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

Last updated: 5 months ago
7 min read

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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.

Both types of headphones have a similar structure: A headband frame that connects 2 earcups.

On-ear vs. over-ear
The difference in ear cup size is significant (over-ear left, on-ear right).

Extra padding on the headband

Usually, the headband on over-ear headphones has thicker padding. On-ear headphones aren’t as heavy. And because they’re lighter, they come with less padding.

Here’s an example:

Over-ear: Skullcandy Crusher ANC 2 (left) vs. On-ear: Sony WH-CH510 (right)

The difference in headband padding is generally true. But not always. Exceptions exist.

CONTENTS (show more)

    Which Sound Better?

    In general:

    trophy Over-ear

    Generally, over-ear headphones sound better than on-ear headphones. They use bigger drivers and a better fit to produce high-resolution audio.

    Over-ear headphones

    Bigger earcups not only mean larger drivers but also better noise isolation. The latter ensures a stronger and deeper bass response.

    And bigger drivers push more air, creating more power (more oomph). And have a wider frequency-response which helps you hear details in music.

    Also, the sound from over-ear headphones sounds more spacious and thus realistic (especially open-back models). For this reason, they’re the closest alternative to room speakers.

    On-ear

    The size matters. The earcup size impacts sound perception. On-ear headphones don’t offer the best noise isolation, which is essential for rich bass response.

    That doesn’t mean there are no great-sounding on-ear headphones out there.

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

    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. They’re simply too small for the best sound.

    Which is More Comfortable?

    In general:

    trophy Over-ear

    Comfort depends on the thickness and softness of the earpads and the weight of the frame. Over-ear headphones generally have more padding across the board.

    Over-ear

    More room for your ears results in more comfortable headphones. Especially with extra plush memory foam earpads that feel like a pillow.

    When earpads completely cover your ears, the clamping force is better distributed. Thus less irritation of your skin.

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

    While most over-ear headphones are relatively lightweight, some 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. Not all are equally big. If you have bigger ears, smaller over-ear pads might not go around them.

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

    On-ear

    The small size makes on-ear headphones lightweight.

    This 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 pressure on your earlobes, which eventually starts hurting. Pain can occur after a few hours or in a couple of minutes. It depends on the model.

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

    Which is More Stable?

    In general:

    trophy On-ear

    On-ear headphones generally stick to your head better than over-ear headphones.

    Lighter and smaller headphones are less likely to change position, especially during movement.

    If you plan to use full-size headphones for sports (instead of earbuds), you need good stability. So you don’t have to worry about your headphones falling off your head mid exercise.

    Plus they help you cool down. Sweating due to blocked airflow is a thing. Your ear canals help cool your head (like vents in your head). So, if you use earbuds, you’ll feel slightly hotter (temperature-wise, not attractiveness-wise).

    On-ear

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

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

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

    Over-ear

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

    Since headphones are heavier, you feel them bounce on your head when exercising.

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

    Over-ear headphones are a NO-NO for working out for a reason.

    Which has Longer Battery Life?

    In general:

    trophy Over-ear

    Both types can output impressive battery durations. However, more space inside earcups in over-ear headphones gives them: a bigger battery AND a longer battery life.

    On-ear

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

    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 foldable ear cups, so you can store them in a carrying case.

    On-ear

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

    Also, most wireless on-ear headphones fold their earcups to fit inside a backpack or a bigger 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 it keeps the headphones protected.

    Sony WH-1000XM4 folded in case

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

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

    Is There a Difference in Features?

    In general:

    trophy Over-ear

    Over-ear headphones are the primary design for most brands. So, they get all the latest features such as active noise cancelling, companion apps, ambient-sound mode, etc. On-ears aren’t as popular and are “a bit left behind”.

    On-ear

    For active noise cancelling to work best, headphones need optimal sound isolation from the outside world. In the case of on-ear headphones, it 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.

    In practice, on-ear 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 (or some WH-1000 Sonys).

    Their big ear pads create a better seal, which amplifies the active noise cancelling performance and 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 who don’t like in-ear earbuds should get 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.

    Read more:

    FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions

    Are on-ear headphones uncomfortable?

    On-ear headphones are not uncomfortable. Model with thick, plush padding feels like a pillow on your ears. However, they’re only suitable for shorter 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?

    Over-ear headphones hurt your ears because they don’t fit around your ears and touch your earlobes, which makes your ears sore. It’s called listener fatigue.

    Are over-ear headphones safer (for hearing)?

    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 per day?

    The lower you keep the volume, the longer 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.

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