In-Ear vs On-Ear vs Over-Ear Headphones

In-Ear vs On-Ear vs Over-Ear Headphones

Listening to music on smartphones has become the norm, rather than the exception in this era of constant modern technology advancement. You are now able to listen to music while carrying out a vast array of activities such as exercising, online teaching, traveling on an airplane or, listening to your music at home while not disturbing the rest of the family.

If you walk into an outlet selling headphones or, search for headphones online you will notice that there is a large and, wide range of models and brands available with unique features and prices to suit any budget.

Headphones fall into 3 categories. In-ear, On-ear and, Over-ear. Before buying a set of headphones it is necessary to understand the differences and sound performance between them to determine which will be more suitable to your requirements and preferences.

To assist you in choosing the correct headphones for you, we will examine the pros and cons of each category regarding, Portability, Comfort, Sound Quality, Noise Cancellation, Ear Health and, suitability while engaging in sporting activities.

In-ear Headphones

The majority of smartphones on the market include a set of in-ear or earbud headphones as part of the package and are therefore the most popular headphones on the market. The typical in-ear headphone fits into the ear canal. 

Portability  

In-ear headphones have the highest rating when it comes to portability due to their small size it is easy to wind up the wires and headphones and place them in a carry case or simply place them in your pocket or bag.

The only problem is that the wires tend to become entangled and thus can be broken. There are up-market headphones that have tangle-free wires. There are now Bluetooth in-ear headphones available which eliminate the problems caused by the wires getting entangled.

Comfort

Most in-ear headphones fit just inside the opening to your ear canal. Not all ears and ear canals are the same shape or size therefore what feels comfortable to one person could be very uncomfortable and even painful to someone else. 

If you purchase a set with silicon tips they do come in different sizes allowing you to choose the correct size. Some in-ear headphones come equipped with memory foam ear-tips that will increase comfort.

Sound Quality

Although there are quality, high-performance in-ear headphones that will produce a quality sound these tend to be too expensive for most people. An example is the Audeze – Isine 20.

The majority of in-ear headphones have very small speakers that are not capable of producing the depth of sound of on-ear or over-ear headphones. The sound goes directly to your eardrums making them less open sounding than the other categories.

Noise Cancellation

An in-ear headphone that fits correctly inside the ear canal is considered to be very efficient in blocking ambient noise. Using memory foam tips will also assist as they adjust themselves in your ear.

Noise cancellation is important as it blocks out outside noise enabling you to enjoy listening to your music. There is also a tendency to increase the volume if there is interference from increased noise levels around you. Increased volume could cause hearing loss over time.

Ear Health

Hearing damage from noise is due to three factors: loudness of the sound, duration of time headphones are used and, distance from your ears.

Most in-ear headphones if fitted correctly will have good noise cancellation thus reducing the temptation to increase the volume. They are, however, because of their fitment into the ear canal, closer to the eardrum that could cause long-term damage especially if used for long periods.

This is especially important for children. Check out the Best Noise-Canceling Headphones for Kids. 

Sporting Activities

In-ear headphones are perfect to use at the gym or doing a training run. They are lightweight and small in size and provided they fit correctly should not fall out of your ears when running or jumping. On-ear and Over-ear tend to slip off your ears during exercise.

You also want to be sure they will not fail if they get a splash of water or a bit of sweat. Look at What is IPX Rating is to understand this better. 

On-Ear Headphones

On-ear headphones have an adjustable headband with dual earcups that sit directly against your ears. They are popular because they are smaller and lighter than over-ear headphones. These headphones are an ideal middle ground between in-ear and over-ear headphones.

Portability

On-ear headphones are made with travel in mind. The earcups are much smaller than over-ear headphones and a lot of them can be folded, while some also come with a hard-shell case. They will comfortably fit in your bag.

Even when folded they will take up much more space compared to in-ear headphones. While they can work for portability, their strengths lie elsewhere.

