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Different Types of Headphones: A Headphone Buying Guide

Have you ever gone headphone shopping? Well, if you’re reading this, I bet you have, and like so many others who’ve done it, you had a difficult time choosing which one to go with. The same applies to online shopping. 

If this is your first time headphone shopping, you’re probably feeling overwhelmed. When you search for headphones, there are so many different types of headphones and features that choosing the one to buy becomes daunting. In this beginner’s guide, we’ll go through the different types of headphones, their features, their  pros and cons,that you should know about, and much more. 

Let’s get started!

What are the Different Types of Headphones

Headphones come in different sizes, shapes, and types. All the different models have distinct features and are suitable for specific purposes. To purchase the best headphones that suits your intended use, you need to know the features each type offers.

Types of Headphones

  • In-Ear Headphones
  • Wireless Earbuds
  • True Wireless Earbuds
  • Over-Ear Headphones
  • Closed-Back Headphones
  • Semi-Open Headphones
  • Bluetooth Headphones

In-Ear Headphones

Image of in-ear monitor headphones

In-Ear headphones are all about convenience, versatility, and portability. Commonly referred to as canal-phones by some, they are the most popular type of headphones on the market due to their comfort in portability.

Over the years, technological advancements have enabled these types of headphones to be improved. They are now competing with other models. They can produce high sound quality from small devices like smartphones and mp3 players.

Unlike your standard earbud-style headphones that rest on your outer ear, in-ear headphones go a little deep into your ear canal. This design enables them to get closer to your eardrums and deliver sounds directly into your ears, while at the same time blocking external noise.

In-ear headphones come loaded with a few benefits such as sound isolation, sound quality, and comfort. They have minimal noise leakage meaning they keep most of the sound in your ear. They also serve to keep most of the sounds from your immediate surroundings out.

In-ear headphones are perfect for those who like listening to music as they travel or while at the gym. Depending on the model or brand you choose to go with, they can provide superior sound quality.

However, they come with a downside. Many users raise concerns about their safety since they deliver sound directly into your ears canal. But when you think about it,  hearing damage is generally caused by loud volume, not the proximity of the sound to the ears. Unless you blast them at max volume or use a sound amplifier, you should be safe.

According to Maonotech, these are some of the advantages and limitations that come with using in-ear headphones.

Advantages
Comfort
Great Sound Quality
Minimal interference of outside noise
Disadvantages
When used by multiple people they could facilitate the transfer of bacteria.
Earplugs may scratch the ear canal.

Wireless Earbuds

Image demonstrating what wireless earbuds look like
Man wearing wireless earbuds

Earbuds are quite similar to in-ear headphones but come with a significant difference…they are placed slightly outside the ear canal.

Wireless earbuds don’t come with a cable. Instead, they connect to your device via Bluetooth or other wireless technologies and function independently. The lack of a cable attachment enables them to offer more convenience in terms of portability and more space when carrying them.

Recent technological advancements in the manufacturing of wireless earbuds have seen them improve in connectivity range and battery life. However, that doesn’t mean that you can blast them the whole day. You’ll still need to carry a charger with you if you use them continuously.

Depending on their quality, the experience you get with wireless earbuds is a bit similar to a wired pair of earbuds, the only differences being the lack of wire and a bump in sound quality.

According to EDM tunes, you get the following benefits when using wireless earbuds.

Advantages
Stylish and affordable
Can walk and talk handsfree
Disadvantages
They rely on batteries that don’t last that long
Can easily be misplaced

True Wireless Earbuds

Image that shows what true wireless earbuds are.
A pair of AirPods Pro true wireless earbuds with their charging case

What you need to know about this particular pair of earbuds is that there’s no wire connecting the buds together and to devices. Instead, they connect through either Bluetooth, or some other radio-frequency.

The next thing you should be aware of is that these earbuds require a charging case to charge.

Because these earbuds are wireless, they don’t have many locations to put volume controls, batteries, and other components so they stuffed them all inside the buds themselves making the overall design a bit bulkier than regular wireless earbuds. 

With all the components and features needing battery power to operate, and depending on how you personally use them, true wireless earbuds may need frequent charging. This can be a good or bad thing. 

Depending on which pair you get, they come with a fast charging feature. Charging these earbuds for a few minutes can net you up to several hours of additional playback time.

Check out my post for more information on wireless earbuds vs true wireless earbuds.

Advantages
Comfortable
Wire-free convenience
Comes with portable charging case
Disadvantages
Requires a battery to function
Battery life is limited and may require frequent recharging

Over-Ear Headphones

Image of over-ear headphones
Over-ear headphones covering the entire ear. Photo by Wes Hicks

Over-ear headphones are sometimes referred to as Circumaural. They fit over your head and generally cover your entire ear. This feature enables them to isolate sound efficiently.

