Headphones are designed in a variety of forms, shapes, kinds as well as degrees of sophistication. To make the best purchasing decision, it is crucial to learn the different types of headphones, along with their individual features and capabilities.
The size of a headphone affects the balance between fidelity and portability. Generally speaking, we can categorize headphone form factors into 4 distinct categories — over-ear (circumaural), on-ear (supra-aural), in-ear (in-ear monitors), and earbud.
But when we take into consideration some unique features and design in some headphones, we can increase the types of headphones to 9, adding other classes, such as open-back headphones, closed-back headphones, wireless (Bluetooth) headphones, noise-canceling headphones, and waterproof headphones. Let’s take a brief look at each of these types of headphones before comparing the closely related ones.
What Are the Different Headphone Types?
Also called circumaural, over-ear headphones are devices that go over and around the ears, enclosing them tightly. This arrangement enables them to provide some great bass responses, and they also come with the largest sound stage.
If you intend listening to music for a prolonged period, over-ear headphones are your best choice. But they have a serious drawback in the sense that they get the ears exposed to sweat and some discomfort if they are designed with improper padding.
Owing to their better shape & form, these devices are also more expensive and could even need some amplifiers for better performance.
On-ear headphones, which are also known as supra-aural, are special headphones designed to cover your entire ears. For this reason, they’re much larger than your standard earbuds.
However, on-ear headphones are smaller and more compact in comparison with the over-the-ear type.
When you wear them on your ears, the headphones offer you an immersive experience listening to music, and they also cut down on leaks. With these capabilities, you get to enjoy minimal interferences in the form of noise from the people in your vicinity, so the cans are ideal for use in public places.
Due to their sheer sizes, you’ll find them larger and bulkier to handle. Also, when worn for long, they could be quite uncomfortable.
In ear headphones, also known as in-ear monitors (IEMs) or canal phones, have their tips inserted in instead of over or around your ears. In-ear headphones directly channel sounds into your eardrums, which is why they’re quite effective.
They’re compact in size, making them suitable for use on the go. This appliance isn’t the type you share with friends because they pick up dirt easily in the ears; thus, sharing them may easily spread germs. Also, unlike the other types, their sound output is not so great.
These are very small headphones that are inserted in your ears and are typically wireless in nature. Earbuds are ideal for non-invasive listening of the sound & audio output.
Generally, these earphones are smaller, which is why they use less space. This makes them suitable for on-the-move use and applications.
Earbuds, just like the in-ear type, aren’t quite hygienic to use because they spread germs easily when they’re shared from one person to the other. Apart from that, they could also cause some damages in the eardrums when they’re worn and used for longer periods. Hence, you need to make use of them moderately.
In Open-back headphones, the backs are open because no barriers exist between the drivers and the outside world. In fact, in some models, you can see straight through between their outside & the inside.
Open-back headphones feature a wider sound stage as they primarily enable you to hear the music & ambient sounds simultaneously. Not only are they less bulky but also easy to handle.
However, their sound quality is poor. This is as a result of the fact that the real world sound’s mixed with the devices’ audio output. Additionally, owing to the sound leak, there’s no confidentiality, making them not suitable to be used in installations, sensitive to noise.
Closed-back headphones represent the exact opposite of their open-back counterparts and are audio appliances whose backs are completely sealed. With this arrangement, the sound output can be exclusively channeled to the specific point, where they’ll be able to get into the ear without hassle.
Hence, closed-back headphones emit sounds and music, which may not be very natural.
On the brighter side, they provide greater sound clarity as they block out sufficient amounts of background noise. But a major downside of this type of headphones is, when you’re wearing them, they isolate you from the ambient environment so you’ll lose touch with reality. This could cause issues and may even get you involved in an accident.
For this reason, the headphones aren’t safe for you to wear while driving.
Wireless (Bluetooth) Headphones
Bluetooth headphones are wireless headphones, which connect to the source of sound using Bluetooth, instead of a wire. They can be a mixture of many other headphone types, which could be wireless earbuds, in-ear Bluetooth headphones (devices that go in the ear canal), over-ear Bluetooth-enabled headphones, and so on.
Though some lower-cost wireless headphones could come with relatively lower sound quality, since the tech is there, you’ll enjoy a similar experience with wireless headphones just like you’ll using a comparable wired pair.
These headphones are designed to filter out background noise, allowing them to produce foreground sounds of crystal-clear quality. These appliances can do this by employing several techniques to soundproof and block stray noises, with the end result being deeply immersive & clear sounds.
While noise-canceling headphones are fantastic audio devices, they could enable you to lose touch with reality, which may get you involved with accidents. That’s owing to the fact that they completely shut you out from happenings in your surroundings.
For this reason, they aren’t ideal as on-the-go cans.
