What Are Planar Magnetic Headphones & Are They Better?
SoundGearLab-Team | Last Updated On August 31st, 2021 | This post may contain affiliate links.
Planar magnetic headphones have seen an influx in the headphone world. Popular brands such as Audeze, HiFiMAN, MRSpeakers, and OPPO have led the way in making some of the best planar magnetic headphones available. Some of the best planars include the Audeze LCD series, OPPO’s PM 1 and 3 or the newly launched RHA CL2, which come with both the wired and wireless options.
If you have never heard of planar magnetic headphones before, take a seat and relax because you have come to the right place!
Here are the topics I will be covering in this article;
A planar magnetic headphone or driver uses a magnetic field around a conductor with electrical current flowing through it to move the diaphragm that has very thin and flat electrical conductors in it.
A planar magnetic driver can be thought of as the fusion of two headphone driver technologies, the dynamic driver and the electrostatic driver.
Like an electrostatic driver, the diaphragm of a planar magnetic driver is a thin sheet of flexible transparent film and from dynamic drivers; planar use the magnetic field around a conductor that has current flowing through it to drive the diaphragm.
There are other different terms you might come across in various forums or websites to describe planar magnetic headphones. Some people might refer to them as isodynamic, Magneplanar, magnetostatic or Orthodynamic headphones.
How planar magnetic headphones work
In a planar magnetic headphone, the diaphragm is suspended between two magnets that both have equal magnetic force. When current is applied, it passes through the conductors in the diaphragm and creates a magnetic field. The magnetic field causes the conductors in the diaphragm to move which in-turn also moves the diaphragm giving out sound.
A typical planar magnetic driver illustration
The importance of the magnets to have equal force is to ensure the relationship of the magnetic force applied on the diaphragm is constant to the current flow regardless of the position of the conductor as it moves through the magnetic field.
Advantages of planar magnetic headphones
With the many benefits that come with this driver, I am not surprised it has been gaining ground in the last few years. I am sure in the years to come planar headphones will be more popular. So, let’s see what makes this driver good.
1. Low Distortion
Planar magnetic drivers because of the electrical conductors in the diaphragm, the diaphragm itself is forced to move over its entire surface. This means at higher volumes and frequencies, a planar magnetic headphone will not suffer from distortion as found in dynamic drivers. In dynamic drivers, the diaphragm is usually driven from the center where the voice coil is attached. When driven at a higher volume or frequency, the cone surface usually starts wobbling in undesirable ways.
2. Tight Bass Response
In the headphone world, orthodynamic headphones are seen as the best when it comes to the reproduction of the low-end frequencies. At the same caliber, planars will outdo most of their competitors in the dynamic and electrostatic world.
Why is this the case?
First, the diaphragm of planar magnetic drivers is so thin that it enables it to react much faster to the changes in the audio signal. The thinner diaphragm allows the reproduction of a tighter and punchy bass that is not overpowering. But, electrostatic drivers too have a thin diaphragm, there is something else that constitutes to the great bass in planar headphones.
That electromagnetic force moves the diaphragm. In electrostatic drivers, the diaphragm moves because of static force. Static force is weak compared to electromagnetic force; this makes electrostatic headphones have trouble when delivering the power needed to hit the big bass notes. In planar magnetic headphones, the electromagnetic force coupled with a thin and large diaphragm makes it possible for the diaphragm to move worth authority creating the best bass output out of a headphone.
3. Amplifier Friendly
Unlike dynamic drivers that use a circular voice coil, planar magnetic headphones use an S-shaped or Serpentine pattern for their voice coil.
This pattern makes them have lower impedance unlike the coiled windings of a dynamic driver.
Though planar headphones do need a bit of voltage to drive them, they are easy to drive with most amplifiers. Most planar headphones are usually under the 100 ohms mark in impedance rating. Some top models that feature low impedance values are the Abyss Diana @ 40 ohms, Mr Speakers ÆON Flow @ 13 ohms or the ADVANCED Alpha @ 34 ohms.
4. Better Soundstage
Dynamic headphone drivers are mostly spherical and small thereby end up giving a spherical wavefront. On the other hand, planar magnetic drivers are usually larger, and due to the movement of the entire diaphragm, they create a planar wavefront.
