Headphones come in all shapes, sizes, and colors — you can even get a pair for your dog! But with all these options, how can you make sure that you’re getting the best product for you? Today, I’m answering one of the most important questions you should consider. Which type of headphones are the best — in-ear, on-ear, or over-ear ones?
When it comes to headphones, one thing is certain: there are too many products to choose from. Perhaps that’s what makes it so difficult to buy a kind of headphones you’re not used to for the first time. In fact, that’s the very dilemma I recently found myself facing.
For most of my life, I’ve considered earbuds to be the best kind of headphones. In recent years, I found myself gravitating toward devices that can promise excellent sound reproduction and comfort without sacrificing portability. But which of the three types of headphones can deliver on those promises? Let’s find out.
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The Points of Comparison
When I was researching the three different kinds of headphones, I first set out to find similarities I could use to compare them. I’ve narrowed them down to five features. In the following comprehensive analysis of in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear headphones, I’ll judge the different kinds of devices based on their:
- Design — or the basic appearance of each of the three kinds of headphones.
- Comfort — which is especially important if you need to be wearing headphones for long stretches of time. However, I’ll also consider whether certain kinds of headphones can stay on or in your ears even after vigorous movement. Basically, can you work out unhindered while wearing the headphones in question?
- Sound quality — naturally, if you’re going to get a new pair of headphones, you’ll want them to sound good. Notably, people in the sound design industry place more importance on this feature, so I’ll make sure to take that into consideration as well.
- Noise isolation — most people want their headphones not only to listen to audio but also to block outside noise. So I’ll also judge our contenders on their ability to do that, as well as the amount of sound leakage they allow.
- Portability — for many people, this last category is the most important factor when they’re shopping for headphones. Can they fit in your pocket, or do you need a bag or a special case?
These are the main features I usually take into consideration when I’m looking at new headphones. As I have mentioned, until recently I was somewhat biased as to which kind of devices I was open to using. However, now that I’ve used all kinds of headphones, I can confidently compare all of their performances in the categories I’ve mentioned.
So let’s see what kind of headphones will dominate the competition, starting with our first consideration: the general appearance of the devices.
Right off the bat, we should establish what constitutes headphone design. In this case, I am referring simply to the appearance, as in the shape and style of the different kinds of headphones. Basically, we’re talking about the surface-level features, which include the materials the manufacturer used to make their product. So let’s start with in-ear headphones.
Intra-aural, or in-ear headphones, come in two different styles. There are ones that sit inside your ear shell, and earbuds, which go deeper into the ear canal. The difference between these two designs is substantial.
In fact, many people exclude one of these two styles from this category, though I wouldn’t go that far. After all, they both sit inside your ears, so they’re both in-ear devices.
Now, when it comes to build quality, it’s often determined by the price point. Some of these headphones are plastic, while others have metal parts. Earbuds also tend to have silicon tips that go inside the ear, unlike the other kind of in-ear headphones. But you probably won’t be able to tell which ones are higher quality just by looking at them.
On-Ear and Over-Ear Headphones
Next, we have on-ear, or supra-aural, headphones, which also come in different styles. On the one hand, you have regular headphones which have circular speakers that are about as big as your ears. They usually have adjustable plastic or metal headbands, with padding on the inner side of the band and around the speakers.
The smaller versions of on-ear headphones are typical behind-the-head style devices like these ones from Sony. Even the more modern designs like this one look a bit like the on-ear headphones you’d use with your Walkman. But then, that can be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you feel about 80s nostalgia.
Lastly, we have over-ear devices, circumaural (as in, they encircle your ears), which are the largest headphones you can find. They look similar to the first on-ear headphones I’ve linked to, except these products usually have larger speakers. But does their superior size make them more or less comfortable? Let’s find out.
I used to believe that in-ear headphones were better than other kinds of devices in terms of sound quality and comfort. Now, having tried all of these types of products, I’d actually put earbuds in the last place.
After all, both on-ear and over-ear headphones have the advantage of padding around the speakers. Ultimately, though, I believe the most comfortable kind of headphones can vary according to the occasion. For example, your favorite kind of headphones might change depending on whether you’re using them while working, sleeping, or exercising.
In fact, your ability to exercise with headphones won’t be determined by their general type, but by their individual design. You’ll probably be able to work out with any of these three kinds of headphones without fear of them falling off. People apparently exercise without a hitch with Apple AirPods in, even though they’re individual wireless headphones. So it’s all about finding the specific device that won’t slip out of your ears or off of your head.
If you like to work out with earbuds in, I recommend getting wireless ones with wires that would hold them to your ears. Even if you prefer to exercise with on-ear or over-ear headphones, I’d still make sure that they were wireless ones. Otherwise, both on and over-ear models should stay on without a problem.
When it comes to sound quality, over-ear headphones are the uncontested winners of the round. They’re the only ones large enough to fit all of the speaker components you need to get premium-quality audio reproduction. You can even hear the bass, which is more than I can say about in-ear headphones.
In fact, in-ear headphones as a whole take the last place when it comes to sound quality. While some of them can be high-quality in terms of sound reproduction, many of them are tragically off the mark on that point.