Comfort

On-ear headphones tend to be balanced in between the in-ear and over-ear phones. They are not seated directly into the ear canal as with “in-ear” or cover the ears completely as with over-ear headphones that tend to become hot but, sit directly on the ear

They have a high clamping force to ensure that the headphones stay in place and if the earpads are not fitted with a thicker, softer, more comfortable padding then that constant pressure on the ear can become uncomfortable.

Another factor to consider is Open Back vs Closed Back Headphones. More on that later. 

Sound Quality

Larger drivers than in-ear headphones allow on-ear headphones to reproduce a more diverse range of frequencies.

The quality of sound reproduced is only restricted by the design of the headphone and sound quality has huge potential. They range from relatively inexpensive to top-of-the-range models that boast full-range frequency response and quality sound.

Noise Cancellation

On-ear headphones do not offer a complete seal and therefore do not cancel outside noise as effectively as in-ear or over-ear headphones. There are models however that are fitted with active noise canceling features that will greatly reduce background noise.

Ear Health

Due to there not being as efficient noise cancellation with on-ear headphones there is a tendency to turn up the volume. High volumes for long periods can lead to hearing loss.

Preventing hearing loss is simple.  Turn down the volume, take listening breaks, and, if possible set volume limits or buy a headphone with volume limiting.

Sporting Activities

On-ear headphones have a high clamping force to ensure they stay in place and are relatively lightweight. They have Bluetooth capabilities that eliminate the problem of wire entanglement. Many on-ear headphones are available in sweatproof designs, making them very popular in the gym.

Over Ear Headphones

Over-ear headphones are larger, heavier and, enclose the ear completely. They are designed for use in professional environments such as sound studios, or at home and, are known to produce the best quality sound and comfort for those environments.

Portability

Due to their size, over-ear headphones are not as portable as headphones in the in-ear and on-ear categories so are not suitable for day-to-day commuting. Some designs can be folded but they still tend to be quite bulky in your bag.

Comfort

Over-ear headphones have features such as, padded headbands, ear cups that are well-padded that enclose the ear completely that make them the most comfortable to wear. Although they tend to be heavy, the design and, construction, distribute the weight evenly.

There are two types of over-ear headphones. “Closed-back”  completely encloses the ear and can mean your ears get sweaty. Open-back allows more air to get in thus your ears will not get as sweaty.

Sound Quality

Over-ear headphones have large drivers that usually reproduce the widest range of frequencies providing the very best and consistent quality of sound. You need over-ear headphones for the best possible listening experience

Over-ear headphones are normally the flagship or reference headphones, where all Research and Development is concentrated. 

Headphone Sensitivity is important to understand. 

Noise Cancellation

Over-ear headphones fall into two categories concerning noise cancellation.

Closed-back headphones eliminate or significantly reduce any type of background noise creating an isolated sound experience. Most models are fitted with “active noise cancellation” technology that monitors background noise and then produces opposite sound waves to neutralize it.

Open-back headphones allow air to pass through their ear cups from the rear of the speaker driver. eliminating resonances and low-frequency build-up caused by Closed-back headphones.  They are great when used in a studio or at home where there is no outside noise interference.

Open-back headphones can’t block outside noise effectively and also leak sound out and are therefore not good in terms of noise cancellation.

Ear Health

Closed-back over-ear headphones greatly reduce background noise and those fitted with “active noise reduction” greatly improve outside noise. The isolated sound experience reduces the need for listening to your music loud that is the main factor causing hearing loss. 

Sporting Activities

Due to their size and weight over-ear headphones are not suited for use while engaging in sporting activities. They are designed specifically for use in sound studios or at home where you can relax and enjoy a  pure listening experience.

Final Thoughts

You should now have a better understanding of the differences between in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear headphones. The category you pick will essentially depend on your personal preferences.

It is however advisable to do research into the Brand reputation, build quality (materials used)and,  the sound quality of specific models before making your final decision. Checking ratings and user reviews are also advisable.

This article was last updated on October 5, 2021 .

By Charl Jooste

Writing full time from home, Charl enjoys modern technology and advanced gadgets but still has a soft spot for quality reliable appliances. He is passionate about durability and quality going to great lengths to find the very best ideas and leading products to share with readers.