Headphones are like cars—you can really find your favorites and get locked in to what you like. For example, switching someone from over-ear headphones to on-ear headphones is like getting an SUV-driver to acquiesce to buying a new station wagon (remember those?) It’s not likely to happen. But you want to understand the differences between in-ear vs over-ear or on-ear headphones and the strength that each affords. I actually use all three styles depending upon what I’m doing, and I think there’s a good reason you may want to consider the same.
But before I can make a case for persuading you to answer the question: In-ear vs Over-ear or On-ear with a final decision, I want to walk you through the strengths and limitations of each format. We’ll do this by looking at Portability, Noise Rejection, Comfort and Sound.
In-ear vs Over-ear Headphones (Earphones vs Headphones)
It’s only lately that I’ve been hearing the term “In-ear Headphones“. It’s like “earphones” or “earbuds” got a bad rap, and now the industry wants the let you know that those in-ear models it pushes are indeed a style of headphone. I think it’s more likely that Google got them to reconsider how people search for them online. Names aside, the typical in-ear headphone inserts into the ear canal, or sits just outside, and provides sound in a very portable format. So let’s start there.
In-ear headphones, or earphones, are, first and foremost, extremely portable. Because the drivers are so small and the enclosures not very large, they can be coiled up and stored in a case that’s often the size of an ambitious wet-nap…or right in your pocket. I don’t care how compact a pair of on-ear headphones claims to be, it’s not going to match the true portability of a good set of in-ears. For frequent travelers, the advantage of these earphones is obvious.
The concept of noise rejection headphones is an important one. Without it, you have outside noise competing with your tunes. That results in a couple things. For starters, it’s dangerous, as you tend to crank up your music when the outside environment gets louder. That can damage your ears over time and it’s not a great solution. Good dynamic range is best achieved by lowering outside noise, not increasing the volume of the listening material. In-ear headphones have the ability to reject outside noise without any fancy algorithms or noise cancellation devices. They simply can block out the noise by being properly inserted into the ear canal. Not all earphones are equally good at this. In fact, some earphones don’t insert into the canal at all, meaning they don’t offer what I consider to be one of the biggest advantages to the in-ear style. Consider this as you shop.
The biggest reason people cite for not liking in-ear headphones is comfort. Some people have very sensitive ears and so anything inserted in the ear canal is going to cause some discomfort. I would say that if you’ve only ever tried cheap in-ear models then you may want to give them another shot. There are also solutions like foam ear tips (as opposed to the more common silicone) and even custom-formed solutions that involve getting an ear mold made at your local ENT or audiologist. Comfort varies from model to model. While some people will argue that ANY in-ear headphone causes discomfort, I would suggest that you try a few different styles of ear tips before drawing your own conclusions.
The sound quality of in-ear headphones can be just as good as any on-ear or over-ear model, but they do tend to be a bit less open or airy. They are also very finicky, often producing very minimal bass unless inserted fully and properly (and even then it’s tough to get frequency response as good as on-ear or over-ear headphones). The sound is directly injected into your ears and so any psychoacoustic environmental effects created by having a space around your ears is lost and has to be done directly. Some of the most accurate sound I’ve ever heard has been through the use of in-ear headphones because they can be tailored for precise sound reproduction without any concern for exterior environmental affects and because they can exhibit such excellent natural noise rejection.
On-ear headphones (also called “Supra-aural” headphones) are popular because they can be made using lightweight materials and present a nice portable alternative to more bulky over-ear models. They also give you that more natural “open” sound and tend to allow more of the environment in since they don’t completely close off the surroundings like (closed) over-ear models. They are also a bit more portable than full over-ear headphones and offer some comfort advantages as well.
If you want more portable headphones but don’t like in-ear models, then a nice, compact on-ear headphone is for you. You can also couple this with the fact that most on-ear models will deliver better bass and aren’t subject to being properly inserted in order to get the expected sound. Still, even folded, a pair of on-ear headphones is going to take up considerable space compared to in-ear headphones and while they can work for portability, their strengths lie elsewhere.
