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On-Ear vs. Over-Ear Headphones: Which to Buy?

Last updated: 5 days ago
6 min read

The biggest difference between on-ear vs. over-ear headphones is their size. But it isn’t the only difference.

on-ear vs over-ear headphones

If you’re in the market for new headphones, but don’t know whether to choose on-ear or over-ear headphones, you’re in the right place.

There are more differences than just their size and you’ll find out all of them below.

But first…

On-Ear vs. Over-Ear Headphones: What’s the Difference?

The biggest difference is the size of the earcups and earpads. The name says it all:

  • on-ear headphones (supra aural headphones) sit on your ears
  • over-ear headphones (circumaural headphones) sit around your ears

Though both types of headphones have a similar structure. A headband frame that connects two earcups.

On-ear vs. over-ear
The difference in ear cup size is significant.

Extra padding

The headband on over-ear headphones usually has thicker padding. On-ears aren’t as heavy, therefore, lighter headphones require less padding.

However, that simple difference in design makes for a different user experience.

Table of Contents

    Which Sound Better?

    In general:

    trophy Over-ear

    Over-ear headphones

    More oversized earcups not only mean larger drivers but also better isolation. The latter ensures a more pronounced deep bass response.

    Also, the sound from over-ear headphones sounds more prominent and more realistic, especially in open-back models. No wonder they’re the closest alternative to room speakers.

    Bigger headphones can also be more complex, equipped with bigger drivers that push more air.

    On-ear

    The earcup size matters when it comes to sound perception. On-ears don’t offer the best noise isolation, which is essential for achieving full bass response.

    Of course, there are great-sounding on-ear headphones out there, such as entry-level Grado headphones.

    However, at some point, smaller earcups and the lack of good isolation prevent manufacturers from making on-ear models that sound similar to over-ears.

    That’s why you don’t see on-ears above the $500 price range.

    Grado Labs SR125e wired headphones
    Grado headphones are famous for their retro on-ear design and airy sound quality.

    Which is More Comfortable?

    In general:

    trophy Over-ear

    Comfort varies depending on how thick and soft the earpads are, and the weight of the frame.

    On-ear

    The small size helps on-ear headphones to be lightweight.

    The latter also means they don’t need as much padding on the headband since the weight isn’t pushing them down.

    On the other hand, on-ear fit can still put some pressure on your earlobes, which eventually start hurting. Pain can occur after a few hours or in just a couple of minutes.

    When picking on-ears, pick the ones with thick padding and medium clamping force.

    Over-ear

    More room for your ears results in more comfortable headphones, especially if there’s extra plush memory foam inside earpads.

    When earpads completely cover your ears, the clamping force is also better distributed.

    Person listening to headphones
    Over-ear earpads can surround your entire ear, creating a comfortable fit, even if you wear glasses.

    While most over-ear headphones are still relatively lightweight, more premium models use fancy materials that add to the weight.

    When deciding on big headphones, pick the ones with a well-padded headband, or look for those with a suspension headband, like in AKG headphones.

    Also, be aware of the actual earpad size since not all are equally spacious.

    For example, Audio-Technica ATH-M50x still squeeze the edges of your earlobes. On the other hand, Sennheiser HD 600 have big earpads that go entirely around your ears.

    Which is More Stable?

    In general:

    trophy On-ear

    If you plan to use full-size headphones for sports activities, good stability means you don’t have to worry about them falling off your head mid exercise.

    Sweating due to blocked airflow is also worth mentioning. Your ear canals help to cool your head (literary holes in your head), so even if you use earbuds, you’ll feel slightly hotter as a result.

    On-ear

    Lightweight design makes them a better overall option for sports. Most importantly, you don’t feel them on your head as much, so they bother you less during workouts.

    Also, earpads with a smaller surface mean you aren’t cooking your ears under extreme heat. Consequently, headphones don’t block as much airflow, so you sweat less.

    Of course, you still sweat when wearing on-ear headphones, but not to the same extent.

    Woman sports headphones
    While in-ear headphones are the best for stability, on-the-ear headphones are the second-best alternative.

    Over-ear

    While you can use over-ear headphones for working out, and there are some great models out there, they’re too heavy to feel secure.

    Since headphones are heavier, you also feel them more during exercising as they bounce on your head.

    While they cover a larger area, earpads primarily focus on comfort instead of strong clamp force. As a result, they can quickly fall off your head when you lean your head backward.

    Also, if you’re using leather earpads, they create an airtight seal, which results in heat buildup. Your skin starts sweating, which is never pleasant.

    Excess sweat also makes headphones more slippery.

    Which has Longer Battery Life?

    In general:

    trophy Over-ear

    Both types can output quite impressive battery durations. However, more space inside earcups still makes for better performance.

    On-ear

    In general, most on-ears have a respectable battery life, with up to 40 hours of playtime.

    Of course, enabling additional features hurts the total duration by almost a half. For example, Beats Solo Pro have 40 hours of battery life without ANC and 22 hours with ANC.

    Beats Solo Pro wireless headphones
    Beats Solo Pro, premium on-ear headphones with the latest features.

    Over-ear

    On the other hand, bigger earcups can store even bigger batteries. As a result, over-ear headphones last the longest, with up to 95 hours on a single charge (Edifier W830BT).

