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Best Headphones for Binaural Beats

Woman listening to headphones with sunset in  foreground

Credit: iStock

Binaural Beat Sound Therapy Requires Headphones

It's no secret that sound can be therapeutic. From flowing water and soft music to ASMR videos and white noise, people use music and sound to tune out the world and tune into themselves. Among the many forms of sound therapy is something called binaural beats. Binaural beat therapy is purported to have a range of physical and mental health benefits, from better sleep to pain relief to enhanced creativity. The unique thing about binaural beats is that you must use headphones to listen to them. So, what exactly are binaural beats, how do they work, and what type of headphones should you use to listen to them?


What are Binaural Beats?

Binaural beats are based on an auditory illusion. When you listen to a binaural beat sound recording, your left and right ears simultaneously receive tones of slightly different frequencies. If you think that sounds confusing, fear not! Your brain interprets these differing tones as a single tone (that's the illusion part). The frequency of this "new" third tone, aka binaural beat, is the difference in hertz (Hz) between the two original tones.

For example, if you hear a 440 Hz tone in your left ear and a 445 Hz tone in your right ear, your brain would interpret this as 5 Hz tone. It has been claimed that this new tone prompts brain cells to begin firing at the same frequency as the tone – a process called entrainment. (You may hear binaural beats referred to as brain wave entrainment therapy.) In this case, 5 Hz is associated with theta brain waves, which are known to facilitate deep relaxation. The theory here is that if you want to achieve this relaxed state, you would listen to a theta binaural beats to increase theta brain wave activity. When you listen along, your brain is encouraged to follow and produce the brain waves associated with the frequency you are hearing. Now, for a binaural beat to work, the tones being sent to your ears have to have frequencies of less than 1500 Hz, and the difference between the two tones can’t be more than 40 Hz.

Brain Waves

Delta Theta Alpha Beta Gamma

Frequency Range

.5Hz-4Hz

4Hz-8Hz

8Hz-12Hz

12Hz-35Hz

35Hz

Characteristics

Restorative sleep, deepest relaxation

REM sleep, deep relaxation, meditation, creativity

Significant relaxation, stress reduction, passive attention

Alertness, problem solving, relaxation

Memory/recall, concentration

Binaural beat recordings may not sound like anything you have heard. These low-frequency tones are delivered in a pulsating fashion and are often laid underneath meditation music or nature/ambient sounds. Binaural beats are in contrast to monaural beats, which also feature the combination of two frequencies, but with the convergence of the tones happening before they reach the ears. It should be noted that binaural beats are not the same thing as binaural audio recordings, which are recorded with special microphones and are known to produce an immersive, three-dimensional listening experience.


Why Do People Listen to Binaural Beats?

Reported Benefits:

  • Pain relief
  • Deep sleep
  • Allergy relief
  • Stress reduction
  • Improved mood
  • Relaxation & meditation
  • Increased creativity
  • Enhanced cognition
  • Improved focus, attention, and memory

Usage Scenarios:

  • While studying
  • Before taking an exam
  • During meditation
  • Before sleep (it's OK if you fall asleep with binaural beats playing)
  • Before or during creative tasks

You should not listen to binaural beats while driving or in any other situation that requires full awareness and attention.

Picture it: You're at work, and your head has been throbbing for hours. Tylenol or your coping mechanism of choice isn't cutting it. You decide to try listening to a binaural beat recording. You find one aimed at "instant migraine relief" that features delta beats. Headphones situated on your tender head, you hit play and hope for the best. You quickly find yourself lulled into calm by the sound of pulsing waves set against nature sounds. Fifteen minutes later, the "best" has happened, as your headache has disappeared. It wasn't "instant," but it was darn near close enough!

Not everyone will experience this type of effect from binaural beats - at least not every time or for every application. But people who listen to binaural beats for a variety of physical and mental health benefits have reported profound success from listening to these curated soundtracks.

Credit: YouTube

A search for binaural beat audio tracks on YouTube will reveal hundreds of recordings for a variety of ailments and mind states. You can also find guided meditations featuring binaural beats. Additionally, there are many binaural beat recordings for sale on various websites and apps. The scientific community is mixed on the efficacy of binaural beats. There is much anecdotal evidence pointing to the positive effects of binaural beats, but some studies have shown the use of binaural beats to be no more effective than listening to regular sound recordings or music. A placebo effect is certainly possible, but this may be said of many remedies. And the act of slowing down and placing one's focus somewhere can be deeply calming in and of itself. At the very least, you will enjoy some "down time" in the presence of some unique sounds. Binaural beat recordings are considered to be safe, with some people reporting mild side effects like nausea or dizziness at certain frequencies.


