In-ear, On-ear & Over-ear headphones: What’s the difference?
When you’re looking for a new pair of headphones, there’s a lot of questions you should be asking yourself. What do I want to use them for? How long do I expect to use them at a time? How important is sounds quality to me? How much do I want to spend on them? Questions like these are going to dominate your decision regarding what headphones you’re going to buy. Another crucial step in the process is when you have to decide between in-ear, on-ear, or over-ear headphones.
I own (and have owned) several pairs of headphones of all three types, and each kind has its advantages and disadvantages. Personally, I use in-ear and over-ear headphones both, but for different purposes. You might find yourself doing the same. But for the sake of deciding which one you need to get for yourself, I’ll take you through some of the pros and cons of in-ear, on-ear, and over-the-ear headphones, so you can make an informed decision on what’s best for you.
In-ear headphones or “earphones”, as they’re more commonly known are headphones with small earbud tips, which are inserted into the ear canal. You get a pair of in-ear headphones with practically any smartphone you buy. They come with a number of different versions now and are fairly common. Some are wireless and offer easy connectivity, others are made for wearing while doing sports so they fit into the ear canal decently well and don’t come out during workouts and vigorous exercises.
- They’re cheap – In-ear headphones are usually the cheapest out of the three categories. That being said, cheap earphones will provide cheap quality sound. If you want decent quality you’ll have to spend some bucks on it.
- Discreet – to use. You could simply pop a pair in, hide the wire under your sweater and no one would be the wiser while you listen to music, radio or catch up on some podcasts. If you’ve got a wireless earphone like the Apple AirPods which are fairly common these days, that’s even better because there are no wires involved to fuss about.
- Portable – You can easily carry a pair in your pockets, bag or even in your hands and it wouldn’t be an issue at all. They’re definitely the most portable option out of these three categories.
- Bad sound quality – The most obvious negative side to in-ear headphones is sound quality. Even top tier in-ear headphones will still not sound as loud or as good as a pair of top tier on-ears or over-the-ear headphones. They are just too small to give you the sound depth and quality that real audiophiles expect. I would not suggest using in-ear headphones to anyone who wants to enjoy complex music.
- Uncomfortable for long periods of usage – Another con of in-ear headphones is that most of them are very uncomfortable when used for an extended period of time. Some pairs of in-ears will fit you well and some might not, causing them to fall out on occasion, which can be extremely irritating.
On-ear headphones are a relatively popular style of headphone. They are smaller in size compared to their larger over-ear counterparts, and literally press against your ears. They don’t completely cover the ear, however, and this is useful since it doesn’t block out sound and cut background noise off completely so you can carry a conversation with people around you or be aware of your surroundings much more than with over-ear headphones, while still providing high-quality sound. You can usually stow them away in a small bag since it’s common for them to be foldable.
- Compact – in design. While they’re not as discreet as in-ear headphones, they are more compact than over-ear headphones and are more portable than them. They can usually be folded into a small bag and carried around for use with ease.
- Good sound quality – On average, they have much better sound quality than in-ear headphones but aren’t as great as over-ear headphones. They can provide noise cancellation, deep bass, full frequency response and even true surround sound.
- Uncomfortable – for long periods of time. Although plush ear cushions are comfortable when you wear them, the constant pressure they apply to your ears directly piles up and starts to hurt your ears after a few hours of use. High-end models typically have better padding to help alleviate this problem, but in my experience, wearing on-ear headphones requires a break every few hours.
- Not for working out – Even though on-ear headphones are compact and more portable than over-ear headphones, they’re not appropriate for wearing during workout sessions. After a while, sweat starts to weigh the cushions down and the comfort decreases significantly. Also, they’re not very fitting so if you’re doing any vigorous exercise they’re likely to fall off or shift which is inconvenient, you’d be better off with a pair of good fitting in-ear headphones.
Over-ear headphones are the best in sound quality on average. They cover your entire ear and press against your skull, offering a complete, immersive experience. More often than not, they’re very good at noise cancellation and offer an experience that other headphone types just can’t offer you. Over-ear headphones are usually much larger than on-ear headphones, and this can create logistical problems when transporting them from place to place. Although larger, they offer comfort that is difficult to match with on-ear headphones since there is no direct pressure applied on your ears, so usage for extended periods of time isn’t an issue. However, they are usually the most expensive of the three types.
- Best sound quality – Over-ear headphones have the biggest drivers so it’s no surprise to know that they have the best overall sound quality out of the three categories. They offer the most features, including noise cancellation, deep bass, full frequency response and even true surround sound.
- Comfort – By far they offer the most comfortable listening experience. They have soft padding cushions that are plush against your skull and provide comfort even during extended periods of usage.
- Noise cancellation – Over-ear headphones offer the best noise cancellation because of the large cupped earpieces that cover your whole ear creating a sort of seal around it. They isolate your ears so there’s no external sound disturbing your listening experience which makes it all the more immersive.
- Not portable – Since they’re built quite sturdy and large, over-ear headphones aren’t exactly portable at all. Of course, you can hang them around your neck and listen to music like a true audiophile even when you’re traveling, but it isn’t exactly the most ideal scenario.
- Expensive – Undoubtedly they offer the highest quality out of the three categories, but the quality comes with a price tag. High-end over-ear headphones can cost you thousands of dollars, and even mid-tier decent ones will still have your wallet feeling a little lighter after you’ve purchased them.
Which headphone you buy is a personal choice depending on your usage and preferences. I personally use both in-ear headphones and over-ear headphones. I have a pair of V-MODA ZN in-ear headphones for when I’m out and about or when I’m traveling. They offer good sound and comfort for short periods of time which is all I require in that situation. Here’s a review of the V-MODA ZN earphones. On the other hand, when I’m at home I use my over-headphones for the immersive, audio-rich experience they provide with the comfort they offer. They do, however, cost a lot more than my in-ear headphones do. So, basically, it depends on how you want to use your headphones.