5 Aspects That Determine Comfort and Fit of Headphones

Most of us can probably agree that audio quality is an important factor when it comes to music. As for the audio gear that we wear, owning the "best-sounding headphones" in the world matters little if they’re not comfortable for very long. How much enjoyment can you expect while having to make constant adjustments and/or take frequent breaks in order to prevent the development of sore temples or a throbbing headache?

Unlike in-ear monitors (IEMs, which are slightly different from earbuds), such as the DUNU D2000, the vast majority of on- and over-ear headphones don't have the luxury of swappable tips for custom-fit satisfaction. Choosing headphones with thicker padding may seem like an obvious choice, but there are more aspects that affect overall comfort than plush ear cushions alone. Sure, weight is a consideration, but lighter headphones can be as likely to generate a sore feeling over time as the heavier ones. There's more to consider than headphones with good looks and modern style.

Just like how human faces look similar, yet differ in shapes, sizes, and contours, headphones also exhibit unique variations in details. And that can make all the difference. What works for someone else may not be comfortable for you. So here are the things to keep in mind when you’re searching for those perfect-fitting headphones.

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Ear Cup Extension

The Marshall Major II Bluetooth headphones
The Marshall Major II Bluetooth headphones feature a simple yet effective ear cup extension system. Marshall Headphones

There is no standard as to how big or small a pair of headphones should get, and not all manufacturers choose designs that offer ample ear cup extension. Several problems arise if the cups end up falling too short to properly fit on or over your ears. Cups (on-ear in particular) that can’t reach down far enough end up pressing ears against the head. This constant force on soft tissue areas quickly leads to soreness – doubly so if you wear glasses since the hard stem gets sandwiched in the middle.

Over-ear cups are should have a full, comfortable seal around the ears – also important for the best possible audio quality from the headphones. Over-ear cups that have insufficient vertical reach can leave you with a gap between your skin and the cushioning, right around your earlobes. And if you have a significant gap, you can expect a negative effect on the music reproduction and isolation properties of the headphones. If over-ear cups are too short for your head shape and size, you might feel inclined to squash the headband to force the fit. Not only would this be a very temporary, fussy solution, but you may end up feeling more weight bearing down on the top of your head. 

When choosing headphones, pick ones that can center the cups over your ears without needing to be fully-extended (if possible). The extra slack gives you a little leeway for easy adjustment; you can slide the band forward or back across the top of your head to relocate pressure and/or find the sweet spot based on how you’re positioned (e.g. sitting upright, leaning up against a pillow). Although uncommon, anyone can come across headphones that are still too big, even when the ear cups are set to their shortest. These are best to avoid in most situations ​unless you prefer sitting perfectly still to balance and/or constantly push the headphones back into place.

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Clamping Force

A man wearing the Sony MDR-1000X headphones
The clamping force determines how hard the headphones are felt pressing against the head. Sony

The clamping force is what determines the degree of how headphones will snug up against your face. A visual inspection won’t be of much help here since the only way to truly gauge this aspect is by actually wearing the headphones. The clamping force will show you where the pressure points lie, no matter how nice and thick the ear cushions may be. If it’s too much, you might feel like your head has been placed in a vice – again, this will feel worse for those who wear glasses. If the clamping force is too little, the headphones are likely to slip off and fall with the slightest nod or turn of the head.

Ideally, you want to find headphones that deliver an even amount of clamping force throughout all contact made by the ear pads. If the cushions press harder at the temples (or any soft-tissue) than they do anywhere else, you can expect that area to fatigue faster. Extra consideration should be made for those who wear piercings, which can experience heightened sensitivity to direct pressure. If you can, wear headphones for 30 minutes or more. Anyone can sustain discomfort for brief bursts; you’ll want to see how comfortable you feel after an extended period without any breaks.

