It doesn’t matter if you identify primarily as an artist, gamer, or student, and no matter what your age – headphones are an integral tool in people’s lives.
The New Yorker reported that in 2014, 53% of millennials owned three or more pairs of headphones!
For something so important, it’s no surprise that the market is now completely saturated with all sorts of different types of headphones, maybe leaving many confused (or in the dark) as to the options that they have.
Different Types of Headphones: A Primer
Broadly speaking, the first level of categorization can be created by dividing them into wired and wireless headphones.
However, there are no specific types of wireless headphones or wired ones; it’s the technology, meaning the best wireless headphones, for example, would include just as many types as the more traditional models.
Defining them by function and accessibility, then, we largely group them in three ways, each group with its own different subcategories.
These three types of headphones can be largely classified as earbuds (which can be expanded to in-ear headphones, or just plain earphones), on-ear headphones, and over-the-ear headphones.
These can then be further expanded yet again.
Namely, noise-canceling headphones, open-back or closed-back, “true wireless” vs. Bluetooth-based wireless headphones, foldable headphones, and so on.
Again – you’ve guessed it – these features can also be matched together to create a vast number of options. Two into three into… a variable amount. What’s the criterion, then, for finding out what you want?
Deciding Between Different Types of Headphones
The best on-ear headphones will naturally and inherently offer a different experience than the best over-the-ear ones. The acoustics, product design, specific model capability, and needs of the user, all determine the subjective functionality of your headphones.
Between different types of headphones, studies and surveys have revealed what users choose between.
First comes the objective specifics of the pair, such as in sound, comfort, weight, and durability. Next, users look at more subjective things: some are drawn to a certain type of headphone exclusively, a specific brand, a specific design, or needs such as noise-canceling features, powerful bass, or wireless abilities.
There’s also a lot of jargon thrown around – you’ll see mentions of something called natural sound (usually relevant for noise cancellation reasons) which then factors into headphones being circum-aural or supra-aural, and so forth. You’ll also see… well, let’s all get on the same page instead of adding to the confusion.
The Factors Determining Different Types of Headphones
Yes, we’re about to break it down for you, in terms that’ll put the theory into context and application.
Learning to read these specifications might also require guidance for most of us. The number usually starts off with the lowest frequency the headphones can reliably produce, leading up to the highest.
However, this is usually an arbitrary thing, as you’ll see that this range often stays 20Hz – 20,000Hz, which is the range of the human hearing.
Some devices might offer higher bands, but the difference in audio quality might not be worth the difference in price which usually comes with this type of “feature”.
One thing to keep in mind is the volumes at which these frequencies are produced. The point of that, ironically, becomes to not rely on the listed frequency as much as to sound test a pair you’re considering yourself – emphasizing the importance of trying your best not to order something online that is so steeped in experiential merit.
This is what audiophiles on Reddit or user forums are talking about when they’re talking about a neutral or flat sound.
It might not sound like a compliment but it sort of is; a pair of headphones with a ‘flat’ sound signature can perfectly relay, replicate, and reproduce the signal they’re receiving from the source.
However, that’s not exactly what users always want.
Most users prefer headphones partly due to the experience of boosted acoustics or bass. There’s also the importance of how much the equalizer settings can be tweaked on a pair of headphones or how well they respond to changes on a system or device equalizer, meaning how much deeper the sound can get than it would be in a ‘flat’ environment, particularly when dealing with different genres and material (music versus audiobooks, for example).
There’s also something called the soundstage, which is another application of this ‘artificial audio’ ability.
You might have noticed this in over-ear headphones, even if you weren’t aware of it; the sound comes across as much ‘fuller’, with directional cues and a more spread-out, realistic-sounding experience. The sound doesn’t seem to come from one direction, but from “all around”.
This is often referred to as the 3D effect or 3D environment.
We’ve been talking it about for nearly half the article, so if you’ve had to Google it already, you can probably skip this part. However, let’s talk about the difference between noise canceling and noise isolating headphones.
Noise cancellations work by taking ambient noise from the atmosphere (dedicated microphones, nothing mystical) and then reversing their polarity. The effect? What your ears hear is literally a subtraction, something being taken down to zero in real-time.
Noise isolation, on the other hand, can block out the external noise from entering your ears in a more direct way.
Of course, these achieve different functions for different people. It’s best to experience the effects first-hand because external noise can be an important context, the loss of which can even be fatal.
Let’s now delve a little deeper into what these features mean for the different types of headphones.
Earbuds are the ones we might also know as earphones, or in-ear headphones (in-ear ones have that woofer-bit that you push in, whereas earbuds sit on the outside).
These have been around since the Walkman, and come in sports models, swimmer models, performer models, and so on, capitalizing on their portability and unobtrusive design and size.
Ironically, while earbuds are packaged with perhaps every smartphone purchase, 50% of consumers report that they never use them – the best earbuds, however, can be worth it, as evidenced by the same studies showing that 22% of users are solely into earbuds.
Their enduring allure might stem from the fact that they’re affordable and, compared to wireless models such as AirPods, harder to fall out of your ears and disappear into the ether, forever (or, you know, get lost in your bedsheets or something).
They’re portable, offer very integrative sound straight to your ear canal*, and fit a diverse number of people better than over-the-ear headphones, which might get a little uncomfortable.
*It’s this same nearness to the eardrum that can cause hearing loss if used at high volume for large amounts of time** and can make you vulnerably detached from your surroundings, especially in the in-ear models.
**Earbuds, as opposed to in-ear headphones, have a lower risk of these issues, especially if they come with foam padding. However, the plastic is said to be dangerous nonetheless.
Remember when we dropped the ‘supra-aural’ jargon a little earlier? On-ear models are what supra-aural is (or vice versa).
These are essentially a tweaking of the traditional earphone model. These are softer and pad against the ears, placing them between in-ear and over-the-ear models.
Their main pull is the lighter weight and more comfortable design, making them great for people on the go.
Just as traditional earphones were described above, these are your traditional headphone models. They’re also called ‘full-size’ or, to put it in tech jargon once again, circum-aural.
Their size, attention to detail on the specs, variability of models, as well as circum-aural nature make them a perfect fit for a studio environment, gamers, and people who really want to experience the wholeness and depth of their entertainment, be it music or movies at home.
Usually closed-back (as opposed to open-back, discussed in the next section), these are generally considered to be the best in quality out of these three fundamental architectural models, as well as offering perfect noise cancellation or noise isolation, comfort, and richer, immersive experience.
Following sequentially and naturally, the immersive aspect of OTE headphones can be dangerous to some. As such, open-back headphones have the backs of the earcups either meshed or totally open, allowing for natural ambiance and sound to add context and seep through.
This makes them as popular as OTE models, but for more conscious consumers, such as careful travelers or live musicians who rely on feedback from the band.
Finally, let’s talk about the types of wireless headphones.
These offer everything that any other model does – noise-cancellation, great sound quality, a wide range of options – as well as the freedom from cables and wires and having to stay close to the source or in an uncomfortable seating or standing position.
With a wireless headphone, however, users must consider three things: NFC, wireless range, and battery life. These aren’t very complex ideas that you’ll have to write down or memorize specs for, but those that it pays to pay attention to!