What are the differences among the types of headphones? Learn their pros and cons and pick the best style for you.
Browsing through a store reveals there are at least 12 types of headphones. In this article, we go through all of them, listing their strengths, weaknesses, and best use cases.
The Types of Headphones
1. Over-Ear Headphones
Also known as “circumaural” headphones are the most common type of headphones with earpads big enough to fit your entire ear. They’re the biggest in size and have a headband that connects two earcups.
- Comfort: Big over-ear earpads are comfortable and usually well-padded. High-quality headphones with premium materials feel particularly luxurious.
- Passive isolation: Since your ears are fully enclosed, little ambient sound passes through. Leather earpads ensure the best isolation. Better passive isolation means less interference from the outside world. That ensures you hear more details without cranking up the volume.
- Sound Quality: Over-ear headphones produce sound that feels bigger and more realistic than smaller alternatives (earbuds).
- Soundstage: Since drivers are further away from your ears, over-ears create a wider soundstage.
- Comfort (with cheap headphones): Sometimes cheaper over-ear headphones come with thin earpads. As a result, your ears touch the hard plastic inside earcups, which eventually causes aching. Also, some can be pretty heavy or have strong clamping force to hold them in place.
- Stability: Big and heavy headphones can’t withstand rigorous movements, and they fly right off your head.
- Price: High-end over-ear headphones can be expensive, priced over $300 or even $1000.
- Portability: Due to their size, they take up a lot of space. To tackle this problem, some of them are foldable and come with a carrying case.
What are over-ear headphones best for?
They’re an excellent choice for traveling and commuting since they offer good isolation and are, in general, very comfortable.
If tuned correctly, they’re a go-to for studio workers in music production who want their mixes to have natural, accurate sound.
2. On-Ear Headphones
Supra-aural headphones are constructed the same way as over-ear headphones, but have smaller earpads. Consequently, the earpads rest on your earlobes.
- Stability: On-ear fit and the overall lighter construction give better stability during physical activities compared to over-ear headphones.
- Portability: Due to their smaller size, they’re slightly easier to carry around.
- Comfort: If earpads aren’t well-padded, the pressure against your earlobes can be irritating. After a while, it becomes painful, which will force you to take a break.
- Sweating: Much like over-ears, earpads press against your skin, preventing the air from circulating. Eventually, your skin becomes hot and starts sweating.
- Passive isolation: Our earlobes aren’t flat, which is why on-ear earpads don’t create a perfect seal. Apart from worse noise isolation, sound leakage can be a problem, too.
What are on-ear headphones best for?
If you don’t like in-ear fit but want headphones for working out, on-ears are a good alternative.
They’re more stable and lighter than over-ears, so they don’t feel as obvious on your head during exercise.
(also known as in-ear headphones)
The most portable type of headphones. They’re the smallest of the bunch and come in various shapes and sizes.
Technically, earbuds aren’t just 1 type. There are different types of earbuds. More on that below.
Their general advantages are:
- Lower price (usually)
- Effective noise isolation
- Stability during activity
For more details see below.
Different Types of Earbuds
There are 4 types of earbuds:
3. True Wireless Earbuds
True wireless earbuds (TWS) are popular due to their complete lack of wires. They come in a charging case, which is easily portable and helps extend their battery life.
Also, since all the necessary components are built into the housing (DAC (digital-to-analog converter) and DSP (digital signal processing)), wireless earbuds sound the same regardless of the source.
- Passive isolation: They seal ears completely and provide great noise isolation. Isolation changes with ear tips. Silicone tips are the most durable, but foam ones isolate the best.
- Sound quality: Since earbuds sit inside the ear canal, there’s very little resonance. As a result, the sound coming from earbuds can be very clean and detailed.
- Comfort: Most true wireless earbuds have an ergonomic design, which ensures both comfort and stability.
- Stability: Due to deeper fit, they latch to ears firmly, especially with ear ear hooks and wings. They’re by far the best option for sports.
- Portability: True wireless earbuds are small in size and can fit in any pocket.
- Durability: The lack of cables means fewer potential weak point. Many true wireless earbuds have some water protection.
- Hygiene: Your ears are cleaning themselves naturally. However, when you plug earbuds into your ear canal, you push the earwax back inside. Some of the wax ends up on your earbuds, which attracts dirt and, if you don’t clean them regularly, can result in an ear infection.
