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Headphones: Comparision Buying Guide

by May 31, 2015
Sennheisers HD 800 is a circumaural, open back headphone design. If thats Greek to you, keep reading.

Sennheiser's HD 800 is a circumaural, open back headphone design. If that's Greek to you, keep reading.

Originally published: April 14, 2014

If you’ve ever set out to buy yourself a set of headphones, odds are good you’ll have run into some new terms during your research, i.e. circumaural, supra-aural, open back, earbuds, etc. These terms refer to different styles/form factors of headphones. As one might reasonably guess, each type is designed to achieve something a bit different, whether it’s better sound, a measure of sound isolation, or improved comfort. If you believe supra-aural headphones will give you special powers when worn (or you’d just like to know what the aforementioned terms mean), keep reading!

Headphone and Earphone Form Factors

There are four major form factors of headphones on the market today:
1.    Circumaural
2.    Supra-aural
3.    Earbuds
4.    In-ear 

Starting from the top, circumaural headphones, aka over-ear headphones, utilize large cups, which totally envelop your ears, forming a seal around them, which can help to reduce external noise and improve bass response. The primary counterpart to circumaural is supra-aural, aka on-ear headphones, which utilize smaller pads that simply press against your ears. Relative to circumaural designs, supra-aural headphones tend to be smaller, lighter, and less costly. However, they can be less comfortable as pressure is directly exerted on the ear; in addition, as supra-aural headphones don’t form a seal around the ears, they tend to be more susceptible to external noise.

Oppo PM-1 vs Grado SR60i

The OPPO PM-1 (left) is a circumaural (over-ear) design, while the Grado SR60i (right) is a supra-aural (on ear) model.

Headphone Comparison of Various Types (on-ear, over-ear, in-ear, etc)

Meanwhile, if you’ve ever owned an iPod, you’ll know what earbuds are: these are ultra-compact devices which simply sit (rather precariously) on the outer ear. There is an additional style of ultra-portable headphone as well: in-ears, which are physically inserted into the ear canal, forming a tight seal. In both cases, sensitivity (how loud they get for a given amount of power) tends to be fairly good given the proximity to the ear, making them a good match for mobile devices. In addition, in-ear headphones typically offer excellent isolation from outside noise, and unlike earbuds, they aren’t particularly prone to falling out, making them more suitable to use while exercising. On the downside, the sound quality of these form factors doesn’t tend to compare well with the best circumaural headphones, and comfort can be an issue, particularly with ill-fitting in-ear headphones. Then there are matters of health and safety: while in-ear headphones offer excellent isolation, they’re prone to making people utterly oblivious to their surroundings. We’ll also admit we’re not fond of the hygienic implications of sticking foreign objects in our ears either, not to mention the thought sharing in-ear headphones. Last but not least, given the proximity of in-ear headphones to your ear drums, we would advise taking special care with the volume control to avoid damaging your hearing.

Apple Earbuds vs RBH EP1 In-Ear

Apples ubiquitous earbuds (left) vs RBH's EP1 in-ear headphones (right).

Open vs. Closed Back

Circumaural and supra-aural headphones can be further classified by the terms “open back” and “closed back”. This may seem pretty obvious: open backed means the “back” of the ear cups is open, while closed back headphones utilize sealed cups. What’s the difference? Closed back headphones improve noise isolation, which can be helpful in loud environments, or when you don’t want to disturb others. Isolation can be further enhanced via noise cancelling technology, which actively monitors outside noise, and cancels it out by feeding the reverse signal to the headphone drivers. Note that noise cancellation technology does require batteries, though to help preserve battery life you can usually switch it off when the extra isolation isn’t necessary. Beyond reducing background noise / sound leakage, closed back designs also tend to offer stronger low end response than open backed models.

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro vs HD 600

Sennheiser's HD 380 Pro (left) is a closed back design built for isolation, while the HD 600 (right) is an open back design where sound quality is the top priority.

At this point, you might be thinking that the deck is stacked against open back designs; however, they do have one important trick up their sleeve: sound quality. Since closed back headphones isolate the listener, the sound they reproduce subjectively tends to come off as being “in your head.” Conversely, open backed designs sound more spacious, a bit more like listening to a conventional pair of speakers, and consequently more realistic. Consequently, many high-end designs such as Sennheiser’s HD800s or OPPO’s new PM-1 utilize open back design.

What’s Best For You

As you might gather, there’s no “best” design. Each style of headphone has particular strengths which may make it more useful for your situation. To help speed up the process of finding out what makes the most sense for you, Audioholics presents a handy dandy pro/cons chart:

Form Factor / Type
Circumaural - Open Back
 Spacious sound quality
Bulky & heavy

No noise isolation
 Circumaural - Closed Back
 Excellent passive noise isolation

Strong low end response
Bulky & heavy

"In your head" sound
 Supra-Aural - Open Back
 Smaller/lighter than circumaural

Spacious sound quality
No noise isolation 

Applies pressure to ears which
can be uncomfortable
 Supra-Aural - Closed Back
 Smaller/lighter than circumaural

Good passive noise isolation

Good low end response
 Less noise isolation than
circumaural-closed back

"In your head" sound

Applies pressure to ears which
can be uncomfortable
No noise isolation

Falls off easily

"In your head" sound
 In-Ear  Ultra-compact

Excellent passive noise isolation

Won't fall out easily
 Comfort can be problematic for
some users

"In your head" sound


If you’re in the market for headphones, your head might be spinning with the number of alternatives to choose from.  Fortunately, a multitude of options mean you’re more likely to find what you’re looking for, assuming you know the lingo. With four major form factors, as well as closed vs. open back, you can balance sound quality, isolation, and portability according to your needs.  Do you have a favorite style of headphones? Make sure to voice your opinion on our forums.


About the author:
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Steve Munz is a “different” addition to Audioholics’ stable of contributors in that he is neither an engineer like Gene, nor has he worked in the industry like Cliff. In fact, Steve’s day job is network administration and accounting.

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