Types of headphones explained

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 very often. 

However, not all headphones are made equal.  From the way you use them and wear them, to the technologies available in them, and the quality of sound they provide, they can differ wildly.  They’re all made for different purposes, and all different types come with their own preferred usage scenario.  For example, you wouldn’t have over ear, audiophile grade headphones when you’re cycling – you would use earbuds for that. 

To make things a bit clearer, let’s discuss the different types of headphones.  I’ll answer a few popular questions that might pop up when you’re shopping for your next pair of headphones, in order to make your shopping experience easier.  Let’s go! 

Types of headphones

The first categorization with headphones happens in the way you wear them.  Generally, there are three different types.  Each comes with their own pros and cons, and each works best for certain types of people and situations. 

In-ear

The first type are in-ear headphones.  They’re the small headphones that might’ve come with your phone, and you haven’t bothered to find a replacement for.  Even though most of them are often cheap, you can actually find really expensive, high quality in-ear monitors. 

red and white earbuds on white textile

They’re made to be portable and have a secure fit, which makes them ideal for activities such as walking, working out, or doing sports in general. They also have some kind of noise isolation, active or passive, that blocks outside noise.  

On the market nowadays, you can find both earbuds and earphones in this category, but more on that later.   

Pros:

  • Small and inconspicuous
  • Often come with your phone, or are cheap to buy aftermarket
  • Excellent for sports and workouts

Cons:

  • Not very comfortable for everyone
  • Sound quality isn’t always the best due to size limitations

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.  The sound quality is somewhat mediocre when compared to good in-ear headphones, or over-ear ones.  The main reason for this is lack of proper noise isolation. 

gray and brown corded headphones

Pros:

  • Comfortable for almost everyone and sit on your ear
  • When made well, they can offer good noise isolation

Cons:

  • Sound quality can be mediocre if isolation isn’t good

Over-ear

Last but not least, there are the largest ones, 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 from 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.  

grayscale photography of man with headphones on neck

This is the category that also has things such as gaming headphones, noise canceling headphones, as well as those expensive audiophile-grade headphones, but I’ll talk about all of those in a minute.  

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

Cons:

  • Good pairs can get very expensive, very fast
  • Not exactly convenient for using them outside your home or studio

Wireless or wired?

In the past few years we’re noticing that wireless headphones are selling like hot cakes all around the world.  However, wireless doesn’t only give you convenience, but comes with a few drawbacks as well.  Let’s take a look. 

There are a few types of wireless headphones.  You have wireless on-ear or over-ear headphones, you have wireless in-ear headphones, and then you have “true” wireless headphones. 

With on-ear or over-ear, there’s no cable, it’s just the headband that connects the two earcups.  Wireless in-ear headphones often have a cable that connects one earbud with the other, and the mic or remote is often located on that cable, such as Jaybird’s X4s. 

True wireless headphones, have absolutely no cables, they’re two separate earphones that go in your ear.  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, while you work out without extra weight in your pocket, provided 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. 

Wireless headphones also have a few disadvantages as well.  First of all, they’re one more thing that you need to keep charged.  True wireless headphones often come with a charging case which has a few extra hours of battery life after you’ve charged them, but you do need to charge that too, don’t you?   

black headset

Next, you have sound quality.  Even though we’ve seen a few advancements in transmission protocols, it’s no secret that whenever you’re transferring sound wirelessly, there will be some quality loss.  For the regular person, this might not be an issue, but someone with trained ears will be bothered by it. 

Last but not least is consistency and pairing issues.  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, with some smartphones and computers simply refusing to pair with wireless headphones. 

If you just want a convenient pair of headphones, by all means get a pair of wireless headphones.  But if sound quality is a concern, and you don’t really need another device to charge every once in a while, you might be better off with getting a wired pair of headphones. 

In-ear headphones – earbuds vs earphones

I mentioned two types of in-ear headphones – earbuds and earphones.  They both fit in your ear, but they’re different in terms of how exactly they stay there, and each have their own pros and cons. 

To begin with, we have earbuds, a good example of which are Apple’s EarPods.  Even though they stay in your earlobe, they don’t go inside as deep as earphones do.  This does mean that they’re oftentimes more comfortable and more hygienic to wear regularly, but 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 some sort of hook to them to keep them from falling out. 

In-ear earphones end with a rubber or foam tip, such as the Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear.  This tip penetrates your ear canal, creating a tight fit with excellent noise isolation.  There are no outside sounds that can get in the way, and you can get much better sound quality.  This is where you’ll find high quality in-ear monitors as well, such as the Shure SE535, or the Sennheiser IE80.  However, even with various ear tips types and sizes available, they aren’t always comfortable for everyone. 

So, which ones do you go for?  Honestly, it’s just a matter of personal preference.  If you don’t mind the potential discomfort of the rubber or foam tip, go for in-ear headphones.  If not, get earbuds, with a potentially lower sound quality and much less isolation.  

Open back vs closed back

In the over-ear category there’s one important thing to consider – open back and closed back headphones.  Even though they look very similar on the outside, there are actually very significant differences between the two. 

The more common ones are closed back headphones.  If a pair doesn’t specifically mention they’re open back, they are most likely closed back.  The driver is blocked from the outside, and all the sound is directed towards your ear. 

The advantage here 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. 

black headset on beige surface

On the opposite end, we have open back headphones.  The driver isn’t blocked, which does let some sound leak out of the headphones, but it also makes for a much wider soundstage.  When you’re watching a movie, or listening to well-mastered music, a wider soundstage can create a much more immersive experience. 

This is also a personal preference, since some people prefer more isolation, while others appreciate the wider soundstage.  However, you should always consider your listening environment as well, due to the potential for sound to leak out. 

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 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.  My advice would be to stay away from them, unless you need them for games specifically. 

Noise canceling headphones are a godsent

Even though some headphones do offer good isolation, fully drowning out outside noise is a whole different challenge.  There are active noise cancelling 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, there are some models that are in a class of their own.  To the trained ear, they can sound vastly different from anything else, and give you a much more pleasurable experience.  However, they often cost thousands of 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 often wired, because of the sound quality loss with wireless.    

Oh, and you’ll also 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

At the end of the day, choosing a pair of headphones is mostly personal preference.  You will be using them for extended periods of time, so they should be comfortable for you, and fit your ears and usage scenarios well. 

I hope to have answered some common questions as far as headphones go, and cleared up some confusion.  All you need to do now is choose and order!