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Which type of headphones is best for you?
Over-Ear vs On-Ear vs Earbuds vs In-Ear

Headphones come in many different designs but fall into four distinct types: Over-Ear, On-Ear, Earbuds, and In-Ear. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages, which affects how well-suited they will be in certain environments and conditions. The kind of headphone that will work best for you will depend on your preferences and listening habits. 

Over-Ear

What it is: Over-Ear headphones typically have thick headbands and large ear cups that fully encompass the ears.

Who should buy it: Listeners who want an easy-to-achieve comfortable fit and don't mind the larger headphone size. 

See our best Over-Ear Headphones

On-Ear

What it is: On-Ear headphones are usually more compact than over-ear designs. They have smaller ear cups that rest on the ears and also slightly less bass.

Who should buy it: Listeners who want a decently comfortable fit in a more compact design.

See our best On-Ear Headphones

Earbuds

What it is: Earbuds are small, ultra-portable headphones with ear bud tips, that rest at the edge of the ear canal.

Who should buy it: Listeners who want an ultra-portable design and find an in-ear fit uncomfortable.

See our best Earbuds/In-ear Headphones 

In-Ear

What it is: In-ear headphones are also ultra-portable with small ear bud tips, which are inserted into the ear canal.

Who should buy it:  Listeners who want an ultra-portable design and are comfortable with the in-ear fit.

The different types of headphones are compared based on comfort, portability, noise isolation, leakage, and sound. This comparison, however, does not take into account the open back variations of these headphones. Check our Open vs Closed article to see which enclosure type will be most suitable for you.

Headphone Types Correlation  Over-ear On-ear Earbuds In-ear
Comfort Strong Great Good Mediocre Poor
Portability Strong Poor Mediocre Great Great
Noise Isolation Moderate Good Mediocre Poor Great
Leakage Moderate Poor Mediocre Good Great
Sound Weak - - - -

Comfort

Over-Ear
Great comfort
On-Ear 
Good comfort 
Earbuds
Mediocre comfort
In-Ear
Poor comfort

Comfort is a headphone’s ability to provide a physically pleasant listening experience, which does not cause soreness or pain over time. Comfort is subjective and will depend on the listener’s ability to achieve the intended fit for the type of headphone they have chosen.

Results: Over-ear headphones are typically the most comfortable design. They are easy to wear, usually well-padded and do not apply as much tension to your head as on-ear models. The in-ear design, on the other hand, applies pressure directly to the ear canal, which depending on the listener, can be a very uncomfortable listening experience.

Earbuds do not exert tension in the ear canal or on the head making them somewhat comfortable. Unfortunately, a good fit is difficult to achieve. As for on-ear, they are easy to wear and moderately comfortable, but they apply pressure on the ears, to maintain a stable fit. This can get uncomfortable and cause listening fatigue quicker than over-ear headphones.

Winner: Over-Ear 

Runner-up: On-Ear

Learn more about comfort

Portability

Over-Ear
Poor portability
On-Ear
Mediocre portability 
Earbuds
Great portability
In-Ear
Great portability

Portability refers to the ease of transport of the headphones’ design. This means the volume of space the headphones take once folded and carrying options provided for transportation. Carrying options such as cases and pouches, depend on the headphone manufacturer and therefore are not included in this comparison.

Results: In-Ear and earbuds are the most portable types of headphones. Their small size makes them easy to carry in pockets or bags. On the other hand, over-ear headphones are a lot bulkier and occupy a larger volume of space than all other designs even if some models fold up for easier transport. On-ear headphones have varying sizes but are more compact and easier to carry than over-ear headphones.

Winner: Earbuds and In-Ear

Runner-up: On-Ear

Noise Isolation

Over-Ear
Good isolation
On-Ear 
Mediocre isolation 
Earbuds
Poor isolation
In-Ear
Great isolation

Noise isolation is a headphones' ability to isolate you from the outside world by blocking or canceling the ambient noise that seeps into your audio. For noise isolation, only passive isolation is considered for this comparison, as the efficiency of active noise canceling is entirely dependent on the manufacturer.

