The Different Types of Headphones Explained & Simplified

Headphone, which is also known as earspeakers or earphones or cans comes in different designs and dimensions.

The structural design and the size of a headphone can affect the balance between the portability (comfort and ease on the ear) and the fidelity (the accuracy/transparency of the audio signal).

However, headphones form factors can generally be divided into four (4) different categories: Over-ear, On-ear, In-ear, & Earbud.

Over-ear & On-ear can be further divided by their earcup design (earcup are a bowl-like part of the headphones that either rest or surround the ear): Open-back, Semi-open back & the Closed-back headphone.

A Headphone can also be differentiated by the way they handle outside noise, which is an active-noise canceling method or passive-noise isolation.

You might be overwhelmed by the various kinds of headphone listed above, don’t stress it, there are majorly four types as stated above, the other types you would likely encounter are the different ear-cup design and the way they handle ambiance noise, which is a sub-division of the major headphones.

Let’s take a quick recap by listing the various types of headphone:

The different types of headphones are:

  1. Over-Ear or Circumaural
  2. On-Ear or Supra-aural
  3. In-Ear or Intraural
  4. Earbud or Earphone

Ear-Cup Design Types are:

  1. Open-back
  2. Semiopen-back
  3. Closed-back

The Ear-cup design types are the division of both the On-ear and the Over-ear headphones.

The types of Noise-Cancellation Headphones are:

  1. Active Noise Cancellation
  2. Passive Noise Isolation

All the various kinds of headphones provide a somewhat level of ambiance attenuation. There are two ways headphones attenuate or cancel outside noise. It is either using passive noise isolation or active noise cancellation, which we would further explore in a later section.

Let’s dig deeper on the explanation, advantages, and the drawback of each headphone types.

1. Over-Ear or Circumaural Headphone

Over-Ear or Circumaural Headphone image

 

This is the biggest types of headphones which have circular earpads and cover all the ear area.

The earpads are larger compared to other types of headphones and circumscribe the ears. Hence we have the name circumaural.

Cirum – goes around to surround the aural (the visible part of the ear).

Due to the larger earpads of a circumaural headphone, it uses the body of the pads as passive isolation to attenuates/reduces ambiance sound.

No doubt, Over-ear headphones can be somewhat heavier & it isn’t that portable. Still, there isn’t no one answer to the portability aspect, has some of the circumaural headphones come with an ergonomic headband which helps minimize fatigue and gives comfort even if worn for a more extended session.

Some circumaural comes with a different set of pads, e.g. the AKG K240 MKII comes with a nice light pair of earpads and also a pleather pads.

So, the answer to Over-ear headphones been bulkier & heavier depends on their manufacturer.

Let’s look at the…

Advantages of an Over-Ear Headphone

  • Circumaural are the number one choice among audio professional/audiophiles due to the excellent sound quality been produced by the headphone
  • Offers passive isolation; it attenuates ambiance sounds using the body of the earpads
  • Easier to add/remove some components, e.g., adding or removing the pads.
  • Since they don’t rest directly on the ear, they provide more comfort with lighter pressure on the ear area and can be used for a more extended period, though it depends on the overall design.

Drawbacks of an Over-Ear Headphone

  • They can ve heavy and not that portable compared to other types of headphones (some set of a circumaural weigh over 500 gms)
  • They aren’t suitable for use when tracking vocals, sounds are gonna leak out, though it depends on the ear-cup design, read on to find out why
  • It’s not ideal for use in a learning environment; people around you would most likely hear what is playing. (This would be most obvious when using an open-back type).

2. On-Ear or Supra-Aural Headphone

On-Ear or Supra-Aural Headphone image

 

Supra-aural headphones don’t circumscribe the ear like the circum-aural or over-ear types; they instead rest directly on the ears rather than encompassing/going around them.

These types of headphones aren’t as big as an over-ear headphone, so they tend to be easier to carry around (portable) and lighter compared to a circumaural type.

However, On-ear type doesn’t attenuate as much noise as an over-ear headphone since they rest on the ear, in the case of a circumaural headphone, it goes around the ear, which results in much ambiance attenuation.

Supra-aural headphones can also lead to ear distress due to the pressure on the ear, but this solely depends on the earcup material. Some are built with lighter pads, which, in turn, gives greater comfort.

Advantages of On-Ear Headphone

  • Since supra-aural are rarely used for noise cancellation or been developed for active noise cancellation, they tend to be cheaper when compared to a circumaural headphone
  • Smaller and portable than a circumaural headphone
  • Not considering outside noise influence, they can sound superb and well suited for sport than over-ear headphones.

