Thousands of volts, careening just millimeters from your skin, skeleton and brain.

That was the sales pitch… or maybe just a titillating anecdote meant to impress. But the information regarding a pair of electrostatic headphones I tried at this year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest CanJam headphones festival did little more than make me nervous.

Yes, I once saw a man take 50,000 volts through his body — at a local Museum of Science and History growing up — and he was fine. The current was so low that the voltage didn’t kill or even harm him.

So I knew these Stax headphones wouldn’t do any harm, but boy… that’s a lot of voltage.

It’s all in a day’s work for what some consider the world’s best headphones. Or as the Japanese company calls them, “ear speakers.”

Last week I started what will be a larger discussion on headphones in general. It can be frustrating seeing rows of gleaming, beautifully decorated headphones at a big store only to listen to each and come away wondering, “Is this what listening to headphones sounds like these days?” Congested, bass-heavy and lacking the type of clarity you’d get even with a moderate car stereo system.

Many of us alive today went through the Walkman period of the ’80s, and are at least familiar with the dollar-store plastic headphones variety. We’re used to the imperfect music image represented, because when we pick those crappy throwaways up, we quickly judge their approximate worth.

Does heavy equal good? For some things it might. It certainly nods toward the good regarding headphones. But some clever companies have figured this out and include sonically useless weights in their headphone designs, just to validate the purchase price in the mind of the buyer.

How they work

Alright, enough preamble. Continuing this discussion, lets start briefly looking at how headphones work.

Most headphones on the market today use one of two types of headphones “driver,” which is the term for the actual mini speakers that make the sound. Most are dynamic, but lately there is a big demand for the other type: planar magnetic.

Dynamic drivers, as I previously talked about, are just tiny little speakers, and look just like you’d think they would look. Many are clear because at that size and with that small-level strain on the driver, the material can be superthin clear mylar or plastic, and still work fine.

There are some limitations with the dynamic approach. Excellent dynamic drivers can be nearly flawless… see Sennheiser HD800 or a top-of-the-line Grado. But when the drivers veer toward the cheaper side, a host of compromises is forced. Usually the first thing lost is quality bass.

But more than just that, what’s lost when you’re listening to cheap dynamic drivers is an ability to hear thick, round, head-numbing bass at the exact same time as a crisp, airy top end, while simultaneously presenting vocal pronunciations that are clear as a bell.

It sounds like a lot of work, and for a dynamic driver it is.

But a planar magnetic style of headphone might look at that load and shrug. Stay tuned.

Read more Taylor, including his first column on headphones:

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