I often associate noise rejection with travel and portability—largely because I appreciate noise rejection the most on airplanes. With that said, I have found that on-ear models run the board in terms of noise rejection. Certainly there are models with active noise cancellation. These will typically cost more (particularly if they sound good) and you’ll need to power them with a battery (typically a AAA cell). For those on-ear models with no active noise rejection, they can be tailored to produce natural isolation through a closed back design, or they can welcome the environment for those who prefer to have a more open phone and who aren’t planning on using them in the middle of a warehouse full of machinery.
Comfort is a huge win for on-ear models. They don’t tend to “sweat” as much as over-ear phones, so they can be worn for extended periods of time. Still, if you have issues with anything being on your ear for long, you may want to really make sure you have a comfortable pair. Soft leather, or soft synthetic materials do best for on-ear models in my opinion, and cheaper headphones in this category tend to cause minor ear fatigue over time. Since on-ear phones tend to weigh less than their over-ear counterparts, the headbands tend to be more comfortable as well, applying less direct pressure to the sensitive top of your head.
The quality sound potential of on-ear headphones is limited only by the skill and design of the manufacturer and headphone. These headphones have infinite sound potential and can range from basic, inexpensive models to more sophisticated audiophile headphones that boast full-range frequency response and hi-fidelity sound. Scratch-that, EVERYONE claims hi-fi sound, but with these phones, some models will actually deliver.
The last type of headphone in the in-ear vs over-ear is, of course, the over-ear headphones (sometimes lovingly called “Circumaural” headphones by guys in lab coats wearing propeller hats). Over-ear headphones are popular because they can provide a comfortable fit, with advanced features like noise cancellation and hi-fidelity sound. Not all manufacturers who make over-ear headphones product premium models, but there’s not much reason to make an over-ear product if you’re not serious about your headphones. With over-ear headphones, there’s a lot to like and a lot to watch out for.
These are not highly-portable headphones. That’s not to say that you can’t take them on a plane (I actually have a pair I take with me when I fly), but they won’t be as compact as a pair of over-ear phones or in-ears. Over-ear headphones are what sound engineers use and what you’ll find in many sound design rooms in Hollywood. They do a great job at providing natural isolation and you hear exactly what you need to, and very little else.
You get a lot of natural noise rejection with closed-back over-ear headphones, but this does vary from model to model. I have had some that allow quite a bit of noise in from the outside, and there are even models that are designed to be more open, allowing in more of the environment. The idea is that natural sound projects into your room and removing the tone and environment can create a less realistic experience. As they say, opinions are like…noses. Everybody has one. Over-ear headphones are also the most popular platform for active noise cancellation (NC). These products reject outside noise by sampling the environment with a pair of external microphones, and then playing back that noise out of phase. The inverted waveform effectively removes the noise, leaving you with your music—and a much greater dynamic range. These active systems are not without their challenges, however. I have yet to hear a pair of active noise canceling headphones that sound better than reference headphones without that technology. Of course, that’s in a quiet room. In a noisy environment (like an airplane), the NC headphones will win every time.
Over-ear headphones can be either extremely comfortable or extremely uncomfortable. You need to look for a thick, padded headband that will distribute the weight well across the top of your head. You also want ear cups that won’t sweat easily, so you can wear the phones longer. I have actually seen some synthetic materials that last longer and are more comfortable than real leather. Look for pliability and a design that doesn’t have all the weight focused at a single point on the top of your head. It’s unfortunate that the new wave in headphones is to encase the entire system in plastic. With these new designs I’m finding that the comfortability and flexibility is greatly hampered compared to the headphones of just a few years ago.
Some of the best sound you can get is possible through either closed- or open-back headphones. These are where the flagship or reference products are and where you will find all of the R&D that then trickles down to other products. If you want the most consistent, very best possible sound in a headphone, you are likely to end up with some sort of over-ear model.
This article doesn’t tell you exactly which headphones to buy, but it will hopefully help you understand what differentiates the models and why some people prefer one style of to another. Headphones are very particular, but don’t let your predispositions guide future decisions. You may be missing out, and lately the portable audio technology has advanced far enough that even I find myself being challenged by new products and new ways of producing sound. The best thing you can do is give a pair of headphones a listen.