Entertainment Technology Explained

In, On, or Over: Which Style of Headphones Should You Buy?

Tim Brookes 27-06-2017

Sound quality is the number one criteria you should look at when considering a new pair of headphones. However, comfort and convenience follow close behind. What you intend to use your headphones for should also influence your decision.


There are three “types” of headphones that we’ll be looking at today:

  1. in-ear (also known as earphones)
  2. on-ear (which sit directly on your cartilage)
  3. over-ear (which surround your whole ear)

There are pros and cons to each style of headphones, so let’s help you decide which is best for you.

In-Ear Headphones

In-ear headphones, more commonly known as earphones, are probably the most popular way of listening to personal audio on the move. They’re cheap and cheerful, and your smartphone probably came with a pair. Plus, generally speaking, they tend to be the least durable of the three.

There are two sub-types of earphones: fitted deeper in-ear types that create a tight seal, and loose hard plastic types that sit just inside your ears. Sealed varieties generally have good passive noise isolation, which means they block ambient noise just as well as sticking your fingers in your ears.

airpod featured


Finding a good fit is important, particularly when it comes to comfort. For this reason, the majority of earphones now use a fitted design. You can still get the older style of loose-fitting earphones, with Apple’s AirPods being one of the more recent takes on the old idea.

In-ear headphones are small, lightweight, easy to tuck under a shirt, and easy to carry with the aid of a carry case. Most of them are built with a purpose in mind, and many include remotes and microphones for use with a smartphone. You can get sports earphones that clip to your ears, waterproof earphones for swimmers, and even noise cancelling models if you look hard enough.

beatsx logo

Earphones are a portable convenience, and thus you could argue that sound quality takes a backseat here. Take, for example, Apple’s new wireless Beats X. These don’t sound phenomenal, but have one-touch iOS pairing, excellent battery life, and fast charging BeatsX Review & Giveaway: Apple's Best Earphones Yet? Read More . The convenience of wireless audio, easy pairing, and fast charge times outweighs the passable sound quality. This is particularly true when your source audio is a lossy MP3.


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That’s not to say you can’t also get high-end in-ear headphones built with accurate sound reproduction in mind. Try something like the pricey Shure SE425 studio monitors if that’s what you’re looking for.

On-Ear Headphones

On-ear headphones offer a trade-off between the size of larger home listening headphones and portable in-ear options. If you simply can’t stand in-ear headphones, these are your next best choice. As the name suggests, these varieties are characterised by the way the headphones sit on your ears.

sennheiser px100


Larger drivers often result in a better quality sound, but this comes at the cost of size. On-ear headphones simply aren’t as easy to travel with as the smaller variety. Some models are foldable, while others sit comfortably around your neck when not in use. Their larger size also puts them at risk of breaking in your bag, so many come with hard carrying cases too.

You can get fairly small on-ear headphones like the Sennheiser PX100 or much chunkier models like the Beats Solo3. The characteristic “on-ear” design means that the cups sit flush with your ears, and noise isolation can be a mixed bag. In my experience, the tighter the headphones, the better the sound isolation, and the less comfortable they are.

beats solo3


If, like me, you wear glasses, it’s definitely worth trying out on-ear headphones before buying. I find prolonged sessions with some designs can get sweaty, depending on what the cups are made from.

GRADO SR225e Prestige Series Wired Open-Back Stereo Headphones GRADO SR225e Prestige Series Wired Open-Back Stereo Headphones Buy Now On Amazon $200.00

If you’re going for larger headphones you should be a little more picky in terms of sound quality. You’re already sacrificing the convenience of smaller in-ear models. For a truly “flat” response, look at something like the Grado SR225e but don’t expect wireless audio or fancy extra features.

Over-Ear Headphones

Over-ear headphones, as the name suggests, cover your whole ear. They sit against your head, which makes them the most comfortable option. There’s no stretching of your ear canals or crushing of your ear, and though not every pair is guaranteed to be comfortable, they’re generally the best option for extended listening sessions.

beo overear

The cost, aside from the actual money, is the size. Over-ear headphones are generally very big, with powerful drivers that provide improved sound quality over smaller models. They’re best for listening at home, while working at your desk or producing videos. And, if possible, when plugged into a good headphone amp What Is a Headphone Amp and Do I Need One? If you're serious about music, you may be disappointed by the audio quality your mobile device manages -- particularly when paired with high-end headphones. The solution? A headphone amplifier. Read More to really make your favorite music pop.