Do I Need Headphones to Listen to Binaural Beats?

Credit: iStock

Because binaural beats result from distinct tones being sent to each ear, you need to listen to binaural beat recordings on headphones. While you will still be able to hear something in the recording without headphones, you will not experience the full binaural beat experience unless you use headphones or earphones. You can absolutely listen to binaural beats on whatever headphones you have. But if you are in the market for new headphones, and you plan to listen to binaural beats, you will want to keep these guidelines in mind.

Use closed-back headphones. When you are attempting deep relaxation, you want the least possible outside distraction. Thus, when listening to binaural beats, you will want a pair of closed-back headphones, which will shield (but not totally block) your ears from outside sounds. This is in contrast to open-back headphones, which have vented ear cups that allow outside sound in. Closed-back headphones will give you a more immersive, "in your head" listening experience. Alternatively, you could use IEMs, or in-ear monitors. The ear pieces on IEMs will sit inside of your ear canal, creating a seal that will block outside sounds. A further option for a sound-isolating experience would be noise cancelling headphones, with technology that will block outside sound, allowing you to listen to binaural beats without the distraction of ambient sound in your environment.

Choose comfortable headphones. When you are looking to get into a relaxed or meditative state, the last thing you want is a headphone that is uncomfortable. You want your headphone to "disappear" on your head so that your primary focus — your only focus, really — is on the sounds coming from them. Now, headphone comfort is subjective, so the important thing is that the headphones are comfortable for you. They shouldn't be too big or too clampy. The ear cups should be the right fit for your ear size and shape, and the padding should be ample to keep your ears happy during your listening sessions.

Opt for a neutral frequency response. Headphones are tuned in a variety of ways, such that certain frequencies are given precedence over others for a desired effect. Depending on the tuning of a headphone, elements of recordings may end up being magnified or recessed. The sound can be bassy (lower frequencies over-emphasized), warm (smooth and cozy), bright (upper frequencies over-emphasized) or resolute (detailed), for example. You can read more in our Audio Sound Signatures guide. For binaural beats, you will want a pair of headphones or IEMs with a more neutral frequency response. The reason is that you need to be able to hear the varying tones distinctly in each ear. You don't want a headphone with coloration, bumped-up bass, or too much brightness. You want to hear the sounds as true-to-recording as possible.


Headphones for Binuaral Beats: Recommendations

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If you're looking for a portable, great-sounding, and super-comfortable audiophile headphone for under $1,000, you can't go wrong with the AEON 2 closed-back headphone from Dan Clark Audio. It's got a neutral sound with a bit of warmth to it, but not at the expense of detail and clarity. The AEON 2 features generously padded teardrop-shaped earcups that mimic the shape of the human ear for a super-comfortable fit. The bass is tight and punchy; the midrange is clear and present, and the treble is relaxed, meaning you won't get harsh high notes. This is a wonderful headphone for kicking back and enjoying long listening sessions.

  • Driver type: Planar magnetic
  • Frequency range: N/A
  • Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): less than 0.3% 20-20KHz, 0.1% 100-8KHz
  • Impedance: 13 Ohms
  • Sensitivity: 92dB SPL/1mW Sensitivity
  • Weight: 328g (11.6oz)

HiFiMan Arya Stealth Magnets Headphones

The Arya Stealth Magnets is a wonderfully detailed and natural-sounding headphone that has been updated with HiFiMan's proprietary Stealth Magnets technology. The magnets feature a special shape that enables waves to pass through them without generating interference. As a result, HiFiMan says, sonics are detailed and transparent, and every detail of a recording is exposed without extra noise. While not as resolving or as "big" sounding as its big brother, the HE1000V2, the Arya Stealth Magnets delivers a-plenty when it comes to detail married with that smooth planar magnetic sound. It's got robust bass, clear mids, and highs that shine. If you're looking for a planar headphone that's lighter on the head (and wallet) than many planars in its class and still sounds really good, then check out the Arya Stealth Magnets.

  • Driver type: Planar magnetic
  • Frequency range: 8Hz-65kHz
  • Impedance: 32 Ohms
  • Sensitivity: 94dB
  • Weight: 404g (14.30z)
Meze Liric Closed Back Headphone
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The Liric is the first closed-back reference headphone from Meze, the award-winning developers of the Empyrean and the Elite headphones. The Liric is smaller than those headphones, easier to drive, and portable. The Liric has a mostly neutral sound with some bottom-end warmth and highs that are prominent and well-defined. The instruments are right there and one feels surrounded by the artist with a depth of sound that is large and cohesive. The bass is fast and tight; mids and highs are clear and detailed. Imaging and transients are phenomenal. The Liric is not difficult to drive, but we recommend using a portable DAC, since planar magnetic headphones shine with more power. Meze has always done a remarkable job with the mechanical engineering of their headphones, and the Liric is no exception. The Liric has a snug fit on your head that is neither fatiguing nor clampy.

