Types of Headphones – Never be confused again

There aren’t that many but somehow trouble us.

Types of Headphones – Comparison

Headphone Type

Comfort

Fit

Passive Noise Isolation

Sound Quality

Portability

In-ear

boAt Rockerz 255 blue

Good

Good

Good

Poor/Okay/Good

Excellent

On-ear

JBL Under Armour Sport headphones

Okay

Okay/Good

Okay

Okay/Good

Good

Over-ear (closed-back)

Sony WH 1000XM4 angled scaled

Excellent

Excellent

Excellent

Good/Excellent

Poor/Okay

Over-ear (open-back)

beyerdynamic dt 990 pro perspective

Excellent

Excellent

Good

Good/Excellent

Poor/Okay

Bone Conduction

Bone Conduction headphones

Okay/Good

Okay/Good/Excellent

None

Okay

Excellent

The overall performance of these devices greatly depends on how they are designed and how well they fit. High-end headphones, whether they’re general consumer-oriented or audiophile-grade, can be found in all of these categories. And usually, there isn’t any significant difference in terms of sound reproduction, frequency response, and impedance.

Types of headphones

Beginning with the first type, In-ear headphones. We have all owned a pair of In-ear type headphones in our life or at least seen one.


In-Ear Headphones

(Sometimes called ‘earphones’, ‘earbuds’ and/or ‘in-ear monitors or IEMs’)

boAt Rockerz 255 blue

In-ear type headphones are the smallest in size. They are called that because part of the earpiece goes inside your ear, pretty descriptive don’t you think? Another technical name for these headphones is ‘in-ear monitor’ or ‘IEM’ for short. They are commonly known as earbuds or earphones to most people.

We call them in-ears or earbuds. Getting the sound source (i.e. the earpiece) close to the eardrums helps in improving the sound quality and noise isolation. Wired and wireless options are equally abundant for these types of headphones. The True Wireless Earbuds (TWS) are pretty attractive today.

What’s Good about In-ear headphones

  • Lightweight and pretty portable thanks to its small form factor
  • Excellent passive noise isolation gives you better sound quality and privacy 
  • Oftentimes they have water and sweat resistance which makes them ideal for sports

What’s Bad about In-ear headphones

  • Listening at high volume for long periods of time may damage since the audio source is much closer to the eardrums compared to other types 
  • Since they go inside your ear canal they may cause irritation
  • The quality of the soundstage is usually lower compared to over-ear headphones

When are In-ear headphones an ideal choice?

In-ear type headphones are the most portable model, they can easily be travelled with. Some models provide you with a small carrying case and even if they don’t, you can just roll them up and put them in a pocket or a backpack. The cables of in-ears are prone to damage. Nevertheless, they remain quite popular.

In addition to sounding excellent, sometimes spending a bit more money could get your performance close to that of On-ears and some Over-ears. And generally, they are more reasonably priced which may be a factor in their popularity. They are ideal for commuting to and from places, general listening or while working out, and many more situations.

Airlines also at times offer you a pair that you can take for yourself. They offer a lot of valve for money. A jack-of-all-trades design with few shortcomings.

Classic Earbuds (earphones)

classic earbuds or earphones

Remember those earphones you got almost a decade ago, that came included in the box with keypad style mobiles. They are the first versions of earbuds that you see today. Unlike the earbuds today that go inside your ear, these classic earbuds stay at the entrance of your ear. It’s unusual to see them today but you can still find them.

Technically, these are the true “earphones”. But people have used this term as another way to say “headphones”. This is incorrect.

In order to avoid further confusion look at it this way, the devices that have a headband like the On-ears and Over-ears are Headphones. And the ones without it, ones that go inside your ear are Earphones or Earbuds.
Author

On-Ear Headphones

rockerz 450 off white

On-ear types of headphones are also at times called supra-aural headphones. These are another great option if you’re looking for a portable option. Usually, you’ll see them used by commuters, gym-goers, and joggers. Their earcups are smaller compared to Over-ears and weigh lower than them too. Which makes them more manageable to travel with. Most of them look stylish and sound magnificent.

