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On-ear vs Over-ear Headphones vs In-ear earbuds: Full Guide

On ear vs Over ear Headphones vs In ear earbuds

Selecting between on-ear or over-ear headphones or in-ear earbuds always leads to a debate of which is better among the three. But the most important aspect one should consider is the safety of each on the ears.

Check our comprehensive review of the best behind the back headphones if they are your taste.

At the same time, people with small heads may consider either in-ear or on-ear. We did a good guide about headphones for small heads that you can have a look at. Let’s delve into this issue.

In-ear vs On-ear vs Over-ear Headphones

For comfort, protecting ears and health, over-ear headphones are better and safer than on-ear ones and much better than in-ear earbuds. Over-ear headphones are preferred because their pads rest outside the ear and do not direct the sound directly into the canal.

While the three are all good, over-ear headphones are regarded to be safer and they expose lesser risks to the ear.

Most people consider this debate to be focused on sound quality merits; however, there is a more important issue that needs addressing, the health-related issue regarding hearing loss.

Difference between In-ear, On-ear, and Over-ear Headphones

Just as their names suggest, the basic difference between the three types of headsets is where they are placed on your ear.

The Difference between In-ear vs On-ear vs Over-ear Headphones

In-ear earphones

In-ear earphones or earbuds are inserted inside the ear so as to direct the sound directly into the ear auditory canal.

on-ear headphones

On the other hand, on-ear headphones sit just over your ear the auricle part of your ear. They just sit on the ear to direct the sound to the pinna and the auditory canal.

Over-ear headphones

As the name suggests, over-ear headphones sit over the ear as the name suggests and cover the whole ear.

Therefore, they tend to be more comfortable, especially for those who wear them for long. Therefore, they are good if you work as a DJ in a studio.

The question that most of us ask ourselves is, which of the three options is safer to use or rather, which is likely to damage your ears?

A short answer is that either is good. Though headphones might also harm your ears, earbuds are most likely to harm your ears, and however, some background info will explain the answer further.

Comparing earphones and Headphones; On-ear or Over-ear

To understand the differences between the three types of headsets, we will compare them through a number of lenses. This way, we will know which is better for each of the following categories;

1. Design and weight

Earphones win this battle of weight. irrespective of the design, they are very portable since they are significantly small. You can easily roll them and put them in your pocket.

Many people have confirmed that they use headsets or earbuds while exercising because they are light and easy to carry.

On-ear and over-ear headphones are much bulkier and you have to wear them on top of your ears. They are a more popular option because they can be used in more ways.

Because they are bigger they also have more features. You can find them in different designs, shapes, sizes, and colors. You can also find them in different sizes to fit on big ears and also adjustable.

Check our guide on headphones for big ears for choices on that

Consequently, you need to know the ideal option when it comes to your ears’ health.

You can have more than one pair, each for different purposes depending on what I am doing and what I want to listen to. I even go to the gym with them despite the fact they are bulkier than the in-ear option.

In my experience, I especially like the wireless ones which I can connect with my phone without having to hold the phone in my hands.

2. Safety: In-Ear vs on-ear and Over-Ear?

The type and quality of your headphones can also assist in protecting your ears in addition to watching the duration of listening as well as the volume.

Volume plays the biggest role in the safety of your headphones; however, selecting a good pair of headphones will make a difference.

Which is safer; In-Ear vs Over-Ear Headphones

A cheap pair of in-ear headphones may be good on the go, but its poor sound quality will compel you to put up the volume to levels that are not safe for you.

Experts recommend over-ear headphones since they give a better quality of sound and are good at hindering external noise, hence: recommending them as the safer option.

3. Protecting Ears: earbuds or Headphones

Both the in-ear and over-ear headphones can easily cause problems to your ears especially if you do not use them properly. If you raise the volumes to certain levels you will be putting your ears at risk.

Most of the headsets, whether in-ear, on-ear, or over-ear, are designed to produce volumes of up to 120 decibels.

According to specialists, you should not raise the volume beyond 85 decibels which is about seventy percent of the total volume. It does not matter where you are or the noises that surround you.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) regulations state that the maximum volume can damage your ears within just an hour and fifteen minutes irrespective of whether you are using in-ear or out ear headphones.

Using both types of headphones for prolonged periods also puts the health of your ears at risk. Your ears are designed in a way that they need to relax after a certain time.

Therefore, when you use the headphones for long hours you shall be denying the ears an opportunity to relax.

whether with on-ear, in-ear or over-ear, I use mine for just sixty minutes and then I let the ears relax for about ten to twenty minutes before resuming.

4. Risk of damaging the ears: On or Over

As we determined in the article on the safe use of headphones, the risk of ear damage is all about how you use your headphones. If misused, in-ear headphones can damage ears since they have to be inserted into your ears.

