On-Ear vs. Over-Ear Headphones: Which Is Right For You?

Photo: Apple AirPods Max

We seem to be living in a Golden Age of headphones. Bluetooth technology has freed us from the tyranny of wires, and Active Noise Cancelation (ANC) has allowed us to tune into our music (or podcasts or audiobooks or video games) like never before. And when it comes to choosing what type of headphones to get, there are basically three categories: in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear. In-ear headphones are the most different of the three thanks to their design, and if you don’t like them, you’re left with the choice of over-ear vs. on-ear headphones. So how do you choose?

At first glance, it doesn’t seem so easy. They do look pretty similar, after all, and choosing between the two certainly isn’t as easy as deciding whether you want Apple AirPods or AirPods Max. But there are several key areas in which on-ear headphones and over-ear headphones have consistent differences, and those differences are what this article will look to clarify — while also offering up our picks for some of the best on-ear and over-ear headphones currently available.

Photo: Adidas RPT-01

What To Know About On-Ear Headphones

The Happy Medium Headphones

Size: On-ear headphones, as you may have guessed, are smaller than over-ear headphones, and this can offer several advantages. For one, because they’re smaller and lighter, many people find on-ear headphones to be more comfortable than over-ear headphones. They are also less likely to overheat on your ears because there is an open area around where the cups meet your head. And since they’re more compact, on-ear headphones are usually a little easier to travel with than over-ear headphones.

Sound: Because on-ear headphones are smaller and don’t offer the same kind of seal around the ear that over-ear headphones do, their sound quality typically isn’t as good. The same goes for ANC performance, which isn’t often found on on-ear headphones to begin with. That’s not to say that some on-ear cans don’t offer a great listening experience, but if audio quality is at the top of your list, you’re probably going to want to go over-ear.

Looks: This is probably the most subjective criterium, but it’s important to note that on-ear headphones give the wearer a different look than do over-ear headphones. Trends come and go, but on-ear headphones — whose design is older — are likely always going to offer the wearer a more classic and, arguably, refined look than over-ears.

Price: Largely due to the fact that they’re frequently lacking tech like ANC, on-ear headphones tend to be less expensive than over-ear headphones. That’s not a hard and fast rule, and some on-ears are priced higher than some over-ears, but it is generally the case. Look for prices to live mostly between $100 and $200, where you should be able to get Bluetooth tech, long-lasting battery life, and solid sound performance.

Jabra Elite 45H

Budget Pick: The Jabra Elite 45H are all about giving you the absolute best for your money. These fan-favorite headphones offer 40mm speakers — the biggest in their class, a 50-hour battery life — the longest in their class, and 10 hours of listening time after just 15 minutes of charging — the fastest in their class. They’re also lightweight, foldable, Bluetooth-enabled, available in a range of colors, and they work with Siri and Google Assistant voice controls.

Purchase: $100

Marshall Major IV

Mid-Tier Pick: If it’s style you’re after, you simply can’t beat Marshall’s offerings. The company is synonymous with rock and roll, and their on-ear headphones are a fashion icon. This latest iteration also works in some next-gen tech, along with the expected Marshall audio quality, to deliver a terrific all-rounder. Custom-tuned drivers deliver great sound across a wide range, the battery offers an astounding 80 hours of wireless playback, and the headphones are even equipped with convenient wireless charging.

Purchase: $150

Beats Solo Pro

Premium Pick: It’s not often you’ll find ANC and real-time audio calibration on a pair of on-ear headphones, but that’s what you’ll get with the Beats Solo Pro. There’s a Transparency Mode that allows you to hear more of your surroundings when necessary, and the Apple H1 chip offers smart controls and improved wireless performance. These cans are also ergonomically-engineered for comfort, while still boasting a sleek and modern design. They’re the closest you can get to over-the-ear performance in an on-ear package.