It isn’t all headphones that are designed to withstand water. If you want to really submerge while wearing a pair of headphones, instead of merely protecting against sweat and rain, you need a special pair with waterproof capabilities.
Thus, waterproof headphones are perfect for you if you’re a swimmer.
Comparison between Closely Related Headphone Types
Open-Back Headphones vs. Closed-Back Headphones
Design and Features
Open-back headphones: These are designed to prevent accumulation of sound pressure by letting sound escape through the back of their ear cups. This brings about an improved natural character & enhanced clarity.
In a quality open-back headphone design, you should be able to enjoy an organic listening experience, which feels like there is space for breathing. While open-back cans won’t deliver sound performance like a pair of studio monitors will do as the former can’t produce acoustic crosstalk, you’ll find that the 2 listening experiences still shares many traits in common.
Because they leak a great amount of sound, you wouldn’t want to take open-back headphones out in public. When you have them on, the person sitting beside you on the metro can hear everything you’re listening to lucidly.
Also, you can hear everything in your surroundings, and that is unpleasant if you’re producing music.
Another factor to note is that these headphones are very exposed to things like water. For instance, light rain can seep into their ear cups, which could damage them.
Also, open-back headphones and public spaces don’t go along well together. Thus, you should get them mainly for high-fidelity studio use, ideal for activities like mixing & mastering your music at home.
Closed-back headphones: They trap sound inside their cups while also keeping external noise out. Due to closed-back design in this headphone type, you will hear music with somewhat “stuffy” sounds. However, in several situations, the cans offer you much more pros than cons.
Closed-backed headphones are the headphone type, which recording artists make use of while in the studio as they help in preventing sound from bleeding into mics — an issue that will ruin recordings. A number of recording artists prefer that their headphone mix loud, and that could engender a better performance.
But as the recording engineer, it’s up to duty to give your artist a pair of headphones capable of mitigating bleed.
Also, it is pertinent to note that one of the smaller cons of wearing closed-back headphones is, they tend to make your ears sweaty as they don’t breathe as easily as we’ve in their open-back counterparts. This is an important factor to consider since you’ll be spending a lengthy production session, where it could be noticed that the closed-back audio devices peel off of your head.
Which Should You Buy?
Our recommended open-back headphones are the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro, which is a quality product designed for spacious and studio-like sound reproduction. It’s best suited to a studio setting for maximizing their transparent and clear sound, along with their above-average stereo imaging features. The audio appliance delivers good sound quality and comfort. These headphones place an emphasis on the low & high ends, and they offer excellent sound quality with a dynamic soundstage.
The DT 990 Pro sports a comfortable design, which is characterized by the replaceable circular velour earphone pads, which ensure long periods of listening without the problem of ear fatigue developing. It boasts German craftsmanship, as well as attention to detail, enhancing its durability & resilience.
The Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro headphones are designed to be lightweight and are perfect for professional mixing, mastering, in addition to editing.
As regards our recommendation for open-back headphones, the Sony MDR-7506 will be a good buy for you. They’re an industry standard with a lot of professional mixers, recording engineers, front of house engineers, and related experts.
These cans provide you with a clean and basically uncolored sound, and they’re great for listening to things without any disturbance from distracting frequency bumps.
They come with robust isolation for tracking. Also, the device lets you record vocals, woodwinds, acoustic guitar, or brass, and it won’t bleed out while wearing it.
Apart from these, they have an adapter, allowing you to use a standard ⅛ inch headphone jack or a 1⁄4 inch jack for pro equipment, in addition to a bag for storing them when you’re on the move.
The Sony MDR-7506 is a pair of headphones, which remarkably balances quality with affordability.
If you’re a professional that works as an audio engineer or a music producer, we recommend that you get at least a pair of open-back headphones and a pair of the closed-back type. This will allow you to get a good idea of how your listeners will perceive your mixes using various kinds of headphones.
On-Ear vs. in-Ear vs. over-Ear Headphones
Design and Features
On-ear headphones: These headphones sit directly against the ears. And to be honest, they really have no unique advantages over the in-ear or over-ear type. In designing on-ear headphones, they’re more about balancing your needs and looking for a cool spot between the portability of in-ear headphones and the audio quality of the over-ear type.
As regards portability, the majority of on-ear headphones are designed with travel in mind, and their ear cups are smaller than those on their over-ear counterparts. To ensure easy transport, several on-ears even fold up.
When it comes to comfort, it all boils down to your personal preference. On-ears don’t usually get as hot as the over-ears type. Also, they don’t sit inside the ear canal, and that doesn’t bother some users. But other people are more sensitive as on-ear cans can occasionally cause soreness from the constant contact with the ears.
