A Complete Guide to the Various Kinds of Headphones

Learn about types of earbuds and headsets

A woman listening to red over the ear headphones drinking coffee/tea

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With a multitude of headphones configurations, it can get pretty confusing when you're trying to decide which kind you want to buy. Learn about the different designs of headphones (and earphones and earbuds) to determine what you might find most appealing.

Over-Ear Headphones

Over-ear headphones (also called around the ear) feature ear cups, or cushions, that surround your entire ear. The cushions are often made of foam or memory foam and come covered in a variety of materials, including leather or suede.

One of the most popular models of over-ear headphones people buy is noise-canceling headphones, which can feature two types of technology: passive and active.

Passive noise-canceling refers to the sound that is eliminated by the ear cups themselves. A certain level of sound can be reduced (or muffled) by the ear cups surrounding your ears and blocking out outside noise.

Active noise canceling, simply speaking, refers to a sound emitted by the headphones that are meant to block out ambient noise. Active noise-canceling technology usually runs on a battery, and some models will continue to work as regular headphones should this battery die. (However, some headphones will not work at all if the battery for the active noise-canceling dies, so you should find this out before you take that 12-hour flight to Hawaii.)

Other types of over-ear headphones include gaming headsets and DJ headphones, which usually have one (or both) ear cups able to swivel away from the headband. If you're looking to communicate with others during gameplay, it is worth purchasing a special headset.

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

On-ear headphones are slightly smaller than over-ear headphones, and their ear cushions are designed to rest directly on the ear. They are often less expensive than their over-ear counterparts, and they usually weigh a bit less.

Earphones and Earbuds

This category can get a little tricky with its naming because different companies call in-ear headphones (or earphones) different things.

In general, earphones and in-ear headphones enter the ear canal. They feature removable tips or flanges that are designed to isolate outside noise. These tips come in several different materials, including silicone, rubber and memory foam.

If you are buying earbuds it's important to remember that they do not usually feature removable cushions and are designed to rest on the outer part of the ear canal. (The most commonly found earbuds are the little white ones included with Apple iPods and iPhones.)

Earphones and earbuds are often used in athletic settings, and as a result, they can be found in different configurations. Styles include those with ear clips that wrap around the outside of part of the ear or the entire ear or those with bands that are worn around the neck.

If you are considering earphones for athletic use, also take a look at cord management systems to prevent getting tangled up while exercising.

Wireless Headphones

Buying wireless headphones or earphones can be a great purchase because you're trading in the wires for different types of technologies, such as infrared (IR), radio frequency (RF), Bluetooth, or Kleer. Each technology has a different range and a different amount of sound degradation that occurs.

In-Line Microphone and Controls

Many headphones, especially earphones, now come with an in-line microphone and/or controls to control a portable music player or take calls on a smartphone. However, be sure that your device is supported by the headphones you buy. Some headphones will only support iPhones, for example, which means that the volume controls won't work if you plug them into your Android.