The headphone industry has exploded in a relatively short space of time. Remember the dark days of the early 2000s when MP3s were all the rage, and your average listener was using the stock earbuds that came with their player.
Well, those days are long behind us, and buyers are now faced with an incredible amount of choice. On paper, choice is a good thing. But in reality, you can sometimes have too much of a good thing. And the sheer amount of available products can be overwhelming.
When looking to buy new headphones…
You need to ask yourself some key questions. For example, what will I generally be using them for and for how long? Is comfort more important than sound quality? What’s my maximum budget?
Once you’ve answered questions like this, you’ll be better equipped to decide which type of headphones best suits your needs.
To make that decision a little easier, I’ve put this guide together, breaking down the various pros and cons of in-ear vs. on-ear vs. over-ear headphones. So without further ado, let’s dive in by taking a look at each type…
In-ear headphones, otherwise known as earbuds or in-ear monitors, are the most commonly used headphone type on the market. They sit inside your ear and generally use foam or silicone ear tips to form a seal in your ear canal.
In-ear headphones can be either wired, usually with a 3.5 mm jack, or wireless. Meaning they rely on Bluetooth to make a connection. Wireless in-ear headphones have no cabled connection to the device but will have a wire between the two earbuds, usually housing a battery, in-line remote, and a microphone.
True wireless in-ear headphones dispose of the wire connecting the buds completely. Housing everything you need in the earbud itself. As a result, they are usually bulkier than their wired and wireless counterparts.
As a general rule, in-ear headphones aren’t the most comfortable of the three styles. They are quite invasive when you think about it. That being said, comfort levels can vary enormously depending on the model. And many companies have produced some innovative designs to place less stress on your ear.
Most models come with a range of different-sized ear tips to facilitate a good fit. As well as lessen the chance of them sliding out or being uncomfortably large. Some of the more sports-focused models employ ear wings and ear hooks. However, these designs don’t tend to increase overall comfort. All they do is place increased stress on other parts of your ear.
For those looking to wear their headphones for extended periods, in-ear headphones are not the best choice. The majority of models cause a degree of ear fatigue after a couple of hours of use, requiring a break from listening to relieve the situation.
By nature of their diminutive design, in-ear headphones are the most portable of any headphone design. They take up way less room, whether they are being carried in a bag or stuffed in your pocket. For convenience, nothing else comes close.
Most models will come with a carrying pouch or a charging case if they are true wireless earbuds. Charging cases are usually small enough to fit in a pocket and provide excellent levels of protection from potential damage.
Cheaper wired models can often be prone to cable tangling, which is a surefire way to damage the connection. You should look to buy earbuds with a tangle-free wire.
Suitability for working out
Earbuds are generally the headphone of choice for working out. There’s a whole section of the market devoted to sports-based earbuds.
They are lightweight and small. And if you can find a good fit, will stay in your ears and not get in the way of your exercise. Most sport buds are also manufactured to be sweat and rain-resistant. A must-have feature if they are to survive your sweaty trips to the gym.
There’s no argument here. On average, in-ear headphones provide the lowest level of sound quality of the three types. There simply isn’t room to fit the kind of components needed for top-quality audio reproduction.
Driver size is limited to 8-12mm, which places constraints on the frequency response range, especially affecting quality bass reproduction. Cheap to mid-range priced models can often sound a little tinny.
There are some high-performing in-ear headphones…
The difference in sound quality between a cheap pair that comes with your phone and a top-of-the-range model is like night and day. But they don’t come close to the level of refinement, detail, and raw power you can get with on-ear or over-ear headphones.
They also fail to produce a spacious or open sound stage as the music is funneled straight into your ear canal.
In-ear headphones can provide a good level of passive noise isolation as long as there’s an effective seal. This shouldn’t be a problem as most models come with a wide range of ear tips. Memory foam tips are usually more effective for creating the best seal and blocking out ambient noise intrusion.
- Lightweight design.
- Best for working out.
- Highly portable.
- Generally cheapest.
