Introduction

Headphones have become an essential part of our everyday lives.  From putting them on at home, when we’re watching a movie, to wearing them in our ears when we’re running errands around town, we have them with us most of the time.

However, not all headphones are made equal.  Starting with the way you use them and wear them, to the technology available in them. Moreover, the sound quality can differ wildly.  

DIfferent headphones are made for different purposes and their design usually heavily relies on their use. We think it is more important to get the fit for purpose right than the sound quality as it can make headphones unusable. For example, you wouldn’t have over ear, audiophile grade headphones when you’re cycling – you would use earbuds for that.

To clear things up a little, let’s discuss the different types of headphones you can buy today.  I’ll answer a few popular questions that might pop up when you’re shopping for your next pair of headphones. It will likely make your shopping experience a lot smoother.  Let’s go!

Types of headphones

The main difference in headphones is the way you wear them or their fit. We recommend picking the correct fit as a starting point as it is the most important thing to get right.

Generally, there are three types of headphones – in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear.  Each type comes with pros and cons and is tailored for a particular use.

In-ear

In-ear headphones are small headphones similar to the ones that might’ve come with your phone. They are the most common type of headphones some of which are only a couple of dollars.  Even though most of them are often cheap, the high-quality in-ear monitors can wear a three or even four number price tags.

They’re made to be portable and have a secure fit, which makes them ideal for activities such as walking, working out, and sports in general. Most of them also feature noise isolation which can be active or passive. It helps you block outside noise keeping the sound reproduction free from external interference. In addition, the latest releases feature wireless connectivity, sweat and water resistance making the in-ears the best waterproof wireless headphones out there.

If you’ve come across terms such as earbuds and earphones, then they both fall under the same category. However, more on that later.

Pros:

  • Small and inconspicuous
  • Often come with your phone
  • Mostly affordable
  • Excellent for sports and workouts

Cons:

  • Not comfortable for everyone or an extended use
  • Limited sound quality due to the lack of physical size

On-ear

Next, we have something that’s substantially bigger – on-ear headphones.  They’re made to fit on your ear, with a headband going over your head, supporting them.

This category is most suitable for people who don’t find in-ear headphones comfortable, yet don’t want a pair of headphones that will cover their whole ear.  Most of the time, buying on-ears headphones is a compromise as the sound quality is somewhat inferior to good in-ear or over-ear headphones due to mediocre noise isolation.

Pros:

  • Comfortable for almost everyone and sit on your ear
  • Good fit drives better levels of noise isolation and sound quality
  • Master of compromise?

Cons:

  • Lousy sound quality if sound isolation isn’t up to par

Over-ear

Lastly, largest headphones from the lot – over-ear headphones.  Unlike on-ear headphones that press on your ear, over-ears are made to surround your ears and sit comfortably on your head.  They have a headband supporting them, too, but it’s usually larger and more comfortable compared to on-ears.

Over-ears are made for extended listening sessions and often give you excellent noise isolation to block external noise produced by your environment.  You might find them as a part of a home theater setup, or in a studio environment, but you’ll seldom see someone wearing a pair out on the streets, or in the gym.  They are a bit too big and heavy for such usage. Some may even require an amplifier to drive them.

Gaming headphones, noise canceling headphones, and the most expensive audiophile-grade headphones fall under the over-ear category. I will cover them in more details below.

Pros:

  • The most comfortable of the bunch
  • Can offer audiophile-grade quality due to the size and larger driver available
  • You can use them to monitor audio in a studio
  • Close to real sound reproduction

Cons:

  • A good pair of over-ears can set you back a couple of hundred dollars
  • Limited to inside use, such as home or studio

Wireless or wired?

In the past few years, wireless headphones are selling like hot cakes all around the world.  There are good reasons for such success, but despite the clear advantages, they come with a few drawbacks as well.  Let’s take a look.

There are a few types of wireless headphones.  First, all of the above-mentioned types (i.e., in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear) can be wireless. Also, there is also a type of in-ear headphones that are referred to as “true” wireless headphones.

With on-ear or over-ear, the cable that connects the two ear cups is hidden in the headband. Similarly, most of the wireless in-ear headphones have a cable that connects one earbud with the other. The cable is also a convenient place to have the mic or remote, similar to the one seen on Jaybird’s X4s.

True wireless headphones, however, have no cables. They are two separate earphones interconnected by Bluetooth.  Good examples would be Apple’s extremely popular AirPods, as well as Samsung’s Gear IconX.

The main advantage of wireless headphones is convenience.  You don’t have a cable that’s dragging along, and there’s nothing to get tangled inside your pocket or bag when you’re not using them.  There’s even the option of leaving your phone in your gym locker, to save you some weight in your pockets. Provided, of course, there’s enough range. Oh, and there’s the issue of smartphone manufacturers removing the 3.5mm headphone jack, leaving you no choice but to use wireless headphones.

Like everything, wireless headphones are not perfect. First, it is one more thing that you need to keep track to ensure it is charged. True wireless headphones often come with a charging case that adds a few extra hours of battery life as it has an additional battery integrated into the body. At the same time, there is no magic as you do need to charge that too, don’t you?

The second drawback is the sound quality (compared to wired headphones).  Even though we’ve seen a few advancements in transmission protocols lately, it is still no match for physical wires. Whenever you’re transferring sound wirelessly, you can expect there will be some quality loss.  For the regular listener, it might not be an issue as some wireless headphones deliver a very compelling level of sound quality. At the same time, for audiophiles and purists that have trained ears – the lack of clarity and sound quality, in general, would be relatively easy to pick.

