Obviously the build quality of the ear pads matters, but otherwise here are a few truisms I’ve heard and felt over the years.
Ear Pad Depth Enhances Bass and Sound Stage.
I’ve had several headphones that came with shallow ear pads, and when switching to deeper ones consistently noticed that the bass was more robust and the general presentation of instruments seemed wider in a pleasing way.
Headphones like the Denon AH-D5000, which were often described as bassy and having a wider sound stage than closed back headphones often have, indeed came with large, deep leather pads. This gave them a luxuriously soft feel when worn, and gave them a lively and fun sound.
Ear Pad Material Affects Breathability and Sound
In terms of changing the sound of the headphones, I’ve always found that the size of the pads changes more than the material.
However, cushy valour pads versus leather do strike me as having a few perceivable differences worth mentioning.
Velour pads tend to be the most comfortable. They’re soft, and a good set will have just the right amount of give for comfort yet retain some breathability so your ears aren’t sweating after an hour of listening.
When we’re talking thick velour pads, you still get some extra bass and sound stage. In fact, I feel valour pads have a slightly better sound stage than leather pads.
Leather pads can be pretty comfortable, too. But they aren’t as breathable, and wearing them when it’s hot out and there’s no air conditioning can be pretty sweaty.
Thick leather pads probably offer the biggest bass boost. On some headphones like the AH-D5000 it gives them a punchy, deep sound that’s warm overall. Some people may find the bass overpowering, but I’ve always enjoyed strong bass myself as long as it isn’t sloppy.
On headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 I’ve tried different kinds of aftermarket pads, even 2 from Dekoni. (The big leather ones and the Elite Hybrid pads.)
There’s not a huge difference sound-wise, but I’d say there is slightly more bass in leather pads and slightly better sound stage in velour/cloth pads.
What I like about Dekoni’s Elite Hybrid pads is the outer pad is leather, and the part that touches your head is velour. This makes them extremely comfortable and shares the audible advantages of each material.
I find the Elite Hybrid pads give the DT 1990 a more enjoyable sound than the stock pads. Not that the bass was weak on the 1990, but it’s punchier with the Elite pads and that 8KHz region where these headphones are a bit hot is tamed well. They are still bright headphones, but no longer in a way that’s overly harsh to my ears.
Not to mention that the thick cushion of those pads absorbs a lot of the clamping force of the DT 1990 that can be uncomfortable if you’re wearing glasses.
2 Stand Out Examples of Ear Pads
When it’d hit the 10 year or so mark of owning the Denon AH-D5000 headphones, the headband and ear pads were worn out and flaking badly. It also negatively affected their sound.
With aftermarket options I was able to replace the headband to something that was actually far more comfortable then the original one. The new earpads that were on par with Denon’s original leather pads in comfort and sound, and instantly restored everything I loved about the headphones.
Because the Denons have less clamping force and are lighter than the Beyerdynamic DT 1990, I actually find the D5000 to be the most comfortable I’ve worn in years. The DT 1990 with Dekoni pads are pretty comfy, but I can easily wear the Denons for hours.
Probably the most disappointing ear pads I’ve used are the two stock options for the V Moda M100. The small stock pads that come with them are not comfortable. There’s way too much clamping force, they’re hot, and when you’re wearing glasses the sides of your head hurt.
Even upgrading to the XL pads V Moda offers doesn’t help enough. Some of that clamping force is alleviated and the sound stage is better, but the cushion inside the pads goes flat in 6 months and then you’re pack to square one. It’s a well known issue, unfortunately, with those headphones and pads.
Shopping For Ear Pads? Last Thoughts:
Unless you have personal reasons for not wanting actual animal leather ear pads, I’d recommend sticking with actual leather material rather than PU Leather (pleather) or other synthetic materials for two reasons:
- Real leather lasts longer and doesn’t flake off as it ages like synthetic leather does.
- Generally, since the price tag is higher with real leather the stitching and padding is better quality as well. Most of the cheaper ear pads that don’t get good reviews are cheaply made synthetic leather. That’s not to say you can’t get a quality made set made of synthetic leather. And having real leather isn’t a guarantee of good build quality, but I find the odds will be higher.
If your headphones cost more than $150, I would recommend spending at least $30 on replacement ear pads. (Dekoni pads are $50-70, but worth it.) This will help ensure good padding and stitching, and that the pad material will be comfortable and won’t diminish the sound quality.
Some may scoff at the idea of spending that much of ear pads, especially if they aren’t buying $500+ headphones. My take is that I’ve seen how much of a difference a good pair of ear pads can make in my enjoyment of headphones, so any headphone that was worth spending some real money on is worth getting good pads.
Hope this helps in your search!