Beginner’s Guide

Which Is Best: Over-Ear vs. On-Ear vs. In-Ear Headphones

Examples of over-ear, on-ear, and in-ear headphones

Before you rush into buying your next pair of headphones, consider which type best suits your lifestyle.

Headphones generally fall into three groups based on their shape and fit. Over-ear headphones form a cup-like seal over the entire ear, on-ear headphones rest on the ear itself, and in-ear headphones fit directly inside the ear canal. Each style has its fans — but if you’re undecided and looking for a clear comparison of over-ear vs. on-ear vs. in-ear headphones, you’ve come to the right place.

Types of headphones

The first thing you’ll notice about your headphones probably isn’t what they sound or even feel like. It’s what they look like. But looks and sound often go hand-in-hand, and the shape of your headphones often influences their comfort level and audio performance. To learn the basics of how style and substance interact here, let’s have a look at the three types of headphones and their features.

Illustration demonstrating the ear coverage of an over-ear headphone

Over-ear headphones

Over-ear headphones are designed with large cups that form a seal around each ear. These cups are typically padded for comfort and connected by an adjustable headband that sits atop the scalp.

The over-ear design has some distinct advantages. The sheer size of over-ears can usually accommodate larger drivers, which can generate deeper bass and a more expansive, three-dimensional soundstage. But bigger isn’t always better. Some listeners may find over-ear headphones impractical for, say, a sweaty workout.

Illustration demonstrating the ear coverage of an on-ear headphone

On-ear headphones

On-ear headphones occupy a somewhat awkward niche between their bigger (over-ear) and smaller (in-ear) siblings. These headphones sit directly on the ear, and they’re usually padded enough to ensure a moderately comfortable fit.

With its smaller ear cups, the on-ear design splits the difference between comfort and practicality. It may not offer the most immersive sound quality or the most portable experience, but a good pair of on-ear headphones can perform well in a variety of situations.

Illustration demonstrating the ear coverage of an in-ear headphone

In-ear headphones

In-ear headphones are designed to be inserted directly into the ear canal, with a fitted earbud tip that molds to the contours of the inner ear. But not all in-ear headphones form such a tight seal. A subtype known as concha headphones (or simply “earbuds”) sits at the ear canal’s entrance, which leaks more sound but also puts less pressure on the ear.

The best in-ear headphones can be as capable of blocking outside noise as over-ear headphones, especially with Active Noise Cancellation enabled. Though most people who care about sound quality should probably start with over-ear options, you can technically achieve a high-fidelity audio experience with any headphone type.

What's the difference between on-ear vs. over-ear vs. in-ear?

So, how to choose? That deceptively simple question begs a few others:

  • Do you care more about audio quality or headphone size?
  • Are you listening more at home or on the go?
  • Do you want to shut the world out or stay aware of ambient noise?

How you answer these questions will determine which headphone type is “best” for you, but we’ve made it easy by ranking the options in each major category.

Audio quality

When evaluating audio quality in headphones, we’re looking at a few different things. The first is leakage, or how much sound escapes before reaching the eardrum. Another is frequency response, or the extent to which the headphones can reproduce the full range of audible frequencies, from squealing treble to rumbling bass.

Though you can achieve a high-fidelity experience with all three types of headphones, over-ear headphones tend to better address these criteria. Their bigger footprint can accommodate a driver capable of producing a richer and more sonically expansive experience, as is the case with the custom-designed driver in Sonos Ace. And their snug, over-ear fit minimizes audio leakage.

Good: On-ear headphones
Better: In-ear headphones
Best: Over-ear headphones

Noise cancellation

Another key feature related to audio quality is noise cancellation, which blocks out ambient noises that compete with the headphones’ output. The most effective type is Active Noise Cancellation, which actively counteracts low-level noises in the environment with help from built-in microphones.

Many pairs of over-ear headphones come with Active Noise Cancellation. These headphones are also good at passively canceling out noise by forming a tight, insulated seal around the entire ear. For this reason, we think over-ear headphones are the winner in this category. But if you prefer the fit of in-ear headphones, not all is lost; many pairs come with Active Noise Cancellation and sound excellent.

Good: On-ear headphones
Better: In-ear headphones
Best: Over-ear headphones

Size and portability

In-ear headphones are the clear winner in terms of size and portability. Many in-ear headphones these days come with Bluetooth capabilities and a charging case that can fit inside a small pocket.

Over-ear headphones, on the other hand, range from “big” to “huge.” If you prefer the over-ear look and feel or simply don’t want to put something inside your ear canal, consider on-ear headphones as a more portable alternative.

Good: Over-ear headphones
Better: On-ear headphones
Best: In-ear headphones

Call clarity

If you care just as much about what other people hear as what you hear yourself, you’ll want to invest in a set of headphones with a good microphone. Or microphones, rather, because many of the clearest models come with multiple mics that split duties. One might pick up on ambient noises and adjust the sound output accordingly, while another is reserved for picking up the subtlest cadences of your voice.

Over-ear and on-ear headphones have more room to fit these mics, and are thus usually a better solution than in-ear headphones. Over-ear headphones may even come with clarity-boosting software. Sonos Ace, for example, combines enhanced voice targeting and background noise suppression to achieve crystal-clear calls.

Good: In-ear headphones
Better: On-ear headphones
Best: Over-ear headphones

Finally, we come to a pair of categories in which personal preference reigns supreme, and there is no clear winner or loser.


It’s impossible to say whether over-ear, on-ear, or in-ear headphones are the most comfortable. Everybody’s ear is shaped differently and everybody has their own ideas about what’s comfy or not — especially after hours of wear.

Some people find over-ear headphones too heavy or cumbersome to wear, especially if the goal is to fall asleep in a position that isn’t strictly face-up. Others claim that in-ear headphones exert painful pressure on their inner ears. Who’s right? In this case, everybody! If there’s a particular headphone style that feels better to you, go with that one and don’t second-guess yourself.


Longevity can mean different things to different people. Are the cushioned earpads of larger headphones more prone to wear and tear? They can be, sure. Are smaller headphones easier to lose, misplace, or (gasp) send through a wash cycle? Unfortunately, yes.

The good news is that choosing the right pair of headphones can alleviate your fears about longevity. Sonos Ace, for example, comes with ear cups that can be removed and replaced after years of heavy wear, if need be.

White Ace headphones on a gray background
Woman laying on a couch listening to white Ace headphones

Lose yourself in your listening with Sonos Ace

At the end of the day, the best headphones are the ones you never want to take off. We designed Sonos Ace with that in mind. A custom-designed driver takes full advantage of the over-ear footprint to deliver spatial audio in a hyperrealistic, three-dimensional soundstage. Other highlights include:

  • Lossless audio streaming over Bluetooth and USB-C
  • Up to 30 hours of battery life with Active Noise Cancellation enabled
  • Plush memory foam ear cushions and an extendable headband for a bespoke fit
  • Effortless connectivity with other Sonos devices

Whatever your headphone preference, don’t sleep on Sonos Ace. Even if you’ve never worn over-ear headphones, you may find the combination of immersive audio and all-day comfort impossible to resist.

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