Like a new pair of shoes or jeans, some headphones require a little time to be "broken in." Products tend to be stiff right out of the retail packaging, so stretching the headphones can help speed up the process to relax the materials. Find a large ball or box (similar or larger than your own head size) to place the headphones on, and leave it like that for a day or two. Many headphone models allow for permanent manual adjustment of the headband as long as you’re gentle. Proceed carefully, because there are just as many more that are designed with a fixed/rigid construction with little/zero flexing ability whatsoever. You don’t want to accidentally break your gear.

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Ear Cup Rotation

The V-Moda Crossfade Wireless over-ear headphones
The V-Moda Crossfade Wireless headphones feature hinged ear cups. V-Moda

Earcup rotation goes hand-in-hand with the clamping force, with respect to conforming to the natural contours of faces as well as delivering even pressure. Headphones can be found with varying degrees of this kind of lateral and/or vertical movement, so it’s worth paying attention to how the product is designed. Headphones with completely fixed ear cups offer the least amount of wiggle room – if the top/front sides of ear cushions are pressing harder against your head than the bottom/rear, there’s little that can be done. Not all of us have a perfect, box-shaped head to complement that kind of headphone style.

Many headphones feature ear cups that swivel and lie down flat. While this design is ideal for compact travel purposes (although earbuds are usually best at it), it also greatly affects the ease of comfort. Ears and faces tend to taper, so ear cups with a freer range of lateral motion are able to instantly adjust to individuals front to back. Then there are headphones that have ear cups with the ability to rotate vertically – often because of a hinged design. The vertical movement helps to make sure the cushions are pressing snugly and evenly around the tops and bottoms of your ears. Of course, you can find headphones with both lateral and vertical rotation, which are likely to be the most comfortable right from the start.

When shopping for comfortable headphones, look for ones that have ear cups with some freedom of movement – even a little can go a long way. Such designs help sustain a clamping force that won’t focus on specific areas of skin, which lead to discomfort, fatigue, or even soreness. But keep in mind that headphones can have fixed ear cups and still be comfortable to wear. Those with flexible headbands are capable of providing the desired vertical/lateral mobility. Ultimately, you want ear cups that feel natural and cozy as they maintain firm yet even contact against your head.

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Ear Cup Depth and Size

Color options for Master & Dynamic's headphone ear cushions
Master & Dynamic offers removable headphone ear cushions in a variety of colors. Master & Dynamic

Although it applies more to over-ear than on-ear headphones, the depth and size of ear cups can matter. If over-ear cups and cushions are too shallow, then you can expect your ears to touch and/or rub up against the insides. To some, this may be a mere nuisance; to others, a deal-breaker. Typically, headphone manufacturers place only thin fabric over the metal or plastic that houses the drivers – don’t count on having an exotically-plush interior for your sensitive skin.

The size and shape of over-ear cups can be equally important. If you’ve ever worn shoes too small for your feet, then you might understand how uncomfortable it can be to cram ears into tiny spaces. Even soft leather cushions can start to feel abrasive over time through constant rubbing by moving or turning one’s head. Those with extra piercings can be subject to experiencing greater irritation from claustrophobic-sized ear cups, too. If it doesn’t fit well, you’ll know it all too soon.

Most over-ear cups/cushions are found in one of three shapes: circle, oval, and D. Despite ears not being round, circular cups/cushions are the easiest to deal with. They usually offer ample room, and you don’t really need to worry about angling the headphones. Oval and D-shaped cups/cushions tend to be trickier and more particular; they may not always align with the direction of ears. Most headphones present ear cups that maintain a straight line with the headband, even though most humans don’t have ears that sit completely vertical. However, you can find some headphone designs, such as the Phiaton BT460, which take natural anatomy into consideration.

On-ear headphones can be easier to deal with since there’s no real concern over the depth of the cups. You just need to decide if the size of the pads matter or not. Larger on-ear cups/cushions will spread the clamping force over a greater area of skin, but leave less room for adjustment. Smaller on-ear cups/cushions are easier to move around for comfort but tend to focus more directly on those particular spots.

