types of headphones

Types of Headphones & Buyer’s Guide [2020]

Technically, headphones are small speakers that can be worn over or around your ears. But, there is more to it. Headphones do not have a mic attached to them, unlike headsets. It only contains speakers for sound output.

To be honest, headphones allow us to sneak into our own imaginary world secluded from people. You can connect it to a laptop, PC, mobile, or any other device that supports the pin or has a Bluetooth connection. There are different types of headphones made to cater to personalized needs. Thus, what might suit one, might be a pain for others.

Companies do not offer a clear differentiation between the different types and name them ‘headphones’ generically. In this article, we will walk you through the different types of headphones and their recommended uses.

But, before delving into more details about the different types of headphones that you can choose from, let us quickly tell you about how they work. So, let’s get started.

How do Headphones Work?

Think of headphones as a miniature version of loudspeakers. In simple terms, headphones are two speakers mounted on a strap that fits perfectly around your head. Earphones too work the same way, except they are inserted into your ear canal. 

Loudspeakers and headphones, of course, have the greatest difference in size. A speaker needs to set all the air moving in a room so that you can hear the sound it’s making, but the speaker in a headphone just has to move the air volume inside your ear canal. It can, therefore, be so much smaller and more discreet.

A transducer is an instrument that transfers energy from one type to another. A pair of headphones consists of two transducers that transform your device’s electrical energy into sound energy that our ears interpret as music. Each headphone is basically just like any other circuit–a conductor that draws current from a battery (source) and provides it to a load (transducer).

The conductor is connected to the source with what is called the jack of the earphone. In fact, the solid, glossy needle plunged into your system is three metal contacts stacked on top of each other, separated by a sheet of insulation. The needle tip is called, well, the tip, the contact in the middle is called the tube, and the top touch is called the ring.

The tip is the contact for the wires that power the left earphone, the flap is the contact for the wires that power the right earphone, and the ring is the contact for the wires that make up the common area. Many jacks, however, are split into four pieces. All of these together transmit sound. So, this is how a headphone works. 

Now, let’s tell you about the different types of headphones that you can choose from.

Types of Headphones

Headphones come in different shapes, forms, and sizes. You want to know about the different types of headphones and what each of them means in order to make the most educated purchasing decision.

Generally speaking, headphones can be classified into the following categories –

  • Closed-Back Headphones
  • On-Ear Headphones
  • Over-Ear Headphones
  • In-Ear Headphones
  • Open-Back Headphones
  • Noise-Cancelling Headphones
  • Wireless Headphones
  • Wired headphones

Closed-Back Headphones

Headphones with a closed-back design have ear cups that do not allow audio to pass through, ensuring you can enjoy sound insulation. This headphone feature is nice to block the ambient noise, but the downside is that your ears may become sweaty.

That’s because it’s not easy to dissipate heat and moisture, as there are no winds. This is not an issue with all models, as it depends on how the design was implemented. Closed-back headphones are more common with average day users and are more affordable than Open-Back Headphones.

This style sweeps the noise around you to keep the music free from any external interference, regardless of the environment, while at the same time creating an isolated audio experience so that you can only hear the sounds you want to hear. This makes closed-back headphones great for those looking to hear every minute detail of the music they’re listening to.

On-Ear Headphones

No ear cups are available for the on-ear headphones, instead, it is a flat surface that is positioned next to the ears. In such a product design, noise isolation is non-existent and the sound quality is quite good. In the bass section, however, they struggle, which could ruin the experience for you. They’re smaller and lighter.

These are special headphones, also called supra-aural, which are designed to cover the whole ears. They’re just a bit larger than the regular earbuds. When relative to the over-the-ear counterparts, they are smaller and more compact. In easy words, these headphones fit over your head and sit firmly over your ears.

These are also lighter than the over-the-ear type, putting less pressure on the top band on your head. On-ear models can vary greatly in price, but if you get one of the higher quality models, they can offer the sound quality and comfort in the categories you care most about. In this category, there are many different models each offering their own unique attributes.

Over-Ear Headphones

This is the standard earcup style of the headphone. Ideally, the earcups will have a large size to fit in your whole ear. Otherwise, the pressure is exerted on the ear, and over time this can be frustrating. In terms of quality, the over-ear design is the best audio experience you can get.

These headphones are exceptionally large compared to all of the different types. Circus-aural headphones are also called over-ear headphones. This means they’re going over and around the head so they’re closely enclosed. They have some great bass responses with this arrangement in mind. This doesn’t mean they have the biggest sound quality as well.

When you want to listen to music for an extended period of time, this is the headphone to go for. We have a major downside in that we predispose the ears to sweat and some discomforts if they are made up of inadequate padding. These are more expensive because of their better shape and design and may even need certain amplifiers to work well.

