A Guide To Headphones - Headfonia.

Headfonia’s Guides to Headphones

Before we begin I’d like to start out by saying that Headfonia articles are mostly focused on headphone selection for music listening. So, if you are a recording engineer or a gaming enthusiast, we may not be able to give you much help there.

Rule #1: There Is No Best Headphone

The number one rule to understand when embarking on your headphone-search journey is to understand that there is no one headphone to rule them all. Like automobiles, headphones are made for different purposes. You have the supercars, roadsters, SUVs, 4x4s, sedans, to the compacts, and you chose what’s best for your day to day needs. There is no one car that can tackle snow and win races on the drag strip. The sooner you understand this fact, the more money you will save.

The key is to get the right headphone for your music, not the most expensive headphone your budget allows.

Dale: Some of the most important things to consider in selecting a headphone are the fit, any power requirements, portability, appearance if used in public, and whether the sound is oriented toward what you mostly listen to.

The fit isn’t always an easy thing to be sure of when you can’t try before buying, since some ear pads will not have a satisfactory fit to some ears. Power requirements aren’t a simple matter of looking at the impedance, since efficiency or sensitivity doesn’t always track directly with impedance. Another issue indirectly related to power requirements are whether the headphone has the option for ‘balanced’ use or some other connection that isn’t a 3.5 mm or 6.35 mm jack and plug.

Portability can mean many things, such as appearance in public, having a secure fit so the headphone doesn’t shift off of your ears, amount of isolation from ambient noise (including active noise canceling), whether the headphone can be worn around the neck when not listening or it requires a carry case, and when extra amplification is required, whether a suitable amp can be found that’s OK to carry along with the portable music player.

Rule #2: Headphone Characters and Music Pairings

If you think about it, a typical Rock song and a typical Classical track are very different. The presentation of the music is different, the instruments involved, the energy of the music, even the way they are recorded are different! Therefore, you need to adjust your headphone choice to fit your particular music.

After listening to lots and lots of headphones, we discovered that certain headphones have the right qualities for Rock, and another for Classical, and yet another for Electronica. We refer to this as the sound signature, or the character of the headphone. Don’t ask me why headphones have characters, just take our word for it.

Again, back on the automobile analogy. If you’re driving in downtown Chicago after winter time, the road is full of potholes. It would be nice to be riding in a nice SUV, rather than typical sports car with a fully stiff suspension. It doesn’t matter if your sports car happen to cost three times the cost of the SUV, it’s just the wrong car for the road. Likewise headphones. A $1,000 headphone can sound very awful on the wrong music. Don’t believe me? Try listening to Linkin Park with the $1,800 Sennheiser HD800. You will wonder where that $1,800 went.

Dale: The examples listed above are good general rules, but there also are so many exceptions and in-betweens that it also could be better to understand what is needed for your music, so you can narrow the search to the most appropriate headphones. For example, you may have heard that Classical music is a particular genre, but within that ‘genre’ are many very different types of music. Chamber music or pipe organ music may benefit from a headphone that’s highly detailed in the treble (a headphone that some users might say is bright), while harpsichord music and music that has a lot of strong trumpet sounds might be better served with a more rounded or softer treble.

Rule #3: More Headphones Is Better Than One Headphone

What I’m saying here is that it’s better to own three $100 headphones than one $300 headphone. Or three $300 headphones than one $900 headphone. Why? Because most people don’t limit their playlist to strictly one genre. And following the logic from Rule #2, the right headphone-music pairing is going to be better than one expensive headphone paired to the wrong music.

This is why headphones are so fun. It’s easy to switch from one pair to the next. Imagine if you were listening to speakers, you would need three different rooms to set up your three different speaker sets.

Dale: It’s really the same with any genre or sub-genre of music, that the sound from different artists and tracks can vary a lot, so having more than one headphone is a plus. When only one headphone is available at a particular time (portable use especially), one option is to use a headphone that can accommodate a wide range of genres, in which case there may be compromises to consider. Another option is to carry two headphones – one on the head or around the neck and another in a carry case. Some of the small headphones can make this easy to do.

