Which type of headphones are best for me? What headphone type should I buy? We’ve seen these commented, e-mailed and asked of us personally when it comes to the many kinds of headphones there are in the world today. We understand — merely searching for “headphones” on a search engine or eCommerce shopping site may even make this process more difficult than when you first started, since the ways you can constrain you headphone search becomes quite intricate and ultimately messy. As we saw in our best headphones guide to help you with recommendations and choose the “best pair”, we highlighted the “types” only briefly. Today we went into even more detail to help you understand what all of these “ear”, “in”, and “over” superlatives mean when it comes to headphone capabilities and fits. Let’s get into it!
The different types of headphones
The beloved closed-back headphones are a great type of headphones for those who want to block out any peripheral noise when using their headphones, regardless of your intended application. This style rids the noise surrounding you to keep the music free of any outside interference, regardless of environment, and at the same time creates an isolated audio experience so that only you can hear the sounds you want to hear. This makes closed-back headphones great for those who are looking to hear every minute detail of the music they’re listening to and fully engulf themselves into the listening experience.
This type of headphone is highly preferred and worn by musicians in recording settings, such as many pairs of studio headphones, due to their ability to block out all external noises and hone in on the notes in the instrument or vocalist. They also have little to no noise leakage meaning that very little sound escapes into the surrounding environment (any leaked sound into the microphone will start to cloud up that track — think of a singer listening to the instrumentals in their headphones while singing — you don’t want that faint noise in the track as well). Even aside from musicians, closed-back headphones are perfect for those who prefer a private listening experience or if you’ll be in a setting where you don’t want to disturb others.
Closed-back headphones come in both the over-ear style which covers the entire ear as well as the smaller on-ear style which rests slightly on top of the ear (both explained a little bit later). In terms of design, they’re usually bulkier than most other types of headphones and are worn over the head but for those that don’t mind the size this pair of cans, it will produce excellent high-quality sound in a wide range of applications for pretty much any headphone user, giving us a versatile build and listed at first to start off our list.
The popular open-back vs. closed-back headphones will come into play here. As apparent from the name, open-back headphones aren’t “closed” and instead have “open” ear cups that allow some sound to escape into the environment. This style produces a much more “airy and open sound” that is more like listening to speakers in a room (if we had to choose a decent analogy) as opposed to listening to completely isolated sound from closed-back headphones. So why would anybody want this type of air, open sound with a little audio leaking out of the ear cups? What gives?
This style is the number one pick for those who are mixing and mastering in studio settings. Due to the open construction, that leakage it creates is actually preferred by audio engineers because it allows the mix to remain and accurate and avoid build-up of certain frequencies that often happens in closed-back headphones. Since an individual who’s concerned with mixing and mastering needs accuracy and a “flat sound” with no embellishments, it gives them more confidence and wiggle room to trust what they’re hearing. The closed-back headphone, and although great for sound isolation, will start to keep lower frequencies inside of the ear cups after a while (which some people like if they’re listening leisurely).
Many audiophiles prefer open-back headphones because even though they aren’t necessarily mixing or mastering in a pro studio, need that true, flat sound so they can hear exactly what the artist intended the listener to experience. If you don’t want people to hear the podcast or the song that you’re listening to these probably aren’t the headphones for you. However, if you aren’t concerned with those around you hearing the sound this style is great. There is also generally less pressure created when wearing this style of headphones which can make them more comfortable to wear for long periods of time. Open-back headphones, similar to closed-back headphones, can come in an over-the-ear style or they can come in the smaller on ear style as well. There are also even more rare type called semi-open headphones which, you guessed it — combine both worlds by having a design that’s only slightly open to allow a little bit of sound leakage yet sound isolation at the same time.
As the name implies, on-ear headphones go over the head and rests on top of the ears. We were first a little confused when it came to on-ear vs. over-ear headphones (listed next), so to summarize what we found, think of it like this: on-ear headphones are a little smaller (nearly the size of your actual ear) rest nicely on top of them while over-ear headphones are a little larger so the cups can engulf your ears with some padding that surrounds them. So why do these two differences exist?
