Should I Buy Over-Ear or In Ear Headphones?

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Should I Buy Over-Ear or In Ear Headphones?

There are two main categories of headphones: over-ear and in-ear. Within each category, there are different models available that offer a range of features. Choosing between over-ear and in-ear headphones depends on a number of factors such as sound quality, the setting that the headphones are to be used in, and whether the headphones need to be easily transportable. For those for whom space is important, a compact pair of in-ear headphones may be the most appropriate option. For maximum comfort, over-ear headphones may be more appropriate, especially if they are worn for long periods, but they tend to be more bulky. If budget is an issue, then inexpensive in-ear headphones are an option, as are used over-ear headphones.

When deciding whether to buy over-ear or in-ear headphones, it is useful to understand the two categories and the variety of types that belong to each group. Over-ear and in-ear headphones can be brought from electronics shops, department stores, and large supermarkets. All types of headphones, both over-ear and in-ear models, can be found on eBay in both new and used conditions.

Types of Over-Ear Headphones

Over-ear headphones sit on or over the ear. They are usually connected to each other by a rigid headband, made of plastic or acrylic that is worn over the top of the head. Over-ear headphones are favoured by those who find in-ear headphones uncomfortable or unable to deliver the features and quality of sound that they require. While over-ear headphones are larger than in-ear headphones, some smaller, lightweight models are available to improve their portability.

Over-Ear Noise Cancelling Headphones

Over-ear noise cancelling headphones have a switch that can be activated to electronically block incoming ambient noise from the external surroundings. The active electronics filter the ambient noise and prevent it from reaching the listener. While this function is very useful for blocking low frequency sounds and droning noises, these headphones do not cope well with high frequency or sudden sharp sounds. Over-ear noise cancelling headphones are effective in blocking out the ambient noise from a vehicle engine, such as a train, car, or aeroplane.

Over-Ear Closed Back Headphones

Over-ear closed back headphones create an isolated audio environment. Closed back headphones have an acoustic seal around the rim of the ear cup. The back of the cup lacks any venting, and so is soundproof. The solid cup combined with the acoustic soundproofed seal prevents any external noise from penetrating the headphones, and also prevents internal audio from escaping. Over-ear closed back headphones block noise across all frequencies, so are very popular. They are ideal for a wide range of purposes for anyone who wants to create an isolated audio environment, including students needing to concentrate on an audio lecture without distraction, commuters wishing to block the noise of the train, and DJs listening to the quality of their next track in a noisy club.

Although over-ear closed back headphones are very effective isolators, some models cause the audio to reverberate back into the ear of the listener, creating resonance, distortion, and a boxy audio quality. More expensive models use materials that combat the resonant effect to a degree, but audiophiles prefer models that keep the audio as close to the original performance as possible.

Over-Ear Open Back Headphones

Over-ear open back headphones have ear cups similar in shape and appearance to closed back headphones. However, instead of a solid soundproof cup, open back headphones have a vented back that is commonly made from coated metal mesh. Open back headphones also lack the acoustic padding that lines the rim of the ear cup of closed back models. This allows external sounds to penetrate, creating a distraction for the listener. Some of the audio from the attached device also escapes into the surrounding environment, causing an annoyance and distraction to other people. Their inability to fully isolate a listener and their audio, means that over-ear open back headphones are not best suited for use in noisy environments or where other people may be annoyed by the sound emanating from the headphones. However, the audio quality of open back headphones is far superior to closed back headphones, because the sound does not resonate or distort as it passes cleanly through the vents.

Types of In-Ear Headphones

In-ear headphones sit inside the ear, either at the entrance to the ear canal or in the ear canal. They are small, lightweight, and compact. However, they can cause discomfort when used for long periods of time. Their positioning and small size makes them suitable for sporting activities, such as jogging or aerobics. In-ear headphones tend to be considerably less expensive than over-ear headphones, and because they are so compact, they are easy to slip into a pocket or pouch.