Rule #4: Open Back vs Closed Back

Open back usually results in more natural sound, but they leak sound in and out. This means you probably can’t use them in a library or a plane flight since the sound of your music will leak out and disturb the people around you. You also can’t use them on loud public places since noise from the outside will disturb your music. Therefore, even though open back would give you more natural reproduction, for these reasons their use is limited to mostly at home or in the office (if you have your own space that is).

Closed back are not always inferior to open back headphones. They are usually easier to drive, making them a good choice for portable set ups. They also tend to have punchier bass which is good with most mainstream modern music.

One more thing, open back headphones typically require more amplification power than closed back. For example, some open back headphones like Grados and Alessandros still fall into the semi-portable category, but they would benefit from an amplifier because of their open back design.

So the bottom line is closed-back headphones are usually more practical and are easier to live with. Open-back headphones on the other hand have the potential to sound extremely good.

Dale: The examples listed here are good general rules, but one thing to keep in mind is in the mid-to-lower price tiers, open-back headphones aren’t nearly as common as the closed types. The smaller list of choices, and the more limited reviews of those items, could make getting a perfect fit more difficult. Sound stage and openness are often given as the advantage of the open-back types, but it’s just a general rule and some closed-back headphones excel at those properties. An important thing to consider is the music itself, since sound stage and perspective varies widely in different recordings.

Rule #5: Amplifiers

The rule that I use is that the bigger the size of the headphone, the bigger the need for amplification. Of course factors like driver sensitivity and impedance will matter, but the general rule of thumb is, use a dedicated headphone amplifier for a full size headphone. Even a portable amplifier can be enough, depending on the type of the headphones.

Also remember that open back headphones usually require more amplification power.

Dale: There are so many types of amplifiers (and DAC’s with amplifiers) that there is no shortcut for studying all of the options, unless you settle for the most generic approach. Important things to consider are power – if you don’t have enough power for your headphone and the dynamics in the music, clipping will result. Sometimes the clipping is “soft” and not readily noticed, but eventually you would discover that much of the detail goes missing or gets veiled with limited dynamics. Another consideration is whether to use a DAC, which may be a separate DAC or built into the same enclosure as the amp. Most DACs will improve the sound over the DACs that are built into computers, but when a DAC is available to replace the DAC built into most cellphones and low to mid-priced music players, you can usually expect a much greater improvement.

Rule #6: Garbage in = Garbage Out

Garbage in = Garbage out (GIGO) is a popular phrase used to emphasize the importance of a good source. This can be the soundcard in your laptop, the quality of your portable audio player, or the CD player you’re using for music listening. Those fall into the “Source” category. The better your source is, the better the sound will be at the headphone end. This is why we are seeing more and more audiophile digital audio players (audiophile DAPs). They are expensive but they sound good.


That should be all for now. Have fun with the search, and enjoy the journey!





  • Reply January 17, 2012

    P. J.

    Very nice read. I especially agree with the part that more (cheaper) headphones are better than one (more expensive). Not just for different genres but often I get too used to a specific sound signature that I’m in need of a refresh and other headphones deliver just that.

  • Reply January 18, 2012


    Excellent synopsis Mike.  As I am a relative newcomer to headphone audio this kind of article is really helpful.  Keep up the good work and thanks again for another great read

  • Reply January 19, 2012


    Regarding the Garbage in = Garbage out thing, is an iPhone no longer a garbage source if you use a quality amp with it? I’ll also be using a quality LOD too. Can’t afford a portable DAC right now but an amp is already on the way.

  • Reply February 5, 2012


    Nice topics, and by the way in the sixth rule, you mention the players, most of us doesn’t even care about this, so, which player do you use Mike?

    Oh, there is the energy too, a very very, uncommon topic that people often don’t think about, but some times a good eletrical source change’s the sound when you are using a tube amp for example.

  • Reply May 5, 2012

    Seth Oranburg

    Mike – Amazing website! Chock-full of great info. Yet after reviewing it I still have a question . . .

    Music keeps me energized all day (and into the night) at work — 70% electronica/dance/DNB, 20% rock, 5% hip hip and 5% other/classical — but I’m tired of low-quality sound and I’m ready to put my money where my ears are.  I want to buy a USB DAC + Headphone amp, buy headphones (or, per your recommendation, to buy 2 pair) to complement the amp and my choice of music, and get great desktop sound for around $350.

    Can you recommend some kit *combination* that will give me great sound from my laptop?