What’s Good about On-ear headphones

  • Better portability compared to Over-ears
  • Usually, sound great
  • Ideal for sports and running than over-ear headphones

What’s Bad about On-ear headphones

  • They can get comfortable as they set on the earlobes
  • Sound leaks outside and inside of the earpieces

You’ll find this to be the case for most headphones but not all of them.

When are On-ear headphones an ideal choice?

Like we mentioned earlier, among the headphones, over-ears are smaller in size and this makes them ideal for commuting and working out. Travelling DJs tend to carry a pair of on-ear headphones with them because of this reason or as a backup. Since they don’t go inside your ear they tend to be more comfortable than in-ears for sports-related activities. You also get to see vintage-looking on-ears because they look really cool.


Over-Ear Headphones

AKG N700NC Wireless

When you think of headphones these are probably what you picture. In terms of size, they are the biggest. By now you must’ve figured out why they’re called over-ear headphones. They are called that because the earcups are large enough to cover your ears all around. They’re also called circumaural or around-the-ear headphones.

What’s Good about Over-ear headphones

  • Most comfortable fit due to the densely-packed and soft earmuffs
  • They sound incredible (Both open-back and closed-back)
  • Open-back tend to have better passive noise isolation than Closed-back type over-ear headphones

What’s Bad about Over-ear headphones

  • Portability drops due to the large size
  • Not ideal for sporty activities

It must be noted that not all over-ear headphones are made alike. You can find over-ear headphones that are more suited for sports and more portable. Although, the traits mentioned above apply to most and are worth considering when buying your next pair of over-ears.

When are Over-ear headphones an ideal choice?

For someone to whom comfort and sound quality is essential Over-ear type headphones are an ideal pick. This implies studio use and carefree home listening. Sound leakage is also the least (almost none in most cases) in over-ear headphones. Especially in closed-back over-ear headphones.

Most studio-grade and audiophile-grade headphones possess an over-ear design. You’ll also find gaming headsets to have this form factor. The best audio reproduction and soundstage performance is a trademark of this design.


Bone Conduction Headphones

Bone Conduction headphones

Bone Conduction type of headphones has been rising in popularity for the past few years. The main distinction between them and ordinary headphones is bone conduction technology. Bone conduction headphones use your bones to transfer sound waves, unlike ordinary headphones which transfer sound into your ears.

They attach to your skull (no, you don’t need surgery) and through vibrations send the music to your eardrums. The sound quality isn’t something worth boasting about but it’s decent enough. They’re quite prevalent as workout headphones due to their water resistance and fit.

What’s Good about Bone Conduction headphones

  • Great fit
  • Better water-resistant capability
  • Keeps you aware of your surroundings as your ears stay open

What’s Bad about Bone Conduction headphones

  • Lacks noise isolation (some might prefer this)
  • Sound quality is decent

You should try bone conduction type headphones at least once, you may like them, especially if ordinary headphones don’t fit you all that well or if you’re bored and want to try something new. They are ideal for people that are into sports and joggers, people that need and/or like to stay aware of their environment.


Connection Types

The 2 types of connectivity technologies are wired and wireless (oftentimes Bluetooth).

Wired Headphones

Standard headphones come with a cable attached to them and an audio jack to plug into various devices.

3.5mm

3.5mm audio jack

The 3.5mm audio jack, also recognised as “the headphone jack” is the most well-known wired connection medium. With it, you can connect to most laptops, smartphones (those that have the aux-in port), tablets, Mp3 players, and other audio accessories.

6.3mm

6.3mm audio jack

The 6.3mm audio jack is usually used by professional-grade headphones and consequently by professionals in the audio industry. The 6.3mm plug is somewhat larger and connects to amplifiers and other high-end audio equipment. Note that you can always find a 3.5mm to 6.3mm adapter if required.

Some headphones use a digital connection (unlike the analog connections above) which is quite rare.

Optical

Optical cable

Optical cable has a number of uses. And in unusual cases, they are used to connect headphones as well. Although, this technology isn’t familiar to conventional headphones users. You’ll find wireless headphones made for TV choose to opt for an optical cable to connect the two devices.

Wireless (oftentimes Bluetooth)

Wireless headphones have gained a lot of popularity in recent times. With the new and upgraded version of Bluetooth (i.e. Bluetooth v5.0) which is stronger, more stable and increased range. The quality and number of codecs are better than before and have increased respectively. The Audio industry is right to continue using wireless technology as it is the future.

