Just like politics or religion, you should think twice before bringing up the topic of headphones in polite conversation. People have very strong opinions on what makes a good headphone and are vocal about why their take is the right one.
The issue is a hotter one than ever too. Researchers estimate that by 2025 the global headphone market will hit an eye-watering value of $15.8 billion dollars. That’s a lot of headphones, no doubt about it.
Headphones are now also a hot fashion item and we’ve seen the rise of brands such as Beats by Dre which occupy the same sort of headspace as fancy watches or jewelry as a status symbol.
In the end though, your headphones need to provide great audio comfortably and that’s a choice we can analyze.
All About the Ears
In general, there are three headphone designs:
- In-ear headphones
- On-ear headphones
- Over-ear headphones
I’m not going talk about in-ear headphones in this article. You should really only use them if compactness is an absolute requirement. They’ll always represent a compromise in comfort and sound quality. I would not recommend in-ear headphones as primary headphones for anyone.
Instead, I’ll focus on the other two popular designs: on-ear and over-ear.
As they name suggests, on-ear headphones rest on the actual outer ear itself. The usually have a headband that goes over the top of the head and applies light pressure to keep the speaker cup in place.
Over-ear headphones look similar to on-ear ones at first glance, but when you put them on you’ll notice that the speaker cup is much larger. So large, in fact, that they don’t touch your ear at all. Instead, they completely cover the ear and the cushion presses against the sides of your skull instead.
Each one of these design choices has different implications for what each type of headphone is good at, so let’s look at the key areas where these headphones can differ and find a happy medium for your needs.
Pack it In: Portability
Since smartphones and other portable media players are not so popular, most people would like to take their headphones with them when they leave the house. So portability is a key consideration when deciding if you want on-ear or over-ear headphones.
Obviously, since the cups are so much smaller with on-ear headphones, they are generally more portable. Over-ear headphones tend to be a better fit for home use where portability is not an issue.
Don’t go buying those on-ears just yet, though, since these days there are clever foldable over-ear headphones too. These can be stowed in your bag in much the same space as on-ears. So be sure to include some foldable headphones in your list of choices.
The Sound of Silence
We don’t just wear headphones to listen to things privately, we also sometimes wear them to drown out the crazy guy on the bus who wants to tell everyone the moon landing was faked. So if a little peace and privacy are what you’re after you’ll want to know how much noise your headphones will keep out.
As a general rule, over ear headphones are much better at noise isolation than on-ear ones. This is simply because their design creates a natural barrier to outside sound.
It goes both ways too, if you don’t want the sound to leak out so that other people can hear your obsession with Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift then over-ear headphones are the better to choice to avoid being a victim of mob justice.
Active noise-cancelling technology is also something more commonly found in over-ear headphones, where it works best anyway. Think carefully about how important noise management is in your overall set of needs.
There’s little to argue here. Over-ear headphones are simply more comfortable than on-ear ones. The small but constant pressure on your ears eventually causes discomfort, which limits how long you can wear these headphones for.
That being said, over-ear headphones can be hot and sweaty, although some of the better ones have design features to try and limit that issue.
The big fight with headphones always boils down to sound quality. Over-ear headphones tend to sound better. Especially when it comes to bass. The bigger cups provide space for bigger drivers, so the bass can be deeper and sound can be crisper.
There is some sound quality overlap between low-end over-ear headphones and better on-ear models, but as a rule, you’ll get better sound from the over-ear headphones.
On a dollar-for-dollar basis, over-ear headphones give the best sound quality compared to any other design. That makes it hard for anyone who values sound quality highly to pass them up.
Don’t Buy the Hype
Whether you end up buying on-ear or over-ear headphones, just treat the marketing around these products with a bit of skepticism. Headphones are ultimately a very personal device and neither reviews nor marketing will give you the full picture.
If you must buy headphones online, try to get them from a seller that will let you return them easily if you don’t like them. Otherwise, it’s a good idea to actually go to a shop and try a set before you buy them.
Your own ears are the best judge of how good music sounds to you. Test your headphones with music or audio that represent what you actually listen to. Spend a decent amount of time with the phones and take note of how they feel. Do they pinch? Are they hot? Small irritations can become major turnoffs over the long term.
Most importantly, don’t be too tempted to drop money on the most expensive headphones out there. After all, one of the most highly regarded audiophile headphones of all time costs less than $50.