There are several different types of headphones and earphones and it can be a daunting task even deciding which type to go for. So today we will go over all of the basics. While we cannot pretend this guide will turn you into an expert on circumaural versus super aural, we will explain the difference
First up, let’s take a look at the most basic end of the spectrum – earbuds. These are usually cheap, very small and hence portable, and they fit loosely in your ears. These are the type that usually comes bundled with mp players and some cellphones.
While these are the most common, the sound produced is…not great! Generally, they sound very flat as the drivers are not large and they do not seal in your ear to isolate the sound and create a good bass response from their small drivers.
Also, since they are cheap, they tend not to be that well made and do not last very long. Also, they are not comfortable for extended periods of use and offer very little sound isolation, so you need to increase the volume in a noisier environment, not good for tinnitus! Basically, don’t use these unless you have to and if you get these with your phone, it will cost you under 30 bucks to upgrade and you will get a sound that is a world better.
Earphones and In Ear Monitors (IEMs)
Next up are earphones or in-ear monitors (IEMs) These are similar to buds in that they are very compact and lightweight but instead they fit inside your ear canal rather than just sitting outside your canal. IEMs range from super cheap to ultra high-end with noise canceling and Bluetooth.
These typically use a very small dynamic driver, or a few balanced armature drivers, which are smaller enough to fit several even in earphones this small. At the higher end, they even use a dynamic driver for the bass frequencies and balanced armature drivers to deal with the higher frequencies.
They improve the sound massively over earbuds by forming a seal in your ear canal with a silicone tip. This seal enables them to achieve sound quality on par with much larger headphones. Since getting the seal tight is important so most earphones come supplied with a selection of these tips to ensure the best fit possible.
I find that memory foam tips usually create the best fit and are the most comfortable. I would suggest that you try the ones you get with the earphones and if you cannot get a good fit or find them uncomfortable, try a pair of Comply memory phone tips.
In-Ears tend to cost a bit more than earbuds but that’s because the build quality is generally better, but even at the cheaper end they will usually out-perform earbuds. Believe me, the sound produced by IEMs is a lot better than earbuds!
In addition, earphones are ultra small, perfect to stick in your bag or pocket, and the sound isolation is generally the best of any type of headphones.
Some people find having something in their ears uncomfortable, so IEMs are probably not the best choice for them, but for most people they make a very good choice, especially for commuting.
On Ear Headphones
Moving on from in-ear we have on-ear headphones or supra-aural headphones. As the name suggests these are much larger that earphones and sit on your ears. They are also quite a bit larger but many fold up to minimise the space needed in your bag.
The advantage of the larger size that bigger drivers can be used. This means you can move more air and, theoretically get more bass from them for a more exciting sound.
People that dislike in-ears may prefer these, however, I often wear glasses and I find them a bit uncomfortable after prolonged use. Also depending on your ear shape and size, you may also find wearing headphones that sit on your ears tiring.
The advice here is to try it out before buy as these are generally more expensive, even at the lower end. At the higher end, they become technological marvels with active noise canceling, Bluetooth and other tech packed in.
Over Ear Headphones
Lastly we have the daddies of the headphone world – over ear or circumaural (literal translation – around the ear) headphones. These are larger than over-ear headphones so the ear pads go over and around your ears. This cocoons your ears creating excellent noise isolation (for closed back models) and the size allows the largest drivers to be used.
This means they tend to have a great bass response and the largest soundstage. I also find them far more comfortable than on-ears allowing for long periods of use. The one caveat is that when it gets warm your ears can get sweaty after a while depending on the ear pad material
Downsides of the over ears well they tend to cost a lot more and they’re big and bulky so less good for commuting, although many are designed to fold, even these are not small.
The really high-end over-ears that are aimed at the audiophile market can require juice to power them so you will need a headphone amplifier as they have a higher impedance to increase the responsiveness.
In terms of noise isolation it will vary if the over a year has a closed back design or an open back. Closed back headphones have a back to the ear cup that is solid, while the open-backed designs will usually just have some mesh, allowing air to pass freely.
Closed Back Headphones
Closed back headphones are the most common headphones. They provide exceptional noise isolation but a smaller soundstage. This works both ways – it blocks out external noise but it also means the outside world cannot hear your tunes or what-not. This is great for gaming where you do not want the sound effects of your game picked up by the mic.
The seal also helps these headphones create a more punchy sound, but the sound is not as “pure” and less spacious – called the soundstage.
Open Back Headphones
Open backed headphones have more sound leakage and sound isolation isn’t anything extraordinary but you’ll feel like you’re completely immersed in the sound.
These are not great outside the house, or even somewhere people can hear you, but this also lets the sound interact with the surroundings. The very highest end monitors and audiophile headphones tend to be open backed because the purity of the sound is much higher such as the Sennheiser HD 800 S.
In addition, many people like open backed gaming headsets as they claim you can pinpoint where the actions are happening better than you can with closed backed headsets.
So you should now have a better idea of the numerous types of head and earphones available.
If you are still persevering with the earbuds you got with your phone or other devices, then take a look at our article for the best earphones under $30 (with some recommendations way lower than that!) and go up to several hundred dollars.
If you don’t like something in your ears, then there are the on-ear (supra-aural) headphones or their bigger brothers the over ear (circumaural) headphones which start at slightly higher prices and go up to ludicrous prices.