Even though wireless technology comes with several advantages, the number one priority is to improve battery life. Fortunately, as time has passed, battery capacities have increased and will keep increasing.

Bluetooth

bluetooth logo
Image source – macworld.com

The most obvious wireless technology is Bluetooth. Note that there are numerous wireless technologies and Bluetooth is just one of them. Many devices use and support Bluetooth and their performance continues to improve as the years go by.

Once upon a time, Bluetooth headphones performed really bad in terms of sound, connection strength, and latency, but this is not the case anymore. You can expect superior sound quality and low latency from most modern Bluetooth codes.

Other wireless technologies

Like we mentioned earlier, Bluetooth technology isn’t used by all headphones. An exclusive wireless technology that’s based on radio technology is usually known to be used by wireless gaming headsets.

The purpose behind using radio frequencies over Bluetooth is that, compared to Bluetooth, radio frequencies are better at penetrating through walls and other objects that obstruct the connection. When it comes to gaming, it’s crucial to maintain a sturdy and uninterrupted connection for achieving the best user experience.


Types of Earcup Design

Headphones can also be categorized based on their back design. Do the back of the earcups allow air to pass through them or are they blocked?

Closed-back

Fire Boltt Blast 1400

The common design that you’ll find on most headphones is the closed-back design. It delivers greater passive noise isolation compared to open-back headphones. The drivers are completely surrounded by the plastic (or other material) housing, this alters the sound and prevents unnecessary noise from entering your ears.

Closed-back type headphones are ideal for when you want to listen to your music privately. This eliminates sound leakage so you won’t be bothering others. For commuters, gym-goers, home listening, and other similar situations, closed-back headphones are great.

Open-back

beyerdynamic dt 990 pro perspective

Open-back headphones have a descriptive name, they’re open in the back. Since the drivers are blocked, the air can pass through and consequently, the sound does too. You get to experience a more enjoyable soundstage, which is the idea of where the sound is coming from.

It creates a more open space for sounds to ‘dance’ in. Imagine being at a concert hall. On the other hand, the open-back design allows ambient noise to leak into the ears which work negatively for noise isolation and privacy. But beneficial for situations where you need to be aware of your surroundings.


Open-back vs. Closed-back

Both designs have positive and negative traits so you can’t declare one to be better than the other.

closed back vs. open back headphones
  • Open-back headphones deliver better soundstage and positional accuracy (for gaming and general listening). Closed-back offer limited soundstage, comparatively.
  • Open-back headphones are better at keeping you aware of your surroundings (situational awareness).
  • Closed-back headphones provide better noise isolation and block unnecessary noises.
  • Closed-back headphones also let you listen to your music privately i.e. little to no sound leakage.

Depending on your wants, you may choose to go with either of these headphones. The important thing is you get what you want and what you paid for.


On-Ear vs. Over-Ear Headphones

To put it simply, headphones that rest on your earlobes are called On-ear headphones. And headphones that cover your ear all around are called Over-ear headphones or Around-the-ear headphones.

On-ear headphones have smaller earcups whereas Over-ear headphones have larger earcups that completely cover your ears.

On-ear headphones, when worn for extended periods irritate the ears and become uncomfortable. Over-ears don’t face this issue.

On-ears are more portable thanks to their small earcup design.

Over-ears have better passive noise isolation compared to On-ears

Ordinarily, on-ears are more suitable for workout sessions and other similar activities.


Active Noise Cancellation vs. Passive Noise Isolation (passive noise cancellation)

Active noise cancellation vs passive noise isolation

Most Active Noise-Cancelling or ANC headphones are incredibly expensive. They use many microphones to capture the noise around you, then pass it through the electric systems present inside (eliminating or neutralising the unnecessary sounds) and bring it to your ears. On the contrary, passive noise isolation simply prevents the noise outside the earcups from slipping in.


FAQ

No, they are not. If you use wireless or Bluetooth headphones and are worried if they cause harm then you’ll be relieved to know that they don’t. This is a myth and we mention more on that in the Bluetooth section. Now, if you use wired headphones unless you try smashing them on your head they wouldn’t do any damage.

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