In-Ear Earbud Headphones

In-ear earbud headphones sit loosely just at the entrance to the ear canal. These inexpensive in-ear headphones are very popular and are the most common type of headphones that are provided with new portable audio devices, such as iPods or MP3 players. The shape of in-ear earbuds means that they can prove to be very uncomfortable when worn for long periods of time. The loose fit means that some listeners find that the earbuds pop out frequently. Also, the loose fit does not provide a seal, so the audio from the attached device leaks into the surrounding environment easily and ambient noise seeps in. However, even inexpensive in-ear earbud models are usually very durable.

In-Ear Sound Isolating Headphones

In-ear sound isolating headphones provide a completely isolated audio environment. Like earbuds, these headphones are lightweight and compact and usually significantly less expensive than over-ear headphones. In-ear sound isolating headphones slot into the ear and have a flexible rubber bud on the end that seals the ear canal. Unlike earbuds, in-ear isolating headphones offer a very secure fit. The seal prevents any ambient noise from entering the ear, creating a truly acoustically soundproofed seal. This seal also works to prevent audio from the attached device escaping into the environment.

In locations and situations where it is important to have focused concentration, or when listeners cannot disturb other people in the immediate vicinity, in-ear sound isolating headphones are the perfect solution. However, it should be noted that they can pose significant danger if used in the wrong environment. When participating in sporting activities, such as jogging, or when a listener needs to be aware of their surroundings for their own safety and the safety of others, in-ear sound isolating earphones are not the best choice because of the complete isolation they provide.

Comparison of Over-Ear and In-Ear Headphones

The table below compares the advantages and disadvantages of the types of over-ear and in-ear headphones. This allows buyers to weigh up the benefits and drawbacks quickly and easily, enabling them to decide whether to purchase over-ear or in-ear headphones, and which type is best suited to their requirements.

Type of Headphones



Over-ear noise cancelling

Block low frequency sounds

Block constant droning sounds


Do not block sudden sounds

Over-ear closed back

Sound isolating

Do not allow sound to enter or escape

Create a seal around the ear


Create resonance and distortion

Large and bulky

Over-ear open back

Excellent sound quality

Moderately priced

Do not create a seal

Do not isolate the listener

Allow sounds to escape and penetrate

In-ear earbud





Poor sound quality

Allow sound to escape and penetrate

Do not provide sound isolation

Cause discomfort when worn for long periods

Slip out of ear easily

In-ear sound isolating





Create total audio isolation

No sounds penetrate or escape

Very effective acoustic seal

Can pose danger in some situations

The table above lists the advantages and disadvantages of each type of over-ear and in-ear headphones. Buyers can use the table to select the type that best meets their requirements and provides all of the features they desire.

Buying Over-Ear or In-Ear Headphones on eBay

Buyers can find a wide choice of over-ear and in-ear headphones on eBay. eBay provides buyers with a range of simple, but useful tools to make their search quick and easy. A simple search from the eBay homepage,, such as "over-ear headphones&" or "in-ear headphones", delivers thousands of results, but these can be narrowed down by entering more specific information, choosing the most appropriate category, or setting search parameters, such as price or condition.

Once the required pair of over-ear or in-ear headphones are identified, buyers should read the item description and check the feedback score of the prospective seller to ensure that they purchase from someone who has a positive eBay reputation. Feedback is information left by previous buyers regarding the quality of the product, and the professionalism and conduct of the seller. Those with the highest percentage of positive feedback are reliable and have a record for providing quality products and customer service.


Deciding on whether to buy over-ear or in-ear headphones is easy when buyers have an understanding of their options, and the advantages and disadvantages of each type. Over-ear headphones cover the ear and are available in three different types: noise cancelling, closed back, and open back. Over-ear noise cancelling headphones use active electronics to filter out low frequency and droning ambient noise. Over-ear closed back headphones use acoustic insulation to create a soundproof seal. Over-ear open back headphones have no seal, but offer good audio quality. In-ear headphones are available as earbuds and sound isolating models. In-ear earbuds are inexpensive, but have no sound isolating properties. In-ear sound isolating headphones create a soundproof seal in the ear to prevent noise from entering or escaping. All models of over-ear and in-ear headphones can be found on eBay at very competitive prices in both new and used condition, catering for every taste and budget.

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