There are several considerations to make when buying new headphones. With such a variety of different types of headphones on the market today, and each one delivering subtle but significant benefits, it’s imperative to know and understand the basics.
When buying headphones, the first question you want to consider is: what type of headphones do I need?
There are three main types of headphone hardware, yet which best suits your needs depends primarily on what you're going to be using the headphones for.
- Over Ear – Big and bulky with exceptional sound quality, as they are typically noise canceling
- In Ear – Small and convenient, often the most affordable while also offering a comfortable fit
- On Ear – When neither in ear or over ear headphones do the trick, a happy compromise
Over Ear Headphones
Over ear headphones, or circumaural headphones as they are scientifically known, are probably what you picture when you imagine DJ’s or recording artists. These full-size headphones have large cups that fit around your ears and press against the sides of your skull. They create a seal around your whole ear to drive a truly immersive acoustic experience that intentionally blocks out background noise from interrupting the ambient sound streaming into the ear canal.
These are usually the largest headphones, so traveling with them can be a challenge, but the larger size creates space to pack in better hardware. If the padding is good quality, they are often the most comfortable pair of headphones, suited to complement extended listening or gaming sessions.
A Brief History of Over Ear Headphones
Headphones are so prevalent in our society that it’s hard to imagine a world without them. But how exactly did over ear headphones come to be?
- The first commercial use of headphones was by telephone switchboard operators in the late 1880s. They weighed close to 10 pounds and were all about utility.
- The U.S. Navy bought headphones developed by Nathaniel Baldwin in 1910.
- Commercial stereo headphones, invented by Jazz musician John C. Koss, only hit the market in 1958.
Though in ear headphones were being used as well, most headphones of this era were of the over ear variety.
Over ear headphones generally provide the best sound quality because their size can house larger sound drivers. To that end, drivers are the hardware that convert electronic signals into sound. Large drivers are dexterous at reproducing sound and allowing for the most extensive frequency ranges.
Furthermore, the large ear cups create a seal, providing natural noise isolation. Active noise cancellation technology works by sampling environmental sounds and producing opposite soundwaves to neutralize external stimuli. The large size of over ear headphones makes them ideal to house the batteries this type of technology is fueled on.
Point being: If you’re looking for noise canceling headphones, over ear headphones are a fantastic choice.
As long as the padding is well-designed and made of quality material, over ear headphones are typically the most comfortable type of headphones.
Active noise cancellation technology, paired with padded cups, makes it so these headphones are fantastic travel buddies. If you want to drown out the engine roar on a plane, the voices on a train, or find a way to sleep in a busy hostel, over ear headphones can prove most necessary when noise isolation is preferred. In addition, when listening to music, the noise canceling effect helps to drown out external sounds to deliver high-resolution audio.
This is the biggest drawback of over ear headphones; their large size makes them inconvenient to use on-the-everyday-go. Though they may be perfect for long flights, train rides, or buses, their bulky design makes them challenging to manage, and their natural sound isolation renders the people and world around you difficult to hear.
In Ear Headphones
In ear headphones, or intra-aural headphones, are all about convenience. Small and portable, advancements in headphone technology has made it so manufacturers can pack higher sound quality into smaller hardware. Considering the small size, you may be wondering, “Are wireless headphones good?” Today, with in ear headphones, you don’t need to sacrifice the integrity of sound.
By inserting them in your ear, a seal is created in your canal. Thus, for those with an active lifestyle, nothing beats the convenience of in ear headphones. Whether it’s going to the gym, commuting to work, or running a 5k, in ear headphones are unobtrusive, lightweight, and easy to manage. It looks like you may be on to your next pair of workout headphones.
A Brief History of In Ear Headphones
It’s incredible to think that just a century ago, most people only heard their favorite piece of music a few times in their entire lives. But that changed dramatically… and in the span of only a few decades.
A brief history of in ear headphones:
- The genius inventor Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, and so began the era of recording and reproducing sound.
- French engineer Ernest Mercadier patented a set of in-ear headphones in 1891 for use by telephone operators.
- The patent for the phonograph hearing tubes is commenced in 1910 and is fundamentally the first pair of in ear headphones.
Though earbuds were used for specific purposes (like in the military) over the following decades, it wasn’t until about a century later, in 2001, and the launch of the Apple iPod, that earbuds swooped back into consumer consciousness.
In ear headphones can range from $2 to $10,000. The old adage rings true when it comes to this type of technology: you get what you pay for.
Their small size means that they can't fit large drivers in the earpieces, but more expensive models can deliver respectable sound quality.
These headphones, when strictly in ear (as opposed to earbuds that rest on your ear canal) have the best sound isolation because the seal blocks almost all external noise, while offering a comfortable fit.