- Good noise isolation.
- Limited sound quality.
- Not always comfortable.
Moving right along with this In-Ear vs. On-Ear vs. Over-Ear Headphones showdown are on-ear headphones. These are designed to sit on the outer edges of your ear.
They provide a balance between the convenience and portability of in-ear headphones and the superior sound reproduction of over-ear models. And they connect via a standard 3.5mm wired jack, or via Bluetooth, with some models sporting both options.
Comfort levels can vary greatly between different models, depending on the thickness and softness of the earpads and the materials used in their construction. The clamping force of the headband will also play a big part in this.
The correct degree of clamping force is a tricky thing to get right with on-ear headphones. The pressure exerted directly onto the ear will have more of an effect than over-ear models, where the force is distributed onto the side of the head and the jaw. The soft tissue of the ear is more sensitive to excessive force, and this can result in discomfort after a while.
Headbands for on-ear headphones…
These are also not as well designed. Featuring less padding than over-ear models, as they don’t have as much weight to support. However, this can also lead to pressure spots if the padding is particularly thin.
On the plus side, they allow your ears more space to breathe than over-ear models because they don’t create as much internal heat, and therefore less sweat.
Whilst not nearly as portable as in-ear headphones, on-ear models are significantly easier to lug around than their over-ear counterparts.
The earcups are significantly smaller, and the headband is usually hinged so that they can fold down to a far smaller footprint. Cheaper models will come with a carrying pouch. Splash out on a more expensive model, and you can expect a hard carry case which will provide a much higher level of protection.
And because most on-ear headphones are foldable, the carrying case is that much smaller too. They’ll take up way less space in a bag or suitcase if you’re off on holiday.
Suitability for working out
In-ears are the go-to choice for most work-outs, especially more vigorous activities. But, for more static exercises, on-ear headphones can work just as well.
Manufacturers are increasingly adding water resistance to their on-ear headphones to boost their exercising credentials. Although on-ears don’t cause as much sweat as over ears, they certainly will if being used for exercise. So it’s good to see companies addressing this issue.
However, the earpads are likely to get pretty grim over time if they are regularly soaking up sweat. Fortunately, most models offer replacements if things get over-ripe. A few models also feature an ear hook design with a neckband rather than a headband. These can be used more effectively for running or other more mobile pursuits.
Due to the increased driver size, on-ear headphones have a broader frequency response than in-ear headphones. This means that in the same price bracket, they are capable of far better bass response and generally more detail and clarity across the frequency spectrum.
The level of sound quality will be largely dependent on which company produced it. But on-ear headphones can occasionally compete with over-ear models in the same price range. It’s rare, but it does happen.
However, they are not very effective when it comes to passive noise isolation as they don’t create nearly as good a seal as in-ear or over-ear headphones. Expect a decent amount of ambient noise to make its way through. Often people compensate by turning the volume up to mask the external noise, risking long-term ear damage in the process, far from ideal.
- Better sound quality than in-ear.
- Most models portable.
- Larger driver size.
- Can cause ear fatigue.
- Poor noise isolators.
Over-ear headphones, also referred to as around-ear and circumaural headphones, have much larger earcups that are big enough to completely enclose the ear. They are usually significantly heavier than on-ear models and are traditionally used for casual listening at home or in studio settings.
Most over-ear headphones have a closed-back design to aid with noise isolation. Whilst more audiophile-grade models have an open-back design to create a far wider, more open sound stage. Bluetooth and wired models can be widely found, with many models offering both.
Designed for extended listening sessions, over-ear headphones are the most comfortable cans of the lot. The larger earcups fully encompass the ear, so any force exerted is directed onto the head, a far less sensitive part of the body.
They are usually much heavier than on-ear headphones. But the best models feature cleverly designed and well-padded headbands to distribute the extra weight evenly across your dome.
Earpad design plays a big part in overall comfort…
Thick, plush padding with a breathable covering is the most desirable combination. Breathability is important since over-ear cans do tend to get hotter than other headphone types. The more breathable they are, the less sweat you’ll have to deal with.