    That’s more than double what best on-ears have to offer, making over-ears a clear winner in battery life.

    Which is More Portable?

    In general:

    trophy On-ear

    Portability depends on the headphone’s size, weight, and additional features like foldable ear cups and an included carrying case.

    On-ear

    The best thing about on-ear design is its size. Less material is needed to make them, which results in lightweight construction.

    Also, most wireless on-ear headphones fold their earcups to fit inside a backpack or in a more spacious pocket.

    Over-ear

    Over-ears are chunkier and more rigid compared to on-ears. If they don’t fold, they take up a lot of space. Carrying case only adds to the bulk, although at least keeps the headphones protected.

    Sony WH-1000XM4 folded in case

    Only more consumer-oriented models have a folding mechanism that makes them somewhat portable. In combination with a carrying case, they don’t take as much space.

    However, they’re still bigger than on-the-ear headphones, so not the best option for ultimate portability.

    Is There a Difference in Features?

    In general:

    trophy Over-ear

    Different headphone designs can affect the performance of extra features such as active noise cancelling.

    On-ear

    For noise cancelling to work best, headphones have to ensure optimal sound isolation from the outside world. In the case of on-ear headphones, the latter can be a hit or miss.

    While thick earpads can create a good seal, they still can’t create a complete enclosure of your ears. The latter then affects the noise-canceling performance.

    Of course, in practice, their active noise cancellation is still respectable. However, manufacturers don’t focus as much on on-ears and instead put the best ANC chips inside over-ear headphones.

    Over-ear

    As mentioned, over-ear headphones are better equipped when it comes to the latest technologies.

    Apple AirPods Max wireless headphones
    Currently, the most expensive consumer headphones are Apple AirPods Max.

    Their big ear pads create a better seal, which amplifies the overall active noise cancelling performance or, rather, its perception.

    Bigger batteries also mean that the extra features can run longer.

    On-Ear vs. Over-Ear Headphones Comparison

    Sound quality Comfort Stable fit Battery life Portability Features Price
    Worse
    Worse
    Better
    Shorter
    Better
    Worse
    Cheaper
    Better
    Better
    Worse
    Longer
    Worse
    Better
    Pricier

    When Should You Pick On-Ear Headphones?

    For outdoor use/portability

    If you need something inconspicuous for commuting, smaller on-ear headphones are the way to go.

    They’re lighter and more portable. They fold up, take less space, and still offer considerable performance when needed.

    For sports activities

    Sportspeople that don’t like in-ear earbuds should opt for on-ear headphones since they offer the second-best stability.

    There are sports-oriented models out there with washable or breathable earpads and tighter clamping force to keep them in place. Check the best workout headphones if you want a more stable fit.

    When Should You Pick Over-Ear Headphones?

    For comfort

    The over-ear design doesn’t pressure your earlobes, which ensures better comfort for extended listening sessions.

    More premium over-ears have plusher earpads or use more exquisite materials to dress them.

    HIFIMAN Ananda planar magnetic headphones
    Headphones with planar magnetic drivers, up to 100mm in diameter, are usually enormous.

    For best sound quality

    Large ear cups fit your whole ears, which is essential for the audio to sound as natural as possible (in the real world, sounds interact with your pinna, which is crucial for spacious soundstage perception).

    The sound also has more impact and feels roomier. That makes it more natural and pleasing to listen to. Open-back headphones offer the best sound reproduction.

    Over-ear headphones also use larger drivers of different types to produce high-quality sound (planar magnetic drivers can be up to 100mm in diameter).

    For commuting (when you need ANC)

    While better passive noise isolation plays a role here, bigger headphones tend to use more advanced technologies than on-ear.

    That’s why over-ear headphones can still reduce ambient noise more than on-ears and are better suited for frequent travelers.

    Sony WH-1000XM4 touch controls
    Over-the-ear headphones more sufficiently block outside noise in a city.

    Longer Battery life

    On average, over-ear headphones have longer-lasting batteries.

    While over-ear models from well-known brands tend to stay at around 40 hours per charge (Sony WH-1000XM4), some budget models reach up to 95 hours on a single charge.

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

    Are On-ear Headphones Uncomfortable?

    Not necessarily. Quality ones have thick, plush padding that feels like a pillow on your ears.

    However, they’re still only suitable for short listening sessions. After an hour or two, you’ll notice a painful pressure against your earlobes, which forces you to take a break.

    Why Do Over-Ear Headphones Hurt Your Ears?

    Not all over-ear headphones have the same size of earcups. Some of them easily fit around your ears, whereas others still touch your earlobes. The latter then make your ears sore, which is called listener fatigue.

    Try wearing headphones before buying to see if they fit. Also, try finding the sweet spot by adjusting the position of your headphones.

    Are Over-Ear Headphones Safer (for Hearing)?

    Generally, all headphones can damage your hearing if you listen to music at high volumes for long listening sessions.

    However, over-ear headphones produce the fullest sound quality of all types of headphones. Because of that, you don’t feel the need to crank up the volume as high as you might with in-ear or on-ear headphones.

    How Long Should You Wear Headphones a Day?

    The lower you keep the volume, for more extended periods you can listen to headphones. One rule states that 60% volume equals 60 minutes of listening time. The more you raise the volume, the shorter the listening time.