. However, the open-backs do create a more lightweight headset for comfortable listening. Be mindful that the fallback of such a design is a lack of background noise isolation as well as greater sound leakage in comparison to their closed-back cousins.
To combat these hurdles the M1070 comes with removable, soft, padded ear pads which are not only comfortable on the ear but help to keep out disruptive ambient background noises. The adjustable headband is also lightweight and padded, and the sizing can be altered to fit any head so you can relax and enjoy listening for hours.
The frequency response is also wide, starting at just 5Hz ranging all the way up to 50Khz, meaning you can experience all the nuance and tone changes in the music you are listening to. Making them a fantastic choice if you want to really appreciate every note in your music the way it was intended to be heard.
- Open-back grille design to create an airy and spacious soundstage
- Soft, padded, removable ear pads
- Lightweight, padded, adjustable headband
- Wide frequency range
- Less passive background noise cancellation than closed-backs
- Increased sound leakage
4. Audeze LCDi3 Planar Magnetic In Ear Headphones – Best In-Ear
Key Specifications – Style: Semi open-back, In-ear. Frequency Response: 10Hz-50Khz. Impedance: 20ohms. Weight: 26g. Driver size: 30mm. Sound Pressure Level >130dB
If the thought of large, bulky, over-ear headsets is off-putting for you, and you are searching for a smaller, in-ear design that offers the same great quality audio produced by planar magnetic drivers then look no further. The Audeze LCDi3 can reach a mighty 130dB of sound pressure without any audible distortion, which is pretty impressive for an earbud!
Weighing in at just 26g, these earbuds are substantially lighter than any planar magnetic over-ear headphones. Equipped with Audeze new Ear Fins, the ergonomic design fits snuggly within the concha bowl of the ear to provide a secure fit. If you prefer a traditional over-ear hook then the LCDi3 also offers a selection inward curving hooks to gently sit behind ears of all shapes and sizes.
The LCDi3 also allows the option of wireless use, with multiple connection options to choose from depending on your usage. Using the CIPHER Bluetooth module, you can go wireless and still enjoy great enhanced audiophile sound. Or you can use either the 3.5mm auxiliary connection or lightning cable also included with your purchase to pair with any chosen device.
Unlike most common earbuds on the market the LCDi3 have a semi open-back design to help increase the spaciousness of your audio, something not as easily achieved when compared to over-ear headphones.
Finally, the LCDi3 also uses a combination of coil and magnetic technologies within the driver itself, using Audeze’s patented Uniforce design. The coiled element, as with dynamic drivers, is more likely to cause distortion, however reviewers have praised the flawless listening experience these planar magnetic earbuds can deliver.
- Extremely small and lightweight
- Customizable fit with changeable Ear Fins and Ear Hooks
- CIPHER Bluetooth module, 3.5mm audio wire and lightning cable included
- Ultra low distortion
- Semi-open back for spacious sound
- Cannot match the soundstage delivered with over-ear headphones
- Coiled element increases chances of minor distortion
5. Audeze Mobius Premium 3D Gaming Headset with Surround Sound – Best For Gaming
Key Specifications – Style: Closed-circumaural, Over-ear. Frequency Response: 10Hz-50Khz. Weight: 350g. Driver size: 100mm. Sound Pressure Level >120dB
We understand that for a truly captivating gaming experience, a realistic and immersive sound stage can sometimes be the difference between winning and losing. The Audeze Mobius Premium 3D gaming headset hosts an array of features that allow you to really feel like you have stepped inside your game.
Providing the same clarity as other orthodynamic headphones, the Mobius also features Waves NX™ Head-Tracking and 3D audio technology. By precisely tracking your head movements 1000 times a second, even the slightest movement will be fed into the algorithm to create the most lifelike real-world listening experience. Easily pinpoint your opponent’s position, catching every noise within the game to head straight to victory.
Featuring a detachable boom mic, your teammates will hear you crystal clear, allowing you to seamlessly communicate throughout your gameplay. And with the lightweight of only 350g, paired with the memory foam padded ear pads you can stay comfortable for hours on end for completely undisturbed fun – providing your ears do not get too hot.
The Mobius headset also gives you a range of connection options, either USB, AUX or wireless Bluetooth, so you can pair with a range of devices. Compatible devices can also benefit from the cinematic 7.1 surround sound capabilities, however not all consoles (such as XBOX) can support this feature.
- 3D head tracking for lifelike audio
- Detachable boom mic
- Memory foam padded ear pads
- USB, AUX or wireless connectivity
- 7.1 Surround Sound capabilities
- Surround sound only available with compatible devices
- Ear cups can cause ears to become hot after time
6. HiFiMan Sundara Headphones – Best Budget
Key Specifications – Style: Open-back, over-ear. Frequency Response: 6Hz-75Khz. Impedance: 37ohms. Weight: 372g. Sound Pressure Level >104.52dB/V
Another great contender within the Planar Magnetic Headphone market is HiFiMan. If you are looking for a budget pair under $300 then HifiMan offers some of the best quality headphones to suit your price range. The Sundara headphones being our recommendation.
The Sundara features supernano diaphragms around 1/10th the thickness of a human hair, that are 80% thinner than previous designs, giving it a faster response time. This creates much better acoustics, as well as high-quality defined sound for a much more lifelike listening experience. This lighter diaphragm within the planar magnetic driver also benefits from much lower distortion than other materials.
They can easily be driven even by smartphone, you have the option to use it directly with the device of your choosing or with a dedicated headphone amp for an even superior sound. As well as delivering powerful audio, the structure is also incredibly lightweight making for a more comfortable wear. Made from slim aluminium, the chassis, in comparison to plastic, weighs substantially less. The large ear cups perfectly envelope the ears to ensure comfort for hours of listening, although some reviewers have reported quick wear and tear.
Unlike some of the higher end options we have recommended, the Sundara does not have as high of a sound pressure level maximum. However at 104dB they reach around the same level as a shouting voice (above regular city traffic) and are within the safe limit of 120dB set by the occupational Safety and health administration. They also come equipped with an astonishingly large frequency range of 6Hz – 75Khz giving an impressive range of bass and treble.
- Great high-quality budget option
- Supernano diaphragms
- Can be used with various devices including smartphones
- Incredibly lightweight
- Comfortable large ear cups
- Lower decibel range than higher end headphones
- Wear and tear build up apparent after time
To Wrap It Up
If you are looking for high-quality, lifelike sound, with ultra-low distortion and don’t mind the additional size and weight, then planar magnetic headphones are an excellent choice. We have selected some of the best options from high-end to budget choices. Here is a quick recap of our favourites:
- Best Overall – Audeze LCD-2 Classic Over Ear Open Back Headphone
- Best Under $500 – Monolith M1060C Closed Back Planar Magnetic Over-Ear Headphones
- Best Open Back – Monolith M1070 Over Ear Open Back Planar Headphones
- Best In-Ear – Audeze LCDi3 Planar Magnetic In Ear Headphones
- Best For Gaming – Audeze Mobius Premium 3D Gaming Headset with Surround Sound
- Best Budget – HiFiMan Sundara Headphones
Whether you are looking for a budget option, the best quality musical sound, or a totally life-like gaming experience with incredible realism, you can find a planar magnetic driver headphone that can deliver just that.