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Understanding Headphone Types: In-Ear, Over-the-Ear, and On-the-Ear

Dive into the World of Headphones: Types, Features, and Top Brands

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Headphones are integral to our daily lives, whether for personal entertainment, professional use, or anything in between. Over the years, headphones have evolved in design, functionality, and audio quality. This article will delve into the three primary types of headphones on the market today: in-the-ear, over-the-ear, and supra-aural (on-the-ear), exploring how each works, their features, benefits, and some of the best manufacturers for each type.

In-the-Ear Headphones

a woman wearing earbuds and on her cellphone on a train.How biometric earbuds can help you monitor your health in real-time. iStock

One of the most recognizable in-ear headphones is Apple AirPods. In-ear headphones, commonly known as earbuds, earphones, or in-ear monitors (IEMs), fit directly into the ear canal. They are designed to seal the ear canal, providing an intimate listening experience that effectively isolates external noise. This type of headphone typically uses small drivers that deliver sound directly into the ear, making them highly effective at blocking ambient noise and providing clear, detailed audio.

However, it is essential to note the terms "earbuds," "in-the-ear headphones," and "earphones" are often used interchangeably, but there are some distinctions in their design and how they fit in or around your ear:

  1. Earbuds: Earbuds rest outside the ear canal rather than extending into it. They are positioned in the concha—the area outside the ear canal—and generally have a one-size-fits-all design. Earbuds do not provide a noise-isolating effect because they do not seal off the ear from external sounds. A typical example of earbuds would be the older models of Apple's AirPods.
  2. In-the-Ear Headphones: Also known as in-ear monitors (IEMs) or canal phones, these headphones fit snugly inside the ear canal and provide a tight seal that helps isolate sound, effectively reducing external noise. This design improves sound quality and allows for lower volume levels, which can help protect hearing. They typically come with various ear tip sizes to ensure a comfortable and secure fit for different ear shapes.
  3. Earphones: This term can be more general and might refer to any compact listening device worn on or in the ear. However, it is often used synonymously with earbuds and in-ear headphones. In some contexts, earphones might imply a device that connects over the ear with a small hook or band to help secure them, which is helpful during physical activities like running or gym workouts.

Each type offers different advantages regarding comfort, portability, sound quality, and the ability to block out external noise, catering to various preferences and needs. Here are the common features and benefits in-the-ear headphones offer users:

  • Portability: In-the-ear headphones are lightweight and compact, making them ideal for use while traveling or engaging in physical activities.
  • Noise Isolation: Earbuds provide excellent noise isolation by sealing the ear canal. This allows users to listen to audio content without raising the volume excessively, thus protecting hearing.
  • Sound Quality: Modern in-the-ear headphones can offer impressive sound quality with good bass response and clear high frequencies.

Who makes a good pair of in-the-ear headphones? Any of the following manufacturers make good in-the-ear headphones:

  • Shure: Known for its professional-quality sound, Shure offers a range of earbuds popular among audiophiles and professional musicians.
  • Audio-Technica offers high-fidelity in-ear headphones favored for their clarity and durability. Check out our recent review of the Audio-Technica ATH-CKS50TW Wireless Earbuds. These earbuds have great sound.
  • Apple AirPods Pro are designed to fit snugly inside the ear canal and come with silicone tips of multiple sizes to ensure a comfortable and secure fit, which also helps with noise cancellation. See our review.
  • Skullcandy: The company makes both in-ear and over-ear headphones. We have tested many of its earbuds, like its Indy ANC In-Ear Noise Canceling True Wireless Earbuds. They come with ANC, long battery life, and three EQ modes and are affordable (less than $60). Learn more by visiting our review.
  • Jabra is another company that makes good wireless earbuds. We tested Jabra's newest earbuds, Jabra Elite 4 True Wireless Earbuds, which have ANC, long battery life, and a Sound+ app to customize your sound experience at an attractive price. I recommend you look at these earbuds if you are looking for a pair. If you are willing to spend more than $100, I suggest you look at Jabra's Elite 10 or 8 Active Wireless earbuds. They cost more but come with an upgrade in sound experience.
  • SoundPEATS Air4 and Air4 Pro are newcomers to the wireless earbuds or in-the-ear headphones market. We have tested many of their wireless earbuds, like their new Air4 and Air4 Pro. They have many great features, like Noise Cancellation, Bluetooth 5.3, 6 Microphones CVC 8.0 ENC, Qualcomm AptX Adaptive, Multipoint Connection, in-ear Detection, and an App with Customized EQ. The best part is that they are affordable (less than $80).

Over-the-Ear Headphones

Bang & Olufsen HX headphonesThe HX over-the-ear headphones are priced at $499 Bang & Olufsen

Over-the-ear headphones are the ones you most likely grew up with and would use for hearing tests, listening to music on your stereo, or connecting to your computer. These headphones, also known as circumaural headphones, encompass the entire ear within a large cup. This design helps create an acoustic seal that reduces environmental noise while enhancing the audio experience. The larger drivers in over-the-ear headphones allow for a broader range of sound frequencies and dynamic nuances, making them preferred in professional settings like studios.

Here are the features and benefits over-the-ear headphones have to offer users:

  • Superior Sound Quality: Over-the-ear headphones generally provide richer and more dynamic sound due to their size and the components' quality.
  • Comfort: Designed for extended use, they often feature plush earpads and headbands, which make them comfortable for long listening sessions.
  • Noise Cancellation: Many models include active noise-canceling technology, making them ideal for use in noisy environments.