In addition, they put the ears at a higher risk of infections if they are dirty or infected with bacteria.

At the same time, the sound coming from them goes directly to your ears. If you insert them deep into your ears they will further increase the risks because the ear canal is delicate and it is not meant to be touched by tough objects regularly.

But the risk of using the in-ear headphones can be significantly reduced depending on the model you use. There are some which do not require being inserted deeply into the ears.

There are also others which are made using superior materials. If you choose the right ones your ears shall be safer.

5. On-ear vs Over-ear Headphones Comfort

When using either the in-ear or over-ear headphones you should always be keen to ensure your ears do not have any form of discomfort.

If you feel an itch or you have any form of pain on the ears you should immediately see a professional doctor.

This might be something related to the headphones or can be something totally different.

You need to especially be vigilant when kids are using headphones because they may think the discomforts are normal. Teach the kids how to enhance safety while using headphones.

In-ear vs Over-ear headphones Health

The three, in in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear headphones can be very useful and enjoyable. However, it is good to consider your ear health when using them.

It does not matter whether you are a music lover, a gamer or you are using them when in noisy places to keep the noise out.

The number of people suffering from hearing loss has been rising according to a WHO report. A significant percentage of this number is attributed to using headphones in the wrong ways.

You can know the safety measures when using headphones safely by reading the article. This includes using two popular kinds of headphones.

In general, headphones do not have a higher risk of damaging your ears compared to the in-ear earphones. However, if misused, they can damage your ears. This is because the volume level is high.

Someone wearing over-ear headphones

As a result, the impact on the ears is just as damaging as any other overused music headset.

All in all, over-ear headphones are considerably safer because they do not require being put inside the ear.

You just need to wear them in the right manner and make sure that you follow all safety attributes.

There are even some designs that have noise cancelling options to better protect your ears.

Well, none is expressly safe when misused. However, over-ear are largely safe when used well. You should not be scared of using your headphones whether they are in-ear or over-ear.

Just because there are chances of your ears getting damaged does not mean that you should not enjoy your music.

I have used mine for years and I have never experienced any problem. The only thing to ensure is that I use them in a safe way at all times.

From my experience, it is good to also ensure that while buying new ones I check the safety attributes.

There is also no radiation produced by either of the two options. You shall enjoy your music, make calls and receive calls without worrying about the effects of radiation.

The majority of companies that make different types of headphones are also working hard to make sure that there are proper safety features.

The improvements will mean safer headphones in the future. A good example is Sony upgrading its noise cancellation feature on its new earbuds. So, do not be afraid of getting a set of in-ear or over-ear headphones at any time.

Pros and Cons of earphones, over-ear or on-ear headphones

Advantages of Over-ear Headphones

They are also known as “around-ear” or “full size” headphones; they have cushions that enclose the ear and aid in blocking out the background noise. You can listen to lower volumes with good sound.

A person wearing over-ear headphones. It seems comfortable
  • They are comfortable because they position and fit on your entire ears and are soft padded.
  • This allows for long hours of listening.
  • The large ear cups allow for larger drivers because of the more spacious casings.
  • Large drivers produce more accurate audio.
  • These headphones have low-end tones that blend with crisp trebles and smooth mids.
  • Over-ear headphones are usually good at isolating the sounds of various instruments. This helps you know what needs to be fixed after listening to demos.
  • Most over-ear headphones are Bluetooth enabled and come with audio cables to provide you with non-stop music experience.
  • Instead of directing sound inside the ear canal, they diffuse it around your ear
  • Good sound quality
  • Allow you to listen to lower volumes by blocking out the background noise.

The Disadvantages of Over-Ear

  • Bulky and large
  • Can be costly

Advantages of On-ear Headphones

  • On-ear headphones usually have a compact design that makes them less bulky.
  • It is, therefore, easy to carry them around.
  • They are light on your head making them wearable for long hours.
  • These headphones fit well on your head and won’t fall off even if the going gets bumpy.
  • You can hear what is going on around you when using on-ear headphones.

It is not usually advisable to completely tune-out your surrounding. Many sets of on-ear headphones have comfortable cushy padding and provide a more accurate sound compared to other types of headphones.

Advantages and Disadvantages of In-Ear earphones

In-ear earphones are designed in a way that you shall have to insert them into your ear canals. You can also find them being referred to as earbuds.

Earbuds have become very popular due to their strong sound and their small size. Apart from them being used the most common, they can also be very harmful due to their closeness to the eardrum.

wearing in ear earphones and earbuds. They may not feel comfortable


  • Lightweight and small
  • Affordable


  • They produce 9 decibels of higher sounds through placing sound in proximity to the eardrum.
  • Background noise is filtered less, compelling listeners to increase the volume
  • Less sanitary

How To Clean In-Ear, On-ear, and Over-Ear Headphones

Noise is not the only risk to your ear health; dirty in-ear and over-ear headphones can increase the probability of ear infection.