Just recently, I decided to get the cheapest kind of in-ear headphones, just to have some corded ones on hand. Believe me, the ones I got weren’t even worth the few bucks I spent on them. So when it comes to in-ear headphones, I’d say that good sound quality always comes at a higher price point.
On-ear headphones take second place in this portion of our competition. After all, they’re also large enough to pack a complete set of speakers that can reproduce audio fairly faithfully. Some of them can even play bass sounds. However, there is one thing that makes them inferior to over-ear headphones: they’re incapable of noise isolation.
One of the most important factors to consider when shopping for headphones is whether they’re able to block surrounding noise. As I’ve previously explained, most headphones manage that in one of two ways: passive noise isolation and active noise cancelation.
Passive noise isolation is when the physical attributes of the device stop outside noise from reaching your ears. In that respect, over-ear headphones are tied with earbuds. Earbuds prevent you from hearing the noise by closing your ears off in much the same way earplugs do. Meanwhile, over-ear headphones achieve a similar effect by creating a cushiony seal around your ears.
As you can imagine, over-ear headphones can’t give you similar results due to the fact that they rest on top of your ear instead of creating a barrier around it. That’s also why many of them leak sound outward. However, that also depends on whether or not a pair of headphones has a closed or an open back. Generally, if a pair of headphones is good at passive isolation, you won’t get much leakage.
Active Noise Isolation
Now, some headphones can build on their passive noise isolation features by adding active noise cancelation and eliminating external noises. So how does that work?
Well, these kinds of headphones typically have a noise cancelation mechanism that works separately from the rest of the device. First, the device uses a microphone to record the frequencies of the sounds around you. Almost simultaneously, the headphones play the opposite frequencies back to you. The two opposing frequency waves cancel each other out, so you should ideally end up with an even more effective noise isolation system.
Still, I should emphasize that this system only works for certain kinds of sounds and does absolutely nothing for others. For example, it can do wonders for repetitive, continuous noises like the sound of a train. However, it can do nothing for more sudden, irregular sounds, such as human speech, car horns, and similarly unpredictable noises. In any case, this feature is something that’s only possible when the headphones’ design supports passive isolation.
Finally, when it comes to portability, in-ear headphones take the first place. After all, you can just roll them up and keep them in your pocket. In this round, on-ear headphones get second place, and over-ear ones get the third due to their size.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that over-ear headphones are impossible to carry around. However, you might need to have a bag or backpack to put them in when you’re not using them.
Still, there are other factors to consider if you want to prioritize portability. For example, if you want to avoid having to untangle a 4-foot cord, you might want to go for wireless headphones. On the other hand, if you’d take tangles over having to charge your device, stick to a corded model.
A Quick Recap
Before I share my final thoughts on these three types of headphones, I wanted to offer a final summary of the five points of comparison we just went through. So let’s start with in-ear headphones.
The best thing about in-ear headphones is the fact that they’re incredibly lightweight. They can usually fit into any pocket, and if you get wireless ones, you won’t even have to deal with untangling the cord. But that’s basically the only criteria in which these kinds of headphones reign supreme.
In my opinion, earbuds can be pretty comfortable to wear for hours on end. However, the same can’t be said about the other kind of in-ear headphones — the ones that sit inside the shell of your ear. On top of that, there are people who don’t even like wearing earbuds. In fact, sticking speakers inside of your ear canal may even endanger your hearing, especially if you’re turning the volume up too high.
In terms of design and comfort, on-ear headphones are fairly good. However, they can start feeling a bit stifling if you don’t like the sensation of the cushions pressing against your ears. These kinds of headphones can also be easily portable, especially if you get one of those behind-the-head models.
Overall, I’d say that on-ear headphones are the perfect middle ground between in-ear devices and over-ear ones. On the one hand, they’re large enough to have incredibly good speakers. On the other hand, because they also save space by simply staying on top of your ears, they’re not going to give you any degree of isolation or privacy.
So not only will you be able to hear everything around you, but the people around you will also hear everything you’re hearing — at least if you turn up the volume. Say what you will about in-ear headphones, but at least that would be less likely to happen.
Ask any sound production professional and they’ll tell you that, if you want sound quality, you need to get over-ear headphones. Generally, these kinds of devices have excellent speakers. The cushions around those speakers completely encircle the ears, making them sound even crisper and cleaner. And, of course, those cushions are also the main reason why over-ear headphones are thought of as the most comfortable products in this category.
On the other hand, over-ear headphones come with certain disadvantages as well. Namely, they’re certainly not as portable as in-ear devices, or even on-ear ones. Due to their size, you may have to limit their use to your home or office.
Ultimately, all three styles of headphones would be suitable for different users and occasions. In-ear headphones and earbuds are ideal for travel and exercise since they’re so portable and they generally have good noise isolation features. However, you shouldn’t expect them to reproduce audio on a level you might want to hear if you were, say, a music producer.
Instead, audiophiles will want to opt for over-ear models, which have vastly superior sound quality. Still, they’re not very convenient in terms of portability. Now, I did promise to find the kind of headphones that offer excellent sound quality, comfort, and portability.
Surprisingly — on-ear headphones meet all of those criteria. However, you’ll have to reconcile yourself with poor noise insulation and leakage to use them. So you see, there are benefits and disadvantages to each of these kinds of devices. You just have to decide which features you’re willing to let go of.
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