With respect to performance, on-ear headphones can’t generate a seal like the in-ear and over-ear headphone types do, and that makes them (on-ears) less desirable when it comes to noise isolation.
The sound quality actually depends more on the product itself than the headphone type. However, on-ear headphones feature larger drivers than in-ears. This means that when we’ve them in the same quality and price range, on-ears often reproduce a wider range of frequencies.
In-ear headphones: In-ear headphones are arguably the most common headphone type nowadays. It is this type you will find accompanying a new phone from all manufacturers, including Apple that puts white “earpods” in every new iPhone’s box as a must-have accessory.
As a result of their small size, in-ear headphones rank the highest in terms of portability. Some models feature a travel case; however, for several users, it’s just as simple as wrapping the cord a few times around the fingers and throwing them in their pocket or bag.
Since tangling can constitute a problem, you can find in-ear headphones with tangle-free cords.
About comfort, the majority of in-ear headphones fit exactly inside the opening of the ear canal, which creates an excellent seal. Other models under this category are held on using small pieces, wrapping around the back of the ears. The comfort level they provide really depends on your personal preference, in addition to the way you’ll be wearing them.
While for some users, in-ear headphones are very comfortable, others feel they can be pesky and sometimes even painful. It’s recommended you opt for in-ear headphones, which make use of memory foam or Comply ear-tips, instead of hard plastic or silicon.
But if you buy a pair with silicon earphone tips, they are often provided in a couple of various sizes. Hence, to get a comfortable fit, it is vital to select the most suitable size for you. In spite of that, in-ear headphones are not perfect for use during hours of long listening sessions.
They are ideal for use if you need to listen to music while working out or jogging. The majority of in-ears will stay snug in the ears without falling out, and there will be no need to grapple with the problem that comes with sweating from leather-wrapped ear cups.
Since in-ear headphones are now very popular, judging the entire category with respect to sound-quality can be quite difficult. At the local drug store, you can get a pair of cheap, multi-colored, plastic in-ear headphones, or you can check Amazon for products from companies, such as Focal, Audeze, Astell&Kern, etc.
A great feature that the majority of in-ear headphones have that give them a comparative edge is their ability to create a nice seal inside the ear canal. This feature helps in isolating you from the outside world.
Furthermore, in-ears come with small drivers, which is why most of them can’t yield the types of highs & lows that on-ears or over-ears can. Also, they pump the music straight into the ear-drum, ensuring that they aren’t as spacious or “open” sounding compared with other headphone types.
But there are exceptions — for instance, the Audeze iSINE utilizes a planar magnetic design, which is not like anything offered by any other in-ears.
Over-ear headphones: Though in-ear & on-ear headphones each have their best uses, a typical audiophile will most likely choose over-ear headphones as their favorite pair of headphones. Over-ears are big and clunky. They are designed to be worn at home or at work, and not while on-the-move. However, the majority of the best-sounding and comfortable headphones belong to the over-ear category.
While a number of over-ears can be folded up and also feature a travel case, this isn’t their major highlight. Their portability is — over-ear headphones remain the largest and least portable of all headphone types looked at in this write-up.
Apart from that, wearing a pair of comfortable over-ears can be likened to snuggling up with a warm blanket because the oversized ear cups cover the whole of your ear. This ensures that there is no need for you to worry about the ears getting sore. But a number of higher-end over-ear headphones can be quite heavy.
For this reason, consider looking for a pair with a padded headband, in addition to comfortable pads on the earphone cups, which won’t make you sweat.
Owing to their high-quality materials & internal components, certain higher-end over-ears can be quite heavy. Ensure that you choose a pair with a padded headband and comfortable ear cups. An important aspect to consider is whether they make you sweat while wearing them for long listening sessions or not.
Since high-end over-ear headphones come with the largest drivers, they can typically reproduce the widest frequencies range, such as silky smooth highs to tight, deep bass. Over-ear headphones can offer good isolation and at the same time allowing a wide sound stage. They can do these because they enclose your entire ears inside the ear cups.
With respect to sound quality, all the world’s very best headphones are the over-ear type.
How to Clean on-Ear, in-Ear, and over-Ear Headphones
While noise is one of the major risks to your ear health due to prolonged use of headphones, multiplication of bacteria inside the ear is another risk to be wary of, which could lead to hearing infection.
As headphones pick up dust, sweat grimmer, and dirt, dirty in-ear & over-ear headphones can increase your likelihood of contracting ear infection. This is why it’s crucial you ensure the headphones you wear are sanitized and clean.
