Are on-ear headphones better than over-ear headphones? The reverse? There are many places that will give you a simple, straightforward answer to those questions. Simple, straightforward and … wrong.
Look, obviously there are differences. And, obviously, the cheapest headphones tend to be on-ear rather than over-ear models. The former require less material after all. We’ll be getting into those differences in this article, and how they may affect your listening enjoyment. But the fact is, there are plenty of on-ear headphones which are enormously better than lots of over-ear models. And probably even more over-ears better than on-ears.
What am I saying here? Don’t be let astray by simplistic claims that one is better than the other. And I’m writing this as someone who generally prefers over-ear to on-ear – I have four sets of over-ear models on my headphone stands right now, even while I’m listening with a fifth set of over-ear headphones. But, without a doubt, if I’m on a budget, I’ll be picking the headphones that sound best, not ones that adopt some form or another.
All that said, let’s see what the differences are and what to look for.
The Difference Between Over-ear and On-ear Headphones
Let’s start by describing them. On-ear headphones have smaller faces which rest against your ears. They do not surround your ears. Over-ear headphones have larger cushions with sufficient space to accommodate your ears entirely within them. The inwards pressure that headphones inevitably exert is distributed on your head in the area around your ears.
That’s, really, all there is to it.
Now, you might think that over-ear headphones will give you better noise isolation from the world around you than on-ear. And you’d be right … some of the time. On-ear headphones simply can’t seal your ears off from the rest of the world – given the bumps and warps and variations in everyone’s ears. By contrast, our heads tend to be quite even in the area around our ears, so the cushion of over-ear headphones can form quite a good seal around your ears.
Which is all well and good, except for another very significant variation in headphones design: closed-back versus open-back headphones. I shall write extensively on this in due course, but for our present purposes, I will note that for all their many, many pleasing qualities, open-back headphones provide almost no noise isolation. So what I wrote in the previous paragraph about improved noise isolation applies only to closed-back headphones, which have a sealed enclosure behind the headphone driver.
The very cheapest headphones are on-ear models – materials, remember. And the most expensive headphones tend to be over-ear models. So it’s not surprising that over-ear headphones are regarded, generally, as better than on-ear. But that leaves out an important consideration: price. I think we can safely hypothesise that a $50,000 pair of over-ear headphones will sound better than a pair of $800 on-ear headphones. But whether an $800 pair of over-ear headphones sounds better than an $800 pair of on-ear headphones is a closer call. In fact, there’s no way of knowing until you place both on your head in turn and listen.
So the best advice concerning one versus the other is: don’t pre-judge. Keep an open mind. Decide on a budget. Then go to your local high fidelity retail store and listen to headphones that fit the budget. Don’t forget to take your music with you, and if you’ll be using a particular digital audio player, take that with you too. If the best sound comes from on-ear headphones, take them.
All that said, let’s note some things look out for with the different designs.
Over-ear headphones surround your ears. All the inevitable pressure from the headband is on your head, not on your ears. They may be closed-backed or open backed. The former have a solid enclosure behind the driver, providing good isolation from outside sounds.
Pros of Over-ear Headphones
- Better sound isolation in the case of closed-back models,
- May have more room for larger diameter driver,
- The preferred style for premium models from several respected brands,
- Generally, a little more comfortable for long wear, since they’re applying their pressure on your head, rather than your ears, and
- They typically distort the physical shape of your ears less than on-ear headphones, which can lead to a more natural sound.
Cons of Over-ear Headphones
- Can be excessively warm in summer, and
- Some have earcups a little too small to accommodate ears without scrunching them up.
Best Over-ear Headphones – Our Top Picks
I hesitate here to make it clear that I’ve probably not even used one percent of the range of over-ear headphones which are available. That said, these are the models I use at the moment, through choice, or have reviewed and really admired, in no particular order:
- Focal Elear open-back – sadly no longer available. Here’s my review.
- Focal Celestee closed-back – I fell in love with these ones. Here’s my review.
- Astell&Kern AK T5p 2nd Generation closed-back. I’m wearing these as I write. Here's my review. A collaboration with Beyerdynamic, these are great headphones, especially for use with high quality portable gear, given the 2.5mm balanced connection.
- Sennheiser HD 660S – the latest in Sennheiser’s HD 600 series, these open-back headphones deliver pretty remarkable sound at a respectable price, and even support balanced operation via a 4.4mm plug on the end of one of its two cables. Here’s my review.
- The most affordable of these suggestions, the Sennheiser HD 560S open-back headphones share a family resemblance to the sound of the HD 660S headphones. Again, here’s my review.
On-ear headphones have smaller ear-cups – if that’s what you can call them – than closed-back headphones. They were the earliest designed, but remain popular. They press against the faces of your ears. These days, most are open-backed, there being little point in striving for sound isolation since air leaks between their surfaces and the bumps and whirls of your ears are inevitable. (Well, if you go back to around 2007, Bose release the QuietComfort 3 active noise cancelling headphones as on-ear models. The ANC had to be uncomfortably supercharged to overcome the reduced passive noise isolation.)
Pros of On-ear Headphones
- Better models have the same open-back advantages as over-ear closed-back models – an airy, realistic sound,
- More compact, and thus frequently easier for taking with you when you’re travelling, and
- Less constricting, allowing more air cooling of the ears.
Cons of On-ear Headphones
- Reduced noise isolation,
- May be less comfortable for long listening sessions than over-ear, and
- Tend to distort the natural shape of your ears, altering how they perceive sound.
Best On-ear Headphones – Our Top Picks
Well, ain’t his embarrassing. I’ve made extensive use of only one set of on-ear headphones in recent years. My focus has been on over-ear and in-ear. Fortunately, this one set of headphones were really rather good:
Wired or Wireless Headphones?
Horses for courses. Of course. Look, if you want to shoot for the very best sound quality, then go wired. There is no such thing as a true lossless Bluetooth audio connection, so any signal travelling over the airwaves loses precision.
Definitely use wireless where it’s useful or necessary – if your phone doesn’t have an analogue headphone output, then you may choose wireless. But go for wired otherwise.
Conclusion, with some buying tips
In the end, there are no hard and fast rules about which type of headphones you should consider. The best thing to do is experience a range of options. Check out some of the quality high fidelity retail shops in your locality. Do what we described above regarding taking a pile of music with you. Take a little time to educate yourself by listening to a few options. Listen for tonal balance. Listen for deep and powerful bass.
And if you’ve taken with you your music source – phone, phone plus portable DAC, or digital audio player – check to make sure that the headphones can be driven to pleasingly loud levels by it, and remain clean throughout.