By Tim Brookes
Sound quality is the number one criteria you should look at when considering a new pair of headphones. However, comfort and convenience follow close behind. What you intend to use your headphones for should also influence your decision.
There are three “types” of headphones that we’ll be looking at today:
- in-ear (also known as earphones)
- on-ear (which sit directly on your cartilage)
- over-ear (which surround your whole ear)
There are pros and cons to each style of headphones, so let’s help you decide which is best for you.
In-ear headphones, more commonly known as earphones, are probably the most popular way of listening to personal audio on the move. They’re cheap and cheerful, and your smartphone probably came with a pair. Plus, generally speaking, they tend to be the least durable of the three.
There are two sub-types of earphones: fitted deeper in-ear types that create a tight seal, and loose hard plastic types that sit just inside your ears. Sealed varieties generally have good passive noise isolation, which means they block ambient noise just as well as sticking your fingers in your ears.
Finding a good fit is important, particularly when it comes to comfort. For this reason, the majority of earphones now use a fitted design. You can still get the older style of loose-fitting earphones, with Apple’s AirPods ($159) being one of the more recent takes on the old idea.
In-ear headphones are small, lightweight, easy to tuck under a shirt, and easy to carry with the aid of a carry case. Most of them are built with a purpose in mind, and many include remotes and microphones for use with a smartphone. You can get sports earphones that clip to your ears, waterproof earphones for swimmers, and even noise cancelling models if you look hard enough.
That’s not to say you can’t also get high-end in-ear headphones built with accurate sound reproduction in mind. Try something like the pricey Shure SE425 studio monitors ($269) if that’s what you’re looking for.
On-ear headphones offer a trade-off between the size of larger home listening headphones and portable in-ear options. If you simply can’t stand in-ear headphones, these are your next best choice. As the name suggests, these varieties are characterised by the way the headphones sit on your ears.
Larger drivers often result in a better quality sound, but this comes at the cost of size. On-ear headphones simply aren’t as easy to travel with as the smaller variety. Some models are foldable, while others sit comfortably around your neck when not in use. Their larger size also puts them at risk of breaking in your bag, so many come with hard carrying cases too.
You can get fairly small on-ear headphones like the Sennheiser PX100 ($79/£44) or much chunkier models like the Beats Solo3 ($299). The characteristic “on-ear” design means that the cups sit flush with your ears, and noise isolation can be a mixed bag. In my experience, the tighter the headphones, the better the sound isolation, and the less comfortable they are.
If, like me, you wear glasses, it’s definitely worth trying out on-ear headphones before buying. I find prolonged sessions with some designs can get sweaty, depending on what the cups are made from.
If you’re going for larger headphones you should be a little more picky in terms of sound quality. You’re already sacrificing the convenience of smaller in-ear models. For a truly “flat” response, look at something from Grado (like the $200/£194 SR225e) but don’t expect wireless audio or fancy extra features.
Over-ear headphones, as the name suggests, cover your whole ear. They sit against your head, which makes them the most comfortable option. There’s no stretching of your ear canals or crushing of your ear, and though not every pair is guaranteed to be comfortable, they’re generally the best option for extended listening sessions.
Headphone amplifiers are another thing to consider, as they’re often required to power high-end headphones. The need for one depends on the impedance rating on your chosen headphones, measured in Ohms. To quote from our article about headphone amps and whether you need one:
“You will probably benefit from a headphone amp if your headphones are rated beyond 32 Ohms, but you likely don’t need an amp unless you use a set rated at 100 Ohms or greater.”
Simply put, remember why you are buying your headphones. If you’re going to be using a smartphone as your main listening platform, you many also need to invest in a headphone amp to get the most out of them. If you don’t, your music will sound oddly quiet and you’re better off spending the money on superior in-ear or over-ear headphones instead.
The sheer size of over-ear headphones makes them undesirable for use on the street, they’re rarely foldable, and most don’t come with a carrying case either. The sky’s the limit when it comes to what you want to spend here, but you don’t have to break the bank. The Status Audio CB1 ($89/£63) studio monitors that I reviewed last year delivered excellent performance on the cheap, with build quality (not sound quality) being the biggest issue.
Sound quality, comfort, convenience, and purpose are all important when deciding on new headphones. There are a few other things to keep in mind, however, like whether or not to go wireless. Wireless audio has improved immeasurably over the last decade, but wired audio still delivers the best signal with the lowest latency.
You may also want headphones for other reasons. Gaming headsets can provide immersive sound in a design that’s built for comfort, with a microphone for chatting to your online buddies.
- In-ear headphones are portable, cheap, and convenient at the cost of comfort and sound quality.
- On-ear headphones straddle the line between portability and convenience, offering larger designs with better sound quality at the cost of portability.
- Over-ear headphones frequently offer the best sound and most comfortable designs, but their large size generally makes them unsuitable for use outside of the house.
Did you spend a lot of money on your headphones? Did our advice help you make a decision? Which style of headphones do you consider to be the best? Please let us know what style, make, and model you bought in the comments below!