Also know as Supra-aural headphones, the on-ear design is slightly like open-back headphones, which allows some sound from the surrounding environment to exit (as well as get in) as opposed to the over-the-ear style which is much better at blocking out external sounds if individuals are concerned with that commonly used phrase “sound isolation”. This style of headphones is usually quite comfortable and doesn’t cause you to sweat as much as some of the over the ear models. They do rest on your ears so it’s important to buy a comfortable pair that doesn’t pressure your ears too much (or at least as much as closed-back, over-ear headphones — however, some people actually like that feeling).
They are also lighter than the over-the-ear model which creates less pressure on the top band that rests on your head. On-ear models can vary greatly in terms of quality but if you get one of the higher quality models they will deliver on the categories you care the most about: sound quality and comfort. There are many different models in this category that each offer their own unique attributes but overall this category is probably the most dynamic when it comes to having it all. It really comes down to personal preference in the end — many would argue in terms of “sound quality” and “comfort” (two relatively subjective headphone descriptors) for both sides.
As seen in the photo, over-ear headphones (or at times, more technically, labeled as ‘circumaural‘) fit on the top of head and “over” (on, as well as around, our ear cartilages so the entire ear is “cupped”) to focus on sound isolation. This style of headphones is the superior model for noise reduction because they create an intimate environment between you and the sound you’re listening to. They are very capable of limiting noise leakage which keeps the sound you are listening to in and also allows the sound in the surrounding environment out. It is possible to get over-ear models that are open-backed which lets them breathe and allow sound in and out. However, this style is usually closed-back as they are preferred for their potential noise cancellation, isolation, and the high-quality sound capability.
They are quite comfortable (especially if you go higher-end, some cups are even made of velvet and\or leather) and don’t crunch your ears like some of the on-ear models. They do have the potential to cause you to sweat since very little air circulates in or out. These are also the bulkiest style of headphones out there so if you’re looking to save space these may not be for you. Others however would prefer this bulkier kind of headphone and actual call for that snug, heavy and surrounding fit (like pillows pressed up against the sides of your head). They are usually heavier than other models as well and may cause fatigue on your head and ears when wearing them for long periods of time, especially in the studio or with gaming, etc. However, if you have the room and don’t mind the size you will be able to shut the world out and listen to your music in a pristine and audio-intimate environment.
Let’s talk portability, versatility, and convenience. The most portable and popular style of headphone types out there right now are in-ear headphones, or as some know them, ‘canalphones‘. This is one of the fastest growing styles in the headphone industry due to the ease of use if you aren’t a home, semi-pro or professional studio artist or engineer. As technology allows for higher sound quality from smaller devices, these models have been able to quickly improve to compete with the chunkier on-ear and over-ear models. As opposed to earbuds that rest on the outer ridge of your ears, these go a little more deeply into that canal of yours (see where the name comes from?) to rest inside of your ears and get a little closer to those precious ear drums. The benefit of this includes a few factors, such as comfort (for some, at least), sound isolation, and sound accuracy. Think of them as the closed-back version of portable headphones. This style generally has very little sound leakage, keeping the sound in your ear and keeping external noises out. In-ear headphones generally have a silicone ear tip for protection and more comfort. This ear tip fills the ear canal and allows the sound from the headphones to enter directly into your ear while keeping most of the sounds from the surrounding environment out.
For those that like to listen to music leisurely, especially as they travel, are on-the-go or even at the gym, here’s your best bet. This style can have excellent sound quality depending on the model and are preferred by a lot of users out there — many, including us, have a pair of one of the previous (or two) headphones for desk and music use, while having some in-ears for on-the-go times in our lives. A slight concern of users is that this style could be dangerous for your ears because they are directly in your ear canal but with the protection they give us and unless you blast the volume as loud as you can with a headphone amplifier, you’ll be OK. Hearing damage is caused by the sound volume not the proximity of the sound to the ear so if the volume is kept at a reasonable level there should be nothing to fear in the end.
Wait, aren’t earbuds the same type of headphones as the previously listed? Wait one second while we introduce you to the earbuds vs. in-ear headphones debate. As brushed upon previously, earbuds as opposed to in-ear headphones can be understood as small speakers that rest on the outer ear. The most common and recognizable model of earbuds is the white earbuds that apple provides with their products — they don’t have as slim of a design and don’t penetrate your canal as much, but are merely larger circles that press against more of your ear. This style of headphone does not enter the ear canal and instead rests on the outer ear which allows for more sound from the external environment to enter as well. They allow for more leakage than the in-ear style, giving some benefits as we’ve seen — a more “flat” sound, perhaps “safer” (for some), and perhaps more comfortable for you if you aren’t feeling that intrusiveness in-ear headphones give.
