Here is all you Need Know About Headphone Sensitivity [Guide]
by Sam-SoundGear. Last Updated On July 11th, 2022.
When it comes to headphone specifications, there are lots of terms most people are not familiar with. While it is not a bad thing not to know about your headphone specifications, if you want to get the best out of it, understanding some of these terms concerning a headphone might give you an edge. You can also check out our Glossary for more sound, and headphone tech terms explained.
For most people, I included, sensitivity was just a number you could find in the specification area of most audiophile headphones. In this article am going to talk more about headphone sensitivity, so sit back and relax because you are in the right place.
Measured in decibels per millivolt of sound pressure levels (abbr. dB/mW), Sensitivity is used to describe the sound pressure level produced when a standard voltage level is supplied to reproduce sound.
In simple terms, headphone sensitivity is the measure of how loud a headphone will sound when a specific voltage is applied. Simple huh!
When headphone A being Louder than headphone B, this is where sensitivity and impedance come in. The Loudness of a given headphone is directly related to its impedance and sensitivity.
When talking about the sensitivity of a headphone, you should also understand the impedance as they are co-related.
Impedance in headphones describes how much electrical resistance a headphone will give to the signal from an audio source. For a casual listener, A headphone that features an impedance that ranges between 20-40 Ohms would make a reasonable choice.
High-impedance headphones are less sensitive and will sound quieter when used with your phone’s in build amplifier. For this reason, higher impedance headphones will require more power to drive and get better sound.
Efficiency and sensitivity are two terms used by manufacturers that mean the same thing. However, both have different units of measurements. If it is dB/mV then that’s sensitivity, while dB/mW will stand for efficiency.
Sound Pressure level (SPL)
Measured in decibels (dB), It is the level of sound we humans can hear a sound and interpret it, though the human ear is not equally sensitive to sounds of the same sound pressure levels but different frequencies(20Hz to 20kHz).
In the headphone world, most headphones will not need more than 1 milliwatt of power to produce a high sound pressure level.
Headphone sensitivity comparison
Below, I have listed the sensitivity values of different high-end audiophile headphones.
Most often, we humans listen to a range of about 60 and 80dB and for the daring among us 90dB. On average most headphones have a sensitivity rating of about 100dB (see headphone sensitivity comparison chart above).
When a headphone is said to have higher sensitivity, It guarantees better driver performance without using that much power. However, using a headphone with high sensitivity at high volumes would also cause damage to the headphone drivers and your ears. When headphone drivers are blown, headphones volume will lose over time. Depending on the headphone, the sound might also get distorted at high volumes.
Low sensitivity headphones are the opposite of high sensitivity headphones. Though they require more power to drive, these are more durable headphones than higher sensitivity ones. This is because even when supplied with more power they do not damage the driver unit.
A high power supplying device (headphone amplifier) will be required to get better sound reproduction with lower sensitivity headphones.
Volume and Headphone sensitivity
The headphone’s sensitivity directly influences the volume of a headphone.
For example, most headphones in the chart above have a sensitivity of above 90dB. The great and relatively expensive focal utopia hovers at 104dB while Audeze LCD2C has a higher sensitivity, at 130 dB.
What that means is supplied with the same amount of power, the Focal Utopia would not be as loud as the Audeze LCD2C. However, this is not necessarily a massive problem in headphones. But it is worth bearing in mind.
That said, the higher the headphones sensitivity, the more likely the headphones will be louder as stated earlier. Using the headphone at unreasonable levels will, in the long run, end up putting ourselves at risk. According to NIOSH, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, higher volumes equal shorter allowable exposure time. But, it can also be dangerous to play your music at moderate levels for more extended sessions.
Below are their established guidelines for the recommended Noise Exposure limits.
So, is sensitivity an essential factor to look out for in a headphone?
Quick answer, yes it is.
Over the years, I have listened and reviewed hundred of headphones, and one thing is that they all sound different. When examining their specifications, e.g., frequency response, sensitivity, impedance, etc. help in pairing them with better gear to drive them.
As stated earlier, most headphones sensitivity values range from the upper 90’s up to the lower 100’s. Currently, even manufacturers are not consistent with how they define sensitivity
Due to different sensitivity values, it has become tough to compare different headphones against each other and get the best sensitivity value.