Types of Headphones

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Updated September 12, 2022

If you are new to the world of personal audio, you may look to compare the various types of headphones. The best headphones, after all, arrive in a number of different styles, each with preferred use case scenarios. So what are the various headphone types, and which is the best for you? Keep reading to find out.

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • There are many types of headphones out there to suit different lifestyles and use case scenarios, such as wireless headphones and closed-back headphones to reduce ambient noise.
  • Modern listeners tend to prefer earbuds, though those interested in high-quality sound go for over-ear headphones with a closed-back design.
  • A nice middle option is on-ear headphones or open-back headphones, as they are somewhat portable while delivering high-grade sound for casual listening.

Headphone Types Explained

Before learning about the best audiophile headphones, you have to understand each type available on the market. There are headphones out there to suit just about anyone’s needs and budget if you are wondering how much headphones cost. Some have wires, others do not, and some may leave you wondering why your Bluetooth headphones are not connecting. Some go over the ear, while others rest inside of the ear if you are comparing Apple Airpods Pro vs Bose Sport Earbuds. In that case, you’ll want to learn how to fit earbuds correctly in your ears for maximum comfort.

Insider Tip

No matter which you choose, keep your headphones clean and hygienic.

Here are the many headphone types so you can make an informed purchase decision, such as comparing Aftershokz Openmove vs Trekz Air.

Earbuds

These have far and away become the most popular type of headphones available to modern consumers, likely due to the rise of smartphones and similar gadgets. They are tiny, easy to stow away in a pocket when not in use, and deliver adequate sound for most situations.

Earbuds used to be primarily cabled, but nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find a pair with a cord, though some models that come with new phones still carry a connection cable. But, most earbuds are usually connected to a device via Bluetooth. This also means if you have any issues connecting your Bluetooth earbuds to a PS4, we have a guide to rectify that issue fast.

Reasons to Buy

  • Even if you are an absolute audiophile, it is a good idea to have a pair of these on hand for exercise.
  • Modern versions are wireless, and some high-end products manufactured by Apple and others deliver truly outstanding sound.
  • They are tiny and can fit just about anywhere when not in use.

Reasons Not to Buy

  • Some people don’t like the feel of earbuds, and the shape of some ear lobes makes them fall out easily.
  • Though sound quality has advanced in recent years, they are still behind other types (for the most part.)
  • Earbuds are small and light, which is great, but this makes them easy to lose, especially if they keep falling out of your ears.

Tips for Buying Earbuds

  • Not all buds are created equal, so read the fine print to learn about wireless connections, audio drivers, and more.
  • If possible, try before you buy to ensure they fit snugly and comfortably in your ears. Look for earbuds with differently shaped tips for adjustments.
  • Look for a model that advertises enhanced bass response, as this frequency usually is an issue for earbuds.

Over-Ear Headphones

As the name suggests, these headphones cover your entire ear. Think of them as two large cups encasing your whole ear as they deliver audio. This over-ear design allows for fantastic sound reproductions, particularly in the bass range, and it loans itself to noise cancellation properties.

This is the go-to design for audiophiles, as many studio-grade headphones feature this form factor. Some modern over-ear headphones are wireless, but others still feature a cable, particularly those intended for professional use.

Reasons to Buy

  • If you are looking for studio-quality sound, this is the way to go, as even wireless over-ear headphones will beat nearly any other type when it comes to bass response.
  • Many over-ear models feature natural noise cancelation due to the nature of the design or are embedded with active noise cancellation features.
  • The increased size allows manufacturers to pack these headphones with plenty of foam, so they are extremely comfortable.

Reasons Not to Buy

  • The massive build of these headphones is where the advantages lay, but also some disadvantages. In other words, they are large and cumbersome.
  • More often than not, this type of headphone is intended for use by audiophiles, so the price can be exorbitant.
  • While wireless over-ear headphones exist and are gaining popularity, they are not as ubiquitous as other types.

Tips for Buying Over-Ear Headphones

  • Try before you buy to ensure comfort and that you won’t get too hot with extended use.
  • If active noise cancellation is important to you, read the fine print before making a purchase.
  • The design of these headphones makes them a great choice for those who wear glasses, so keep that in mind.

On-Ear Headphones

On-ear headphones are the slightly smaller sibling to over-ear headphones, as these models rest on the ears but do not fully encase them. With that in mind, these are officially called supra-aural headphones, which is a term that means “being on top of the ears.”