Purchase: $300

Adidas RPT-01

Wild Card Pick: In-ear headphones are probably the most common listening device for exercising, but not everyone is a fan. And those people are exactly who the Adidas RPT-01 were made for. With washable knitted ear cushions, Bluetooth connectivity, 40 hours of listening time, easy-to-use controls, and a sweatproof and splashproof design that’s meant to stay put, these headphones make for a great workout partner that also performs admirably outside of the gym.

Purchase: $170

Photo: Audio-Technica ATH SR30BT

What To Know About Over-Ear Headphones

When Sound Matters Above All Else

Size: Over-ear headphones are big. Their cups have to surround your entire ear — hence the name — and they also tend to be fairly heavy due to the amount of hardware packed inside. Because of their large size and weight, over-ear headphones often come with extra cushioning to make them wear more comfortably. There are downsides to this bulk, however, as over-ear headphones can get hot, they take up a lot of room when packing, and they generally don’t stay on your head as well as on-ears.

Sound: As you may have guessed, all of that size has a purpose, and it’s to give the wearer the best listening experience. The large cups block out unwanted sounds, a benefit that is greatly increased in models with ANC. There’s also more room for larger speakers and advanced tech that can work together to deliver clearer, higher-quality sound in the most immersive environment.

Looks: Again, looks are subjective. A lot of people like the way over-ear headphones look, especially if they’re a high-priced statement piece like the AirPods max. Others may think over-ear headphones look wonky or too techy and feel they are best suited to home use or sleeping on a plane. Your mileage will vary depending on your own feelings.

Price: There’s no way around it: over-ear headphones are pricey. While deals can be found in the space (like the Audio-Technicas below), it’s rare to find a decent pair of over-ear headphones with ANC and Bluetooth for under $200, and prices can easily reach $500 or even over $1,000. Just north of the $300 mark is where a lot of over-ear headphones live, and if you’re looking to spend more or less than that, make sure you’re getting all of the features you want.

Audio-Technica ATH SR30BT

Budget Pick: These may be the lowest-priced headphones on this list, but make no mistake, they pack a ton of value into their sub-$100 price tag. The headphones have Bluetooth 5.0 technology, naturally, and their 40 mm drivers and dual-layer isolation housing structure ensure that your wireless tunes are reproduced in full-range audio. These A-Ts also boast an outstanding 70-hour battery life and they fold flat, making them a solid choice for travelers who prefer an over-the-ear experience.

Purchase: $99

Sony WH-1000XM4

Mid-Tier Pick: Commonly referred to as the Sony XM4, these headphones are almost universally considered to be the best ANC headphones in their price range. Not only that, but they’re also in the running for the best noise-canceling headphones at any price — they’re that good. Making use of Sony’s HD Noise-Canceling Processor QN1, the XM4s boast the best noise-canceling performance in the industry. The sound quality is also excellent, with the LDAC wireless tech enabling far higher-resolution sound than conventional Bluetooth.

Purchase: $348

Apple AirPods Max

Premium Pick: When Apple decided to make over-the-air headphones, we knew three things: they’d be beautiful, expensive, and great. Unsurprisingly, the AirPods Max are all three. A design-forward luxury item with a price to match, Apple’s oversized cans don’t disappoint when it comes to performance. All the typical goodies like ANC and Bluetooth are here, but Apple went the extra mile by designing a custom driver and H1 chip that combine to constantly adapt to your listening content and the headphones’ fit to deliver the highest-quality audio experience possible.

Purchase: $549

Bose 700 UC

Wild Card Pick: Bose practically invented the noise-canceling headphones space, and the company’s latest and greatest effort has set out to solve a very modern problem. With many people confined to working from home these days, Zoom meetings with terrible audio have become a part of daily life. Bose has set out to make them better with the 700 UC headphones, which utilize a whopping ten microphones to ensure clear calls. Six mics cancel all the unwanted noise around you, while the other four isolate and clarify your voice.

Purchase: $450

The 10 Best Workout Headphones

Did reading this remind you that you also need some headphones for working out? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Be sure to check out our guide to the best workout headphones, where we break down the ten best options for getting your sweat on.