In-the-ear, on-the-ear, and over-the-ear headphones all sound different. They also have their respective benefits and drawbacks. We set out to explore which kind of cans provides the best mix of noise isolation, comfort, price/performance ratio, and sound quality with a wide range of music.
Rounding things up
For this roundup, I focused on headphone models priced less than $300. I the solicited some advice from Harman International’s Director of Acoustic Research, Dr. Sean Olive, who is also a former president of the Audio Engineering Society. Dr. Olive and his colleagues have been at the forefront of headphone research, and Harman provided a number of headphones for this evaluation.
After auditioning them, I settled on the JBL Reflect Mini in-ear monitors (IEMs), the AKG N60 NC (noise-cancelling) on-ear headphones, and the JBL Everest Elite 700 over-the-ear headphones. I listened to each both at home and on the road to see how the different form factors performed in a variety of environmental conditions.
In-ear-monitors, fit into your ear with either a silicone or foam tip. As with most IEMs that I own or have tried, the JBLs were light and comfortable—to the point where I’d forget I was even wearing them. My biggest complaint with IEMs at this price point is that you get a smaller sound stage and concede some of the dynamics, richness, and sweetness you’ll typically get with on-ear or over-the-ear models. Bass can also be hit or miss.
Getting a tight seal with IEMs is very important because the bass response you’ll get is dependent on that seal. If the seal is too loose, bass will sound anemic. While IEMs are great for orchestral, jazz, and even certain kinds of pop and rock, they wouldn’t be my go-to phones for explosive bass or rich dynamic pieces.
Typically, IEMs come with different sized tips to provide the best fit with the unique shapes of your ears. The tips help secure the IEM into your ear as well as block out ambient noise—sometimes to the tune of 25db or more.
While the JBL Reflect Mini did a decent job of blocking out external noise, it wasn’t a stellar performer. I therefore reached out to a third-party company, Comply, which manufactures replacement tips from memory-foam for various brands of in-ear monitors. These promise to block out more external noise than the silicone tips that come with most IEMs. And they live up to that promise, in my experience. They were a noticeable upgrade from what came in the package with the JBLs—especially in high-ambient-noise situations, such as inside airplanes and trains.
For me, on-ear headphones (also called supra-aural) can be hit or miss. Some models are too tight and others far too loose. While tight-fitting models can help block out external noise, they can become fatiguing and painful to wear for extended periods. The AKG N60s, however, felt just right. They were super light and comfortable—even for very long listening sessions.
Another advantage of on-ear headphones is that they give you close to the sound quality of over-the-ear headphones in a more compact form factor. In fact, many models, including the AKG N60 fold for travel.
Whether it was Adele’s “Hello,” U2’s Songs of Innocence, or Holly Cole’s Best of, the AKG N60s effortlessly reproduced just about any artist or genre I threw at them.
On-ear-headphones tend to be at a disadvantage in noisy environments. For that reason, some models, including the N60, feature active noise cancellation: They generate background noise that’s roughly an inverse sound wave to the noise you want to eliminate.
Not all noise cancelling techniques are the same. Aimed at air travelers, the AKG N60’s noise cancelling targets lower frequencies to cancel out most of the aircraft’s engine noise. I can say from first-hand experience that the effect is quite impressive. In contrast, the JBL Everest Elite are focused on a broader commuting and at-home audience, so they employ a wider noise-cancellation spectrum.
While the effects might at first seem magical, there are definite drawbacks that I noticed immediately. First, enabling active noise cancelling on any headphone—not just the AKG N60 or JBL Everest Elite 700—created a noticeable pressure on my ears. While this sensation might not bother some, it certainly bothered me and reminded me why I’ve never liked noise-cancelling headphones.
Second, active noise cancelling effects the soundstage and (depending on the model) the musical presentation. For example, activating active noise cancellation immediately recessed the soundstage, making the overall presentation more relaxed. I found that it also thinned out the music. The effect was far more noticeable (and bothersome to me) in quiet environments as opposed to noisy ones.
All in all, while I know many people love active noise-cancelling headphones, I much prefer a good seal (aka passive noise cancellation).
Over the ear headphones (also known as circumaural or full-sized headphones) are an audiophile gold standard for good reason. This type of headphone fully covers your ear. Open-back designs let you hear your surroundings. Closed-back models help seal out ambient noise and prevent sound from leaking into the environment (and nearby microphones, if you’re in a recording studio). Several times while I was wearing the JBL Everest Elite 700s, I was completely unaware that some someone was speaking to me I just didn’t hear them. Circumaural headphones significantly lower the noise floor, allowing you to hear more details and get “deeper” into the music.
On a nearly 11-hour transatlantic flight I recently took, for example, I measured 94dB of cabin noise using a SPL (sound-pressure level meter). The JBL Reflect Minis (with the Comply memory-foam tips) and the JBL Everest Elite 700 did the best job of isolating my ears from that cabin noise. I preferred listening to music and movies, however, through the over-the-ear JBLs because of the superior overall sound quality.
Music comes from a wide, expansive soundstage with either open- or closed-back circumaurals. Instruments take on a larger, more life-like feel. This was certainly the case with the JBL Everest Elite 700. Orchestral works in particular benefit, but so does R&B. The larger drivers in an over-the-ear headphone deliver a better sensation of bass, too. Listening to Lorde’s “Royals,” for example, was a very different experience on the Everest Elites compared to what I heard using the Reflect Mini’s. Generally speaking, over-the-ear headphones are better suited to for all kinds music.
The biggest drawback of over-the-ear headphones is their size and bulk. Over long listening sessions with the JBL Everest, my ears became a bit hot and uncomfortable. For that reason, I preferred wearing the AKG N60s or Reflect Minis for long sessions.
While they aren’t the best for travel or an active lifestyle, over-the-ear headphones deliver the best balance of sound quality, noise isolation, and comfort. In-ear monitors deliver the best overall price/performance ratio, and they can be great for jogging or workout sessions. A good pair of on-ear headphones, which let your ears “breathe,” can be worn comfortably during long listening sessions, and models with active noise cancellation go a long way to making up for the reduced isolation those models typically provide.
Each type of headphone comes with its own pros and cons; and in an ideal world, we’d all be able to have all three types at our disposal. Everything else being equal, if your budget limits you to one type, we’d recommend circumaural cans over anything else.