Different Type of Headphones: A Headphone Buying Guide

Last updated on November 24th, 2019

When it comes to looking for a pair of headphones, it’s easy to get lost due to the variety and types of headphones available. What’s more, some people actually don’t know there are different types of headphones that serve different purposes. They come in different styles such as:

  • In-ear Headphones
  • Over-ear headphones
  • Wireless headphones
  • Bluetooth headphones
  • Earbuds
  • Wireless earbuds
  • True Wireless earbuds

…And so on.

You can see why buying headphones can be a daunting task especially when deciding on which type to go for. One way to make the process easier is to know the different types available.

In this post, we’ll discuss some of the major types of headphones to get you familiar.

Let’s jump into it!

Over-Ear Headphones


First on the list are over-ear headphones. These are also called circumaural. As the name suggests, these are headphones with ear cups that enclose your ears. Over-ear headphones usually don’t compromise on sound quality. And they generally have great sound isolation.

Note: Some over-ear styles have an “open back” design. This style of headphone won’t isolate sound very well.

Over-ears have a good bass response and the largest soundstage.

They can be super comfortable allowing prolonged periods of use. But depending on the material of the ear cups, your ears may get sweaty after a while. The over-ear design, provide great isolation.

If you happen to buy on-ears or over-ears, be mindful of something called clamp force. This problem is annoying but can be especially annoying if you wear glasses.

The downside, however, is they are pretty bulky so traveling with these types can be a bit cumbersome.

[wpsm_column size=”one-half”][wpsm_pros title=”PROS:”]

  • Best sound due to large drivers in ear cups.
  • Comfortable for extended use
  • Some give the option to swap ear cups
  • Great soundstage
  • Great isolation

[/wpsm_pros][/wpsm_column][wpsm_column size=”one-half” position=”last”][wpsm_cons title=”CONS:”]

  • Cumbersome for traveling
  • Can get very expensive for a good pair
  • Bulky


On-Ear Headphones

Going down a size, we have the on-ear headphones. At first glance, a lot of headphones in this category look like over-ear headphones. But, what sets this type apart from over-ears is the fact that on-ear headphones…will sit on your ears.

Due to the size, on-ear headphones tend to be more portable than over-ears. They aren’t as portable as earbuds, but some on-ears do fold up and come with a carrying case or pouch.

But the downside is that they can be uncomfortable during long listening sessions.

Just like on-ears, be mindful of the clamp force.

[wpsm_column size=”one-half”][wpsm_pros title=”PROS:”]

  • Easily transportable
  • Better sound than earbuds
  • Lighter than over-ears

[/wpsm_pros][/wpsm_column][wpsm_column size=”one-half” position=”last”][wpsm_cons title=”CONS:”]

  • Stiff headphone band can make listening sessions uncomfortable
  • Not so great for exercising
  • Smaller soundstage


Wireless Headphones

This category is a bit of a collection. There are three types of headphones you should be aware of.

Infrared Headphones– These types of headphones use a technology called Infrared. No obstruction should be between the transmitter and receiver. You can find these headphones in a single or dual channel.

RF Headphones– RF stands for radio frequency. It utilizes an alternating current that can be used for broadcasting or communication. These types of headsets are commonly used with office phones (think call center headsets).

Bluetooth Headphones– Most commonly found headphones. They range in many different sizes and shapes. They can be over-ear, on-ear, or even in-ear. You most likely see this type in styles for workout headphones, noise canceling headphones, truly wireless earbuds.

[wpsm_column size=”one-half”][wpsm_pros title=”PROS:”]

  • Minimal cable management
  • Great for traveling, exercising, or walking.

[/wpsm_pros][/wpsm_column][wpsm_column size=”one-half” position=”last”][wpsm_cons title=”CONS:”]

  • Occasionally needs recharging
  • Signal Interference
  • Varying connection distances



I’m sure you’re no stranger to this type of headphone.

These are the earbuds you commonly see with smartphones and mp3 players. They’re usually cheap and serve as that pair you throw in your ears real quick to listen to some music or answer a phone call.

From the categories on this list, they have the least appealing sound. The sound earbuds produce is generally flat. They don’t have the room to use drivers such as the on-ears or over-ears.

Because earbuds are so cheap, they usually don’t last very long. Many audiophiles skip these for this reason.

Because earbuds sit on the external parts of your ears, don’t expect too much noise isolation. The usual solution (which I’m guilty of) is to turn up the volume. Even though this may offer a quick and easy solution to drown out outside noise, you risk hurting your eardrums which can lead to some hearing loss. On top of that, people can hear what you’re listening to.