- Narrow soundstage: Earbuds don’t interact with your pinna, which is essential for wide soundstage perception. While the results can still be decent, the wideness is nowhere near what bigger headphones can achieve.
- Battery longevity: True wireless earbuds work on batteries. Thankfully, the battery duration is getting longer (an average of 7 hours per charge). Though, due to battery deterioration you can expect a noticeable drop in battery life after 2 years.
- Audio Lag: Bluetooth codecs have to pack the audio signal on one side and unpack it on the other. That takes time, which is why you can experience a visible audio delay when watching videos and playing games.
What are true wireless earbuds best for?
They’re great for frequent commuters and travelers who want something portable to fit in a pocket.
Active users will love the lack of wires during workouts.
Their convenient true wireless design is a great alternative for those who are still rocking wired earbuds.
Check best workout earbuds.
4. Wireless Earbuds (the old style)
In-ear headphones that receive audio wirelessly yet still have a wire connecting the two earbuds.
- Portability: They usually come with a carrying case and can easily fit in a pocket. They take as much space as their wired siblings.
- Sound quality: Sound is on par with the latest true wireless earbuds.
- Stability: Many sporty models tighten up the cable, which minimizes the movement. Also, when you put them out of your ears, you can hang them around your neck.
- Cable noise: Cable rubs against your clothes and skin, which produces cable noise (microphonics), especially if the cable is braided in fabric.
- Battery life: While there are exceptions, most wireless earbuds last below 10 hours. Also, after a year or 2, battery life drops.
What are wireless earbuds best for?
Some active users might prefer their design in case if one earbud falls out during a workout. The cable will catch it from dropping on the floor.
5. Wired Earbuds
Wired earbuds are becoming a niche and are only popular in the audiophile community.
- Sound Quality: Wired solutions are still a better-sounding option. They don’t rely on DSP on tuning, making their sound performance more scalable (better amps and cables result in tighter, more detailed sound).
- Noise isolation: In-ear fit offers the best isolation from the outside world. If you pick foam tips or multi-flanged silicone ones, the passive isolation gets even better.
- Stability: Earbuds with wires that go over the ear offer superb stability.
- Cost: The cheapest earbuds are wired. You can get great ones under $10.
- Zero audio latency: Wires are the most reliable way for audio transmission with zero audio delay when watching videos or playing games.
- Lack of compatible devices: Modern phones ditched the headphone jack. You need a USB dongle or a separate MP3 player.
- Cable noise: When wires rub against your clothes, they vibrate, and produce cable noise. Cable coating changes its intensity. Fabric or cheap plastic cables vibrate the most.
- Cables: While reliable, they are very annoying. Cables get stuck on a doorknob or an armrest, violently unplugging your earbuds.
- Durability: Cables are a weak point that can make your earbuds useless if damaged. Also, wired earbuds can’t handle water (except swimming earbuds with special protection).
What are wired earbuds best for?
If you don’t want to spend more than $20 on a pair, wired earbuds are your only option. Still, you can get some decent options at this price range.
On the other hand, audiophiles still prefer high-end wired earbuds due to their driving flexibility and superior sound quality.
Check best in-ear monitors.
6. Earphones (classic earphones)
Classic earbuds sit in front of the ear canal and rest on your earlobes.
Apart from the very successful Apple AirPods 2, classic earphones aren’t that popular.
- Better Awareness: Earphones don’t block your ears, they let in more ambient noise. This is great if you want better awareness.
- Comfort: No in-ear pressure means better overall comfort. Many earphones are super lightweight, so you barely feel them.
- Soundstage: They sit further away from your eardrums, which is why they’re able to create a slightly wider soundstage than in-ears.
- Sound Quality: While many sound good, they can’t reach the same level of quality as in-ear headphones. The lack of isolation significantly reduces their bass performance.
- Stability: Earphones don’t grab your ears, which makes them susceptible to fall out during movement. They aren’t suitable for sports activities.
What are classic earphones best for?
If you don’t care about the best sound quality and only want something to watch videos or listen to podcasts, the best classic earphones should do the job.
