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If you’re in the market for a new pair of headphones and have already ruled out earbuds, you’re left with a choice between on-ear and over-ear styles. The small distinction in wording could make a big difference in how you listen to your music.
What is the Difference Between On-Ear and Over-Ear Headphones?
While both of these models feature a traditional headband and dual earcups for listening, the main difference between on-ear and over-ear headphones lies in how they sit against your ears. The answer is quite literal: on-ear headphones have smaller earpads that sit on top of your ears; over-ear headphones have larger earpads that fit around your entire ear.
Despite their similar look, there are some key differences between on-ear and over-ear headphones you should consider before picking the best pair for you. We’ve broken them down below, and included solid starter picks for each style as well.
On-Ear vs. Over-Ear Headphones: Which One Sounds Better?
The most important factor to consider when getting a pair of Bluetooth headphones is how they will sound. The good news is that both on-ear and over-ear headphones can be sonically satisfying. They share many of the same components: modern Bluetooth chips that are energy-efficient and support audio codecs (software) like aptX and THX, and drivers (the part of a speaker or headphone that creates sound) with custom tunings.
Older Bluetooth headphones had flaky connections and added a ton of compression, but that hasn’t been the case in many years. The one audio advantage over-ear headphones have compared to on-ear models, is that they create a more immersive listening environment by completely surrounding your ears. In my experience, this has allowed them to pull ahead in terms of sound quality, but not by very much. Every pair of headphones sounds different, but you won’t be sacrificing a lot by going one way or the other.
On-Ear vs. Over-Ear Headphones: Which One is More Comfortable?
One of the biggest differences between on-ear and over-ear headphones is their size, especially their weight. Good on-ear headphones are designed primarily for portable use, but can still fit a decent-sized battery, microphones, and drivers inside. On the other hand, over-ear headphones can be used in a portable setting, but are generally larger and heavier to accommodate more hardware.
There’s a common misconception that on-ear headphones can hurt after prolonged wear, but I’ve never found that to be the case. In fact, on-ear headphones are generally lighter in weight, and the earpads are tight without being constricting.
I regularly test both on-ear and over-ear headphones, and I can definitely tell the weight difference between the two. If you listen to music for long periods of time while you’re on the go, or look down at your phone for your entire commute, wearing over-ear headphones could put some additional strain on your neck. The other physical difference between both styles of headphones is that on-ear models are guaranteed to fit, but over-ear models may not, depending on the size of your ears.
How Does Noise Cancellation Work?
Ultimately, the biggest feature difference between on-ear and over-ear headphones is that the latter style supports ANC (Active Noise Cancellation). Both over-ear and on-ear headphones use earpads that dampen noise from the outside world, which is known as passive noise cancellation. It’s the equivalent of closing a door to avoid hearing loud noises from another room: there’s a physical barrier between you and the unwanted sound, but nothing that makes it go away.
Active noise cancellation uses a headphone’s microphones to “listen” to the outside world and send frequencies that counteract those made from unwanted sounds into your ears. This isn’t an absolute rule because there are a few on-ear headphones that support ANC, but they give up some of the lightweight portability that gives them an edge over over-ear headphones.
On-Ear vs. Over-Ear Headphones: Which One Has Better Battery Life?
It’s easy to assume that over-ear headphones would get better battery life than their on-ear counterparts because they’re larger. Yes, over-ear headphones have larger batteries, but features like ANC require a lot of power. In the end, on-ear headphones generally last longer, unless you use over-ear headphones with active noise cancellation turned off, at which point they’re neck and neck.
You should expect to get around 20 hours of playtime from over-ear headphones, and 25 to 30 hours of playtime from on-ear headphones. Your listening volume will also impact battery life, which is something to keep in mind. Using ANC may help you to listen to music at a lower volume, which is definitely something to think about if you find your ears hurting after long listening sessions.
On-Ear vs. Over-Ear Headphones: Which One is Better?
There’s no wrong choice, but if you value battery life and portability, on-ear headphones are probably the better choice. If you want slightly better audio quality, active noise cancellation, and don’t mind heavier headphones, you should get an over-ear pair.
Bluetooth is an open standard, so any headphone you pick will work with all of your devices (even if you upgrade to a new phone, tablet, or computer), and last a long time. Here are the on-ear and over-ear headphones we recommend.
BEST ON-EAR HEADPHONES: Marshall Major III
Marshall is best-known for making amps used by bands like AC/DC, but its line of consumer-friendly Bluetooth headphones sound really good. The Major IIIs, featured in the picture above, check all of the right boxes.
The Major IIIs weigh .39 pounds, and have a simple, jet-black design featuring the trademark Marshall logo. Each earcup is attached to a hinge that can be adjusted, so the band fits comfortably around your head. The Major IIIs are collapsable when they’re not in use, so they’ll take up even less space in your bag.
Marshall equipped this pair of headphones with 40mm drivers with a custom tuning that the company says optimizes high, midrange, and low frequencies. The Major IIIs also support aptX, a codec that compresses lossless (CD-quality) music less and reduces latency (lag). Keep in mind your device needs to support aptX to take advantage of this feature.
I’ve tried multiple pairs of Marshall’s headphones over the past few years, and always found its tuning made music sound detailed instead of artificial. Unfortunately, there’s no way to change their EQ (unless you adjust the settings in your music app, if possible), so your ears have to be the judge. Marshall says the Major IIIs can get over 30 hours of playtime per charge (again, your volume level will impact this), and its battery can be fully recharged in three hours over Micro-USB.
If you don’t care about active noise cancellation, and want a well-built pair of on-ear headphones from a company with a 50-year track record of making audio gear, this is the pair to get.
BEST OVER-EAR HEADPHONES: Razer Opus
I’ve been testing out Razer’s Opus headphones for a little while, and they strike the balance of size, battery life, audio quality, and extras better than a lot of over-ear models I’ve tried.
Razer is known for its professional gaming accessories, so it’s no surprise it brought that mindset into making these headphones. They have a sleek look, and the company’s use of hard plastic over metal kept its weight down to .58 pounds. Its headband is adjustable and well-padded, and its earcups are surprisingly plush. The memory foam kept my ears from sweating too much, and felt comfortable during extended listening sessions.
Razer says its Opus headphones are supposed to get up to 25 hours of playback per charge, and that’s been consistent in my experience. I found myself having to charge them once every five days of active use, and appreciate that Razer used the modern USB-C port for recharging, since I can use the same cable to charge multiple devices.
Overall I’ve been pleased with how this pair of headphones sounds. It’s passed the THX certification, which means Razer’s Opus has been marked by an outside authority as having “reference grade” sound. In my experience, the headphones do a good job reproducing music the way it sounds when using my reference pair. I could hear every individual element in a loose song like Peace Frog by The Doors, and have been especially impressed with the tight-but-not-overblown bass.
I like how these headphones sound out of the box, but Razer offers five additional EQ settings that you can access through its Opus app (iOS and Android). There’s no option to set a custom EQ, but I hope that feature comes in a future software update.
Like many over-ear headphones, the Razer Opus supports active noise cancellation, and does a very good job. You can’t fine-tune the level of noise cancellation, and I found it to be a little conservative when blocking out some sounds, like an air purifier when I wasn’t playing music. These outside noises were completely eliminated when I was listening at moderate volumes.
If you’d like a pair of over-ear headphones that fit comfortably, sound great, and do a nice job cancelling out noise, Razer’s Opus is a great pair to check out.