This model creates an intimate environment between your ear and the headphone’s speaker by canceling out most of the noise from your immediate environment. This feature not only keeps the exterior sounds out but also keeps what you’re listening to inside, thus limiting noise leakage.

Over-ear headphones come in several styles: closed-back, open-back and semi-open-back. We will discuss them later in the article.

Most over-ear headphones are quite comfortable, especially those from premium brands. Some come with cups made of leather or soft velvet. These don’t squeeze up against your ear too much.

On the downside, these headphones might cause you to sweat since they prevent air circulation between your ear and the surrounding air. Also, they are very bulky. Actually, the bulkiest of all headphone types; So if you are looking for a portable headset that doesn’t take up space, these might not be the best for you.

Some people do, however, enjoy the bulky feel they get wearing these headphones. The music experience you get when using over-ear headphones is one of a kind. They enable you to block the world out and dive into your music.

Advantages
Excellent sound quality
Can fold into compact designs
Portable
Disadvantages
Can cause ear fatigue
Bulky design and more weight on your head

On-Ear Headphones

Image of on-ear headphones
Notice how the ear cup sits on the ear!

As the name implies, they go over your head and rest on top of your ears. On-ear headphones are quite small, roughly the size of your ear.

They are also known as Supra-aural headphones. Their design is almost similar to that of open-back headphones hence do not have much noise isolation capabilities.

On the upside, their design enables them to fit comfortably on your ear and at the same time allow a bit of air circulation; therefore, you don’t sweat much. They are also quite light; hence you don’t have to worry about tiring your neck when you wear them for long.

Advantages
Lightweight
Good sound quality
Comfortable
Disadvantages
Can cause ear fatigue
Poor noise isolation
Irritating clamp force on head

Closed-Back Headphones

Example of a closed-back earcup on some Bose headphones

If you want headphones that will completely block out all the external peripheral noise, then you’ve got to check these types of headphones out.

Closed-back headphones are designed to block out all external noises, no matter how noisy your environment is. At the same time, they isolate the audio in a way that only you can hear what you are listening to. This feature makes them perfect for people who like to engulf themselves into the music experience and hear every detail of the music.

These are the most preferred type of headphones by musicians during their recording sessions. They block out all external noises; hence they can hear their instruments clearly while they sing. Also, closed-back headphones lock all the sound in; therefore, they don’t leak sound into the microphone, which would compromise the sound quality of the track.

Over-ear headphones are pretty bulky, but if you don’t mind the weight, they give you excellent sound quality, and you get to enjoy an intimate time with your music.

Advantages
Great sound isolation
They have a greater bass quality
Disadvantages
Bulky design
Might make your ears sweaty

Open-Back Headphones

Image of a pair of open-back headphones in use.
Grill-like design lets air flow through the ear cup

Unlike closed-back headphones, open-back headphones have open vents on the back of the ear cups that allow some sound to escape to your surroundings. This design enables them to produce an ‘airy, open sound.’ Listening to your music using these headphones makes you feel as if you are facing speakers in a closed room.

Open-back headphones are popular among those who are into mixing and mastering. The sound leakage from these headphones limits the extra-base produced by the headphone speakers, thus allowing you to listen to music in its raw form. This ensures that the mix remains accurate and helps prevent the buildup of specific frequencies when mixing.

Many audiophiles also prefer them because of the authentic, flat sound they produce. Listening to music via open-back headphones enables you to hear precisely what the artist intended you to hear. Also, their open back facilitates some air circulation within your ear; hence you don’t sweat much.

Open-back headphones provide very little noise isolation; hence you can hear the loud outside noises in your environment. Also, the people standing or seated close to you can hear what you are listening to. If you don’t mind sacrificing your audio privacy, these are pretty cool headphones to go with.

Advantages
Great sound quality
Comfortable
Good for long sessions
Disadvantages
Poor sound isolation
Less durable than other over-ear headphones

Bluetooth Headphones

Image of wireless bluetooth headphones
A pair of Sony wireless bluetooth headphones on a desk. Notice there are no wires!

Modern technological advancements have brought with them a wide variety of wireless electronic devices, and they are rapidly growing in popularity. Among them are Bluetooth headphones. They use Bluetooth technology to connect to various devices. 

Bluetooth headphones come equipped with a chip that connects to the device you are playing music from. They offer the same sound quality as regular headphones, the only difference being that they don’t require chords. They provide excellent convenience in mobility, i.e., you can use them stress-free when running or while at the gym.

On the downside, Bluetooth headsets are more expensive than corded ones since it costs more to make the chip they come with. Also, unlike corded headphones, which run on the power of the device they are connected to, Bluetooth headphones must be charged frequently.