Drawbacks of On-Ear Headphone

  • Can cause discomfort due to the pressure on the ears (comfort may vary due to different earcup material used by a different manufacturer)
  • It’s not ideal for use in a learning environment, people around you would most likely hear what you are playing (it would be more noticeable when using an open-back type)

3. In-Ear or Intraural Headphone

 In-Ear or Intraural Headphone image

This is pretty explanatory – they are the type you place in your ear and extends into the ear canal (ouch!). Hence we have the name in-ear or intra-ear(within).

In-ear headphone attenuates more noise than either over or on-ear headphone, because it extends into the ear directly, living room for little airflow.

Studies show in-ear types of headphones are more damaging than over-ear; it directs the waves into the eardrum from inside the ear, which can cause severe damage when listening to music for an extensive period.

This doesn’t mean in-ear headphones aren’t a right choice. It’s a great choice if you are a casual music listener where fidelity isn’t of utmost importance.

While In-ear headphone can be damaging if used for a more extended period, some generic/custom fitting ear-canal headphones are made from silicon rubber or forms which provide added comfort.

Advantages of In-ear Headphone

  • They are cheaper
  • Provide the most attenuation than over or on-ear headphone
  • They are portable and lighter (if you are going for the ones made with silicon rubber, it can be very convenient and comfortable)

Disadvantages of In-ear Headphone

  • Can cause hearing damage if used for an extensive period (they are directly in your ear canal, ensure you listen at an optimal level + shorter session)
  • Not ideal for an audio professional or mixing engineer; they don’t provide an accurate audio signal like over-ear or on-ear.

4. Earbuds or Earphone

Earbuds or Earphone image

 

Earbuds are similar to in-ear headphones in that they go into the ear but not inside the ear canal; they are fitted directly into the outer part of the ear.

This type of headphone hardly provides any ambiance attenuation; this is good for awareness. Most users keep the volume at a very high level to restrain ambiance noise, at the risk of damaging the hearing.

Honestly, I hardly use either of earbuds or in-ear headphone, and if I would ever use one, then I make sure the volume is at an optimal level, where I am aware of what is going on around me, and at the same time save my hearing 😉

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use earbuds. You just have to use with caution, let’s look at some of the…

Advantages of Earbud

  • They are cheaper due to the lower level (cost) of design material used when compared to say an Over-ear or on-ear
  • They are lighter and portable
  • They tend to be more comfortable than in-ear since it sits in the outer-ear unlike the in-ear that goes into the ear canal

Drawbacks of Earbud

  1. Provide low to no attenuation; barely block ambiance noise
  2. Not ideal for audio professionals; they don’t provide an accurate audio signal/transparency when compared to an over-ear or on-ear headphones.

5. Open-Back Headphone

Open-Back Headphone image

 

This can either be an over-ear or on-ear headphone where the back of the ear-cup is open. Therefore, we have the name open back (open in the back).

Open-back headphones allow the mixture of air to pass through the ear-cups in and out without obstruction. This gives a speaker-life/natural sound.

Think of your home speaker. They are open, blend with the sound from the environment, and give more clarity, that is exactly how an open-back cans work.

Also, it causes less ear fatigue and reduces sound colorization, but there is a caveat of using an open-back headphone: They leak lots of sounds and let’s more ambient sounds into the headphone, although it is good for awareness but not ideal in a learning environment, or tracking vocals.

You will always find an open-back headphone been used mostly by audio professionals for mixing & mastering engineers and even audiophiles where the fidelity of the sound is crucial.

Advantages of Open-Back

  • They provide more comfort with lighter pressure on the ear
  • They have a transparent sound which allows audio professional or mixing and mastering engineer to make a better decision during audio mixing/mastering session.

Disadvantages of Open-Back

  • They leak lots of sounds, which makes them not ideal in a learning environment
  • Open-back headphones aren’t suitable for tracking vocals (you will usually notice lots of random pickings in your recorded audio file)

6. Closed-back Headphone

Closed Back Headphone image

This can either be an over-ear or on-ear headphone where the back of the ear-cup is closed/sealed off. Hence we have the name closed-back (closes in the back).

The closed-back headphone doesn’t allow air to pass through the speaker element and doesn’t leak sound like an open-back headphone; imagine sealing off your home speaker, they sound like the audio is coming from your head (box-like sound).

Also, this type of headphone adds colorization to the sound and can produce stronger low frequency since the sound has nowhere to go; it moves back & forth within the enclosed case, unlike the open-back type where the sound can blend with air.

The closed-back headphone is ideal if you want some sort of noise-canceling feature, i.e., if you plan on recording vocals/instruments in your track or if you want to eliminate outside noise such as car honking or snoring.