7. Bone Conduction Headphones
Unique headphones that use bone conducting technology to transmit sound through your cheekbones. It essentially bypasses the outer ear.
The most well-known brand is AfterShokz.
- Awareness: They don’t block your ears, giving you perfect awareness. They’re ideal for use in a city.
- Stability: Bone conduction headphones usually sit over the ear, which makes them highly stable.
- Hearing aids: Bone conduction can help people with hearing problems (that originate from the outer ear).
- Sound Quality: Transmitting sound through bones can only do so much. The quality is okay, but the audio lacks bass and detail.
- Isolation: Fully open ears mean you hear everything. You can only focus on music if listening in a quiet room.
What are bone conduction headphones best for?
If you hate the feeling of something covering or blocking your ears, these are the best solution.
They’re excellent for awareness when you’re jogging outdoors.
To some users with hearing problems, bone-conducting headphones can help increase their quality of life.
Note that bone conduction headphones can still cause hearing loss if cranking their volume too high.
8. Closed-Back Headphones
Closed-back headphones are any type of headphones (over-ear, on-ear, or in-ear) with fully closed ear cups.
- Passive isolation: Closed earcups prevent outside noise from sneaking in and ruining your listening experience. They also reduce sound leakage so people around you can’t hear your music.
- Bass response: Full enclosure traps sound waves and improves bass response or, rather, its extension. Low frequencies can reach deeper into the sub-bass, creating a rumbling sensation.
- Narrow soundstage: Compared to other types of headphones, the soundscape isn’t that big. Closed-back headphones trap the sound and force it directly into your ears.
- Sweating (with over-ears and on-ears): Closed earcups and a tight seal prevents sufficient air circulation, especially if headphones have leather earpads. Consequently, your skin becomes hot and sweaty.
What are closed-back headphones best for?
Closed-back design is great for users who want optimal noise isolation like commuters, travelers, or workers in a noisy environment. That’s why a closed design is perfect for implementing active noise cancellation.
With minimal sound leakage, they’re suitable for studio monitoring. You don’t want the sound from headphones to leak into a microphone.
9. Open-Back Headphones
Headphones with semi or fully open earcups. Drivers are usually visible and only protected with a wire mesh.
Due to their natural sound, they’re many audiophile’s favorite type of headphones.
- Sound Quality: Open-back design prevents the sound from feeling “trapped” inside the cups, resulting in an airier and more natural presentation. This type of headphones better handles higher volumes with less distortion.
- Breathability: Open earcups let in more air, which helps your skin breathe. You can still feel warm, but not to the point of sweating. Many open-backs use velour earpads that further help with breathability.
- Soundstage: The biggest advantage of open-back headphones is a wider soundstage. The sound can move freely and is pushed further away, which sounds like you’re listening to room speakers.
- Noise Isolation: There’s practically no passive isolation. Open earcups let in ambient sound as if you don’t wear headphones at all. That’s why it’s best to use them at home.
- Sound Leakage: When using open-back headphones, people can hear what you’re listening to even at lower volumes.
- Portability: Apart from their massive construction, the lack of sound isolation means they’re useless for commuting or travelling.
- Bass extension: Open design can’t boost lower frequencies the same way as closed-back headphones. As a result, open-back headphones offer poor sub-bass performance.
Note that boosting the bass with EQ can lead to distortion.
What are open-back headphones best for?
Because of their open sound, they’re a popular pick among audiophiles and audio engineers when mixing final recordings. Open-back headphones can achieve a very flat sound.
10. Wireless Headphones
Like wireless earbuds, wireless headphones also have all the necessary components already built into the housing, from the battery, Bluetooth chip, amplifier, DAC, and DSP.
- Portability: The lack of annoying dangling wires is by far the greatest advantage. Leaving your phone on a desk and walking around freely is liberating. They are a viable option for traveling, commuting, and exercising.
- Battery: While the battery life has extended noticeably in the past few years, you still have to charge it. It can be quite frustrating when you run out of juice and there is no charger in vicinity. Also, batteries don’t last forever, and they usually die or significantly reduce their longevity in a few years.
- Sound Quality: Wired headphones are still a better pick for high-quality audio, although the gap is starting to close. With the advancement in Bluetooth codecs and higher quality chips, you can get impressive results even from Bluetooth headphones.
