Circumaural vs Over-Ear Headphones

Coby McKinley Profile image

Written by:

Updated October 26, 2022

You may wonder how the circumaural vs. over-ear headphones debate stacks up if you’re shopping for premium headphones. After all, your headphone design affects how sound waves travel through your ear canal. For example, top-rated over-ear headphones offer excellent sound quality and passive noise isolation due to cup-shaped earpads. So, if you’re curious about the circumaural vs. over-ear headphone debate, stick around.


  • Circumaural and over-ear models are considered full-size headphones covering a user’s ears completely.
  • Both models provide a rich soundscape and noise cancellation thanks to the thick ear pads that prevent audio leakage.
  • Circumaural headphones generally feature better build quality and features than simple over-ear models.

Aside from volume levels and sound quality, users in the market for headphones should consider noise cancellation effects. An over-ear pair of headphones should offer passive noise isolation, but comparing over-ear headphones vs. earbuds should illuminate how they limit external noise.

Finding comfortable headphones is important, but different ear designs might offer varying health effects. Read our guide to in-ear vs. over-ear headphones’ health effects to learn which types of headphones offer the most benefits.

Insider Tip

Pick full-size headphones with a padded and wide headband to stay comfortable while listening for extended periods.

Over-Ear vs Circumaural Headphones

Over-ear and circumaural models are both full-size headphones known for their larger size and potentially clunky form factor. These models limit background noise and distractions with large ear cups covering the ear completely. Both models provide larger audio drivers than in-canal phones, but they are clunkier headphones than earbud models.

Audio Quality

Over-ear and circumaural headphones both provide a decent audio soundscape due to the tight seal around a user’s ear. Both models should offer larger drivers than earbud headphones, and you should enjoy extensive frequency ranges for music, podcasts, and audio dramas.

Noise Cancelation

Either headphone type should provide acceptable noise cancelation because of the tight seal of the ear pads. That said, circumaural headphones typically offer active noise cancelation that blocks background noise with built-in microphones.


Closed-back models with complete noise isolation aren’t a good idea for driving or walking through the city because you will not hear oncoming traffic and dangers.

Comfortable Listening Experience

Circumaural headphones usually feature ellipsoid earpads with thicker foam than general over-ear models. While either type of headphone can provide a comfortable form factor, circumaural models typically offer thicker headbands and better adjustment features.


Unless you choose a foldable design, neither model is particularly portable compared to wireless earbuds. That said, you can find lightweight models in either over-ear or circumaural designs.

STAT: A 2019 Noise Health survey found that the preferred listening level for circumaural headphone models was 73 decibels. (source)

Circumaural vs. Over-Ear FAQs

What is the best type of headphones for active lifestyles?

Experts usually recommend in-ear models for athletic activities, but there are multiple over-ear headphones with breathable earpads. Circumaural models are a solid choice for casual listening on a treadmill or walking in the park. That said, consider in-canal earphones for high-intensity sports and physical activities.

What are open-back headphones?

Unlike closed over-ear models, open-back headphones feature a perforated housing that lets sound waves and air freely travel through the earcups. These models are great for critical listening sessions because the airflow allows for more natural audio over closed-back headphones.

How much should wireless headphones cost?

Consumer headphone price ranges vary greatly, but you should expect to spend between $30 to $60 for a decent model. Budget models can cost as little as $10, but a quality pair with active noise cancellation and advanced drivers can eclipse the $100 mark.
Coby McKinley Profile image