About Headphone Types – Use The Right One!

Not really a fan of listening to music through speakers? Looking for the right type for your music projects? With our increasingly busy lives today, musicians and engineers may not always have access to professional monitor speakers. If you are a budding music producer who are always moving around, you will need to know more about headphone types!

In this awesome article that we have today, we will cover the different aspects of various headphone designs that are commonly used in the market. Understand what makes each of their design suitable in carrying out various functions and delivering different sound quality. Find out which headphone type will be most suitable to meet your audio needs!

Sennheiser Headphones

Photo by Adamantios / CC BY-SA 3.0

Introduction – What is it used for?

There is a range of headphones with varying capabilities in reproducing quality audio. Headsets built for telephone use are usually incapable of reproducing high fidelity sound, unlike the costly units designed for critical music listening. Most headphones with cables will either have a 1/4 inch (6.35mm) or 1/8 inch (3.5mm) phone jack for connecting to various audio playback devices.

The majority of headphones today, are driven by headphone amplifiers, which are either integrated (e.g., in an iPod) or designed as an external unit. Generally, people use headphones to listen to audio material such as recorded music, podcasts, or radio shows.

Professionals in the audio industry such as sound engineers, utilise headphones to mix sound for live concerts or for studio music productions. Performers such as DJs, also use headphones to cue up the next song that will be played without the audience hearing. Professionals from outside of the audio industry, such as aircraft pilots and call center operators, utilise headphones as well.

Let us now look at the various headphone types:

  • Circumaural
  • Supra-aural
  • Open or Closed-back
  • Ear-fitting
  • Headset


Also sometimes referred to as full size headphones, circumaural headphones are designed with a circular or ellipsoid ear pads that are large enough to encompass the ears. Looking at the fact that these headphones completely surround the ears of the user, circumaural headphones can be built (depending on its intended purpose) to fully seal against the head to reduce external noise.

Due to their generally large size, circumaural headphones are typically heavy to the extent where some units even weigh over 500 grams (1 lb). Improvements to the design of ergonomic headbands and earpads is essential in order to minimise discomfort that is caused by the weight. This headphone type is commonly used by drummers during multi-track recording.

Supra-auralSupra Aural Headphone

Commonly comes packaged with consumer stereo systems during the 1980s, supra-aural headphones are designed with ear pads that presses against the user’s ears, rather than encompassing them. Due to the relatively smaller and lighter design of this type of headphone (as compared to circumaural headphones), the attenuation of external noises is very poor.

Depending on the person using it, supra-aural headphones may be very uncomfortable (especially during extended usage) due to the pressure of the ear pads on the ear, unlike circumaural headphones that have pads which sits around the ears. Levels of comfort are heavily dependent on the earcup material used.

Open or Closed-back

Both circumaural and supra-aural headphones that are described above, can be further differentiated by the type of earcups:

Open Back

Photo by Ulfbastel / CC BY-SA 3.0


The back of the earcups of these headphones are designed to be open. This allows for more ambient sounds to enter the headphone, but at the expense of more sound leaking out. It is known to produce a more organic or speaker-like sound with a more spacious “soundstage” (the perception of distance from the source).


Also known as the sealed-type, these have the back of the earcups closed. This will minimize ambient noise, but results in a much smaller soundstage, which in turn produces the perception that sounds are coming from within the listener’s head. Closed-back headphones typically produce stronger low-end frequencies, unlike open-back headphones.


Semi-Open Type

Photo by Michael Heigl / CC BY-SA 3.0

These headphones are designed to be a compromise between both open-back headphones and closed-back headphones. This may result in the culmination of all the positive characteristics of both designs. It is believed that the term “semi-open” only serves the purpose of marketing certain headphone models. There is no consistent definition for the term “semi-open headphone”.

While most open-back headphones have no real measures to block sound at the diaphragm’s outer side, and the closed-back design typically have a closed chamber covering the diaphragm’s outer side, a semi-open headphone may have a chamber that partially blocks sound while at the same time, letting some sound out via openings or vents.



In recent years, earphones are popularly referred to as “earbuds”. These are headphones that are very small, and designed to be fitted directly in the outer ear while facing inside, without being inserted into the ear canal. Despite being well known for its portability and convenience, earphones are considered by most users to be uncomfortable.