They pick up dust, sweat grimmer, and dirt. This can cause multiplication of bacteria inside the ear.

It is important to keep your headphones sanitized and clean. Outlined below are some tips on how to clean your in-ear and over-ear headphones safely.

How to Clean in-Ear Headphones

  • Using a dry, soft toothbrush, remove earwax confined in the mesh of the earbud or any clogged dirt.
  • Rub  hand sanitizer or alcohol on a cotton  swab and wipe the wire mesh and let it to air dry
  • If your in-ear headphones have ear tips of silicone, remove them and soak them in soapy water and wait for five minutes, then allow them to air dry

How to Clean On-ear and Over-ear Headphones

  • Dampen a cloth by rubbing hand sanitizer or alcohol and gently wipe the outer area of the pads, then let them dry.
  • Over-ear headphones made of specific materials such as leather or wood require special care.

Hygiene Tips for In-ear and Over-ear Headphones

  • Regularly clean your in-ear headphones, especially if you put them on during exercise
  • Avoid sharing headphones
  • Store your in-ear and over-ear headphones in a box to shield them from debris and dirt.

To protect your hearing, specialists recommend over-ear headphones that sit on your ears like earmuffs, rather than in-ear headphones that sit inside your ear canal.

Comparing Over-ear and On-ear headphones vs earbuds for various functions

FunctionIn-earOn-earOver-earWhich is the best
Work OutEarbuds stick on your ears easy and are easily portable.Good for music while working out but are uncomfortable.Covers all noises but falls off easily.In-ear
RunningComfortable and stick well on the ear.Best for long-distance runs due to battery usage but are uncomfortable.Fall off easily when running.In-ear
Noise CancellingReject noise automatically. Not effective compared to noise isolation feature.Only selective models offer the noise cancellation feature.Covers all surrounding noise effectively.Over-ear
GamingComfortable but provide you with less bass.Good sound but ae uncomfortable when used for long.Great sound, comfortable on years and quality microphone featuresOver-ear.
For KidsPreferred by kids as they grow because they are easy to carry aroundMay easily damage the ears of a growing kid.Best fit for kids. They are fun and comfortableOver-ear for young kids and in-ear as they grow.
For SeniorsGood but most elders find them nagging.Perfect sound and fit for seniors.Their weight may be a burden to seniors.On-ear.

1. On, Over or In-ear – which is better for Working Out

When it comes to the best headphones for a workout, in-ear headphones are the best. This is after the following considerations.

earbuds vs On ear vs over ear
Fit on the head and ears

In-ear headphones stick into your ear like glue during exercise because of their smaller size and weight. They fit all kinds of exercises.

On-ear and over-ear headphones move easily on the head because of their size and shape. Even those made for sports cannot withstand vigorous exercises like gymnastics.

Comfort when working out

In-ear headphones fit comfortably on all people. You need this to keep the focus on your exercise.

On-ear headphones also fit different ear sizes but their problem is that they create pressure on the earlobes.

Noise isolation while working out

In-ear headphones provide better noise cancelation compared to on-ear headphones. Noise isolation is important during workouts to keep you focused by avoiding any surrounding noise.

Noise cancellation in on-ear and over-ear headphones depend on the open-back design or closed-back design. Over-ear headphones are the best in noise isolation.

Portability as you work out

Most of us have to travel to workout places. This is where in-ear headphones become more suitable. They are the most portable of all headphones.

Their small size makes them easy to pack and travel with. This is when compared to in-ear and over-ear headphones whose size and shape and adjustability influence their portability.

Most in-ear headphones are waterproof hence more suitable during workouts. It adds to the portability advantage in the earphone or headphone debate.

VERDICT: Considering fit, comfort, and portability, in-ear earphones are the best for working out compared to on-ear, over-ear counterparts.

2. Which headphones are better for running – on, in or over ear?

Running is a form of workout. Therefore, in-ear headphones will more suitable than other types.

Comfort is one of the top considerations when it comes to running. You do not want headphones that will be heavy on your head.

In-ear headphones are usually small with a lightweight design making them comfortable for use. Being small makes them stick into your ear without easily coming out.

They come in a wide variety that you chose the one that fits your ear the best. Most of them have ear wings that offer more support. They cannot fall off easily.

If you are a long-distance runner the in-ear headphones will disadvantage you. This is because the smaller the headphone the smaller the battery and the batter life and vice versa.

This means that the battery of in-ear headphones depletes faster compared to the battery of on-ear and over-ear headphones.

Over-ear headphones are more comfortable compared to on-ear headphones. This makes them more suitable for long-distance running.

