On-Ear Headphones vs Over-Ear: Which One Is Better?

There’s an ongoing debate between audiophiles about which is better: on-ear headphones vs over-ear headphones. While the truth is that everyone will have a different personal preference, there are a few objective criteria that you can consider when making your decision. 


Winner: Over-Ear

Over-ear headphones are known for their comfortable fit. Since they cover the entire helix or outside shell of your ear, they distribute their weight more evenly across the surface. They’re usually padded to boot, so you’ll enjoy a plush feeling without any hard edges.

By contrast, on-ear headphones have a more compact design. Their ear cups are smaller and made to rest directly over your ears, applying more clamp force to the cartilage. They can be padded usually with memory foam, so this pressure is unnoticeable for short listening sessions. However, for long periods, expect to feel pain around your ears. 

One caveat: Wear duration can impact the comfort level of your headphones. This refers to how long you typically wear them. Over-ears can get hot and sweaty thanks to their bigger bulk so on-ears might be more comfortable for heavy headphone users. For everyone else, however, over-ears will take the crown for the most comfortable.

Sound Quality

Winner: Over-Ear

A hand holding a Sennheiser HD600 open-back, over-ear headphones

If sound quality is important to you, you’re in luck! Both on-ear and over-ear headphones can deliver crisp highs and deep, resonant lows. They sound better than earbuds and earphones due to their larger drivers. 

That said, over-ear headphones tend to deliver the best sound quality. They are better at isolating external noises and pulling ahead in areas like frequency response and total harmonic distortion. Their bigger design means bigger electronic drivers, which translates to a finer, broader sound quality overall. On-ear headphones aren’t going to deliver shoddy audio, but if you only want the best of the best, that’s over-ears.


Winner: On-Ear

A man wearing a pair of on-ear headphones

The biggest drawback of over-ear headphones is their size. They can be clunky to wear and even clunkier to move around, especially if you don’t have a fancy carrying case.

On-ear headphones are smaller, lighter, and easier to transport. They boast a more compact design, including modestly sized earcups, electronic drivers, and less extensive padding. Some models even come with foldable headbands or earcups that you can more easily stuff into your backpack. 

All things considered, you might prefer on-ear headphones if you’re the type of person who’s always on the go. While they’re still bigger and heavier than earbuds like the Apple Airpods, on-ears represent the more portable option in exterior headphones that aren’t worn directly in the ear.

Noise Isolation

Winner: Over-ear

Noise isolation can be one of the biggest selling points in the battle between on-ear headphones vs over-ear headphones. Whether you’re trying to mix music, play games undisturbed, or block out crying babies on a flight, it’s critical to have good sound isolation.

In this arena, over-ear headphones reign supreme. Their oversized earcups will create a seal over your ears that helps to shut out external noise. You can invest in closed-back headphones rather than open-backed ones for extra muffling.

Another thing to consider is active noise cancellation (ANC). It’s a special kind of tech that actively and automatically measures the ambient noise of your surroundings to adjust its level of sound dampening.

Sound Leakage

Winner: On-Ear

Sound leakage is the opposite of sound cancellation: It’s the amount of noise leaving your headphones instead of going in. You might experience sound leakage if you’re playing loud music or if your headphones aren’t properly fitted to your ears.

The general rule of thumb for sound leakage is that smaller drivers result in smaller leaks, so on-ear headphones win this category. With their more compact design, they’re less likely to broadcast your music to everyone around you. Just note that their earcup technology can’t compare to over-ear headphones; they don’t create that all-important seal since they don’t cover the helix of your ear. This means that they could potentially leak sound despite their smaller drivers.

Battery Life

Winner: Over-Ear

This is another area where the size of over-ear headphones works to their benefit. Bigger earcups mean more space for robust, long-lasting batteries. In other words, over-ears don’t have to sacrifice battery strength to be small and lightweight like on-ears and in-ears do.

The specifics of battery life will depend on the make and model of headphones you buy. However, you can generally expect over-ears to last up to 95 hours and on-ears to last up to 40 hours. These estimates are for a single charge.

Important note: If you buy a high-tech pair of headphones with many extra features, those will reduce your battery hours. Active noise cancellation, for example, can outright half your battery life. This might lead to your over-ear headphones lasting less time than other types because you’re so strenuously engaging their special features.

And the Winner Is…

When it comes to on-ear headphones vs over-ear headphones, the winner is over-ear. They aren’t without flaws, including a bulky design that isn’t the most portable thing in the world, but their inconveniences are outweighed by their many excellent features. These include superior sound quality, better noise dampening, longer battery life, and a more comfortable fit.

At the end of the day, however, you should remember that both types of headphones have pros and cons. To find the perfect headphones based on your preference, you must decide which criteria are the most important to you.

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