    The FiiO E17 “Alpin” + AIAIAI TMA-1 or Pro700 Mk2 seem like a mix you’d recommend, but I’m concerned those cans will be uncomfortable for day-long use.  Also I don’t know if that DAC/amp is the best for my style of music/headphones.  Third, some of my techno tracks have stunning vocals, and I don’t want to miss out on those high notes while enjoying the bass.

    Other than sound quality and comfort, I’d like to have reasonably low sound leakage.  If that’s not possible I can work with my office door closed, but it would be good to rock out privately with office door open.

    Once you’ve got that all order, to put a cherry on top it would be ideal for the amp to play nice with my laptops (PC at work, Mac at home) *and* my *iPhone* 4S.  I haven’t found a headunit that works with PCs and iDevices.  If one doesn’t exist it would be a big plus for the amp to include inputs so I can get digital sound out of my iPhone (with the Pure i20 or its ilk) and into my headphones.

    • Reply May 7, 2012


      Looks like your biggest concern will be on comfort. Should go with the TMA-1 as it is very comfortable, more than the Pro700 Mk2. Vocals on techno tracks are done differently on the mixing compared to regular pop/rock/jazz vocals, and the TMA-1 does techno vocals very nicely.
      Okay sound leakage, the TMA-1 will leak more than the Pro700 Mk2. Basically the Pro has a stronger clamping force which means less long term comfort but also less leakage, and the opposite for the TMA-1.
      The Alpen should be a great DAC/amp to use with either headphones, especially with the Bass/Treble controls.

  • Reply May 5, 2012

    Seth Oranburg


  • Reply May 5, 2012

    Bryan Wong

    Hey Mike,

    Been reading you’re blog ever since I wanted to buy headphones, it’s great!
    However, I am still kind of new too it and I bought myself a pair of Sennheiser HD25-II and an Fiio E7 which are great cause i’m in college and it’s a good all around on-the-go pair.  

    But now, I started to look at an open pair of at home use. Now knowing my limited budget, I started to look at something in ~$100ish region(willing to buy used). I listened to a friends Audio Techina A900 & M50(Closed, I know) but enjoyed that I could hear a separation between instruments and sounds – more so than my HD25s.

    I assume I would get that type of sound with most of open cans but don’t know what to consider.
    I’ve looked into AD-700, HD5x8 but not sure what else, what to do. 
    Wish you had an Open Can shootout haha

    Any recommendations?

  • Reply November 12, 2012

    Xander Dienorte

    Hi Mike,
    I’m Indonesian.. and quite surprised that you’re too. Are you local/foreign person? (Your english is exceptionally good for locals)
    Anyway, I’m looking for comfortable headphones for casual listening from my mobile phone, and so far I’m uncomfortable with portables. I have tried many portables in multiple stores, they sweat my ears after few minutes, and their small size never cover my ears properly. Recently I have experienced one of Clarion headphone (dunno which series, its price around Rp 99.000), while its big ear cushion cover my ears properly, I felt too much pressure on the area below my ears, probably due to its weight..
    Can you recommend me a comfortable full-size headphones on around $100 budget? My genre spans from movie soundtracks to j-rock to instruments, so I guess “all rounder” is a necessarry requirement..

    (I have read your full-sized headphones guide of course, but I can’t tell which one is comfortable just from those images. Maybe you can refer me to something specific, especially for big-heads)

  • Reply November 13, 2012


    Hi Mike!
    i’m searching for a good headphone with detail Sound.. i have two option: the ATH M50 and the Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro. i often listen to metal, rock, alternative, but also Jazz.. what do you recommend?

  • someone here try the lcd 2 closed back? any impression about it ?

  • Reply December 1, 2012


    Hey Mike, I’m a mixing Engineer looking to invest in a high end pair of headphones for when i’m forced to mix a song on the road. I already have the DT 770 pros and BEATS by dre headphones which i feel will be good enough for references. But I’m looking for a 3rd pair that really has a flat response and that is very detailed. I’m willing to spend $1,500 to $2,500. Are there any headphones you can recommend looking into. Thanks

  • Reply March 23, 2013

    Meg VK

    Have you had a chance to listen to the newly released Aedle VK-1 headphones? Although I think their design is beautiful I am wondering if their sound quality is worth the $350 they are going for.