Ear buds are easily portable and very compact, similar to in ear headphones, but they struggle to create true sound isolation due to the size of the little speaker. Depending on the model you can find, some higher quality models can provide advanced technology to help with even more quality and accuracy, but the key benefit for ear buds is their size. We apologize to give you this answer but it will truly depend on the person. If we have to give you our recommendation, we actually prefer in-ear headphones (especially at the gym, we’ve had earbuds fall out a few times while we were running or lifting weights). They don’t grip the ear quite as well as the in-ear headphones and they can often fall out.
Earbuds generally are a one size fits all which makes them somewhat uncomfortable for certain ear shapes, although some brands come with different ear tip sizes for you to replace and fit yourself. If you are looking for high quality sound it is tough for this style to compete with other headphone categories but if you want a compact model that is easy to carry around these may be for you.
Wireless electronics are a staple-point of the world at this point. So what about wireless headphones? Which types of headphones come in wireless? To begin, headphones used to offer wireless connectivity to various devices through radio transmitter technology (RF) — good ol’ sound waves being transmitted through the air and into a receiver. However, that’s pretty much extinct at this point. Cue Bluetooth technology, which allows for devices to connect wirelessly still using radio waves; however, they have their own unique channel as opposed to needing to connect via a certain amount of available frequencies (which at times caused disruptions with actual radios — very out-dated).
This technology has developed rapidly, especially in the music industry but not limited to (we see all types of Bluetooth electronics now). Headphones with Bluetooth technology have a small computer chip inside of them that allow you to pair with the device you are playing music from. If you connect to headphones via Bluetooth you are able to listen to the same sound as you would with normal headphone styles yet avoid the hassle of cords. The benefits are rather self-explanatory, whether it being at the gym, on-the-go, at home, or really, any possible use where you just don’t want to worry about those pesky things. On top of that, the sound quality of Bluetooth headphones is like that of corded headphone models — you don’t lose any sound quality just because you lose the cord. Some may complain about some “lag” or “delay” in the transmission process, which is ultimately accurate. However, it isn’t a concern for those unless you’re producing, recording or mixing music (in that case, stick with wired, period).
Right now, these headphone models are generally more expensive than the corded models as this technology is still relatively “new” (and of course, costs a bit more to make with that chip inside of it). What’s even better is that all styles of headphones, in-ear, wireless earbuds, Bluetooth over-ear, and Bluetooth on-ear are available (those guides may help if you’re intrigued). The one downside of Bluetooth headphones however is that they require charging. Unlike corded models which run off the battery power of the connected device, Bluetooth models need to be charged to pair and sync with the device you are using. If you don’t mind having to charge them every now and have some spare cash to drop, then Bluetooth models are great for freeing you from the cord!
We’ve heard of that “sound isolation” phrase used to describe higher-end headphone models in the marketing world, right? Well how about that noise cancelling headphones title? Let’s see what it means. With some special technology built-in, these literally actively reduce the sound that you hear from your surroundings to create a quiet environment for listening to your music or sound. The way the little internal engine does this is by measuring the lower frequencies of your surroundings (there’s actually a little microphone built on to the outside of the ear cups) and creating an equal and opposite frequency that cancels out that sound the little microphone picks up. This eliminates that sound altogether before it even hits the ear pads to attempt to get into your mix. For higher frequency sounds, most noise-cancelling models use sound proofing which keeps out many of the higher frequencies, or a combination of the two methods. Read our noise isolation vs. noise-cancellation article for more info on these tech terms that often get switched around.
This headphone category has grown popular for air travel because it blocks out the surrounding noises from other passengers and the high frequencies of the plane’s engine. However, this style of can be desirable for many uses outside of that as well — honestly, any use you can think of aside from music production or engineering if you please. They are ideal for any situation where you may want to completely shut out the surrounding noises, especially places that’ll be “noisier” than others. By blocking the surrounding noise, you are able to listen to your music without the distraction of your surroundings. Although many in-ear and earbud models are often made with NC, combining the tech with let’s say over-ear, closed-back headphones can give you the ultimate experience when it comes to shutting off from the world’s outside, ambient distractions.