Why You Should Care About Headphone Earpads

A while ago, you bought yourself a nice pair of headphones. After some time the sound quality got worse, and the earpads became stiff and uncomfortable. For some, this is a sign to buy new headphones. But you might just need to change the earpads.

Earpads, also known as ear cushions, or just pads, are one of the important parts of headphones. Earpads come in many shapes and sizes, and are made from different materials. All of that can influence how good headphones perform and feel.

In this article, you’ll find all the information about headphone ear pads:

  • Why are earpads important?
  • How big of an impact they have on the quality of the headphones?
  • What materials are commonly found in earpads?
  • How to maintain them to extend their life?
  • When to replace them?
  • What to look for when buying a new pair of earpads?

Types of Earpads and How To Maintain Them

Earpads are made from different materials. Some are better for isolation and bass response, while others are more suitable for breathability and feel on your skin. However, some materials require proper care, otherwise, they can lose their structural integrity. It can lead to a poor sounding headphone with bad isolation and comfort.

Synthetic Leather

Synthetic leather, also known as vegan, protein leather or pleather, is the most common material in earpads of full-sized headphones. High-quality ones feel soft and pleasant to the touch with good durability. The cheaper ones are plasticky, harder to the touch, and often crack after some time (like the stock pads on Samson SR850).

Leather ear pads

Memory foam ear pads dressed in protein leather.

Artificial leather is excellent for passive noise isolation. It creates a good seal, preventing noise from going in or out of the cups. Better isolation also benefits bass response, amplifying the low-end resonance that reaches those deep sub-bass notes.

However, that comes at the cost of breathability. An excellent seal prevents the circulation of air. That is why you start sweating soon after putting them on. Excess sweat ends up on the leather itself, so it’s a bit annoying.

Maintenance

  • Try to wipe your ear pads after every use by quickly brushing them against your shirt
  • Don’t expose your headphones to extreme temperatures (leaving them in the sun)

Thankfully, synthetic leather is very easy to maintain. It’s advised that you wipe the earpads with a cloth (or shirt) every time you stop using headphones. Otherwise, dirt will start to build up, making it harder to clean.

Keep in mind that faux leather doesn’t like extreme environmental conditions. For example, don’t leave headphones on direct sunlight or exposed to heat or humidity. If you don’t use your headphones regularly, it’s probably a good idea to store them inside a box or a pouch. That way, you slow down earpad degradation.

Real Leather

Real leather is reserved for more luxurious products, where people don’t only pay for the sound, but also for the experience. Some like it just because of the “leathery” smell, but real leather also has its advantages. With proper maintenance, it can last longer than a synthetic counterpart.

Real animal skin leather is much rarer than synthetic and offers superior durability but for a higher price.

Brainwavz sheepskin leather earpads

source: Brainwavz

Maintenance

  • Wipe your ear pads after every use to remove excess sweat and moisture
  • Once a year, apply leather conditioner on earpads to avoid surface cracks
  • Don’t expose your headphones to extreme temperatures (leaving them in the sun)

Unlike synthetic leather, the real one is porous, absorbing everything that stays on its surface for too long. Including sweat, which is why you should brush the earpads against shirt every time the listening session is over. If sweat finds it’s way into the leather, it eventually starts to smell. For better effect, wipe the earpads more thoroughly with a moist cloth once a week.

To avoid cracks on the leather, use a leather conditioner for sofas or car seats. It’s fine if you do that every year or so. However, don’t overdo it. If you moisturize the leather too much or too often, you can speed up the rotting process (you can see specks forming on the leather).

Velour

This is the second most popular material for earpads, usually found in open-back headphones and gaming headsets. The benefit of velour ear pads breathability. They breathe much better than leather.

If you need headphones for extended listening sessions, velour is the best choice. Headphone pads feel soft to the touch and typically don’t irritate the skin. Because they don’t create the best seal, they can make the signature a bit brighter and airier. However, they’re the most difficult to maintain.

Velour ear pads

Maintenance

  • Dirt on your skin can find its way onto ear pads, so keep your face clean helps
  • Brush the ear pads against your shirt after every use
  • Remove and wash the ear pads regularly (dish wash or mild detergent both work)
  • Don’t expose your earpads to extreme temperatures (leaving them under scorching sun)

Velour likes to pick a lot of dirt and dust, and since it’s a very porous material, any sweat gets easily absorbed inside the ear pads. That is why you should be more careful about maintenance if you want prolonged use.