  • Reply May 1, 2013

    Dean Lu

    wait, does that mean if i have onboard sound for my comp and i hook up an amp through usb, it doesn’t matter how good my amp is if i use the onboard sound?

  • Reply June 2, 2013


    Hi Mike! Help me with this endless doubt:, I recently traded my grado SR80 for a beyer DT770 PRO LE … had everything to go right but …..

    I just don´t t know, I´ve been missing that X factor in the sound…..

    So, after much research, I got a list for future new competitors within the same range $ $

    GRADO sr225
    Sennheiser HD598
    Audio Technica M50
    Audio Technica AD700

    Looking for an immersive headset, but not very analytical, warm, slightly bright, more pro up front, with serious and detailed footprint in the middle and crisp in the treble …

    From what I read about the HD598, it would be more readily domesticated grado version, not as aggressive, and this is the reason I feel very temped to give the senn a try…

    But who ever heard grado know it’s hard to get used to another signature right?

    Not to mention the audio technica m50, considered unbeatable in its class … with serious punch, medium and treble crisp detailed …

    So, the cards is on the table…
    tks Mike

  • Reply June 2, 2013


    Hi guys,

    I’m looking for a pair of studio headphones but I can’t decide. I want to produce dance music on these headphones since I don’t have $$ for monitors. The three headphones that I read most positive reviews about are the Shure srh 840, GMP 8.35d and the KRK KNS-8400. I read the GMP 8.35d are the best but I can’t test them since no shop sells them in my area.

    Which headphones would you reccomend to me?

    Thanks in advance for your reply!!

  • Reply September 21, 2013

    Michael Brglez

    hi? i want to ask a question. Im a complete newbie on the audiphilic side so i red on a site that the more the impedance is higher a headphone amp is requierd and less the impedance a headphone amp is not that much requierd cause the headphones with less impedance are made for portable players. Now let me get to the point im using cheap headphones the philips sbc hp250 they are old about 5 years and sound ok but i want to replace them so i use them mostly for listening to hours of music and i am also a musician so would it make a diference if i would buy a behringer headphone amp http://www.amazon.com/Behringer-HA400-4-Channel-Stereo-Headphone/dp/B000KIPT30/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1379715994&sr=8-6&keywords=behringer+amplifier and amplify those headphones would they play better cause now im having them plugged on a intergrated via vinyl soundcard http://www.via.com.tw/en/products/audio/codecs/vt1708s/. and they sound shitty on full volume. I am considering to buy new full size headphones and im willing to give max 80 euros for them so for the start i just want them to be loud but i want a clear sound at high volume levels. To be more specific i want a clear sound that is balanced in the lows mids and highs but not distorted and the lows should not be too much overpowered. I was sniffing around your site and found some sennheiser hd 202 ii they are not even close to 80 euros but i heard they sound great would they be better than these philips headphones and what other alternatives would you suggest me for max 80 euros

  • Reply November 24, 2013

    Aditya Borkar

    Hi. I have more or less decided that the Philips Fidelio L1s are the ones for me. I plan to use them on my commute paired with an iPhone or the iPad as the source. I listen to a mix of pop, rock, blues and jazz so I’m not after boosting bass but I might want to fiddle with the dial on the treble and mids. Which brings me to my question. You state in your review that the L2s pair well with the Fiio e17 which lets you independently adjust treble and bass. Could the same effect be achieved lower down the $$ curve via a combination of say a Fiio E6 (for signal amplification) and a Dirac or Accudio app for equalisation?

  • Reply December 6, 2013

    Joël Bühler

    Hi there.
    I already own the TMA1 from AIAIAI, the Bose AE2 and the Phonak PFE 012. At the moment I’m looking for a new Headphone. The Philips Fidelio L2 looks awesome (the sound also). The AKG K551 took also my intention (50mm Driver). The compactness of the Beyerdynamic and the Tesla technology took also my interest.
    Which pair would you suggest me? Maybe an other…
    I listen to almost all genres except classical.

    Thank you

  • Reply December 8, 2013


    Ah, so true! “It’s better to own three $100 headphones than one $300 headphone. Or three $300 headphones than one $900 headphone.” And just think that I was stressing out from owning too many headphones..

