In-ear vs On-ear vs Over-ear Headphones: Ultimate Guide

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

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.

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

Difference between In-ear vs On-ear vs 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 or earbuds are inserted inside the ear so as to direct the sound directly into the ear auditory canal.

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 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.

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. 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.

1. Design and weight

However, 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.

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: In-ear vs on-ear and Over-ear 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

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

They do not have a higher risk of damaging your ears compared to the in-ear earphones. However, if misused, they can damage your ears.

Someone wearing over-ear headphones

This is because the volume level is high.

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.

So, which is safer, in-ear or over-ear headphones?

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 over-ear, on-ear, and in-ear headphones

On-ear and 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


  • 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.


  • Bulky and large
  • Can be costly

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 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 the three types in terms of ear-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.

Why the Health of your Ears is important

Statistics from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) show that almost 20% of both children and adults suffer from hearing loss at one stage of their lives.

In the current days, there are a lot of things which can result in this issue. This makes us be concerned by the debate of in-ear vs over-ear headphones health to know is better.

In almost every place you go, you will find noises from machines, cars, and people shouting among other sources of noise.

Avoid prolonged volume for all types of headphones

If you are exposed to such noises for prolonged periods of time, the health of your ears can easily be negatively affected.

Treatments for hearing-related issues are usually very costly. You may even require surgeries if your ears have issues. People who suffer from permanent hearing loss do not get to hear again in their lives.

So you understand how important it is to protect your hearing at all times. You can better understand this by knowing the best headphones design between in-ear and over-ear headphones in protecting the health of your ears.

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 prefered over earphones

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James Kanfer

James Kanfer is an all-round tech writer with a special focus on creative solutions and ideas on gadgets. I prefer reading about tech and sharing the same.

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