Headphones: In-ear vs. On-ear vs. Over-ear

by Adam Zeis January 03, 2017 0 Comments

Headphones: In-ear vs. On-ear vs. Over-ear

There are thousands upon thousands of headphones out in the world, each with their own unique style, sound and features. One of the constants between all of them is form factor — there are really only three main forms. The majority of headphones come as in-ear (earbuds), on-ear (those that sit on your ear) and over-ear (anything with an ear cup that sits over or covers your entire ear). Yes there are variants in between, but these are the most mainstream of the bunch. Sure. there are differences in wired and wireless as well, but for the purpose of this article, we’re really just concerned with their form factor.

But which is your favorite? Let’s take a quick look at what makes them each stand out.


In-ear headphones are most commonly known as “earbuds”. This style of headphone has thousands of variations, but they all have a “bud” or a plug that goes into your ear. One good example is the Sharkk Flex 20. Some just sit there, other’s have clips or hooks to keep them in place. Earbuds are super common as they are most often included with new smartphones, portable game systems and music players. They are super small and extremely portable, making them easy to pocket or stick in your bag. What they have in portability, they often lack in the fine points of sound however. While they can be just a good as on-ear or over-ear headphones, they are typically more "airy" and lack bass. 

In-ear models are small (obviously) so many times they don’t pack in as much hardware as bigger on-ear or over-ear models. Yes, there are plenty that offer amazing sound in a small package, but more often than not you’ll get better sound from a larger set of cans. 

In-ear versions are also great for anyone who wears glasses, as they don’t typically interfere with any sort of eyewear, where in-ear or on-ear models often get in the way when wearing any type of glasses at the same time.

There’s also the comfort factor that goes along with in-ear headphones. Personally, I don’t find any earbuds comfortable for any length of time. I love how small they are and how they fit, but I’m also not too keen on leaving them in my ears for any length of time — after a while they just don’t feel that great. The upside though is that they offer great noise reduction without having to use any crazy noise-cancelling technology In-ear models go right into your ear canal, so they naturally block out external sounds. 


On-ear models are just that — headphones with ear cups that sit on your ear (check out the Sharkk Aura). These aren’t to be confused with over-ear models, which we’ll get into next. On-ear headphones are most often larger than earbuds, can also cut out background noise and offer better sound than in-ear (this isn’t always the case, but you get the idea).

This style does just what the name says — sits on your ear. They don’t really cover your entire ear, rather they sit on it, giving you a bit more action than an in-ear model and all providing more comfort in most cases. Again, these vary multiple times over, but many prefer on-ear models for their comfort and better sound quality over in-ear variants.

On-ears are also portable, though not as much as just rolling up your favorite earbuds and tossing them in your pocket. Still, you'll get some great sound and comfort from going this route. 


Over-ear models are very much like their in-ear siblings, but the ear cups actually go over the ear, rather than just on it (take a look at the Sharkk Claro). Many prefer this type as they can be much more comfortable than the previous versions, and they also cut out much more noise since the entire ear is covered (of course those with active noise cancellation will do that already). On-ear headphones, my personal favorite, are bigger than in-ear and on-ear, but are still preferred by many.

Due to their bigger size, on-ear headphones can pack in all types of hardware to crank out amazing sound. Where in-ear buds will have to cut down on quality for size, on-ear headphones have plenty of room to pack in all kinds of goodies to make them sound amazing.

While over-ear have long been my favorite style, I do switch up to a pair of in-ear buds at times since I can’t comfortably fit my larger headphones with my computer glasses.

Adam Zeis
Adam Zeis