  • Reply February 6, 2014


    Hi there. I’ve got Senn 558s modded & have a HRTiStreamer which until last week I’d only thought to link between ipod & speakers. Can you recommend a headphone amp to add to this?

  • Reply August 21, 2014

    Sunna Jóhannsdóttir

    I am looking for a headphones that does not leak sound, I own aiaiai track headphones now and I like them a lot, but I don´t like the sound leaking. I listen to all kind of music, but mostly indie.
    Also (and this might sound a bit silly) I have a small head and I would like my headphones to fit and not to cover my head 🙂

  • Reply August 26, 2014

    Michael French

    Please help me decide on set of cans for 1977 vintage Marantz amp and JVC turntable system. I can buy a mint Fostex T20 version 2 or Yamaha YH-3 with typical wear. I have never heard orthodynamics before. Most of my LP’s are classic Rock. Thanks

  • Reply November 17, 2014

    Isaac Lee

    Hi, would you mind tell me how do i know what is the suitable music for a specific headphones? or i which type of music is more similar with another? cause i have a headphone that i think it plays classical music well but not music with strong bass.
    So iam thinking what other type of music is suitable

    • Reply November 17, 2014


      If you have a bass problem you could find a filter of some kind that cuts the low bass. Some bass controls can do that. I haven’t found a music genre that totally lacks strong bass, although “acoustic” sometimes doesn’t have strong bass. Mainly, you should make sure your system is matched properly with amp and headphone, so the different frequencies are in balance. Then you will have better luck with different music.

      • Reply November 18, 2014

        Isaac Lee

        Thanks! is there any link or article that i could understand headphones more?
        as in what to look for when i am planning to buy one.

        • Reply November 18, 2014


          There are many good articles here on Headfonia. You could click on Buyers’ Guides and read through those, then click on the Headphones topic header for each individual report. The “process” you go through is learning your own sound preferences, then matching that to the products that are available. It is a process, so you have to learn the major differences. Any shortcuts you take might be OK, but when you buy something that you discover you don’t like, make sure you can return that item.

  • Reply November 21, 2014

    Katla Sieltjes

    I had written a whole post thanking Headfonia for helping me research my home setup for my workstation, but I saw that it was deleted as ‘spam’? Well, then I won’t specify the gear I chose. But thanks anyway for your articles.

  • Reply November 22, 2014

    Alfred Tolentino

    Hi All, Help needed. I have a slight gritty noise coming from only my left side. I can’t seem to determine if it’s my amp or headphones. I tried switching the RCA source cables from left to right and then left to right, but the noise is still in the left side.

  • Reply November 27, 2014

    Tyler Hill

    So I am fairly new to the audiophile world and want to get my first setup, so to speak. I was thinking about purchasing a Fiio X1 and a CypherLabs Picollo amp. I’m also not sure what headphones to go with. Thoughts and help? Don’t really have the greatest budget so nothing too crazy

  • Reply November 30, 2014

    Worth Talley

    How is the HD700 for rock and metal?

  • Reply December 1, 2014

    Tyler Hill

    Alo audio national or Cypher Labs Piccolo?

    • Reply December 2, 2014


      It all depends on the source, music and headphone. more info?

      • Reply December 2, 2014

        Tyler Hill

        Fiio x1 w/ Phillips Fidelio L1

        • Reply December 2, 2014


          C5 < Nat < Pic

          • Reply December 2, 2014


            Hey Lieven!!

            What’s your choice of amplifier for the Alpha Dog for a warmer and bassier sound? I’m currently looking at the HiFiMan EF-6, Burson Soloist, Soloist SL, Woo Audio WA7 with the tube upgrades. Any thoughts on these with the Alpha Dog? My DAC would be the micro iDSD.


            • Reply December 2, 2014


              I would go Violectric v200 or 281 balanced especially for the warmer and more bass sound

              • Reply December 2, 2014


                Thanks L

              • Reply December 3, 2014


                I almost forgot to ask. How does the V200 compare to the V281 single-ended (essentially V220)?

                • Reply December 3, 2014


                  The difference in single ended isn’t too huge. There’s some more clarity and detail (less warmth and bass) but it’s especially the Balanced Out that is superb

  • Reply January 7, 2015

    Tyler Hill

    So I’ve gotten my Phillips Fidelio L1’s now I’m trying to decide on a player, both the DX50 and x1 have both been highly recommend. Thoughts? I’m also going to amp them, but I’m undecided on that as well.

