A Complete Guide to Headphones

Learn about types of earbuds and headsets

With so many styles and configurations for personal audio devices around, deciding which kind to buy can be confusing. Learn about the different types of headphones (and earphones and earbuds) to determine which is right for you.

A collage of headphones, earphones, and earbuds

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Over-Ear Headphones

Over-ear models are probably the first thing you think of when you hear "headphones." They're larger and feature cups or cushions that surround your entire ear. The cushions are usually made of foam and come covered in various materials, including leather or suede.

Noise-canceling is a popular feature for this type of unit. It comes in two types: passive and active. Passive noise-canceling means that the cups themselves block outside noise by both insulating with their filler material and forming a tight seal over your ear. Active noise-canceling means that the headphones put out an extra audio layer to block ambient noise.

Other types of over-ear headphones include gaming headsets, which have a built-in microphone for multiplayer and other chats, and DJ headphones, which usually allow one or both ear cups to swivel away from the headband. However, these kinds offer more specialized uses, which can push the price up.

Advantages to over-ear headphones include immersive sound and comfort, although some people dislike the sets' weight. Drawbacks include a lack of portability. While many models fold up or come with a carrying case, you can't easily tuck them into your pocket, and you may find them awkward when exercising.

On-ear headphones are slightly smaller and weigh less than over-ear headphones; as a result, on-ear headphones are often less expensive than their over-ear counterparts.

Earphones and Earbuds

While over-ear headphones fit over your head, earphones and in-ear headphones sit inside the ear canal. Unlike headphones, earphones also ditch most of the structure in favor of smaller clips that fit over the top of your ear and hold the speakers in place. You might also see earphones with bands that go around your neck.

Earbuds, meanwhile, bypass all of the support, and you place them directly into your ear canal. Most of Apple's AirPods line are earbuds (the high-end AirPods Max are headphones).

Because of their small size and light weight, people usually use earphone's and earbud's inactive or athletic settings. Some models also feature removable tips or flanges to isolate outside noise and increase comfort and fit. These tips come in several different materials, including silicone, rubber, and memory foam.

Wireless vs. Wired Headphones

Headphones, earphones, and earbuds are available in wireless and wired models. Some advantages of wireless units include:

  • More comfort and convenience (due to not having to deal with cables)
  • Option to move around the room or house without taking your playback device with you
  • More compatibility with other hardware since you don't need a headphone jack to use

Wired devices have their own advantages, however. For one, you don't have to charge wired devices. Also, you don't need to worry about wired devices running out of battery while you're away from home. And, while many wireless headphones include wired functionality, the wired functionality only works if you happened to bring the cord with you; it's not connected to the device.

Wired audio sets are also usually cheaper, and the analog connection provides a more consistent sound that isn't subject to the interference that wireless systems connected to Bluetooth, IR, and RF systems might be vulnerable to.

In-Line Microphone and Controls

Many headphones, especially earphones, now come with an in-line microphone or buttons that let you control playback or take calls. However, be sure that your audio player and headphones are compatible. Some headphones only support iPhones, for example, which means that the volume controls won't work if you plug them into your Android.

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