- Audio Delay: Transmitting signals from one device to the other takes some time. While it’s measured in milliseconds, you can still notice it when watching videos or playing games. Some wireless headphones have overcome the issue by sending the audio beforehand, so it syncs with the video.
What are wireless headphones best for?
If you hate dangling wires, wireless headphones are your best solution. You can leave your phone on the table and walk around freely without having to worry about cables getting tucked over a doorknob.
Gamers can walk away to get some snacks while still talking to their teammates over chat.
Bluetooth headphones are great for commuting and travel, especially if they can fold into a carrying case, so they don’t damage during transport.
11. Wired Headphones
Any type of headphones that rely on wires to transmit audio signals. They’re still strong among audiophiles but are far less common among the general public due to their inconvenience.
- Sound Quality: …is still the best argument to get a pair of wired headphones. There is less signal distortion and floor noise with wires than wireless technology.
- Scalable performance: The quality of wireless headphones depends on quality of built-in chips. In contrast, wired headphones have scalable performance (better sources can result in higher audio quality).
- Price: Wired headphones can be made much cheaper than wireless siblings. Also, dirt-cheap wired cans perform better than wireless ones.
- Portability: Wires can get stuck on objects and potentially damage either headphones or the device’s headphone jack.
- Compatibility: Many portable devices ditched the headphone jack, making a purchase of an audio dongle or a separate music player mandatory.
- Cable noise: Wire rubbing against your cloths or skin produces audible noise, which can be very distracting.
What are wired headphones best for?
If you’re a diehard audiophile with lots of high-quality gear, wired headphones can give you the best musical experience.
As they offer the best sound quality, sound engineers use them in studios for monitoring and mixing audio.
12. Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Active noise cancellation is a new trend in consumer headphones.
These headphones can actively block surrounding noise by recording it, inverting its phase, and sending it back to your ears. Consequently, both sounds cancel themselves out before reaching your eardrums.
- Isolation: The addition of both passive and active isolation creates a unique experience where external noise completely disappears.
- Helps with noise-inducing stress: Active noise-cancelling headphones are useful for commuters and travelers who want to reduce annoying engine noises. Some like using them in loud offices to better concentrate on work or to improve sleep quality.
- Protects your hearing: If surrounding noise doesn’t mask your music, you don’t have to crank up the volume as much.
- Price: ANC headphones are usually more expensive since they require extra chips to work.
- Sound quality: Cheaper headphones change their sound when you enable noise cancellation. Manufacturers combat that by tuning their headphones to sound best with ANC on.
- Battery life: The technology uses additional power to block ambient noises actively. The battery duration can reduce up to 50%.
- Not great for outdoor use: Microphones pick up wind noise which gets played back into your ears.
What are noise-canceling headphones best for?
They’re suitable for frequent commuters and flyers, as well as people who work or live in a noisy environment.
Comparison Chart: Types of Headphones (basic)
Frequently Asked Questions
Which Type of Headphones is the Best?
Hard to answer. Since there are many different types of headphones with their pros and cons, it’s better to focus on your specific needs. In general, for home listening pick open-back headphones, for sports and portability get earbuds, for all-round use, get over-ear headphones, and so on.
What are the Safest Headphones (For Hearing)?
Researchers agree that over-ear headphones are the safest since they don’t amplify the sound the same way as in-ear headphones. They also sound fuller.
ANC headphones are also worth considering since they block the ambient noise. Consequently, you don’t have to crank their volume as high to hear the details.
Which Headphones Driver Type is the Best?
There’s no definitive answer since all of them have their pros and cons.
Dynamic drivers sound the most realistic, produce rumbling bass, but can also distort since they physically move too much.
Planar magnetic drivers can be very detailed across the frequency spectrum, but they can’t produce the same thumping bass as dynamic can and require an amp to drive them properly.
Electrostatic drivers have an impressive audio performance, but need special energizing amps to run properly, and are fragile to handle. Even particles of dust can cause unwanted distortion.
Balanced armature drivers are found in in-ears and can sound very tight and detailed. However, they can’t produce realistic rumbly bass and can also sound a bit dry.
Bone conduction drivers transmit sound through your cheekbones and can help people with hearing problems. However, overall sound quality isn’t optimal.