Lastly, the easy and consistency of device pairing.  Many users report that with some wireless headphones, they’re noticing sound dropping out every once in a while.  They also find that pairing them can be difficult at times, as some smartphones and computers simply refusing to pair with wireless headphones.

To summarize, if the convenience is your main criteria, getting a pair of wireless headphones makes perfect sense. But if sound quality is your main concern, and you don’t want to have another device to charge every once in a while, a wired pair of headphones would be a better pick.

 

Earbuds vs earphones

I mentioned two types of in-ear headphones previously – earbuds and earphones.  They both fit in your ear, but how they do it is different, which again, has pros and cons.

Earbuds, such as Apple’s EarPods, are designed to stay in your earlobe and not to go inside the ear canal. This does mean that they’re often more comfortable and more hygienic to wear regularly. Conversely, it also means that there’s little to no noise isolation, and sound quality suffers as a consequence. People who have small ear canals might be required to attach a special hook to keep them from falling out.

In-ear earphones, alternatively, have a rubber or foam tip which penetrates your ear canal and expands, creating a tight fit with excellent noise isolation.  There are no outside sounds that can get in the way, and you can usually get a much better sound quality. This is where the high-end in-ear monitors as Shure SE535 and Sennheiser IE80 truly shine delivering the best in class sound quality.

The downside with ear tips is the comfort. With so many different ear and ear canal shapes, it may be difficult to find a good comfortable fit for everyone.

So, which ones do you go for?  If you don’t mind the potential discomfort of the rubber or foam tip, go for in-ear headphones.  If not, get earbuds, with less sound isolation but a guaranteed fit.

 

Open back vs closed back

If you did decide to go for the over-ear headphones, there is one more decision you need to make – open back or closed back.  Even though they look very similar on the outside, there are significant differences between the two.

Closed back headphones are more common as they can be used for more applications.  If a pair doesn’t specifically mention they’re open back, they are most likely closed back. 

As the name suggests, the difference is in the design of the back part of the cup. With a closed-back cap, the driver is blocked from the outside, so all sound that gets generated is directed inside of your ear. Conversely, open-back cups have no external resistance forcing the sound to go both into the ear canal and out to the world. 

The advantage of the closed-back design is no noise leaking outside the headphones, and you often get better sound quality because there’s no outside noise coming inside the headphones either.  However, you also get a fairly limited soundstage, which bothers many people.

On the other side, the open back design lets some sound leak out of the headphones, which results in a much wider soundstage and more natural sound.  When you’re watching a movie, or listening to well-mastered music, a wider soundstage can create a much more immersive experience.

If you are a sound purist, you may want to give the open-back design a go. It is the holy grail of headphones that deliver the most natural and aesthetic sound. Just note your surrounding, as everything you hear, they will hear too. The downside is that most of the time, you will see the price tag with at least three numbers. If your finances are tight, finding the best budget open back headphones may prove to be extremely difficult.

Alternatively, if you want general use, value for money and are worried about external sound levels – closed cap design is your pick.

 

Gaming headphones – why are they so special?

The term “gaming” headphones is given to flashy headphones that are often made to look much better than they sound.  They’re useful for gamers that want to be able to hear their surroundings, especially in multiplayer games, and come with a good mic for communication with your online team.

You can recognize them by the “gamer” aesthetic, as well as the RGB lights that are on most of today’s models.  The sound quality isn’t the best for music, but they aren’t made for music. Great choice if you are planning to predominantly use headphones for gaming, not so much for anything else.

 

Noise canceling headphones

Even though some headphones do offer good isolation, fully drowning out outside noise is a whole different challenge.  There are active noise canceling over-ear headphones that work admirably, such as Bose’s much-appraised QC35, or Sony’s 1000X M3.  These are often used by people in loud environments, such as when walking outside, or when traveling by plane or train, as they completely block any outside noise.

They work by using microphones on the outside of the earcups.  Those microphones record the outside noise, and then the headphones emit a sound wave with the same amplitude, but with an inverted phase, canceling out the outside noise.

 

Audiophile grade headphones can make a world of difference

With both in-ear and over-ear headphones, some top-end models are in the class of their own.  If you have an untrained ear, you may struggle to pick the differences between the best and great headphone pair. Audiophiles, however, can pick discrepancies in the individual notes reproduction. Those, however, can cost north of a thousand dollars.

Audiophile grade headphones, such as the Sennheiser HD820, or the Focal Utopia, to name a few, are often big, cover your whole ear, and are made to be comfortable for hours on end.  You’ll get luxurious sound, a wide soundstage, and excellent frequency response.  They’re almost always wired to ensure the smoothest sound transition with minimal frequency distortion and sound interference.

Additionally, you’ll almost certainly need a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) and an amplifier if you want to unleash their full potential.  This is especially true when you have high impedance headphones, such as the 250 OHM Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro.

Wrapping things up

Choosing a pair of headphones is mostly a personal preference. There are two main things to consider, the fit and the sound quality. If you are using the headphones over extended periods of time, on-ear and over-ear are great. Alternatively, if active use is your primary concern – in-ear headphones will delivery the most secure fit. For sound purists who can enjoy the music without distracting others – open-backs are the way to go.

I hope to have answered some common questions as far as headphones go, and cleared up some confusion.  If you have additional questions or feedback to share, please leave it in the comment box below!