Normally, headphones are classified as in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear based on their sizes and ways of wearing.
This headphone guide explains the differences in size and sound quality among these 3 types of headphones. Then we explain whether you should get an in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear headphones to meet your needs (and comfort).
Why do you need to know the differences among in-ear, on-ear and over-ear headphones?
When buying a new headphone, the first question you need to ask yourself is what “size” of the headphone should be.
In the market, there are roughly 3 types of headphones based on their sizes (both wired headphones and Bluetooth headphones):
- in-ear headphone (aka earphone, or earbud);
- on-ear headphone; and
- over-ear headphone.
The differences among in-ear, on-ear and over-ear headphones are NOT just about the size.
Quite often, certain type of headphone may be better than others for special group of users (e.g. people with glass), or better for special occasions (e.g., for running).
So, it is important to know the differences among in-ear, on-ear and over-ear headphones to get the headphone that is most suitable for you when you plan to get a new headphone.
Size matters: the obvious difference among in-ear, on-ear and over-ear headphones
In-ear headphone, aka earbud or earphone, is the smallest among the three.
Because of the small driver (aka transducer), a unit that converts an electrical signal into sound (air pressure), in-ear headphone is small enough to fit inside your ears.
The on-ear headphone usually uses larger drivers. But the padding is not large enough to cover your ears. Instead, the headphone sits on your ears without fully covering them.
The over-ear headphone has a large enough padding to cover your ear. Manufactures can put larger drivers in over-ear headphones thanks to the additional space.
Sound quality difference among in-ear, on-ear and over-ear headphones
When sound quality is concerned, size is NOT the major factor.
Many headphone buyers have the wrong impression: the bigger driver means better sound quality. This is wrong.
Large drivers generally can boost high volume (louder) with higher capacity for the bass. But unlike the volume or bass, the sound quality (audio quality) is NOT simply determined by the driver size.
For all headphones, sound quality (audio quality) is mainly determined by:
- Driver type. Most headphones use the dynamic driver (aka moving coil driver), which usually gives moderate sound quality. Balanced armature drivers and planar magnetic (orthodynamic) drivers can be found in some high-end earphones and headphones. Of course, for sound quality, no drivers can beat the electrostatic driver. But headphones with electrostatic driver will set you back by a high price tag (usually a few thousand bucks).
- Driver quality. Of course, the quality of the driver differs dramatically among different manufacturers. You cannot expect the same driver in a $50 headphone and a $500 headphone.
- Acoustic design. The acoustic design of the headphone is often overlooked, especially for low-end headphones. But for middle-range and high-end headphones, the acoustic design can be a deal-maker or a deal-breaker.
In short, driver size only affects the loudness; while different types of driver, quality of the driver, and acoustic design usually are critical for sound quality.
When you should use an in-ear headphone (earbuds)?
In-ear headphones (and earbuds) are always smaller than over-ear and on-ear headphones, and therefore you may consider to get or use in-ear headphone:
- if you want to avoid bringing a bulk headphone.
- if you wear glasses. All on-ear and over-ear headphones need to press your ears, and therefore you may have to re-position the glasses when using these two types of headphones.
- when you are running or doing workouts. Most on-ear headphones will not be able to stay on the ears in these situations. Some sports edition of over-ear headphone may work. But in-ear headphone usually works the best. Of course, it is better to get a Bluetooth headphone (and in-ear) for your workouts.
- if you do not want your headphone being noticed. For example, in the office, an on-ear or over-ear headphone may attract undesired attention. An in-ear headphone usually is not so obvious.
Please note, the in-ear headphone can have comparable audio quality compared to over-ear and on-ear headphones.
But there are so many poor quality in-ear headphones in the market. You need to do some homework before buying one.
You may follow this in-ear headphone buyer guide if you need help to decide the best in-ear headphone based on your budget.
When you should use an over-ear headphone?
Although driver size is not a deciding factor for the sound quality of a headphone, you may find there are more options when you buy an over-ear headphone.
The big cap in over-ear headphones allows manufacturers to fit more components, and optimize the acoustic design.
You may consider an over-ear headphone:
- if you prefer strong bass. Bigger driver, physically, has the capacity of offering stronger bass. Of course, this depends on manufacturers’ implementation and design. Generally speaking, headphones with a driver larger than 40mm is able to produce well-balanced sound with decent bass. For smaller drivers in many in-ear headphones, special design and tuning are needed to get a similar bass.
- if you use the headphone mainly in home or office. Normally, an over-ear headphone is more comfortable than in-ear and on-ear headphones for long-duration usage.
- if you are not comfortable with in-ear headphones. Some users may feel uncomfortable when using in-ear headphones for extended periods.
- if you need to block some ambient sound. Most over-ear headphones can physically block some ambient sound. Of course, this is through passive blocking. If you need to block ambient noise aggressively, you should get an over-ear headphone with active noise cancelling (ANC) capability. For example, Bose 25 or Bose 35 can cancel about 90% low-frequency noise.
You will have more choices for over-ear headphones compared to in-ear and on-ear headphones.
So, it is easier to find the desired over-ear headphone within your budget.
When you should use an on-ear headphone?
On-ear headphone lies between in-ear and over-ear headphones in size.
In the market, demand for the on-ear headphone is not high, but steady.
You may consider using an on-ear headphone :
- if you need a light-weight headphone, but you are not comfortable with in-ear headphones.
- if you are not comfortable with ears covered by over-ear headphones. For example, some users may find their ears are sweaty when using over-ear headphones, especially in hot weather without air conditioning.
- if you prefer some special designs. Although there are far more over-ear headphones in the market than on-ear headphones, most cool designs can only be found in on-ear phones.
Please note, on-ear headphones are not good for sports. It is hard to keep an on-ear headphone in position during workouts.
Do you know the differences among in-ear, on-ear and over-ear headphones? Do you know whether you should get an in-ear, on-ear or over-ear headphone now?
If you have any questions on the differences among in-ear, on-ear and over-ear headphones, or if you have any questions on choosing one of them, please let us know in the comment box below.
The Headphone Guide Pro community will help you find the answer.