In the past few product reviews I’ve done, I’ve identified that the magnetic drivers in some headsets are Neodymium. I received many e-mails about this and a common theme was “what’s all the hype about Neodymium”. This post is designed to clear that up and provide information on the various materials used in speaker magnets (known as Drivers – don’t be mistaken for a software/hardware driver, as I once had someone ask me if they could just download the latest Neodymium driver).
What is Neodymium
Thinking back to my chemistry days, I couldn’t recall the element Neodymium, so does it really exist? Surprisingly YES it does exist and it sits on the periodic table with an atomic number of 60.
Although it’s considered a ‘rare-earth’ metal, you shouldn’t think that it’s relatively rare to produce – they’re just not found by themselves, so someone just can’t go out and mine neodymium like they can gold or copper.
One of the largest characteristics of neodymium, is that it produces a large amount of magnetic force for its size, especially compared to other metals. In fact, they’re the strongest type of magnets in the world today, generating a force that is 8 to 10 times stronger than that of ferrite magnets. This in turn equates to a much smaller magnet size being required to generate the same amount of magnetic force as other metals. As a smaller magnet is required, manufacturers are able to utilize smaller profile speakers that generate the same/better sound quality as traditional speakers, as well as utilizing lighter overall materials. For this reason, it’s extremely useful as a speaker driver where the final product requires a lighter construction (think headsets and earbuds), over a large sub woofer attached to your home theater system. Additionally,
when designing a very large speaker, weight is a considerable factor, so a manufacturer can utilize a neodymium speaker over traditional speakers and reduce the overall weight significantly (think of the professional speakers found in rock concerts and how much those would weigh if you had to use a traditional material like iron in order to generate the same magnetic force).
The downside to neodymium is that it’s very brittle and tends to shatter easily. Just take your pair of ear buds and swing them around till they hit a desk or wall and see how effective they are after a few hits against the wall.
Alnico speaker magnets are the originals. Alnico itself doesn’t exist as an element, but rather is a blend of elements consisting of aluminum, cobalt, copper, nickel and titanium. Alnico magnets are extremely tough and durable and less susceptible to the brittle cracking with neodymium magnets.
Originally these were used over neodymium as the materials were readily available and far less expensive than neodymium. During the mid-1900’s a shortage of the materials required to manufacture Alnico drivers occurred and caused a rapid increase in the price of Alnico drivers. Consumers were not willing to spend money due to the increase in costs, so manufacturers looked for a solution and moved to ceramic (Ferrite) magnets at a fraction of the cost.
Ferrite magnets are now the most common magnetic drivers found in speakers today with neodymium right on their heels.
Ferrite magnets are lightweight compared Alnico magnets and are by far the cheapest (affordability) magnet used today. Due to the price of these magnets, manufacturers can build a product for lower price points than similar products that use neodymium.
Aside from price (which in all honesty is the reason manufacturers use ferrite magnets in headsets), there is another little-known fact as to the differences between ferrite and neodymium. That difference is that neodymium will permanently lose its magnetic capabilities at temperatures above 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit), whereas ferrite magnets can be used between -40 degrees and 250 degrees Celsius (482 degrees Fahrenheit).
Now the downside with ferrite magnetic drivers is twofold – weight and susceptibility to cracking over lighter and stronger neodymium drivers. In order for a ferrite driver to produce the same level of magnetic force found in a neodymium driver, it would need to weight approximately 10 times more. Not that big of a deal with smaller headset drivers (aside from head and neck fatigue due to the added weight, as well as slipping down and off your ears over time), but when you’re looking at larger speakers found in home entertainment system and amplifiers for musical instruments, they’re just not that portable due to the weight. A 10lb speaker using a neodymium driver would be comparable to a 100lb ferrite speaker. That’s a significant difference in weight!
Samarium Cobalt Magnets
This is the last type of magnet found in speakers today. Like neodymium, Samarium Cobalt is a rare-earth alloy made from a blend of samarium (Sm) and cobalt (Co).
You likely haven’t heard or seen Samarium Cobalt drivers in any of your speakers, due to the higher costs associated with them, unless you have outdoor speakers in your garden or on your deck.
Samarium Cobalt was first introduced in the 1970’s as the strongest magnet ever until the introduction of their neodymium cousins. It shares similar properties as neodymium in being significantly stronger than ferrite and Alnico but differs in it’s ability to resist corrosion and temperatures variations. For this reason, Samarium Cobalt magnets find their uses in aerospace, marine and military technology – not really designed for headsets, unless you wanted one that would work underwater. Hmmmmmm…..
Summing it up – What this really means
For the audio and gaming enthusiast, the real difference between the magnetic drivers found in these headsets gets down to just two things – price and weight. To say a headset that features neodymium magnetic is better than a headset featuring ferrite magnetic drivers would be hard to ascertain. The neodymium model should likely cost more, but weight significantly less (comfort). The ferrite model will likely weigh more but cost significantly less.
If at the end of the day you find yourself comparing two similar headsets and one uses neodymium and the price is similar, then go with the neodymium for that extra comfort. Additionally, you might find headsets that use neodymium drivers are able to pack added features into the unit, due to the decreased size of the neodymium drivers. But for sound quality, they’re virtually identical.
One option where you might be interested in looking at neodymium drivers, aside from headsets is the power to weight ratio in vehicles. If you’re wanting to generate more horsepower with less weight, then selecting speakers for your vehicle made with neodymium drivers could substantially cut down on weight (honestly, we could be talking about a reduction of 50-100lbs in speakers alone), especially when you’re looking at adding woofers and sub-woofers, amps, etc.