How do Electrostatic Headphone Drivers Work?

If you’re not into headphones you might think that all of them use the exact same design principles, but that’s not entirely correct. Different headphones can use different types of drivers, and all of those drivers have their own unique characteristics and pros and cons. In this article, we’ll go over one of the most high end headphone drivers out there: the electrostatic driver. We’ll outline how it operates and shine a light on the pros and cons of electrostatic headphone drivers.

This article is part of our series on headphones and headphone drivers. You can always check out our overarching article on headphone drivers in case you’re interested.

What are Electrostatic Drivers?

In order to create a sound wave (which is a wave of distorted particles traveling through a medium such as air that then get interpreted by our inner ear and brain as sound) speakers have to create vibrations. They use a diaphragm (a thin membrane) to do so, and while most headphone drivers use electromagnetism to stimulate the diaphragm to move, electrostatic drivers use static electricity.

Between two electrified and perforated metal plates (one with a positive charge, one with a negative charge) sits an extremely thin membrane that’s coated in conductive materials and constantly holding a charge. This membrane acts as the diaphragm, and it’s thin enough so that even static electricity can get it to move. In its neutral state, this diaphragm will stay in place between both metal plates, but when an audio signal reaches the electrostatic driver, the plates will alternate their charges. This causes the diaphragm to move between the two plates (as it gets attracted to one plate in one instance and then repulsed by it right after) at a rapid pace, causing it to vibrate. These vibrations create sound waves, and these sound waves then reach the (inner) ear of whoever is listening to the driver.

Electrostatic Drivers – Pros and Cons

When it comes to headphone drivers we can say that the lighter and thinner a diaphragm, the better it sounds, generally speaking. Another thing that can be said about drivers is that fewer parts that come into contact with the diaphragm result in lower distortion levels. If you combine those two things you can already tell why the electrostatic driver is capable of producing such high quality sounds.

Due to the incredibly thin diaphragm that’s basically suspended in the air, electrostatic drivers produce some of the most detailed and responsive sounds out there, and these drivers are commonly seen in very high end headphones that are made for critical listening.

There are some drawbacks, though, with the most obvious ones being the cost. These drivers can be extremely expensive to manufacture since they’re so complex and require a ton of precision, and this drives up the cost considerably. They also require a special amplifier to use, making them even more inaccessible to the average consumer.

Conclusion – Electrostatic Drivers

Electrostatic drivers are basically top tier when it comes to audio quality, but you need to make some sacrifices if you want to experience them, starting with your wallet. These drivers are expensive and require special amps to drive them so you’ll not see these in consumer-grade headphones meant for commuters and people on the go, but if you’re someone who is looking for the purest audio experience out there then electrostatic drivers will probably tickle your fancy.

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