[wpsm_column size=”one-half”][wpsm_pros title=”PROS:”]

  • Come in many colors
  • Price
  • Easy to carry

[/wpsm_pros][/wpsm_column][wpsm_column size=”one-half” position=”last”][wpsm_cons title=”CONS:”]

  • Terrible noise isolation
  • Not that comfortable for long sessions
  • Poor sound


True Wireless Headphones

True Wireless earbuds are earbuds that have no cable or connector. The earbuds connect to each other and to devices through a Bluetooth signal. As simple as possible, these work by the Bluetooth signal transmitting a connection from a device to one of the earbuds that act as the primary receptor. That earbud then passes that same signal to the other earbud. This sort of connection allows you to accept calls through one or both earbuds as well as control audio playback through the minimal controls.

When purchasing true wireless earbuds, they usually come with a charging case since these have poor battery life on their own.

[wpsm_column size=”one-half”][wpsm_pros title=”PROS:”]

  • Extremely Portable
  • Great Sound
  • Great for Working Out
  • Additional ear tips for different ear sizes

[/wpsm_pros][/wpsm_column][wpsm_column size=”one-half” position=”last”][wpsm_cons title=”CONS:”]

  • Poor battery life
  • Earbud controls are less than ideal
  • Bluetooth signal strength range varies on model
  • Easy to lose


Headphone Features and Terms to Know

Now that you have a basic grasp of the different types of headphones out there, let’s get into some common terms and features you’ll come across.

Passive Noise Cancellation vs Active Noise Cancellation

The two terms look similar, but they function differently.

Passive noise cancellation means that headphones can prevent outside sound from entering into your ear without the need for batteries. This is achieved by insulating the ear cups that help provide an excellent seal around your ears.

But, active noise cancellation is where the headphones use tiny microphones (requiring power) within the headphones. They sample the frequency of the noise around you and produces a similar frequency, which cancels out the outside noise.

Sound Stage

Soundstage is the headphone’s ability to produce audio that allows you to perceive the spacious layout of instruments in the listener’s mind. Over-Ear and open-backed headphones are the best options if you want to achieve this. The headphones give you an accurate sound with aural imaging of the original recording.

For example, a great pair of headphones will give you the mental picture of the band on stage. As the music plays, you can imagine where each instrument is placed which provides you with a great idea of space. And since the environmental noise is mixed in as well, it will sound more natural.

Closed back headphones don’t reproduce this well and instead makes the sound of instruments sound overlapped.

Open vs Closed Back Headphones


Closed-back headphones have enclosed drivers in the ear cup. The ear cup forms a seal around your ears which help isolate you from your environment. These are a good option if you are looking for passive noise isolation headphones so people can’t hear what you’re listening to.

The downside of closed-back headphones is a narrow soundstage (as I mentioned a moment ago).

Now, open back headphones are the opposite of closed back headphones. The drivers in the ear cups aren’t enclosed, and the noise from your environment passes through the ear cups.

In most headphones, you can actually see the driver inside the ear cup.

A good thing to remember is, if you can see the driver, or see a grill on the back of the headphone, sound won’t be isolated and people near you will be able to hear what you’re listening to.

Flat/Neutral Sound

A flat or neutral sound refers to how the headphones reproduce sound signatures from the source with the least deviation possible (linear frequency response). A flat sound is not exciting but makes the audio sound at its best.

Not all headphones do this and there are reasons why they don’t.

Manufacturers create headphones with different frequencies so you can choose what appeals to you. You can pick a pair that favors more bass in the music such as Beats headphones or Ghostek SoDrop 2. On the flipside, some headphones allow instruments and vocals to take precedence like the Sennheiser Momentums.
Impedance (Power)

Impedance is a term that refers to power and how much power. You need a certain amount to push through your headphones for them to work or provide the best quality sound.

Most headphones with less than 25 ohms don’t need much power to produce high audio levels. They work well with devices like your smartphone and other small portable devices.

Headphones with over 25 ohms can only be used with powerful equipment such as amps and DACs. If you use low impedance headphones with powerful amps, they can blow out.

Inline Mic or Controller

This refers to a microphone built into the headphone cable that allows you to answer calls, mute audio, adjust volume levels or skip tracks. A lot of newer headphones can use these controllers with voice commands such as Siri or Google Assistant.

Voice Assistant

Recently we’ve started seeing more headphones (Bose QC35 IIs for example) incorporate buttons that trigger voice assistants.

Once activated, you can use the microphone to speak a command and get whatever information or action you want (in most cases), just like you would with a smart speaker or a Smartphone.

The most common voice assistants used on headphones currently are Siri for Apple users and Google Assistant for Android.