Results: From our tests, In-Ear headphones provide the most passive isolation.The seal that the in-ear design provides is efficient at blocking high-frequency noise. However, the fit may be difficult to achieve. Earbuds are the worst performers in this category not filling the ear canal like in-ear and not having enough surface area to prevent ambient noise from seeping into your audio.

Over-Ear headphones are second best at providing passive isolation, being able to block a decent amount of ambient noise without active cancellation. On-ear, on the other hand, do not perform as well. The typically smaller ear cups, rest on the ears and do not always create a great seal. They are slightly better than earbuds because they have more surface area but not as good as in-ear or over-ear designs.

Winner: In-Ear

Runner-up: Over-Ear 

Learn more about noise isolation

Leakage

Over-Ear
High leakage
 On-Ear
Medium leakage  
Earbuds
Low leakage
In-Ear
Low leakage

Leakage is the sound that escapes the seal of the ear cups or ear buds. Loud leakage can be distracting to the people around you at high volumes.

Results: Our test results show that In-ear headphones are the least likely to leak, their size allows the small drivers to be directly placed into the ear canal and also needs less power to achieve the same perceived loudness. Not much sound escapes if a good seal is achieved. Over-ear headphones, on the other hand, have big drivers that can get quite loud. If the seal is not great, they will easily leak a wider range of frequencies than all other headphone types. Leakage is worse with open back variations. It is encouraged in the design of the headphones to achieve a better sound stage.

Earbuds also have small drivers that do not sound loud at a distance. Therefore, leakage is not very high. On-ear headphones typically have less leakage than over-ear models, but leak more than earbuds due to their larger drivers and sometimes poor on-ear seal.

Winner: In-Ear

Runner-Up: Earbuds

Learn more about leakage

Sound

Over-Ear
On-Ear 
Earbuds
In-Ear

Sound quality has a weak correlation with the type of headphones. This means the quality of the sound will depend more on the model you choose than on the type. A great pair of earbuds will sound better than mediocre over-ear headphones and vice-versa.

Although there is no direct correlation to sound quality, the design of headphones can sometimes improve certain aspects of sound, like soundstage, frequency response and total harmonic distortion. Bigger drivers can usually produce better bass and large open-back earcups, often have a more spacious soundstage. Harmonic distortion can also be affected by driver size but like the other sound components, it will depend more, on the model you choose.

Learn more about sound quality

 

Conclusion

  • Over-Ear Headphones are ideal if you are looking for comfortable headphones and don't mind the larger size. They typically block a decent amount of ambient noise but may leak more than the other designs, which could disturb the people around you. 
  • On-Ear headphones are ideal for listeners who want a good level of comfort but in a more compact format than over-ear headphones. However, they are usually mediocre at blocking noise and often leak quite a bit of sound. 
  • Earbuds are ideal for the listeners who want an ultra-portable design that's easy to carry in a purse or pocket and don't find the fit of an in-ear headphone comfortable. They don't leak much sound and won't disturb the people around you.
  • In-Ear headphones are ideal for listeners who want an ultra-portable design and are comfortable with the in-ear fit. They block a substantial amount of ambient noise and don't leak much sound. They are perfect for use in an office or a library.

Sound quality varies from headphone to headphone. Although some aspects of sound are affected by the headphone's design, there is no strong correlation. Sound quality will depend more on the headphones you choose rather than the type.

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Questions & Answers

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I just purchased a pair of Bose QC35 headphones and have the following observation. I tried using them to practice playing drums with them and they are fine except for one annoying issue. When I play a bit hard, I am hearing a pop that corresponds to my stick hitting the head. It sounds like the headphones are being overloaded with sound even though I am playing them at about a quarter volume. It almost sounds like "clipping" at high volume. Any ideas what might be causing this? Would there be a very high quality headphone that is non-ANC that would not possibly have this issue? I am wondering if the ANC is causing this problem. Thanks

We didn't have a source loud-enough in the office to replicate your scenario, and although we were able to get a couple of clicks out of the headphones by exposing them to loud noise, the clicks were not consistent enough to indicate a overload of some kind.

Since it is quite possible that the drums are overloading the ANC, a good non-ANC alternative to the QC35 would be the Audio Technica ATH-M50X.

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