Why Headphone Design Matters: How to Pick Between On-Ear and In-Ear Designs

As discussed in our last post, picking out the perfect pair of headphones first involves figuring out which style of headphone will best fit your needs. For instance, should you go with in ear vs earbuds? Earbuds vs earphones? Last time around, we took a broad look at the three main styles: full-sized headphones, earphones, and neckband headphones. In this post, you’ll learn how to choose earphones specs for your needs. We’ll also take a bit of a deeper dive into two other categorical terms you may have heard, and help you decide which is right for you.

“On-ear” and “in-ear” overlap quite a bit with the categories we’ve already discussed. In short, on-ear headphones are full-sized headphones whose cups aren’t quite full-sized. Instead of wrapping around your pinna (the exterior anatomy of your ear) the way over-ear models do, the cups of on-ears like Phiaton’s BT 460 rest on the pinna.

In-ear designs cover the categories we’ve already described as earphones (like the Curve BT 120 NC neckband Bluetooth headphones). The way they deliver sound to your ears is via small casings, terminated by a silicone or foam ear tips, which are designed to insert into your ear canals.

So, which is better for you? It really depends on how you intend to use your headphones, and which factors of performance and ergonomics are more important to you. Let’s break it down into three main considerations.

  • Comfort and Fit: In-ears typically come with an array of different ear tips, generally in three different sizes: small, medium, and large. Chances are pretty good that one of these will work for you, sealing out the sound of the outside world and improving audio performance. If you do find an ear tip size that works for you, you’ll be able to wear them even through vigorous workouts.

    If, on the other hand, you’re one of the unfortunate few with smaller or irregularly shaped ear canals, you can disregard all of the above. You’ll likely find on-ears to be far more comfortable, not to mention the fact that you’ll get better noise isolation. Of course, on-ears aren’t likely to hold their position well during a spirited run, which is something to consider. But they should still fit well without much pressure if you’re listening on the subway or a plane or using them for your next conference call.
  • Portability: Given that they generally only consist of a few wires and a small plastic or metal casing (or in some cases, just the latter), in-ears definitely take up less space than any other style of headphones. Even neckband headphones, with their rigid semi-circular collar, won’t take up much space in your bag when you’re not wearing them.

That said, many on-ear models feature compact folding designs that make them much easier to travel with them than their over-ear counterparts. The BT 390, for example, collapses down small enough to just about fit in the palm of your hand.

  • Performance: As mentioned in our previous post, full-sized headphones generally deliver fuller sound and a more spacious listening experience. Mind you, most on-ears won’t deliver quite the impact of a good set of over-ear headphones, but they still have a sonic advantage over in-ears, especially in terms of the fullness of their bass, simply due to the size of their drivers.

In-ears do have one potential performance advantage over on-ears, though. Since their casings are so small, they can accommodate technologies like balanced armature drivers, which can deliver clearer, more accurate sound than traditional dynamic drivers, while also using less energy.

Despite their different strengths, no style of headphone is the clear winner over all others in all respects. When picking between in-ears, on-ears—and indeed, even over-ear headphones—the most important thing is deciding which style works best for your needs, your preferences, your lifestyle, and perhaps most importantly, your unique ear anatomy.

By Dennis Burger

April 16, 2019

Recommended Reads:

Why Headphone Design Matters: How to Pick Between Headphone, Earphone, and Neckband Designs 

Earphones vs. Headphones: A Sound Debate

Neckband Headphones: Why Is This Design Becoming So Popular?


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