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Cushioning & Headbands

The Audio-Technica ATH-W1000Z headphones
The Audio-Technica ATH-W1000Z headphones sport a separate padded band for comfort. Audio-Technica

Lastly, you’ll want to consider the quantity and quality of cushioning on both the ear cups and the headband. For over-ear headphones, the shape and size of pads on the cups contribute to overall depth and space available for ears. Thin cushions can leave little room to keep ears from touching the hardware, and they will also feel less plush up against the head. Thicker ones are undoubtedly more comfortable, but they could put a bit of a squeeze around your ears. For on-ear headphones, the amount of cushioning is generally directionally-proportional to comfort. Either way, it takes wearing the headphones to really know.

The type of cushioning material makes a significant difference, too. Memory foam is commonly used for its supple-soft springiness and breathability. Just keep in mind that not all memory foam is created equally; they can be made in a variety of densities (not ever a listed specification, either). Then you have the standard everyday foam, which offers less support and tends to squash down flat over time. While this type of foam may be ok to use within headbands (depending on the style), it’s best-avoided for ear cushions. It simply doesn’t hold up.

While most headbands incorporate some type of foam under a polyester fabric, nylon mesh, or leather (real or synthetic), there are headphones that skip it entirely. You might come across headphones that line headbands with a layer of squishy silicone. Other headphones, like the Plantronics BackBeat Sense, incorporate a leather-wrapped elastic and silicone pad below the metal band. The former maintains soft contact with the head, as the latter provides structural support and clamping force.

Actual headband padding tends to be less important with lighter headphones, especially ones designed with comfort in mind. It’s the heavier headphones – typically the larger over-ears – that you’ll want to pay more attention to. There is an unspoken balancing act between clamping force and headband cushioning. More clamping force holding the headphones in place generally means less weight will bear straight down on your head, eliminating the need for thicker cushioning. The reverse of that also holds true. But when in doubt – or trying to decide between a pair of close contenders – go for the one with the thicker foam. Just make sure there is sufficient padding to make full contact with your head, as anything extra is only for looks.

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Shop Around

A woman testing a pair of headphones in a store
Many retail stores offer headphones on display to demo and try out. Fuse/Getty Images

You can stare at photos of headphones all day, but that will only get you so far. You’ll never know how well something fits until you try it on. Plan to wear a pair of headphones for at least 10 uninterrupted minutes. Longer is better if possible because anything can feel ok/tolerable for a few minutes. The comfort of headphones can change over time, so you’ll want to make sure that what you choose isn’t going to end up hurting your ears an hour or so later.

The best way to start your search for comfortable on- or over-ear headphones is by checking out online reviews and recommendations. Most writers will focus on the sound, so it’ll take a little bit of effort to zero in on descriptions about the fit. Create a list of the headphones that interest you the most. If the list seems too long, you can always narrow it down further by considering audio quality, features, price, etc. Once you have enough, it’s time to shop.

Some brick-and-mortar electronics retailers have headphones on display, ready to test out. You can also ask to see any open-box or returned units if the store policy allows it. Try and check record stores, too, since they tend to have headphones set up to listen to albums. Otherwise, you’ll just have to go forward with a headphone purchase in order to try them on. Just know what the return policy is first, and don’t lose the receipt. Many online retailers offer hassle-free return policies, often with a larger selection of products than what you can find locally. Amazon is a great place to start​ since those with Prime accounts are eligible for free shipping and returns.

Another option for testing out headphones is renting. Websites like Lumoid offer a selection of gear available to rent for periods of time. This can work out for those who like to try different things and/or don’t want the guilt of purchasing something new and then returning it in "like-new" condition, again and again. Otherwise, you can always try borrowing from your friends. Ask about the headphone models they own and what they think. Soon enough, you’ll end up owning the comfortable pair you deserve.

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