High quality in ear headphones with ergonomic designs and memory foam earpieces can be quite comfortable. Still, the variety of human ears means that they can cause discomfort after a few hours of usage (unless they fit properly). Additionally, a person’s ear structure might complement a certain design, while others won’t fit “naturally.”
Portability is one of the main reasons why in ear headphones have become ubiquitous. Their small size makes them ideal to use while traveling and can easily fit in a pocket or purse. They are also the preferred headphones for athletic activities like running and working out (as they complement mobility). Some are designed to be used as a wireless option with an extended battery life, while others do require a wire connection to stream.
Today, the portability and convenience of in ear, wireless headphones is unparalleled, and to some people, this is what makes wireless headphones worth it .
On Ear Headphones
On ear headphones combine the benefits of both in ear and over ear headphones, but aren’t without their own disadvantages. On ear, or supra-aural headphones, sit on the ear and create a seal by clamping tightly to the pinna. They are smaller than over ear headphones and, therefore, yield higher portability.
An imperfect seal means less sound isolation or noise canceling qualities, but it also means that you can hear the world around you; this provides a natural sound experience and lets you interact with the environment while your headphones are active.
A Brief History of On Ear Headphones
On ear headphones took the stage in the 1970s, then surged in popularity a decade later.
- Koss, a headphone manufacturer, took advantage of the increased use of home records and dominated the market in the '60s and ‘70s by using modern marketing methods like celebrity endorsements. This drove the popularity of on ear headphones.
- The 1979 launch of the SONY Walkman revolutionized the audio industry. 3.5mm headphone jacks became the standard, and on ear headphones became popular since people now had personal, mobile music playing devices.
The next few decades saw incredible innovations in the consumer headphone market. It was finally customer demand (rather than utility) that became the driving force of technological advancement.
Smaller than over ear, full-size headphones and larger than in ear headphones, the sound quality can be phenomenal or subpar based on the make and model. On ear headphones create a seal by pressing on your ear and, as such, have the lowest natural sound isolation. Yet, for this very reason they are often coveted; being that when they’re active, you’re not isolated from your immediate environment.
To create a secure seal, the headbands are usually tighter than the headbands of over ear headphones; this can cause pain and soreness in the ears after prolonged use. Also, their smaller size means less cushioning in the ear pads and a higher chance of discomfort.
Despite this, comfort usually comes down to the user. Some people feel their ears begin to throb or a headache coming on if they use on ear headphones for extended periods of time. Others adore how they fit snugly and aren’t invasive (seeing as they don’t go into the canal). Of course, another variable here is the quality of the hardware.
On ear headphones offer better sound quality than most in ear headphones (of scale) and are much more portable than over ear headphones. This makes them ideal for the audiophile that doesn’t want to sacrifice quality for convenience. Many models are collapsible and can become quite compact; however, they can be fragile, thus most units would benefit from a case.
When it comes to on ear or over ear headphones for working out, on ear headphones are the clear winner, being that their smaller size and weight make them less cumbersome, and the tight clamp ensures that they stay on.
Again, you get what you pay for. With that being said, there’s no way to create definitives for in ear vs on ear headphones based solely on price. Thus, when it comes to in ear or over ear, this is what to look for in headphones:
- Over ear headphones are typically the most expensive
- On ear headphones are usually considered to be the middle ground
- In ear headphones have the most extensive gamut of prices, starting as low as $2
It’s not as simple as which headphone is better. As with most things in life, the “winner” is subjective, heavily dependent on the user and intended use. It’s important to consider whether this pair of headphones will serve as your workout headphones or will they be better put to use when you want to tune out the world.
Each type of headphone offers unique characteristics, benefits, and drawbacks.
In ear headphones are the most portable but have the lowest sound quality (on average). Over ear headphones can bolster an excellent, immersive audio experience but are expensive and cumbersome. On ear headphones are a compromise between the two but suffer in quality and convenience.
Thus, with the above in mind, what type of headphones you need depends solely on you!
The Smithsonian. A Partial History of Headphones. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-partial-history-of-headphones-4693742/
The Wall Street Journal. The history of headphones. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-history-of-headphones-1473274924
Google Patents. Phonograph hearing-tubes https://patents.google.com/patent/US1096024
The New York Times. The Pros and Cons of Noise-Canceling Headphones. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/07/travel/the-pros-and-cons-of-noise-canceling-headphones.html
The Guardian. What's the best way to pick which headphones to buy?. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/askjack/2017/dec/21/best-headphones-pick-should-buy-choose
CNET. Everything you know about earbuds is wrong. https://www.cnet.com/news/everything-you-know-about-earbuds-is-wrong/