The soundstage of a headphone is heavily dependent on the design of the driver and how the sound reaches our ears. A spherical wavefront reflects when it hits the outer ear in a different way to the planar wavefront. A planar sound wavefront is usually superior and creates a better sense of imaging and deeper a soundstage effect.
However, a planar sound wave might also be associated with headphones such as AKG K1000, Sennheiser HD 800 and Stax electrostatics. This is due to the models being large enough. An orthodynamic headphone such as the Oppo PM 3 features a spherical driver and so a spherical sound wavefront.
A planar sound wavefront is synonymous with planar magnetic and electrostatic headphones because of their large nature.
Planar magnetic headphone manufacturers
With the advantages that come with a magnetic planar driver, it is no surprise they are gaining a lot of interest in the headphone world.
Different manufacturers have also taken this into account and have come up some of the best isodynamic drivers to meet the consumer interests.
Below are some the notable planar magnetic headphone manufacturers.
Once a small company, Audeze has taken the market by storm with its number of planar magnetic headphones. The most notable and popular of the Audeze othordynamic headphones are the LCD series that features a total of 10 headphones both expensive and budget friendly. Audeze is also known for giving the first in-ear planar headphone, the Audeze iSine.
The king of budget-friendly planar magnetic headphones is undoubtedly HiFiMAN. Founded in 2007, HiFiMan has grown to become a known brand. Some of the company’s best headphones include the HE series, the HIFIMAN SUNDARA and HiFiMan HE1000. I have tried and tested some of their headphones you can check out how they perform in our roundup series of the best open back headphones.
Fostex has outlived most headphone manufacturers in the market. The company’s history dates back before the 1970’s when the Fostex T50 came into the market. The line of the company’s planar headphones has long been favored by headphone enthusiasts because of how well they respond to modifications. There are also a few companies that modify and produce some versions of Fostex planar headphones like, Mr Speakers, ZMF Headphones, and Enigmatic Audio.
Oppo has been around for more than ten years in the audio industry. The company has produced a number of Hi-Fi gears from DVD’s, planar headphones and 4K UHD players. The OPPO PM 1 and 3 are the notable and flagship models of the company. The company has however exited the market and ceased to manufacture new products. You can read more about this exit in this farewell article.
MRSpeaker has long given the best of planar magnetic headphones. One of my best headphone from their line is the tear-drop shaped AEON Flow, closed planar magnetic headphone. The company
RHA is a new company when it comes to planar headphones. Just this year (2018), RHA released the first smallest planar magnetic in-ear headphones in the market. While planar’s are known for their big and bulky nature, compressing the technology into in-ear headphones is nothing but an achievement for the company.
Monoprice is a well-known name in the audio sphere. The company has seen success in many categories of audio electronics. From subwoofers to headphones and other range of electronics, Monolith has made a name for the company. The company’s line of planar headphones, the Monolith’s have also grown to be loved by headphone enthusiasts.
Advanced Sound Group
The advanced group has seen a fair number of challenges in the headphone world. The company started on Kickstarter way back in 2015 and grew into the group that is now leading in the manufacture of audiophile grade products. The company’s audio products span widely from headphones, DAC’s and Amps to other musical instruments. The company has two planar headphones as of 2018, the Advanced Alpha and the GT-R. I have had a chance to listen to the Alpha and will be publishing my review in the coming weeks.
Top planar magnetic headphones
Audeze LCD 2C
The LCD2 Classic is one of the best orthodynamic headphones in the market. The build quality and materials of this headphone are top notch. Of the LCD series, The LCD2C is the cheapest retailing at just under $800. The sound of this headphone is just as great, and I think Audeze has done a great job in bringing the sound quality of the high-end Audeze’s LCD series to an affordable price with this headphone.
Audeze LCD2C | Sound Gear Lab
At the price the OPPO PM-3 comes with, you have to give to the OPPO team. Everything from accessorization, build quality, comfort, and sound quality has been well implemented in this headphone. Sadly, with the exit of OPPO, I am yet to learn if the PM-3 will be discontinued.
OPPO PM-3 | Head-fi
This might be one of the cheapest planar magnetic headphones that deliver way above its price tag. There is no doubt the sound quality of this can is good. The headphone, however, lacks bass extension, and the build materials feel flimsy. However, you can try swapping the pads of this headphone for an improved bass response. Other than the materials, the headphone is just awesome.