Headphone amplifiers are another thing to consider, as they’re often required to power high-end headphones. The need for one depends on the impedance rating on your chosen headphones, measured in Ohms. To quote from our article about headphone amps What Is a Headphone Amp and Do I Need One? If you're serious about music, you may be disappointed by the audio quality your mobile device manages -- particularly when paired with high-end headphones. The solution? A headphone amplifier. Read More and whether you need one:

“You will probably benefit from a headphone amp if your headphones are rated beyond 32 Ohms, but you likely don’t need an amp unless you use a set rated at 100 Ohms or greater.”

Simply put, remember why you are buying your headphones. If you’re going to be using a smartphone as your main listening platform, you many also need to invest in a headphone amp to get the most out of them. If you don’t, your music will sound oddly quiet and you’re better off spending the money on superior in-ear or over-ear headphones instead.

fiio headphone amp

The sheer size of over-ear headphones makes them undesirable for use on the street, they’re rarely foldable, and most don’t come with a carrying case either. The sky’s the limit when it comes to what you want to spend here, but you don’t have to break the bank. The Status Audio CB1 studio monitors that I reviewed last year Status Audio HD Two and CB-1 Headphones Review Status Audio hopes to buck the trend of expensive celebrity-endorsed headphones by selling direct to consumers. Today we'll be testing two of the company's latest products, the HD Two and CB-1. Read More delivered excellent performance on the cheap, with build quality (not sound quality) being the biggest issue.

Status Audio CB-1 Closed Back Studio Monitor Headphones with 50mm Drivers - For Music Production, Mixing, Mastering and Audiophile Use (Black & Gold) Status Audio CB-1 Closed Back Studio Monitor Headphones with 50mm Drivers - For Music Production, Mixing, Mastering and Audiophile Use (Black & Gold) Buy Now On Amazon $51.92

Other Factors

Sound quality, comfort, convenience, and purpose are all important when deciding on new headphones. There are a few other things to keep in mind, however, like whether or not to go wireless. Wireless audio has improved immeasurably over the last decade, but wired audio still delivers the best signal with the lowest latency.

If you’re an iPhone user looking for headphones you’d do well to invest in a pair that supports the new W1 chip. The previously-mentioned Beats X and AirPods offer neat in-ear options, but there are others that are worthy of your consideration AirPods, Beats, and W1: Choosing the Best Wireless iPhone Headphones Apple's new AirPods have sold surprisingly well, but are they the best wireless iPhone headphones for your money? That depends. Read More too. If convenience is most important to you, you really should be looking at a decent pair of Bluetooth headphones The 7 Best Bluetooth Headphones You Can Buy Finding the right pair of Bluetooth headphones isn't easy, so we've compiled a list of the best Bluetooth headphones money can buy. Read More .

You may also want headphones for other reasons. Gaming headsets can provide immersive sound in a design that’s built for comfort The Best Wireless Gaming Headsets in 2017 The right headset can take elevate your gaming experience without messy, distracting cables getting in the way. But which wireless gaming headsets should you buy? It depends on your budget, the games you play, and... Read More , with a microphone for chatting to your online buddies.

In Summary

  • In-ear headphones are portable, cheap, and convenient at the cost of comfort and sound quality.
  • On-ear headphones straddle the line between portability and convenience, offering larger designs with better sound quality at the cost of portability.
  • Over-ear headphones frequently offer the best sound and most comfortable designs, but their large size generally makes them unsuitable for use outside of the house.

Whichever style you’re keen on, we highly recommend you visit a bricks-and-mortar retailer to test the headphones before you buy them. Failing that, make sure you read plenty of trustworthy online reviews The Scourge Of The Web: Fake Reviews & How To Spot Them "User reviews" are actually a pretty recent phenomenon. Before the prevalence of the Internet, user reviews were called testimonials, and you’d only see them on TV commercials and product pages. Nowadays, anyone can write anything... Read More before parting with your hard-earned cash.

Did you spend a lot of money on your headphones? Did our advice help you make a decision? Which style of headphones do you consider to be the best? Please let us know what style, make, and model you bought in the comments below!

Related topics: Buying Tips, Headphones.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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