5 Aspects That Determine Comfort and Fit of Headphones

Don't be stuck with headphones that hurt

Audio quality is an important factor when it comes to music. However, owning the best-sounding headphones in the world matters little if they're not comfortable to wear.

The majority of on-ear and over-ear headphones don't have swappable tips for custom-fit satisfaction. Choosing headphones with thicker padding may seem obvious, but more aspects affect overall comfort than plush ear cushions. Weight is a consideration, but lighter headphones can be as likely to generate a sore feeling over time as heavier ones.

Headphones exhibit unique variations in details that can make a difference in your comfort. 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


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

Over-ear cups should have a full, comfortable seal around the ears, which is also important for the best audio quality from the headphones. Over-ear cups with insufficient vertical reach can leave a gap around your earlobes, between your skin and the cushioning. If the gap is significant, 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 is this a temporary, fussy solution, but you may end up feeling weight bearing down on the top of your head.

When choosing headphones, pick ones that center the cups over your ears without being 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 or find the sweet spot based on how you're positioned—sitting upright or leaning up against a pillow.

Although uncommon, you may come across headphones that are too big, even when the ear cups are set to their shortest. In most situations, these are best to avoid ​unless you prefer sitting perfectly still to balance or constantly push the headphones back into place.

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Clamping Force

A comuter wearing the Sony MDR-1000X headphones


The clamping force determines how snug the headphones fit against your face. A visual inspection won't help since the only way to gauge clamping force is by wearing the headphones.

Testing the clamping force shows you where the pressure points lie, no matter how thick the ear cushions are. If it's too much, you might feel like your head has been placed in a vice, particularly if you wear glasses. If the clamping force is too light, the headphones are likely to slip off and fall with the slightest nod or turn of the head.

Ideally, you want 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 the headphones for 30 minutes or more. Anyone can sustain discomfort for brief bursts, but you'll want to see how comfortable you feel after an extended period without any breaks.

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 speed up the process to relax the materials. Find a large ball or box (similar or larger than your head size) to place the headphones on, and leave it like that for a day or two.

Some headphone models allow for permanent manual adjustment of the headband as long as you're gentle. Proceed carefully because many are designed with rigid construction and little or no flexing ability.

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Ear Cup Rotation

The V-Moda Crossfade Wireless over-ear headphones


Earcup rotation goes hand-in-hand with the clamping force to conform to the face's natural contours and deliver even pressure. Headphones can be found with varying degrees of lateral 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 or front sides of the ear cushions press harder against your head than the bottom or rear sides, there's little you can do.

Some headphones feature ear cups that swivel and lie down flat. While this design is ideal for compact travel purposes (although earbuds are usually best), it also affects the ease of comfort. Ears and faces tend to taper, so ear cups with a freer range of lateral motion can adjust to individuals front to back.

Some headphones have ear cups that rotate vertically—often because of a hinged design. The vertical movement helps the cushions press snugly and evenly around the tops and bottoms of your ears. 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 soreness.

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 and 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


Although the depth and size of ear cups matter more in over-ear than on-ear headphones, they matter. If over-ear cups and cushions are shallow, your ears may touch or rub up against the insides. To some, this may be a nuisance; to others, it's a deal-breaker. Typically, headphone manufacturers place thin fabric over the metal or plastic that houses the drivers. Don't count on having a 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, you understand how uncomfortable it can be to cram ears into tiny spaces. Even soft leather cushions can feel abrasive over time through constant rubbing by moving. Those with piercings can be subject to greater irritation from claustrophobic-sized ear cups, too.

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 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 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 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 and Headbands

The Audio-Technica ATH-W1000Z headphones


Lastly, consider the quantity and quality of cushioning on both the ear cups and the headband. For over-ear headphones, the shape and size of the pads on the cups contribute to the overall depth and space available for ears.

Thin cushions leave little room to keep ears from touching the hardware and feel less plush against the head. Thicker ones are more comfortable, but they could put a bit of a squeeze around your ears. For on-ear headphones, the amount of cushioning is directionally proportional to comfort. Either way, it takes wearing the headphones to know.

The cushioning material makes a difference, too. Memory foam is commonly used for its supple-soft springiness and breathability. Keep in mind that not all memory foam is created equally, and it is made in a variety of densities. 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 with headbands (depending on the style), it's best to avoid it for ear cushions. It doesn't hold up.

While most headbands incorporate some type of foam under a polyester fabric, nylon mesh, or leather (real or synthetic), some headphones 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 down on your head, eliminating the need for thicker cushioning. The reverse of that also holds true.

When in doubt—or deciding 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.

Shop Around

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 for a few minutes. The comfort of the headphones can change over time, so you want to make sure that what you choose isn't going to hurt your ears an hour or so later.

Shopper trying on headphones in a store

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

Some brick-and-mortar electronics retailers have headphones on display, ready to test. You can also ask to see any open-box or returned units if the store policy allows it. Check record stores, too, since they tend to have headphones set up to listen to albums. Another option for testing is 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.

Otherwise, you have to go forward with a headphone purchase to try them on. Know the return policy and don't lose the receipt. Many online retailers offer hassle-free returns. Amazon is a great place to start​ because buyers with Prime accounts are eligible for free shipping and returns.

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