In-Ear Headphones

Canal phones or in-ear monitors (IEMs) are also called in-ear headphones. They are so-called because their tips are placed into or around the ears rather than over. They directly channel sounds into the eardrums and are quite successful as such. Such types of earphones are small in size and are therefore suitable for on-the-go use.

Note that in-ear headphones are also referred to as earphones. 

Because of the ease of use, if you are not a home, semi-poor professional studio artist or engineer, this is one of the fastest-growing types in the headphone industry. Since technology enables better sound quality from smaller devices, these models have been able to compete with the chunkier on-ear and over-ear models easily improved.

Open-Back Headphones

Open-back headphones, while listening, make ambient noise. The broad soundstage is the big advantage of open-back headphones. You can describe this audio experience as having the sensation of the audio coming from all around you and at a distance. It is more of an authentic form of recording, but there is no isolation of noise.

The exact opposite of the closed-back equivalent is the open-back headphones. The backrests are open in these headphones, as there are no walls between the drivers and the outside world. In fact, in some models, you can see straight between the outside and the inside of the headphones.

Open-back headphones have a wider soundstage, i.e. they basically allow you to listen simultaneously to the music and ambient sounds. These are also less voluminous and at the same time easy to handle. Nevertheless, their sound quality is poor. This is because the sound of the real world is mixed with the audio output.

Noise Cancelling Headphones

The noise-canceling headphones significantly reduce the amount of ambient noise that is heard while the headphones are being used. Outside the ear cups have padding that prevents incoming noise, but it does not reduce very loud noise.

To do this, they use many soundproofing and filtering methods for unwanted noises. The end result is sounds that are deeply immersive and clear. This headphone category has become popular for air travel as it blocks other passengers ‘ surrounding noises and the aircraft engine’s high frequencies. However, for many uses outside of that, this style can also be desirable.

Although these headphones are great, they may allow you to lose touch with reality and even get involved in accidents. That’s because, in your environment, they shut you out of the goings-on. While on the go, you want to avoid them.

Wireless Headphones

First of all, when we say wireless headphones, we don’t just mean Bluetooth. There are other types of wireless headphones as well – Infrared and Radio Frequency(RF) to be precise. However, the Bluetooth version is the one that sells like hotcakes.

These are special types of headphones that use Bluetooth connectivity rather than cables to extract signals from the source. This wireless nature reduces clutter and decreases the probability of tripping or falling during use. Similar to their wired equivalent, they are also more convenient to use on the whole.

Bluetooth-based headphones have a small computer chip inside that helps you to suit the platform from which you play music. If you are connected to headphones through Bluetooth, you can listen to the same sound as you would with standard headphone styles while preventing cord trouble.

Wired Headphones

The benefit of wired headphones is that there is no need to charge a battery and the quality of the audio could be higher because there is no interference of wireless signal. The wired design is the standard headphone type and this style is used by many manufacturers to produce some of the world’s best audio devices.

While buying wired headphones, you will need to remember the wire thickness. You will buy at lengths of 1.8 m and 3 m, but there are also longer lengths. If you want to watch a film from the other end of a house, you will need a long cable.

The drawback of wired headphones is the reduction of freedom of movement. You are limited by the wire’s length. The wire is a hassle when you’re searching for a portable solution, as you have to take it with you–generally covering it under your clothing.

Factors to Note While Selecting Headphones

Even if you are clear about the different types of headphones, there are still many other factors that you should take note of while purchasing. Other than the fit (which is obvious), here are some other factors to consider.

  • Frequency response – This is given in Hz and refers to the frequency range that can be reproduced with great precision. Human hearing is limited to 20-20KHz and you will find that this meaning is being used in most headphone product descriptions.
  • Stereo vs Mono – There are two separate audio channels for the stereo headphones and earphones, which means the listening quality will be different in both ears. It facilitates a more reliable output of audio and leads to an experience of higher quality.
  • Water Resistance – A growing number of earbud models come with waterproof certification, which can be a very useful feature depending on what you are going to use the device for. The waterproof feature allows for outdoor use without thinking about the elements for travelers and joggers.
  • Microphone – It’s nice to have a microphone, no matter what type of headphones you buy. We allow calls to be made in a manner that is hands-free–a practical function you never know when it can come in handy.


This guide on how to buy headphones should provide you with sufficient information to make a choice that suits your needs. As you’ve seen, there’s a lot to think about as the headphone technology has come a long way in recent years.

The final decision, as with any purchase, will be based on trying to get the most value for your budget. We hope you will have a clear idea of what to purchase by paying attention to this buying guide’s advice.

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