Choosing Between In-Ear, Over-Ear, and On-Ear Headphones

When deciding on headphones, there's a lot of decisions that must be made regarding the make, model, and features of your purchase. Here's some information to help you decide between over-ear and on-ear designs.

Depending on what kind of lifestyle you lead, you might wear headphones often, rarely, or not at all. If you're someone that enjoys music and prefers to listen privately, you might find yourself using them on the bus, during road trips, or during flights.

However, even if you don't wear headphones often, you might invest in a pair for specific circumstances. Making sure you get the right design can make sure that you get your money's worth. When you buy a bad set of headphones, it can make your entire listening experience a pain.

Quality headphones can also be expensive, so you want to make sure that you're buying the right kind before buckling down on an expensive purchase. If you haven't quite found your favorite fit, or just want to learn about other options, this guide can help you decide what kind of headphones will suit you best.

Considering Your Needs

Before you can begin considering the differences between on-ear and over-ear headphones, you need to determine what you want from your experience. While buying a pair of headphones shouldn't have to involve serious soul-searching, you should have a good idea of your preferences.

Will you be listening in public? Are you worried about sound leakage? Is bass and sound quality important to you? Do you want to be able to carry a conversation, or are you looking for a noise-cancelling headphones? Will you be wearing them for long periods of time? Do you travel? Are you active?

While these are a lot of questions to ask yourself, they can help you get a better idea of what kind of headphones will fit your lifestyle best.

What Are The Different Types of Headphones?

When choosing headphones, there are three basic types of headphone: in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear headphones.

As the name implies, in-ear headphones, or earbuds, are small buds that you can place in your ear. They are also known as intra-aural headphones. They come in multiple styles, going in the shell of the ear, resting in the ear canal, or looping over the back of the ear. Variations on these themes exist, but earbuds are a simple concept.

Circumaural, or over-ear headphones, are the most common among musicians and music enthusiasts. If you're looking for the best sound possible, these offer the most coverage over your ear, and typically have the best sound quality and listening experience. Most models are also noise-cancelling.

On-ear, or supra-aural headphones, cover a smaller space, resting just over your ears. The difference between over ear and on ear headphones is mostly the size of the ear-area, and how this affects the headphone. They are smaller and more versatile and tend to be cheaper than bulkier headsets.

If you've never worn a certain type of headphone before, consider checking out a tech store and asking for a demo. Like clothes or shoes, headphones are something that you should try on for size first.


When it comes to portability, earbuds and certain on-ear headphones are a safer bet than large, clunky over-hear headphones. Many on-ear headphones can be slipped into a backpack or purse for easy traveling. While some models of over-ear headphones are foldable as well, these might not be as high in quality as other models.

If you like to exercise while listening to music, you might prefer to opt for earbuds as well. The ear coverings of traditional headphones might become wet with sweat, and they're more likely to fall off while running. You can keep a cheap pair of earbuds for exercising and use actual headphones for serious listening.

Noise Isolation

Over-ear headphones have the best track record for noise cancellation. Because they sit all the way over your ear, no sound can get past them to reach you. A lack of outside interference is important when recording in studios, so many professional over-ear headphones completely block out the outside world.

If you want to carry on a conversation or hear the world around you while enjoying music, on-ear headphones are much safer. This applies especially if you use public transport, so you remain aware of what is going on around you.


For those that use headphones for long periods at a time, over-ear headphones and earbuds are far preferable to on-ear headphones. Because on-ear headphones sit on top of the ears, they can squish them, making them uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time.

If you wear large or BTE hearing aids, going over-ear is really your only option. You need something that will fit over your hearing aid comfortably, and the large pad of over-ear headphones make this easier.

Many over-ear headphones come with cushions that rest against the skull, making them comfortable for the wearer. Earbuds might become uncomfortable over time, especially if they are larger than the ear or canal.

While comfort is important, you should avoid wearing headphones for too long, as the constant, direct sound can become loud and fatiguing for your ears.

Sound Quality

Once again, over-ear headphones offer the most immersive, high-quality experience. Professionals use over-ear headphones because they offer the richest sound quality, and they are large enough to contain more sound technology within. Not all over-ear headphones offer impeccable sound, but some of the best headphones are over-ear.

If you are just listening to music casually, or don't notice the small details in what you're listening to, there's no use in spending a fortune on expensive over-ear headphones. You might find an equally enjoyable experience in well-made earbuds or on-ear headphones.

Sound Leakage

Taking public transport, or don't want to bother your neighbor on the airplane? Sound leakage is a concern, especially when using on-ear headphones. Because they don't cover the entire ear, there might be gaps where sound can slip through.

If sound can come in through the headphone, it can also come out. If you're not keen on giving your seatmate an earful of your music or podcast, you might consider over-ear headphones. Earbuds aren't much better about sound leakage, depending on the design you get.

Go Wireless?

Bluetooth headphones are coming into fashion. Wireless earbuds have exploded in popularity this past year, but wireless headphones have existed for a while. Earlier models had spotty connections with their sound sources, but the technology has improved to the point where these are a viable option for serious listeners.

If you value connectivity and hate wires, going Bluetooth might be a great choice for you. Many people have serious issues with wires hanging down while they're trying to move, exercise, or go about chores. Wireless headphones eliminate the interference, making it easier to carry on about your business.

Alternative Options

As mentioned above, Bluetooth has opened up a variety of possibilities for music listeners and hearing aid wearers alike. If you're part of both groups, you should look into hearing aids equipped with Bluetooth connectivity and direct streaming. These features let you link your hearing aid with your phone, allowing you to enjoy music or podcasts without hassle.

Certain hearing aid models in the Signia lineup support direct streaming and are compatible with a number of streaming programs like Spotify. By making it easier for you to listen to your favorite artists and podcasters, they're eliminating the need for clunky headphones, wires, and easily broken accessories.

Making the Purchase

Once you've decided on what type of headphones you want, you can begin pinning down the details. These can include brand, additional features, and color/pattern. There are thousands of headphones out there, so you're bound to find something that fits with your aesthetic and sound preferences.

Regardless of whether you're interested in wireless headphones or Bluetooth hearing aids, this guide has hopefully helped you decide on what type of headphones will suit you best. There are many factors to consider, and these might conflict depending on your needs.

However, technology and variety make it much easier to find a pair that you'll like. Many headphone manufacturers offer headphones that focus on certain aspects of the listening experience, like comfort, sound quality, and noise cancellation.

Once you know what you're looking for, it will be easier to find a model that you'll enjoy using.

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