Who makes a good pair of over-the-ear headphones? Any of the following manufacturers make good over-the-ear headphones:

  • Sennheiser: Renowned for its critical-listening headphones, Sennheiser products are favored in both the consumer and professional markets. I would recommend the Sennheiser Consumer Audio HD 599 Open Back Headphones. They cost less than $130 and have many great features, like Versatile Connectivity and premium comfort.
  • Bose: Well-known for noise-canceling headphones, Bose offers some of the best over-the-ear models on the market. The pair I would recommend are Bose QuietComfort Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones. These headphones come with two listening modes: high-fidelity audio, EQ controls, and noise cancellation. But they are expensive. The MSRP is $349.
  • Audio-Technica: Besides making quality in-the-ear headphones, the company has also put its quality sound experience into over-the-ear headphones. We recently tested their audio-technica ATH-M50xBT2 Wireless Headphones and liked how they sounded and fit. If you're a serious audiophile who values audio fidelity and sturdy design, $199 is a decent price for these headphones, especially if compared to the premium Bluetooth wireless over-the-ear headphone brands. See pricing on Amazon.
  • AKG: Their professional-grade headphones are respected by studio and audiophile users. I suggest you look at their AKG Pro Audio K240 STUDIO Over-Ear, Semi-Open, and Professional Studio Headphones. These over-the-ear headphones are affordable and currently on sale on Amazon for $73, 54% off the MSR of $16. They also have an incredible sound experience.
  • Beats by Dre:Beats are headphones Apple purchased from Dr. Dre that offer high-quality sound and other key features to make your audio experience unique. I recommend the Beats Studio3 Wireless Noise Cancelling Over-Ear Headphones, which come with the Apple W1 Headphone Chip, Class 1 Bluetooth, 22 Hours of Listening Time, a Built-in Microphone, and noise cancellation. Beats by Dre headphones aren't cheap. The Studio3 headphones have an MSRP of $349.95 but are currently on sale on Amazon for only $159, 55% off.
  • Sony:Sony's WH-1000XM4 Wireless Premium Noise Canceling Overhead Headphones are excellent over-the-ear headphones to consider.
  • Affordable over-the-ear headphones: Here are a few over-the-ear headphones I recommend that are affordable (less than $130):

Supra-Aural Headphones

Photo of Soundpeats RunFree Lite Bluetooth Air Conduction HeadphonesSoundpeats RunFree Lite Bluetooth Air Conduction Headphones GearBrain

Supra-aural or on-the-ear headphones rest on the outer ear without completely enclosing it. This design does not isolate noise as effectively as over-the-ear models but can offer a comfortable, lightweight option with decent sound quality. They use pads that sit on the outer ear and are typically less bulky than over-the-ear headphones.

Here are the features and benefits Supra-Aural headphones have to offer users:

  • Lightweight Design: These headphones are generally lighter and less constrictive, making them comfortable for many users.
  • Ease of Use: They are easy to put on and take off, ideal for users who need to pay attention to their surroundings.
  • Balanced Sound Quality: While they may not provide the deep bass response of larger models, supra-aural headphones can deliver clear and balanced audio.

Who makes a good pair of Supra-Aural headphones? Any of the following manufacturers make good Supra-Aural headphones:

  • Grado: Known for their distinctive retro style, Grado's on-the-ear headphones are praised for exceptional sound clarity. The GRADO SR60x Prestige Series Wired Open-Back Stereo Headphone is the pair I recommend you take a good look at. It costs $99 on Amazon and provides exceptional sound quality for a supra-aural headphone.
  • Koss offers a range of affordable and mid-range supra-aural headphones that are popular for their quality and comfort. They are also highly affordable and costly, less than $1 a pair. I suggest you look at the Koss KPH7 Lightweight Portable Headphone, available on Amazon for only $5.50, 45% off the retail price of $9.99.
  • JLab: JLab has various lightweight and cost-effective models suitable for everyday use. Pricing ranges from a low of $17.99 to a high of $49.99. They also offer kids on-the-ear headphones. I recommend the JLab Studio Wireless On-Ear Headphones, which come with 30+ Hours of Bluetooth 5 Playtime, EQ3 Sound, Ultra-Plush Faux Leather & Cloud Foam Cushions, Track, and Volume control. Currently, it is priced at $29.88 on Amazon.
  • SoundPEATS—The company makes a few pairs of Supra-aural headphones. We tested the RunFree Lite Bluetooth Air Conduction Sport Headphones and are testing their new GoFree2 Open-ear Earbuds for Optimal Fit. These headphones come with an Open-Ear Design for all-day comfort and exceptional sound. But the best feature is that you can pick up one of these supra-aural headphones for less than $8. Both pairs are currently on sale on Amazon.


Choosing the right type of headphones depends mainly on your needs and preferences. Over-the-ear headphones might be the best choice if you require excellent sound isolation and audio quality. They offer an unbeatable combination of portability and decent sound isolation for active lifestyles and casual listening. Meanwhile, supra-aural headphones balance comfort, ease of use, and sound quality, making them suitable for users who prefer lighter, less isolating headphones.

Whether you're a professional seeking the perfect sound, a commuter looking to block out the noise, or a casual listener needing a convenient audio solution, there's a style of headphones designed just for you. Explore the offerings from reputable manufacturers to find the pair that best matches your personal audio requirements.

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