The on-ear headphones are uncomfortable when used for a long time because they pressure the ear lobes. Any headphone that is sweat resistant can be used when running.

VERDICT: Due to their portability and stickability on the ears, and good sound, in-ear earphones and earbuds are the best for running compared to the bulky on-ear and over-ear headphones.

3. In, On, or Over the ear – which best for noise-canceling?

When it comes to active noise rejection, over-ear headphones are second to none. They ensure that the outside noise is not competing with the tunes or programs you are listening to.

These headphones reject noise from the surrounding by using a pair of external microphones to sample the environment. The noise is then played back out of phase.

You are guaranteed of good music and a great dynamic range when using the over-ear headphones. The noise is effectively removed by the inverted waveform.

Most of the over-ear headphones have a closed-back design. This leads to natural noise rejection.

On-ear headphones have an active noise rejection feature. However, there are those that lack, have a closed-back design to reject natural noise.

The models with active noise cancellation are usually expensive and consume more power. In-ear headphones usually can reject noise without the noise-canceling feature or any other fancy algorithm.

This is not to perfection. Noise is canceled by properly inserting the headphone in the ear canals. You should note that not all earphones block noise by being properly inserted into the ear canal.

VERDICT: Over-ear headphones are better and more effective for noise cancellation because they cover the ears fully and so prevent the surrounding noise effectively.

4. Which best for gaming – In, On, or Over ear?

If you are a gamer, you will need headphones that are of great sound quality. The headphones must be comfortable and have inbuilt microphones for easy communication.

The over-ear headphones are the best for gaming. They offer the best sound quality because of their sizable earbuds. They do not press your ears and feel comfortable on your head.

on ear headphones for gaming

Over-ear headphones are the best when it comes to noise cancellation.

They block the outside noise and make you concentrate more on your game.

Over-ear headphones can’t beat the on-ear headphones when it comes to portability and lightweight.

This is important for you when you need to carry your headphones around. Most gamers are usually in-house.

This makes over-ear headphones the best fit for them. In-ear headphones are comfortable, lightweight, cheap, and noise canceling. This all are preferred features in gaming.

Comparing them with over-hear headphones, they lack quality sound that most gamers need. In-ear headphones have a better fit and improved audio but it can’t beat that of on-ear or over-ear headphones.

You will likely miss a lot on bass notes when using in-ear headphones. Gaming without quality deep bass is not quite enjoyable.

VERDICT: Over-ear headphones and headsets are better for gaming due to their great sound, comfortable on years and quality microphone features compared to their in-ear and on-ear counterparts.

5. Which is Safer for Kids – In-ear, on-ear or over-ear Headphones

Over-ear headphones are the best headphones for kids. They are more comfortable and easy to use. They are more fun and you can control them easily.

On ear vs over ear headphones vs earbuds

Kids’ and tweens’ on-ear headphones, though light compared to over-head may damage the young growing ears of the kid.

As the kids grow they can switch to in-ear headphones. They are easy to use when moving around. They have great sound quality too.

Before purchasing any type of headphones for kids, you must consider buying headphones with an output limiter that controls decibels. This is to protect the small ears and the small ear canals of the growing kids.

VERDICT: Over-ear headphones are ideally good and safe for young kids but as they grow, they tend to like in-ear earbuds. However, over-ear takes it.

5. Which is safer for Seniors – Earbuds or Headphones

On-ear headphones are the best headphones for seniors. Most seniors do not listen to music for long. They need headphones that will give them a clear and close sound when listening to programs and music.

They need comfortable headphones that are lightweight for a more enjoyable listening experience. These needs make the on-ear headphones the best fit for seniors.

In-ear headphones are lightweight but they are less comfortable for the elderly compared to on-hear headphones.

The over-ear headphones may be a burden to seniors because of their weight.

Seniors do not need the extra base provided by the over-ear headphones or the sharp sound produced by the in-ear headphones making the on-ear headphones their most suitable headphones.

VERDICT: Due to their comfort and fit on the ears, on-ear headphones are better and safer for senior citizens and the elderly.

Final Thoughts

Personally, I have used both the in-ear and over-ear headphones, despite the health debate.

When jogging or running I prefer the in-ear option because they do not add extra weight. Most people use headsets or earbuds while exercising because they are light.

Whether I am using in-ear, on-ear, or over-ear headphones, I prefer those that I can carry easily in my pocket. But when playing games or in need of hearing clear bass I use the over-ear option.

The health of your ears shall not be compromised as long as you use the two options well. It is also better to spend more and get the ones with advanced features. This shall give you an opportunity to enjoy using different modern features.

However, if health is your only concern you should go for the over-ear option because as we have seen they are healthier. However, consider your head size when choosing headphones.

Check why headphones are generally preferred over earphones

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