What Do Ohms Mean in Headphones?

Ohms are a standard unit that refers to the amount of impedance provided by a given set of headphones. Represented by the symbol Ω, Ohms measure the level of electrical resistance of a circuit to alternating current. The more Ohms, the higher the level of impedance.

Most commercially available headphones have anywhere between 16 Ω to 250 Ω. Headphones with 32 Ω have relatively poor resistance to electricity, while headphones with 250 Ω have outstanding resistance to electricity. However, high-impedance headphones are harder to drive and may require additional equipment—namely, a headphone amp.

Knowing which headphones you should get depends on what you want to use the headphones for. Casual music listeners should be fine with a 32 Ω set, but audio professionals should go for headphones with higher impedance.

To fully understand the impact of Ohms in headphones, it’s first necessary to understand the concept of impedance.

What is impedance?

Impedance is the resistance to electricity, and it’s used to manage the flow of electricity in a given device. Without impedance, most electronic equipment would either fry or stop working at all. The same applies to headphones and other music-related gear.

Since impedance is used to manage the flow of electricity, you can think of it as the opposition to alternating current that manages electricity inside a circuit board, ensuring that every electrical flow gets to the right place. 

For this reason, impedance directly affects the level of sound quality provided by audio equipment. More impedance (i.e., more Ohms) equals greater audio definition, especially for lower frequencies.

Do more Ohms mean better sound?

More Ohms translate to a more controlled, accurate, and defined sound.

For audio professionals working at the highest level, the more Ohms the merrier. However, casual music listeners shouldn’t always go for the audio equipment with the most Ohms, as it needs a lot of power to be driven.

In a nutshell, more Ohms mean better sound, but only in the right conditions. Unless you’re considering buying an external headphone amp to work at a pro-level, you should stick to a set of headphones with up to 80 Ω.

Do high-impedance headphones sound better?

If connected to a headphone amp, high-impedance headphones sound better. However, if connected directly to a laptop or phone, they are ineffective.

Since they’re too powerful to be driven by a laptop or phone, high-impedance headphones will play at a very low (or even inaudible) volume.

So, if you’re thinking of buying an expert-level set of headphones with something like 250 Ω to watch movies on your tablet, you should reconsider. Everyday electronic devices are not powerful enough to drive such high-impedance headphones, and you will not be able to hear a thing even if you crank up your tablet’s volume to the max.

Why do headphones have different impedance?

Headphones have different impedance because they’re produced to serve different needs.

Headphones with high impedance sound better, but they also require a lot of power to be driven. Low-impedance headphones have lower audio fidelity, but they can be used comfortably with most everyday devices.

A 16 Ω set of headphones is good enough to listen to music or watch Netflix, but not good enough for an audio pro. A 250 Ω set of headphones is perfect for professional musicians and engineers, but too powerful to be used with a laptop or phone. 

Headphones with different impedance exist because there are different consumer needs in the market.

Do high-impedance headphones need an amp?

High-impedance headphones (such as 250 Ω headphones) require an external headphone amp to function correctly. Without the amp, the headphones will not generate enough volume.

This happens because their impedance is so high that they need a lot of power to be effectively driven. On the other hand, always avoid connecting low-impedance headphones to a headphone amp. Low-impedance headphones will blow out when you do so; this causes audio clipping, unwanted sound distortion, and, in extreme cases, it can damage the equipment.

What is a good amount of Ohms for headphones?

Headphones with 80 Ω are at the sweet spot: they have relatively high impedance, they can be effectively used for creating beats and DJing. Simultaneously, they’re compatible with most electronic devices, meaning they work fine with laptops and phones.

However, high-impedance headphones come at a cost. While 80 Ω headphones offer an excellent balance between sound quality and versatility, they’re not always the best option. Determining which headphones you need is about first understanding what you need them for.

Earbuds and headphones for making calls and casually listening to music: 16 Ω

If you need a set of headphones to take out with you and talk with friends, family, and co-workers on the phone, 16 Ω should do the trick. You can find many good-quality earbuds with 16 Ω in the market because that’s all the impedance they require.

For virtually all casual purposes, from making calls to listening to Spotify on the subway, or even watching your favorite show on a tablet, you don’t need to go over 16 Ω. These low-impedance headphones will be as clear and loud as required, even without that sweet high-definition sound.

Headphones for playing video games and listening to music at home: 32 Ω

When you’re playing an immersive video game or listening to the newest album of your favorite artist, you want to rely on good-quality headphones. For this reason, you should invest in a set of 32 Ω headphones. They work wonderfully with most everyday devices, and they provide the sound quality required for most recreational purposes.

Remember: more Ohms doesn’t exactly equal more quality, but rather a cleaner, more defined, and more precise sound. Unless you’re working professionally with sound and making very thorough audio-related decisions, a 32 Ω set of headphones has all the impedance you need.

Headphones for serious audiophiles, beatmakers, DJs, and musicians: 80 Ω

An 80 Ω set of headphones sits at the sweet spot because it can be connected to everyday devices but also serve the needs of audio pros and audiophiles. 

They can be connected to an external headphone amp for increased sound quality and detail, but they also work properly on their own. They can be connected to a laptop without significant volume reduction, but they’re also great for non-casual purposes.

There’s a reason why 80 Ω headphones are very popular among DJs. DJs need to monitor audio with great detail while performing, but not be forced to use a headphone amp to playback their tracks. Headphones with 80 Ω offer the necessary detail and fidelity without requiring expensive additional equipment.

Experienced music pros, audio engineers, and top-level musicians: 250 Ω

If you’re a mixing/mastering engineer, a top-level musician who composes and performs live routinely, or a professional who deals with audio restoration, you should treat yourself to some top-quality 250 Ω headphones.

Your work requires a lot of detail, and you want to be able to monitor sound as accurately as possible. You’re making detailed audio-related decisions daily, so you should get the best headphones out there.

Keep in mind, you’ll also have to buy a decent headphone amp to effectively power your 250 Ω headphones.

See our related article: 80 vs 250 ohm headphones

Summary

There are headphones for all purposes out there: headphones for recording and mixing, headphones for playing bass guitar, and even headphones for people with big heads! For this reason, getting the best headphones isn’t just about getting the most expensive, state-of-the-art headphones in the market, but the ones that fit you and your needs the most.

When it comes to headphones, Ohms matters. But now that you know how and why headphone impedance works, you should have all the tools you require to select the set of headphones that are most adequate for you.

Brian Clark is a multi-instrumentalist and music producer. He is passionate about practically all areas of music and he particularly enjoys writing about the music industry.

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