Ear tips

This is the part that you stick in the ear canal. A lot of in-ear headphones come with removable ones and include extra ear tips in the packaging. These ear tips are either made of memory foam or silicone.


EQ stands for equalization. It’s the process of balancing frequencies within an electric signal. If that sounds too technical, remember the word “balance.” EQ settings for headphones help find the balance of frequencies in music.

But you’re also able to manipulate those same frequencies to get the sound that you want.

For example, if you want to hear more vocals in your music or more bass, you can mess with the frequency settings to achieve the sound you want.

These settings aren’t found on headphones themselves but rather in music apps that you listen to. For the most part, you won’t have that much control since these apps already have them preset.

Some brands have dedicated apps which allows you more control over these settings.


Bluetooth is the feature that connects wireless headphones to portable devices. It consists of a tiny chip inside the headphones that makes connectivity possible.

Bluetooth now uses the codec aptX HD which offers impressive sound quality.

Wired vs Wireless


These are phrases you will see often. But the difference is pretty simple…one has a wire attached, and the other doesn’t.

Over the last few years, there has been a significant focus on wireless headphones. One reason is many tech devices are getting rid of the standard headphone jack. Also there have been improvements on Bluetooth connectivity.

But, it still stands that a wired pair of headphones offers the best sound quality.

Frequency Response

Frequency response refers to the range of audible frequencies that headphones can produce. This ranges from 20 Hz up to the highest frequency which is 20 kHz.

Clamp Force

Refers to how strong the headphone squeezes either side of your head. This is important when it comes to comfort. Some people have reported headaches from too tight of a clamp. On the other hand, too loose of a clamping force and the headphones can fall off your head.

At the end of the day, it’s up to you to determine the right amount of clamp force when buying your headphones.


Do your Research

It’s quite overwhelming with a lot of styles and types available. You need to do extensive research into the brand, models, price range, and features to get the right set of headphones for you.

Various types of headphones come with multiple features nowadays. They include Bluetooth connectivity, active noise cancellation, access to voice assistants, and much much more.

A great place to start (besides this buyer guide!) is to ask around, either from friends or family members. Next check online reviews to see what others think about particular models and brands but you must be careful with these online reviews. There are lots of fake reviews out there trying to scare consumers away from headphones.
Listen Before you Buy

Most headphones are visually pleasing. But with all the effort put into the looks, the sound quality may be lacking.

If it’s your first pair of headphones or any pair of headphones, don’t overlook this area. Find a local retail store and test them out. This can potentially save you from spending hundreds of dollars on what looks good but doesn’t fill your needs.

I’d also recommend checking out Z Reviews on Youtube. He does a fantastic job reviewing different ranges of headphones as well as sound tests using different genres of music.

Ultimately, if you can’t find a pair in a store near you, don’t be afraid to buy a couple and try them out. You can always return them if they don’t meet your needs.

What’s Your Budget?

How much are you willing to spend purchasing headphones? It’s essential to determine the amount you are ready to invest since there are different tiers available.

What’s your Comfort?

Not all headphones work well with everyone even if they have near-perfect sound quality.

If you’re the type of person that goes for long listening sessions, you may not be very forgiving when it comes to design choices for comfort.

But if you’re the type of person that uses headphones to listen to music or to watch a movie, you may be more lenient with those design choices.

Consider how you want to use your headphones and buy what’s comfortable for you.

Headphone Build Quality

Headphones with excellent build quality are going to last longer.

You don’t want a pair of flimsy headphones where you fiddle or brush up against the cord, and you hear it in your ear cups.

Better built headphones usually end that affect giving you a better experience.
How will you Use Them?

There’s so much that goes into finding headphones, but at the end of the day, the perfect pair is very subjective. At the end of the day, it’s up to you on how you will be using headsets.

Will you be using them for gaming? Long listening sessions? Workouts?

You’re paying for something you’ll use for a long time so get the best bang for your buck.

Headphone Sound Quality

This has to do with the physical build of headphones, the sound quality potential, and the power needed to push sound through them.

Now, 15-millimeter drivers are standard; but, when you look at higher-end headphones they usually have more significant drivers, and more significant drivers need more power.

Some of the high-end headphones need way more power than others; around 200-300 ohms. These can be expensive, and you’ll need an amplifier to go with them otherwise they’re not going to work.

If budget isn’t an issue go for a premium pair of headphones and get an amplifier. Both of them working together will offer you the greatest listening experience.

Final Word

When buying a pair of headphones, the main thing to consider is how you want to use them. There are thousands of headphones on the market you’re bound to find a pair that suits your needs.