They are considered a happy medium between over-ear headphones and earbuds, offering increased sound quality over buds but some portability.

Reasons to Buy

  • In all aspects, these represent a happy medium between earbuds and over-ear headphones. Want to run without being bogged down? These are a great choice.
  • Most models are fairly light and foldable, making them easy to store when not in use. They also typically ship with a dedicated case.
  • You have your choice of many wireless models and wired models to suit your tastes.

Warning

Never listen to headphones over 85 decibels. The proper range is 65 to 85 decibels.

Reasons Not to Buy

  • Ever heard the term “jack-of-all-trades but master of none”? These headphones are portable but not as portable as earbuds.
  • They also sound fantastic but do not sound quite as robust as over-ear headphones.
  • You are going to get some sound bleed from the outside world, which may not suit everyone.

Tips for Buying On-Ear Headphones

  • Check out the foam and comfort-forward features, as this design quite literally pushes into your ears.
  • Read the fine print regarding a wireless connection. Many on-ear models are wireless, but not all.
  • Shop for a visual design that suits your fancy, as certain on-ear models feature illustrations and out-there colors.

Bone Conduction Headphones

Ready to be blown away? This newer type of headphones actually uses the bones inside of your head and jaw to create a unique auditory experience. These headphones create sound waves that bypass your ears to stimulate your jaw and cheekbones directly. Cool, right?

Though this is a relatively new technology, the actual idea dates back hundreds of years to a little musician named Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Reasons to Buy

  • These headphones are designed for long periods of use, so advanced comfort is a priority.
  • These headphones were initially manufactured as a hearing aid, so those with any hearing issues will benefit from using these.
  • Conduction headphones are neither over the ear, nor in the ear, so you can expect increased situational awareness during use.

Reasons Not to Buy

  • Let’s be honest. The unique form factor and feature set are not for everyone, though they make a great conversation piece.
  • This is a newly developed technology, Beethoven withstanding, so expect to pay a premium.
  • The sound quality here takes a hit due to the technology, so don’t expect anything rivaling over-ear headphones.

Tips for Buying Bone Conducting Headphones

  • Shop for sales. Again, this is developing technology, and models can get pricy.
  • Try before you buy, if possible, as you may not know if you even like this particular method of receiving sound.
  • The increased spatial awareness may be useful for sports enthusiasts, so try out a pair if you play a lot.

In-Ear Monitors AKA Earphones

This is an advanced form of earbuds that go deeper in the ear and deliver a radical boost in sound when compared to regular old buds. They actually stretch several millimeters further into the ear canal, which may not sound like a lot, but, well, it certainly is, as the ear canal is only so long.

These in-ear monitors, sometimes called earphones, are great for those looking for accurate sound, as they get pretty close to the ear drum.

Reasons to Buy

  • They are highly customizable, with memory foam, silicone tips, and different sizes to suit different ear canals.
  • The sound quality here is actually great, especially when compared to regular earbuds.
  • They slide further down your ear canal, which makes them behave more like earplugs. In other words, you experience increased noise isolation.

STAT: By the 1890s, the first device that is unmistakably a headphone was made by a British company called Electrophone, which created a system allowing customers to connect to live feeds of performances at theaters and opera houses across London. (source)

Reasons Not to Buy

  • Unlike regular earbuds, you will not hear the outside world with these on. They are not for outdoor use.
  • They slide deep into your ear canals, which could represent some hygiene concerns over time.
  • They rest near to your eardrums, so using these at loud volumes represents a certain level of danger.

Tips for Buying In-Ear Monitors

  • Some models are more customizable than others, with different sizes available, as well as a multitude of silicone tips.
  • Think about what you’ll be using them for. They excel in on-stage performances and in listening to or creating ASMR videos.
  • More than any other type on this list, you should try them before you buy. The risks are too great otherwise.

Headphone Types FAQs

What are the safest headphones for your hearing?

For reducing ambient noise, the safest type is likely open-back headphones, with closed-back headphones not far behind. In-ear monitors are considered the least safe.

Which headphones driver type is the best?

There is no best driver type, as there is no best type of headphones. Every type has its place, including ear monitors, closed-back headphones, open-back headphones, and noise-canceling headphones. They all create sound waves.

What do people use headphones for?

Whether wearing wireless headphones, open-back headphones, closed-back headphones, or ear monitors, people use headphones to listen to sound waves, aka music and podcasts. They also wear them to reduce ambient noise.
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