Advantages of a Closed-back Headphone

  • It helps to achieve better noise attenuation from ambient sound
  • Ideal for tracking vocals or recording instrument; no sound leakage from you headphone going into your recording
  • They tend to be more durable and built to last longer due to the closed casing, unlike the open-back where liquid can easily sip in.

Disadvantages of a Closed-back Headphone

  • They can be costly than open-back headphone due to the material been used to build them
  • Can cause your ear to be somewhat hot and sweaty since there is lesser air circulation compared to say an open-back
  • Little to no awareness, which can become dangerous in some environment/location (highways, car honking).

7. Semi Open-Back Headphone

Semi Open-Back Headphone - Real Z Image

 

Uhn!

Semi-open headphone combines the advantage of both open & closed back where the vent is partially open to allow sound passage and also partially blocking the sound (providing some sort of noise isolation).

To put it in a simple perspective, the ear-cup of a semi-open back isn’t fully opened, and they aren’t fully closed.

A partially open and closed ear-cup isn’t always true to determine a semi-open back headphone, for example, the Real z by Teufelaudio uses an open mesh grille behind the drivers to allow the circulation of air, in and out of the ear-cups.

In order to prevent a sound leakage out of the ear-cups, the Real z headphone was built to use a special acoustic filter between the drivers and the metal mesh.

Real Z Semi Open back headphone image
Real Z Semi Open back headphone

The advantage of this is that less sound escapes & less ambiance sound get in. However, if you would be buying a semi-open headphone, bear it in mind that somewhat sound leakage is still gonna occur.

Advantages of Semi-Open Back Headphone

  • Ideal for activities like jogging or sports where you would want to pick up a certain signal in your environment (awareness)
  • They provide more comfort with lighter pressure and less to no ear fatigue during longer sessions
  • They have a transparent sound which allows audio expert, audiophile or even mixing and mastering engineer to enjoy a true wide audio spectrum.

Disadvantages of Semi-Open Back Headphone

  • They somewhat leak sound, which makes them not ideal for use in a learning environment
  • They aren’t suitable for tracking vocals; this is to avoid sound leakage from your headphone going into your recording.

Active Noise Cancelling Vs. Passive Noise Isolation

Truth be told, Noise-Cancelling headphones can’t block all outside noise, but they do a great job in blocking most of them (i.e., traffick honking, aircraft engine, and so on).

There are mainly two ways this is achievable, and one is more effective than the other, so you need to know the difference between the two to better judge which is right for you.

The method of canceling noise are either Active Noise Cancelling or Passive Noise Isolation, let’s take a closer look at the meaning of both terms

Active Noise Cancelling

Active Noise Cancelling image

This types of noise cancellation creates an anti-noise; inside a pair of an active noise cancellation headphone, there are microphone designed to listen to outside noise, passes it to a digital signal processor which processes and generated the same frequency signal in an opposite phase in order to cancel the noise and finally mix it with any audio signal been sent ti the headphone speaker.

Let me explain analogically with an aircraft engine noise:

Aircraft engine noise -> Microphone -> Processor -> Headphone Speaker -> Ear

The aircraft engine is the one generating the noise, the microphone listens and creates a +1(the noise), the processor analyzes and creates a -1(opposite phase of the noise), which, if combined, creates zero(nothing).

Then that mix wit the audio signal been sent to the headphone speaker and finally, get to the ear.

However, not all sound is picked. The ones that aren’t picked won’t create an anti-noise(you would hear the noise).

The downside of this method is that they aren’t good at canceling complex/sound(say human-voice or a non-constant/non-consistent sound), and they use more power(battery), which means they can’t work if the battery is down.

However, sound such as engine noise, traffic, or consistent and steady noise are easily eliminated through Active Noise Cancelling.

Passive Noise Isolation

Over Ear Passive headphone image

This method of noise-canceling doesn’t use a microphone or processor; instead, they consist of material that absorbs some sound waves rather than phasing out generated signals.

On the other hand, the way the ear-cup and pads are fitted over the head determines how much attenuation the headphone can bloc.

A funny example of how passive isolation absorbs noise:

Hey Noise, I see ya, you won’t go into that ear, I’ll block you with the material i am made up of (the body of the headphone). Hey Mr. Ear, the one’s I can’t stop, would get into your ear, sorry!

The headphone types that provide the most level of attenuation are the in-ear and the closed-back headphones (both circumaural and supraural).

However, Open-back type still does provide some passive noise isolation, but much less than others, the thing is, no matter how opened or small a headphone is, they always provide somewhat level of ambiance attenuation.

Passive noise isolation is a better choice if you want human speech or high-frequency noise. When considering a passive noise type headphone, your best bet is to use either a closed-back or an in-ear type.

Keep in mind that an over-ear passive noise isolation headphone might be bulkier due to the material used for absorbing compared to say an active noise canceling headphone.

 

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