  • Driver type: Rinaro Isodynamic Hybrid Array® MZ4
  • Frequency range: 4Hz-92,000Hz
  • Impedance: 30 Ohms
  • Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): <0.15%
  • Nominal SPL: 100 dB (1 mW / 1 kHz)
  • Maximum SPL: >130 dB
  • Weight: 391g (13.8oz)

Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Noise Canelling Headphones  

The  Sony WH-1000XM4 is an amazingly good value considering the quality of sound and number of features provided at this price point. The build quality is pretty standard for this class of headphones. It won’t take a beating but if you take care of it, it will take care of you. Sony has been around the block for some time now, and they understand not only what the consumer wants, but how to beat out their competition. The XM4 is likely the best you can buy right now for noise canceling. It’s not the cheapest but it’s also not the most expensive. Wireless audio is not perfect, but the Sony XM4 makes you think it’s achievable, if not almost there. The WH-1000XM4 incorporates the best ideas from the competition as well, so you can be assured you're getting everything you possibly can for this price point.

  • Driver type: Dynamic
  • Frequency response: 4 Hz-40,000 Hz
  • Bluetooth version: 5.0
  • Frequency response (Bluetooth communication): 20 Hz-20,000 Hz (44.1 kHz Sampling)/20 Hz-40,000 Hz (LDAC 96 kHz Sampling, 990 kbps)
  • Sensitivities (dB/mW): 104.5 dB / mW (1 kHz) (when connecting via the headphone cable with the unit turned on), 101 dB / mW (1 kHz) (when connecting via the headphone cable with the unit turned off)
  • Supported audio formats: AAC, SBC, LDAC
  • Battery Life (Continuous Music Playback Time): Max. 30 Hours (NC ON), Max. 38 Hours (NC OFF)
  • Battery Life (Waiting Time): Max. 30 Hours (NC ON), Max. 200 Hours (NC OFF)
  • Weight: 254g (9oz)
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The Sennheiser Momentum 3 offers superior sound, cutting-edge technology, and a modern design aesthetic. It redefines your premium headphone experience by reproducing the balanced depth and precision of studio-quality audio. Active Noise Cancellation and Transparent Hearing functionality allow you to experience audio on your terms. The advanced Active Noise Cancellation offers three modes that are tailored to different environments. And with the Transparent Hearing feature, you can enjoy music while still being fully present in whatever you’re doing. Featuring a genuine leather head strap and premium earcups, these headphones deliver superior comfort.

  • Driver type: Dynamic
  • Frequency response: 6Hz-22kHz
  • Bluetooth version: Bluetooth 5 compliant
  • Noise cancellation: 3 Active Noise Cancelling Modes
  • Audio codec: SBC, aptX™, aptX™ Low Latency, AAC
  • Battery life: 17 hours
  • Supported profiles: A2DP, AVRCP, HSP, HFP
  • Weight: 305g (10.8 oz)

JH Audio 13v2 IEMs

The JH Audio 13v2 features a natural sound, wide soundstage, excellent clarity, incredible detail and separation, and deep bass extension. Audiophiles will love the precise transient response and exemplary stereo imagery. The 13v2 works well with just about any genre. Like all current JH Audio IEMs, the 13v2 is a custom model, meaning you will need to obtain ear impressions from an audiologist. The result will be a pair of IEMs that is crafted for your unique ear shape. This ensure the most secure fit for maximum comfort and sound isolation.

  • Driver type: Dynamic
  • Frequency response: 10Hz to 20kHz
  • Impedance: 28 Ohms
  • Sensitivity: 116dB @1mW
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Designed as a studio monitor but suitable for any use, the qdc 8SS has a neutral, uncolored, highly detailed, and highly transparent sound. qdc monitors have been calibrated by top sound engineers and professional musicians to provide the best possible sound quality.

"The qdc 8SS is all about honesty. It will not make your music sound any other way than how it was recorded. It is a pure, uncolored sound that reaches deep into your tracks to pull out all of the details and nuances. Bass is tight and defined but not boomy or bombastic; it won't rattle your chest. Mids are gloriously detailed and assertive, and treble is beautiful without crossing into shrill or fatiguing." - Moon Audio qdc 8SS review

  • Driver type: Balance armature (8)
  • Frequency response: 20Hz-20000Hz
  • Impedance: 22 Ohms
  • Sensitivity: 112dB SPL/mW
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