As with leather pads, it’s advised to wipe them with a cloth or a shirt as soon as you stop using them. After you gently clean them, let them dry in the air. Please don’t squeeze the pads since it can damage the internal structure of the foam inside.

Also, to prevent direct sunlight and dust damage, you should consider placing them in a dedicated box or carrying pouch. Not only will they last longer, but also look better.

Other types of materials

When browsing through headphones, some of them are using proprietary materials for headphone cushions. It can be just a straight foam cover (like Grado headphones), or some unique fabric with built-in cooling gels (SteelSeries headsets). Since both of these are equally porous as velour, their sound characteristics remain somewhat similar, with the same way of maintenance.

Why Are Earpads Important?

Earpads play a crucial role when it comes to the overall experience with your headphones. Apart from providing comfort, ear pads also affect noise isolation and audio quality.

Comfort

Earpads are always in contact with your skin, making the listening experience either enjoyable or unbearable. Velour is usually the most comfortable since it’s breathable (prevents your skin from heating up). Leather, especially protein, can also be extremely soft to the touch, but its breathability is poor.

The shape of the headphone pads also plays an essential role in overall comfort. Over-ear pads surround your ears completely, without pinching ear lobes against the skull.

However, none of these two things matter if the padding isn’t sufficient. Thicker pads are usually better since they leave more room between your ear and foam covering the driver.

Sony XB900N Extra Bass

Noise Isolation

All headphones rely on a proper seal when trying to pump out the bass. That is why the earpads need to grab around your ears snuggly.

The best material for passive isolation is leather (faux and real). By creating an airtight seal, it blocks any potential holes and thus the sound leak.

Velour isn’t as effective at blocking out noise, let alone prevent everyone around you to hear your music.

With age, the foam inside the ear pads gets condensed and stiff. That prevents it from conforming to your ears properly, letting in more ambient noise.

Sound Quality

While drivers and housing are fundamental when it comes to shaping the headphone’s sound signature, ear pads are the third most essential component. Manufacturers are very carefully picking the materials and the pads’ shape when trying to achieve a desirable result.

When the headphone pads start losing their shape, and the foam inside becomes stiff, the sound also changes. The difference is subtle and accrues gradually, but at one point, headphones start to perform worse compared to before.

Most noticeably, the bass starts degrading because of the improper seal. Fine details can also fade away over time, which might not be a big deal for a casual user, but is very important for professionals working in a studio.

Changing the Earpads

You need to change car tires after a couple of years since they lose optimal performance. You should do the same with your earpads when they get old, dirty, and lose form.

When Should You Change Earpads?

  • Earpads start losing their shape and audio characteristics. Usually, the signs that we need to change the headphone pads are clearly visible. The memory foam inside becomes stiff and uncomfortable, and the outer material gets dirty.
  • Leather can start to crack or even peel off.
  • Velour is no longer soft and gentle but becomes hard as if all of that sweat throughout the years glued the fibers together.
  • In some extreme cases, earpads start to rot and stink.

All of these signs are an indicator that you need a brand-new pair of headphone pads.

How to Pick the Right Earpads?

If you want to restore the original sound and comfort of your headphones, try getting the original replacement ear pads. If the manufacturer doesn’t sell them anymore, look for ear pads with a similar type (the same material and shape).

You can also experiment with new earpads to see which ones work better for your headphones. Apart from fully leather or velour ones, there are also hybrids (mix of velour and leather). Some headphone pads are also angled to beam the drivers’ sound directly into your ear canal, increasing the perception of soundstage.

Dirty ear pads

Replacement earpads for Sennheiser.

However, be aware that the shape and material of the earpads can change the audio quite significantly. If you try to experiment too much with other materials, you can end up with better-looking pads, but worse (or changed) sound.

Before buying headphone pads from a different manufacturer, check forums to see what others recommend for your headphones.

When buying from other manufacturers, find out how your existing earpads are locked in place.

  • Some are easily attachable by twisting them onto the earcup
  • Others have a plastic construction that needs to click into place

Unfortunately, there are also headphones that have permanently glued pads. You can still replace them, but it takes more knowledge (and patience) to do so.

How Often Do You Need To Change The Ear Pads?

It depends on how serious you are about the optimal performance of your headphones. Generally, with proper care, they can last for very long. If you don’t use your headphones that much, you should probably change them every 2 or 3 years. Or when you start seeing wear and tear discussed above.

However, if you use your headphones for professional work, you should probably change the headphone pads every 6-8 months. If you use them daily, the foam inside gets stiffer much sooner. That changes the quality of the audio and, perceived details in the mix.