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The Difference Between on Ear and Over Ear Headphones Explained

The Difference Between on Ear and Over Ear Headphones Explained

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If you’re looking to upgrade your headphones, the sheer amount of choice available can be overwhelming. Deciding on the right pair of headphones is a personal choice, depending on what you find comfortable and what situations you’re planning on using your new headphones in.

If you’ve decided you don’t want any styles worn in the ear, like earbuds or in-ear headphones, the two main styles are over-ear and on-ear headphones. They can look quite similar at first glance, but have a different range of features and strengths making them applicable to different customers and situations.

Here’s a quick overview of what each style is, after which we’ll look for the right style for you.

Over-ear headphones

Lady wearing over ear headphones

Remember your parents’ massive retro headphones gathering dust in the loft? They’re probably over-ear headphones. These are big and chunky, usually with a thick headband and big ear cups which your entire ear fits inside.

Over-ear headphones aren’t the most practical choice pick up portability. However they offer the highest levels of comfort of any headphones: perfect if you’re planning on whiling away an hours-long train journey by listening to your favorite tunes.

On-ear headphones

Women wearing on ear headphones

On-ear headphones look quite similar to over-ear models, but they’re smaller. The headband will be thinner, and the ear cups are smaller – these sit on your ear (as the name suggests) rather than covering it over.

They’re a trendy style of headphones, which press against your ears and offer a more compact design to fit in a rucksack or handbag.

What are the differences?

1. Comfort

When it comes to comfort, over-ear headphones win hands down. The big, soft ear pads press against your skull rather than your ears themselves. As on-ear headphones have to fit quite snugly to stay in place, they can get quite uncomfortable after a while. Over-ear headphones are comfortable to wear and don’t take lots of adjusting to get them in the right place.

If you’re looking for headphones for long listening sessions, such as lengthy traveling or extended gaming sessions, take a look at some over-ear options.

2. Portability

A self-explanatory one at first sight: on-ear headphones offer much higher levels of portability. Their smaller design makes them much easier to fold up and pack into a small travel or day bag.

This style of headphones may suit you more if you’re going to be listening to music on the bus to work, or want something to stow in your bag as an ‘in case’.

3. Sound

Sound wave

Most models of over-ear headphones come with 7.1 Dolby surround sound, providing a great user experience – particularly for those watching films or playing games. The sound capabilities of on-ear headphones have been rapidly catching up in recent years, and these too now offer options for surround sound and noise cancellation.

The sound quality is now mostly determined by your budget, so be sure to shop around and try on a few different pairs.

4. Noise Isolation

Noise isolation is how much of the ambient sound from the outside world is blocked out while using your headphones. With their design covering the whole ear, over-ear headphones offer higher levels of noise isolation, whilst on-ear headphones don’t block out quite the same amount. You can pickup a good pair noise canceling headphones for under $100 as we found in our review of here.

Which choice is best for you depends on what situations you want to use your headphones in. You might want to completely block off the outside world and disappear into your own little world of music or a film: in which case over-ear headphones are the better option. If, however, you want to be able to catch bits of conversation or hear when someone’s talking to you, on-ear headphones would be a better choice.

There’s also a safety aspect to this one – anyone looking for headphones to use in situations when they’re walking near traffic should consider headphones with lower levels of noise isolation to better hear what’s going on around them.

5. Leakage

Leakage is how much sound from the headphones can be heard by people around you. Both of these styles of headphones have higher levels of leakage than earbud or in-ear headphones, however, on-ear headphones perform slightly better than over-ear headphones at keeping the sound contained.

This is one to consider if your new headphones are destined for study sessions at the library!

The final decision

As mentioned above, which headphones are the right ones for you is a really personal decision, depending on your budget and what you want to use them for. The sound quality can be similar for both types, with noise cancellation and surround sound available for both styles. The quality of the actual sound depends on how much you’re willing to spend.

If you’re after comfort for lengthy use and aren’t worried about the size, over-ear headphones are well worth a look at. However if portability and convenience are more important to you, on-ear phones will provide the better choice.

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