Headphone Battle – On-Ear Vs Over-Ear Vs In-Ear Vs Earbuds

From a modern-day perspective, headphones are really important both for everyday usage, to professional use, whether in a studio for monitoring or in the field. The problem arises when one learns that there are different types of headphones as well as their acoustic design and potential noise isolation and cancellation.

The four headphone types are on-ear, over-ear, in-ear and earbuds. Each of them comes with its own set of pros and cons, specifically when it comes to sound quality, comfort and noise cancellation.

Headphone Types Explained

The difference in headphone types was warranted by people wanting products to meet various needs. Athletes prefer in ear headphones and earbuds as opposed to musicians and professionals who require on-ear or over-ear headphones.

Following are explanations of the four different headphone types, as well as their pros and cons.

Over-Ear Headphones – Circumaural

over ear headphones

Circumaural headphones, or over-ear headphones, are what most people think of when they hear the word headphones. They have large padded ear cups which go around the ear and are very good at physically insulating the ear from outside noise (provided that they are not open back headphones).

They tend to produce the best sound quality for the price because you can fit large drivers. Their cons are typically weight, bulkiness and comfort during hot summer months. On the other hand, they offer supreme noise insulation and cancellation, especially if they have active noise cancellation or ANC.

On-Ear Headphones – Supra-aural

on ear headphones

Supra-aural headphones or on-ear headphones have smaller drivers and ear cups that rest on the ears. They are often worse than over-ear headphones at physically insulating the ear from sound because they do not cover it completely.

They can have ANC, with some models offering great cancellation at a lot less weight than over-ear headphones.

On-ear headphones can be much lighter than over-ear headphones and they can produce a similar quality of sound, particularly at higher prices. They do tend to put pressure on the ears and can get uncomfortable after long listening sessions. They, too, can be uncomfortable during hot summer days, but are typically easier to carry around.

Both over-ear and on-ear headphones can have foldable cups to make them easier to transport.

Note that over-ear and on ear headphones can also come as a headset, which comes equipped with a microphone, often protruding from one of the ear cups.

In-Ear Headphones or Earphones

in ear heapdhones

In-ear headphones, earphones or canalphones are where things get smaller, with drivers that get very close to your eardrums, because they enter your ear canal. They can produce better sound accuracy and have very good sound isolation.

A silicon pad helps seal your ear from outside noise, making them a perfect partner if you want to listen to music in silence. In-ear monitors have also become popular with professionals.

Their sound quality got better during the years, but they are still much more expensive to make compared to similar-sounding over-ear or on-ear headphones.

Earbuds – Very Popular Hybrids

earbuds with case

Compared to in-ear headphones, earbuds rest on your outer ear and do not enter the ear canal. They offer worse sound isolation, unless specific pads are used to fit a certain user’s ear better. They can have ANC, making them a great choice for casual listening, but not that much for athletes who do a lot of dynamic exercises.

Perfect for using with smartphones or mp3 players, earbuds are one of the most popular consumer choices.

Size is not the only thing that matters when talking about headphone type, but rather, sound quality, comfort and noise cancellation.

Sound Quality, Comfort and Noise Cancellation by Headphone Type

Sound quality, comfort and noise cancellation are all important factors when purchasing a pair of headphones so all types will be compared according to these three factors.

Over-Ear Headphones

Over-ear headphones typically have the best sound quality, at the expense of weight and possible discomfort during summer.

Open-back headphones are great for producers and engineers, as well as audiophiles who want an immersive experience.

Closed-back headphones are great at noise cancellation and insulation, creating a very private listening experience, great for singers and those who do not want to be disturbed and disturb others.

Comfort can be a problem with over-ear headphones, but mostly due to poor design on cheaper models, as well as during hot summer days.

Noise insulation and cancellation is probably the best among all types, but it comes at a cost of weight and size.

On-Ear Headphones

The sound quality of on-ear headphones is comparable to that of over-ear models. Both have professional-grade equipment with open and closed back acoustic design.

On-ear models can have ANC, making them a great choice for audiophiles who want the best quality but no compromises when it comes to weight.

Comfort-wise, if seated properly and with padded ear cups, on-ear models are great. Some models can put a lot of pressure on the ears due to poor design. They are somewhat better in summer than over-ear models.

ANC is available with on-ear headphones, making them a great choice for listeners.

In-Ear Headphones

The sound quality debate might be associated with over-ear vs on-ear headphones, but in-ear headphones have come a long way, with plenty of professional monitors, in the price range of 300 to upwards of 1000 dollars.

The sound quality of in-ear headphones is definitely comparable to over-ear and in-ear counterparts.

Comfort is a very large bonus of in-ear headphones and those with a good design will be amazing to use, even on long-running sessions.

Noise isolation is a natural part of the in-ear design, and in that regard, they can be as good as over-ear or on-ear models.


The sound quality of earbuds is typically the lowest, but with that comes the lowest price and weight. Earbuds have also come a long way, particularly in terms of sound quality and noise cancellation.

Comfort is what earbuds are associated with, weighing almost nothing and resting on your ear (some people dislike headphones inside their ear canal).

Active noise cancellation is a feature that more and more earbuds include, making them a great choice for listeners who desire privacy and immersion.

Conclusion and Summary – Which Type is the Best?

Over-ear and on-ear headphones often produce the best sound quality and can have great noise isolation and cancellation, while also being comfortable, at the expense of weight and portability.

In-ear headphones come in all price ranges, from professional-grade studio equipment to affordable headphone options for athletes and casual listeners, offering noise isolation by design, as well as light weight.

Earbuds might be the perfect choice as a jack of all trades at a higher price, in terms of sound quality, comfort and even active noise cancellation.

While a difficult choice, neither type is without its pros and cons, so trying all types is recommended prior to making a purchase.

About The Author

Milan Zagorac

Milan has always been interested in writing and technology, but managed to pick up a love for music, literature and sports along the way. Essentially a jack of all trades, his interest in all things tech as well as love for the written word, keeps him well occupied.

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