READ MORE: Can You Use Bluetooth Headphones On a Plane?

Advantages
Great for running or using in the gym
Portable
Good sound quality
Disadvantages
They require charging
Must pair them to your device before listening

Main Features to Look For in Headphones

Now that you know the different types of headphones available, let’s talk about some common features you should keep in mind when shopping for your next pair.

1. Noise isolation Vs. Noise Cancelation

Noise isolation works by barring external noises from entering your ears by completely covering them. Noise cancelation, on the other hand, makes use of complex circuitry in the headphone to counteract background noise.

Headphones with noise cancelation capabilities have a microphone that picks up external noises. The headphone then generates anti-noise sounds to counter the external noise. Therefore, you only hear the music you are listening to.

READ MORE: The difference between noise cancelling vs noise isolation

2. Soundstage

Almost like you’re listening to your favorite band live.

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 open-backed headphones are the best options if you want to achieve this.

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.

3. Flat vs. Neutral Sound

Miguel Zapata says that flat headphones do not alter the music in any way. They produce it as it is. They are popular among people who do mixing and mastering because they enable them to hear the exact tone of what they are mixing.

4. Battery Life

All types of wireless headphones require a battery to function. When purchasing them, their battery life is among the most important factors to consider. The battery life of headphones determines how long you can enjoy listening to music before you have to recharge.

Most wireless earbuds are rated five to eight hours, while wireless headphones can last up to 25 hours.

5. Water Resistance

Water-resistance is the quality of electrical devices to resist the entry of liquids if they are dropped in or it is poured on them. At times, you may find yourself using your headphones near a body of water like a swimming pool or in the rain. Spilling water on regular headphones would instantly damage them, but water-resistant headphones would be perfectly okay.

6. Built-in Microphone/Control Module

Nowadays, most headphones come with a microphone and control module fitted along the length of the chord or built into the headphones, as in the case of wireless headphones. The microphone comes in handy when you want to take a call since you don’t have to disconnect your headphones from your phone; all you have to do is speak into them.

The control module is used to pick calls and control audio functions like volume and pause/play.

What is Headphone Impedance? And Why is it Important?

When it comes to headphones, most people don’t consider their impedance when making a purchase. That is a huge mistake since impedance determines how well the headphones work with your audio device.

Impedance determines how much force your audio device needs to put up to drive your headphones. If your headphones have little impedance, it doesn’t require much power to use them. On the other hand, if your headphones have a high impedance, your audio device needs to match that level of power. If it does not, you get a sound of very low volume from your headphones.

There Are Two Types of Impedance…

High Impedance

High impedance headphones work with 50 ohms and above. They don’t perform well with portable devices and often require DAC’s or AMP’s to produce the best sound.

Low Impedance

Low impedance headphones, on the other hand, require less than 50 ohms to perform. They are designed to work well with portable devices and produce high-quality sound and volume even from a low power device like smartphones, tablets, mp3 players, etc.

Where Can I Try Headphones Before I Buy?

Not many places allow their customers to test out headphones. Especially in-ear headphones. One of the best things to do when searching for high-quality headphones that won’t disappoint you is to read online reviews of the products then ask questions.

That way, you don’t buy the headphones blindly since reviews tell you just about everything to expect from the headphones.

Alternatively, you can order it at online shops that offer 30-day money-back guarantees. They allow you to test the product to see if it suits you. If you are not satisfied with it, all you have to do is return or exchange it with another.

Although it is quite rare, you can also find shops that allow you to test out the headphones before making a purchase. However, you can only test them out for a short time, and you may not get a proper feel of the headphones. You should, however, avoid such shops since headphones could spread bacteria when worn by multiple people.

Last Bit of Advice

Do your Research

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

A great place to start (besides this buyer guide!) is to ask around, either from friends or family members followed by reading online reviews to see what others think about particular models and brands.

Decide on Your Budget

Purchasing headphones can be an expensive experience. How much are you willing to spend on your next purchase? It’s important to determine the amount you are ready to invest since there are different price ranges and features available.

Decide How You Will Use Your Headphones

There’s so much that goes into finding the right pair of headphones. At the end of the day, it’s up to you on how you will be using them.

Will you be using them for gaming? Studying? Workouts?

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

Conclusion

Over the years, technology used to make headphones has evolved drastically. Now, you can get headphones of any style and type you want, even wireless ones.

In this article, we discussed some of the most common types of headphones on the market and explained their use. We also discussed some of their advantages and disadvantages to give you a full understanding of each type.

If you’re in the market for new headphones, remember to keep all the features that we discussed above in mind. All those features are essential for a headphone to provide high-quality sound, comfort, and convenience and an overall great experience.

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