Headphone Buyer Guide: On-Ear vs Over-Ear vs Earbuds vs In-Ear

by Matthew David | Updated: July 10, 2020

When it comes to tech shopping, you will often find websites and stores love to throw lots of big, technical phrases at you to try upselling their products. You could argue that this practice is also trying to inform the buyer of what they are buying, and for those who are more technically inclined, this is definitely the case.

But for the layman tech user, a lot of these phrases can go straight over their head. Which is understandable. As technology advances, and it has been at a staggering rate, a lot more very specific tech is created and sold.

One field where this happens a lot is Headphones, both On-Ear, and Over-Ear. Music is one of the largest industries on the planet and is one of the few things everyone can share world-wide. And as such, the marketplace for these products is saturated.

We have constructed this buyers guide to help you better understand the difference between the main variations in both Over and On-Ear Headphones, while also comparing the various types to each other. Hopefully, it will help you better understand your options and narrow down your selection.

The Different Types of Headphones

What are Over-Ear Headphones?

Straight off the bat, we will clear up our own terminology for you. Over-Ear headphones are the traditional Headset. Large covers the entire ear, rest across the top of your head. The type of headphone you see gamers or sports commentators wearing.

Generally, these are a lot more powerful than their on-ear counterparts. Their size allows them to pack more tech in and they can specialize to a higher degree. You will find there is a lot more variation in these products than On-ear headphones.

There are two distinct variations of over-ear headphones that you need to know because you will see these terms thrown around a lot while you shop. Open Back and Closed Back. At a glance, you might assume this relates to a different product entirely. But it actually corresponds to the outer frame of the ear-pieces. Let us break this down for you.

What are Open Back Headphones?

Open-Back Headphones will have grills or vents along the exterior of the speakers. The look, style, and size of these will vary from model to model, but their function is the same across the board.

By design, it allows a consistent airflow through the unit and the speakers. The effect of this is to allow more of the ambient sound of the world around you into your ear. Not enough to nullify the sounds you are listening to with them, but instead, it creates an atmospheric immersion.

What are Closed Back Headphones?

I’m sure you can gather what Closed Back is now. Instead of grills or vents, the exterior of these speaker units is completely sealed.

This creates a small noise-canceling effect, most likely up to 10db. We should note that this isn’t the same as buying specific noise-canceling headphones, this is just a minor effect.

But it is still significant enough to alter the listening experience. Rather than an atmospheric immersion, these headphones will make the noise feel more closed and in your ear. You will be separated from the world and immersed in the sound. 

On-Ear Headphones

Your classic travel headphones, On-ear are the products you see most people using while out and about. Lightweight, portable and discreet, these are perhaps the most common type of headphones out there.

But even these are split into two distinct groupings, to further confuse things. It’s easy to assume Earbuds and In-Ear are the same things, considering they both go in your ear. But that isn’t the case. Let us clarify for you.

Earbuds

The big difference between Earbuds and In-ear is the tip attachments and how they are shaped. It might seem like this is purely a cosmetic difference, but it is a functional difference instead.

Earbuds are designed to rest at the entrance of the ear canal, rather than going into it. These products are, as a rule, fast more comfortable for a user. The sound quality is still excellent, being so close to the ear canal. The tips are often shaped to match your entire ear structure so they can rest firmly, without fear of falling out or causing discomfort.

In-Ear

In-ear differs in that the tips are designed to go into your ear canal, rather than resting just at the entrance of it.

This design creates a stronger, more prominent sound that shoots directly into your head. They offer a greater sense of immersion that then Earbud counterparts. They also offer better opportunities for noise cancellation features, which is a huge plus for any audio-technical fans. 

The Differences Between the Headphone Types

Now you know what all the types of headphones are, let’s compare the different types of headphones to further help you decide which type of headphone is perfect for you.

Over-Ear Vs On-Ear Headphones

The first thing you need to consider before you make a purchase is which of the two archetypes do you actually want, either over ear or on ear. What is the difference between over ear and on ear headphones? Let’s break down some of the strengths and weaknesses of the two types.

Sound Quality When it comes to producing crisp, quality sound, Over-ear products are generally a lot more powerful. The size of the product allows companies to install better drivers, amps, and increase speaker quality drastically. Of course, there is always variation between the models, but as a rule, Over-Ear produces a better sound.

That doesn’t mean the sound produced by On-ear headphones is bad. Quite the opposite. Top-end brands can produce matching quality sound.

Portable – This one is a given. On-ear headphones are more portable in every sense of the word. They are lighter, take us less space, fit easily into your pocket and, while worn, are hardly noticeable. While their Over-ear counterparts are large, cumbersome to transport and stand out in public.

Noise Cancellation – This one is a bit of a mixed bag. We are looking at natural noise cancellation, not the specific type that can be included in some brands.

Earbuds and Closed-back Headphones both offer good ambient noise cancellation, while In-ear and Open back headphones forgo this. So if noise cancellation is most important to you, you have options in both headphone types.

Pricing – Over-ear headphones generally cost more than On-ear. This is due to their size and the quality of the tech installed, along with the additional features they often come with. You’ll find you could spring for a better-quality pair of On-ear headphones for the same price as an average Over-ear headphone set. 

Earbuds Vs In-Ear Headphones

There is a difference between earbuds and in ear headphones. If you have settled on in-ear headphones, you now need to decide which of the two types is best suited to you. 

The variation between the models boils down to two distinct factors. Comfort and Noise cancellation.

Comfort – On-ear headphones present their own comfort issues due to the nature of how they are fitted. But as a rule of thumb, Earbuds are designed with comfort in mind. In-ear can be painful, and a lot of users find that prolonged use is painful. There is no grantee you will find In-ear uncomfortable, but if comfort is your top priority, Earbuds are for you.

Noise Cancellation – When it comes to natural noise cancellation, In-ear wins every time. The fitted nature of the tips seals off the ear and leaves you alone with your music. Some brand even offers stronger noise cancellation for a fully immersive experience.

It is possible to get Earbuds that offer noise cancellation, but these are going to be far more expensive than their In-ear noise-canceling counterparts.

You will find that Earbuds usually offer more options in terms of style and color than their In-ear rivals. 

Open Back vs Closed Back Headphones

With open and closed-back headphones, comfort isn’t a factor as much. The comfort factor will be based on the model and brand, not whether they have an open or closed back.

But noise cancellation and immersion are huge factors when deciding between these two variations.

Noise Cancellation – Straight off the bat, closed-back headphones offer a natural noise cancellation effect of up to roughly 10db. If noise cancellation is a big deal for you, closed-back units are the better choice. Brands that offer additional noise-canceling features will often make use of closed-back.

Immersion – This one comes down to personal preference because both open and closed back units create a unique and distinct audio immersion.

If you want to be alone with the music. To have it pumped directly into your head allowing you to forget the rest of the world, closed-back does this. The mix of noise cancellation and the lack of airflow creates a sealed environment within your ear. This unit is great for use with binaural sounds or ASMR.

Open back is for those that want their sound to become part of the world around them. If you want the feeling of surround sound or large, open worlds, these are the ones for you. These work great for large scale video games with surround sound support or for soundscape musical pieces and meditation tracks. 

We hope this guide has helped clear up a lot of the technical jargon you will face while browsing for your perfect pair of Headphones. Now you know which type of headphones you want to buy, you can visit one of our other reviews to help you choose your specific model.

Our Headphone Reviews

We’ve written reviews for multiple different types of headphones to help you find the right product for you.