In the audio world, there’s a lot of perceived and marketed sentiment that bigger is better – a huge tower speaker that is bigger and wider than the person standing next to it, an earth rumbling subwoofer of giant diameter, or perhaps in this case a huge pair of retro-future headphones that seem to be as much a fashion statement as they are a product of utility.
But do bigger drivers, and the headphones that house them, actually sound better? They can, yes. Larger drivers can create more compression and move more air, which can improve sound in a variety of ways. But this comes with potential side effects – the bigger a moving part in any speaker (this includes a headphone), the more resonant force it can exert throughout the cabinet, among other things. This then requires better engineering to overcome or mitigate it to acceptable levels.
There is some correlation between headphone driver size and sound quality, bass in particular, but it’s not at all absolute – smaller headphones with smaller drivers that are better built can sound much better than bigger ones with less build quality.
What do the companies who *actually make* the best headphones say?
Who better to weigh in on this subject than the people who are actually designing, building, and selling the headphones that are widely regarded as being the “best”? Well, most would agree, us included, that Audio Technica does high quality, mid-range priced headphones better than just about anyone, and here’s what they have to say:
Headphone sound quality depends to a great extent on the size of the diaphragm, which is indicated by the driver diameter: the larger the diameter, the better the sound quality tends to be. (source)
The “to a great extent” is an interesting take here because it actually contrasts the majority of public sentiment.
And what about the people who have actually listened to many different headphones?
Here’s what Pete Anthony, our resident headphone reviewer/expert, has to say:
I’ve tested and written reviews for about 25 popular over-ear headphones over the last few years (and listened to yet many more) that varied in size from being slickly petite to being comically large. In my experience, headphones with larger drivers can and often do sound noticeably better – the bass quality tends to be… the best word I can think to describe it is… smoother without taking anything away from the mids or highs. This lends itself to better overall clarity, separation, and collective sound. I will say though that a poorly built/functioning larger driver can sound just as bad if not worse than a smaller one, and that overly large headphones needed to accommodate them can quickly become a nuisance depending on how you want to use them.
Better headphones also tend to have bigger drivers (chicken vs egg)
Something also worth considering is that higher end and better performing/sounding headphones just tend to be bigger, and that that is, to an arguably significant degree, just a coincidence. That is to say, if you buy a bigger pair of headphones there’s a decent chance they’ll just happen to sound better, even though it might not have much or even anything to do with the headphone or driver size.
Is driver size a headphone spec that’s worth paying attention to?
This is the question that’s actually more pertinent to a buyer, and to answer it we’d say no, not really. There are so many other factors that influence the objective sound quality of a pair of headphones, and the subjective experience of whether a person actually likes it the most, that specific driver size would rarely if ever become a spec that’s important enough to make a decision between two products off of.