The most comfortable over-ear headphones combine the perfect amount of clamping force with the ideal amount of cushioning. That way, you can wear them for hours on end with zero fatigue. If the clamping force is even slightly too much, it will become apparent after an hour or two.
By the nature of their size, over-ear headphones are the least portable headphones of the three. Some models are not meant to leave the confines of your house at all.
However, in the last decade, there’s been an explosion in wireless over-ear models. These are meant to be used on the go as well as domestically. Some of these even fold down to pack into hard carrying cases. However, even the foldable models will still take up a lot more bag space than your average on-ear headphone.
Suitability for working out
Over-ear headphones are the least suitable to wear while exercising. That’s not to say that some sweat-resistant models can’t be used for the purpose; you’ll just be rather limited in what you can do whilst wearing them.
As with on-ear headphones, if you’re going to regularly use over-ears while exercising, you’ll have to make sure you can buy replacement earpads. As they may get pretty disgusting after a while if you sweat a lot.
Because over-ear headphones heat the ear more than any other, sweat damage will be even more of an issue. Don’t even dream of using them to work out if they’re not sweat-resistant to some level.
Due to their sheer size, over-ear headphones are far more capable of producing world-class audio than their smaller cousins. They can house far bigger drivers that reproduce a much wider frequency range.
The very best over-ear headphones deliver powerful yet tightly controlled bass that extends well into the sub-bass realm. They’re also capable of richly detailed vocal delivery and instrument separation. With a level of sparkle and clarity in the highs you won’t find in other headphone types.
If you’re willing to splash out on a high-end set of planar magnetic, open-back headphones, you will be rewarded with levels of sound quality that you previously thought unimaginable.
To put things in perspective…
A critically produced list of the best sound quality headphones in the world would be populated exclusively by over-ear headphones. Over-ear models are also more effective when it comes to passive noise isolation. Creating a far more effective barrier against external noise than an on-ear design is capable of.
The best active noise-canceling technology is also found within over-ear designs. In the best models, the combination of passive and active noise canceling almost eliminates outside disturbance.
- Overall highest sound quality.
- Generally, most comfortable.
- High passive noise isolation.
- Best active noise cancellation.
- Can get hot.
- Usually more expensive.
- More suited to home use only.
Need Some Great Headphones?
It doesn’t matter if it’s In-Ear vs. On-Ear vs. Over-Ear Headphones; we have just what you need. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Most Comfortable Headphones, the Best Headphones for Music, the Best Wireless Bluetooth Headphones, the Best Neckband Headphones, and the Best Lightweight Headphones you can buy in 2021.
Also, take a look at our comprehensive reviews of the Best Headphones For Cycling, the Best Ear Hook Headphones, the Best Bluetooth Headphones Under $200, the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, the Best Headphones with Volume Control, and the Best Headphones Under $1,000 currently available.
And don’t miss our detailed reviews of the Best Headphones Under $200, the Best Headphones for Mixing and Mastering, the Best Planar Magnetic Headphones, the Best Bone Conduction Headphones, and the Best Headphones Under $100 on the market.
In-Ear vs. On-Ear vs. Over-Ear Headphones – Final Thoughts
So as you can see, in this comparison of headphone types, each has its pros and cons. And each occupies a different space in the market. Getting to grips with the basic differences is the first thing you need to do if you’re in the market for a new set of cans.
From a personal perspective…
There’s a case to be made for owning a set of each type to cover all your listening needs. A set of in-ears for exercising and your daily commute, a set of on-ears to take on vacation, and a set of over-ears for kicking back in your favorite armchair at home.
Whatever your requirements, there’s a huge difference between the worst and best models in each category. Now you understand the basic differences between each type; it’s time to research the specifics of individual models.
You’ll find a ton of headphone reviews and buying guides on this site, some of which are listed above, to make your investigations a lot easier. We hope this article has helped you in your search to find the perfect sonic match.
Until next time, happy listening.