Here are the steps to safely clean your on-ear, in-ear, and over-ear headphones:
Cleaning on-Ear Headphones
- First dampen a piece of cloth by rubbing hand sanitizer or alcohol
- Then, wipe the outer area of the pads gently and allow them dry
Cleaning in-Ear Headphones
- Use a dry, soft toothbrush to get rid of earwax that’s confined in the mesh of your in-ear headphones or any clogged dirt
- Then, rub hand alcohol or sanitizer on a cotton swab & wipe the wire mesh; leave it to air dry
- For in-ear headphones with ear tips of silicone, remove these tips & soak them in soapy water; wait for about 5mins and let them air dry
Cleaning over-Ear Headphones
- First dampen a piece of cloth by rubbing hand sanitizer or alcohol
- Then, wipe the outer area of the pads gently and allow them dry
Please note: Over-ears, which are designed using specific materials like wood or leather, need special care.
Wired vs. Wireless Headphones
Design and Features
A lot of users often find it contentious deciding which is better wireless and wired headphones. While this debate has been going on for several years, it’s still unresolved today primarily because the 2 types of headphones have a certain fan base with a preference for only one of them.
According to research, the headphones & earphones market will grow significantly, hitting a net worth of $15.05 billion by 2024. This projection should give you an idea about how popular these audio appliances are.
Choosing the wireless and wired headphone can be a difficult exercise as each type features a unique design, in addition to a variety of other factors, including price, battery life, compatibility, sound quality, cable.
As regards price, if you’ve a tight budget and want wireless headphones, you may find them significantly costlier than their wired counterparts. The reason for this fairly wide price difference is, wireless tech is more expensive.
However, if you require portability, mobility, as well as the convenience that comes with being able to connect with your friends, family, and colleagues regardless of their location, then it may be worth shelling out the extra bucks for wireless headphones.
In addition to that, wireless headphones may also provide you with various fascinating features, which justify the higher cost. Certain wireless headphones let you play, skip or pause your music & manage phone calls without having to take out your smartphone or MP3 player from your pocket/bag.
On the other part of the divide, wired headphones are more affordable, and regarding price ratio to performance, they are often the preferred type, too.
Though they may not give you the convenience of wireless freedom or provide other exciting features, a lot of headphones offer in-line remote control, allowing you to adjust the volume, skip or pause music & manage phone calls. While you won’t have to charge your corded headphones, a broken wire can be an issue.
Cables (or Wires)
When shopping for wired headphones, there is no need to consider battery life as stated above, but you need to check cable quality. Over-stretched cables or broken wire is among the primary reasons that a good number of headphones featuring a non-detachable wire break.
Compatibility is another important factor to consider when it comes to shopping for wireless headphones. If you own an older Bluetooth-enabled device and are looking to purchase a wireless headphone, ensure that you check the version of Bluetooth your audio device supports.
Battery life isn’t something to think about if you want wired headsets. However, it is a vital when looking for wireless headphones. Consider selecting models with power-saving features and ensure that your wireless headphones have a wall charger & a USB charger.
If your music is in MP3 format, you may not spot much difference between wired and wireless headphones. If, however, it’s stored in FLAC/ALAC/WAV, you may notice that sound differences will become more distinguishable.
Nearly all wired headphones offer better sound quality compared with the wireless type. However, the recent advances in wireless technology is striving to change this as sound quality has improved notably in wireless headphones.
Which Should You Buy?
The pros of each of these 2 headphone types are top in their aspects. Professionals and artists, such as musicians, PC operators, and the workstation are quite familiar with the applications and benefits of wired or wireless headphones.
Wireless headphones are practical, innovative, elegantly designed, and offer you the best quality based on your requirements. Also, they’re portable and mobile, so are easy to carry. Further, with wireless headsets, you won’t have to worry about the tangling of wire, and they’re free to provide you with the needed distraction from everywhere in the environmental circle in every aspect.
However, wired headphones offer the highest sound quality as of yet, in comparison with the wireless type, and this is the big advantage between these 2 types of headphones.
Apart from that, if wearing the wired headphone gets you annoyed, especially when it gets all tangled up, then the wireless option is the recommended product for you. However, if you prefer cheap headphones that are also durable and long-lasting, then you can consider the wired option. More on that shortly.
Headphone designs come in a range of forms, shapes, kinds as well as degrees of sophistication, and to reach an informed purchasing decision, you need to learn the different types of headphones, along with the individual.
Generally speaking, headphone form factors can be categorized into 4 distinct categories — over-ear (circumaural), on-ear (supra-aural), in-ear (in-ear monitors), and earbud.
But when we take into consideration certain features and design in some headphones, we can increase the types of headphones to 9, including other classes, such as open-back headphones, closed-back headphones, wireless (Bluetooth) headphones, noise-canceling headphones, and waterproof headphones.
Additionally, the size of a headphone affects the balance between fidelity and portability. When considering the headphone type to choose, in this write up, we have explained the different things you need to take into cognizance.
Ultimately, what determines the product to go for is your needs, budget, style, and taste.