  • Reply January 16, 2015

    Anonymous 00007

    I already own a few headphones, namely the Audio-Technica ATH-Pro500MK2, ATH-T500, Sennheiser PX 100 II & PX 200 II, and the Philips Downtown and Uptown (Rule #3). I’m thinking of adding a new one and I can’t decide between the Beats Solo 2, Grado SR80e, and Sony MDR-10RC (budget constraints). I listen mostly Pop/Rock and Classical music and I have a cheap (Fiio E06) headphone amplifier.

  • Reply January 29, 2015


    i have a sennheiser hd 439.. would it sound good with fiio X1 player?

  • Reply March 2, 2015

    Randy Outlaw

    Could anyone suggest a few good headphones for heavy rock and punk music

    • Reply March 2, 2015


      What source? Budget?

      • Reply March 2, 2015

        Randy Outlaw

        Ipod classic 160 gig nd the ipod touch 5th gen….any where from 0 to 300.00

      • Reply March 2, 2015

        Randy Outlaw

        I also do have a Fiio FiiO E17K Alpen 2 amp

        • Reply March 2, 2015


          I have the E17k also – sounds really great, especially from USB on a computer.

          • Reply March 2, 2015


            Review tomorrow. For the money, the DAC is quite nice, the amp, not a fan

          • Reply March 21, 2015

            Randy Outlaw

            I like my so far

    • Reply March 2, 2015


      For $300, one of the basic-model Mad Dogs or ZMFs could be really good. They have a really low aggravation factor along with planar-style bass (good for those genres). For portable use I like the B&W P5, ATH ESW9a, and Thinksound ON1.

  • Reply March 2, 2015


    Hello, I was wondering if you had any recommendations for portable headphones. I’m willing to pay 200-300 dollars. I listen to a lot of jazz and “indie” & although I love a good bass, I dislike when it overcrowds the rest of the music. I value comfort a lot & I want to use these primarily for when I’m out and about
    I’ve been looking at the Audiotechnica M50. Am I on a good track ? Any good leads would be appreciated.

  • Reply April 18, 2015

    Darren Jennedy

    Hey guys, nice article! Just thinking what Amp should I buy, or should I buy a DAC/Amp? I’ll be using the Sony Z3 Compact for my player, and the Sony MDR 1A, and the Aedle VK-1 for the headphones. Thinking of the Ibasso D-Zero Mk II if DAC/Amp (When are you going to write a review on these xD) or the Fiio E11K or the E12A if amp. Thanks!

    • Reply April 18, 2015


      D-Zero mkII, probably over the next few months

      • Reply April 18, 2015

        Darren Jennedy

        Thanks! Oh, and BTW, the Fiio X3 2nd Gen just became in stock in the headfoniastore, should I buy that instead or buy the D-Zero? Again, DAP and DAC/Amps are very different, just want to know :p

        • Reply April 19, 2015


          You can’t compare these

          • Reply April 19, 2015

            Darren Jennedy

            Yeah, it’s a stupid question, just wanted to know 😀 guess I’ll be buying the D-Zero! Thanks again!

  • Reply May 31, 2015


    Great article, thanks a lot for these information. I was ready to spend much more money than I should. I want to ask you something, what headphones should I look for rock/hard rock music? And of course if you have something in mind, that s under 100€ (for amateur use).

  • Reply September 26, 2016


    Congratulation!!! This is one of the best independent headphones guide that I have found.

    Great job!!! My journey ended with Grado RS1i and RS2i. I had the opportunity to bought them used. Yes!!! I listen Jazz Fusion and Classic. It paired with AT-HA22 tube amp with Phillips PCC88 tubes.

  • Reply June 27, 2017



  • Nobody tested if mystic coins are needed for the second recipe too?
    bague bulgari or blanc replique http://www.bvlbzero.cn/fr/

  • Reply August 21, 2018

    Steven Zore

    A decent DAP like a fiio F7 mkii is cheaper than a lot of high end cell phones.

  • Reply April 16, 2020

    Tae Kun Kim

    I have a headphon, Stax condenser type SR-X + SRD-7
    but I don’t know how to hook it to my amp and speaker.
    Could anyone teach me?
    Ted Kim

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