Headphones Explained: What Different Kinds Can You Buy?

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Shopping for new heaphones isn't simple — there are thousands of different options out there, and not all of us are completely sure what we're after.

Consider this your jumping off point: we're going to break down the most common types on the market, and what they're best suited for.

This guide is presented by Audio-Technica and the ATH-DSR7BT Bluetooth headphones — featuring ‘Pure Digital Drive’, designed to give you an unrivaled wireless audio experience.

It's worth keeping in mind that there are always exceptions to the rule. You can buy earbuds with hardcore sound quality and noise cancellation, as well as cheap over-ear headphones.

These are some general guidelines to keep in mind, though, for anyone who is new to the headphone buying game. And for anyone wanting to know more about wireless headphones, we'll be covering them in more detail in a separate post!

Over-Ear

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Also referred to as 'around-ear' and technically known as 'circumaural' headphones, these headphones are most distinguishable the large, cushioned cups that surround your ears. In general, over-ear headphones provide the best sound quality. Even if a particular model doesn't feature noise cancellation, it will still most likely do a decent job at offering passive noise reduction.

However, they also tend to be the most expensive and cumbersome. You can't just slide them into your back pocket.

Over-ear headphones are available in two main variants: closed, which have a sealed earcup that blocks ambient noise and isolates your listening from the outside world, and open, which are ... open.

Open headphones generally have more impressive and expansive sound than their closed counterparts, but you'll be hearing everything around you all the while. You'll also get more of an airy experience, live listening to live music. Closed, on the other hand, offer more of a studio-recording experience.

  • What they're good for: ambient noise rejection, sound quality, gaming.
  • Some fancier options: noise cancelling, volume limiting (great for kids), microphones (great for gamers), surround sound, wireless Bluetooth.

On-Ear

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These look really similar to over-ear headphones, except they're smaller. The main difference is that the padded cushions sit right on the ears, rather than enveloping them.

For the most part you can get decent sound quality with on-ear, though you will still notice outside sounds. On-ear, or 'supra-aural', headphones are also both available in closed- and open-backed variants, but it's safe to say that even closed on-ear headphones will let in some ambient noise.

These models will generally be more expensive than earbuds, but are still a rung down from over-ears. These are a good middle ground when it comes to balancing price, sound quality and portability. If you aren't hardcore about the sound, but still want a bit of aural privacy at a cheaper price point, they might be a good option for you.

  • What they're good for: some ambient noise rejection, decent sound quality (high in some cases), comfort.
  • Some fancier options: noise cancelling, wireless Bluetooth, clip-ons.

In-Ear

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There are two main headphone types that fall into this category:

In-Ear Monitors (IEMs): As the name suggests, these fit right in your ear. Usually made from rubber or foam, they're designed to be secure, making them a popular choice for exercising. In-ear headphones are also very good at blocking outside noise and can produce extremely high quality sound — but they're very specialised and expensive in this case.

Earbuds: What you're most likely to see on the street — although a lot more over ear phones are definitely cropping up. Earbuds find their place on the ridge of your ear and are one of the most comfortable options, in my opinion. In general they're very affordable and convenient, but you will get less sound quality and isolation.

In general, you're not going to get anywhere near the sound quality for in-ear headphones are you are for over-ear. There are exceptions to this rule, but you'll need to be willing to shell out for them. However, what you lose is quality you gain in lower price points and portability.

With that in mind, they're great for working out (especially IEMs), for everyday use and even taking on trips. Although you may like to have a noise cancelling option for planes in particular, I always carry backup earbuds just in case — especially since they're small. Plus, I find them more comfortable for drifting off.

  • What they're good for: exercise, comfort (some IEMs can be very comfy), ultra-portability
  • Some fancier options: biometrics (heart-rate monitoring), bone conduction (listening via the bone vibrations in your face), noise-cancelling.

So that's the entry-level breakdown of the main types of headphones on the market. Happy hunting!

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