The downside is that they hardly have any acoustic isolation, thus allowing plenty of ambient noise to leak in. This causes many users to increase the volume to dangerously high levels in order to compensate. As a result, the risk of hearing loss will also increase significantly.

However, it is important to take note that its design actually allows the user to be more aware of their environment (while listening to music). Earphones have been packaged together with consumer music devices, ever since the early days of the transistor radio. They are sometimes sold with foam pads for comfort.

In Ears

Photo by Kimdrummer / CC BY-SA 3.0

In-Ear Monitors

Simply called “IEMs” or canalphones, in-ear monitors are similar to earbuds in terms of its portable design. The difference is that IEMs can be inserted into the ear canal itself. IEMs are generally engineered to be of a higher-quality and are typically used by audio engineers and performers for live sound applications.

In-ears are prone to sliding out of the ears (since they engage the ear canal), and they prevent most environmental noises from leaking in. Reduced sound from the surroundings will be a major problem, as sound is a vital indicator for safety when engaging in activities such as cycling or driving in busy traffic.

Most generic custom-fitting ear canal plugs available in the market, are made from silicone rubber, elastomer, or foam. In-ear headphones can be customised by using castings of an individual’s ear canal, in order to create custom-molded plugs which will provide extra comfort and enhanced noise isolation for the user.


Essentially a combination of a headphone and a microphone, headsets are designed to function like a telephone handset with hands-free operation. Some applications for headsets include, telephone use, aviation, theatre or television studio intercom systems, and even for console or PC gaming.

Gaming Headset

Photo by Jawad / CC BY-SA 3.0

Headsets can be designed as a single-earpiece (mono) or a double-earpiece (stereo or mono to both ears). A headset’s microphone arm can function as an external microphone type where the microphone is positioned right in front of the user’s mouth, or a voicetube type where the microphone is integrated into the earpiece and sound waves are transmitted to it via a hollow tube.

That is it folks! I hope you people have acquired some important knowledge about headphones, and are able to use them as an alternative to loudspeakers.

Do leave a comment or question below, and share this article if you have learnt something!



When I'm not rocking out to great music, I'd prefer to be sleeping on a field on a windy day =)


  1. I do own a pair of in-ear headphones. However, they never slip off my ears at all due to the snug adjustable piece that fits over the ear itself. Needless to say, there have been a lot of developments and new modifications to headphones, the choice is endless!

    It is worrying to know that high volumes contribute to hearing loss. Can you offer some alternatives?

    • Hello Andrea!

      You are already using in-ears, which is the best choice in preventing hearing loss. Generally, in-ears have superb sound isolation, thus alleviating the need to turn up the volume too high. However, do be aware of your surroundings when using in-ears, and do not listen to volumes that are beyond your comfort level.

      Thanks for reading, and do drop by again sometime!

  2. I find the full sized headphones to have the best sound and they tend to be the most comfortable option.

    • Yeah, everyone has their own preferences when it comes to choosing headphones. Glad you have found the right one!

  3. Farhan, You have done it again. Adding a depth of knowledge to a seemingly ambiguous item in all our lives.

    I have been a headphone user for many, many, ….. years.. I hesitate there because it made me think of how many .. far too long … but, I digress.

    I agree with you that each of these various types of headphones have a purpose. That firstly is to avoid the use of a loudspeaker of sometype. But secondly, each of them having their own properties, good and bad, lend themselves to a particular purpose of one kind or another.

    There are advantages and disadvantages for each. As an example. I used to use Circumaural headphones a lot because of the obvious advantage of eliminating outside noise. But, I found that wearing them for many hours, particularly after having gone swimming, would enhance the opportunity for ear infections. Perhaps an odd story, but did happen to me on multiple occasions.

    Thanks for the great article on Headphones!

    • Hey there Tom!

      Glad you have got something out of this article. Yes, the various headphone designs that are available in the market, are all optimised to meet different listening applications. Sorry to hear that you had some bad experiences when using Circumaural headphones.

      Your experience of getting ear infection, is the first that I have heard of. Nonetheless, thanks for sharing it with us, as this is something that people might want to consider before choosing the right type of headphone.

      Thanks, and do drop by again for more updates!

  4. I am a gamer and purchased some turtle beach headphones to play call of duty with and I use them to listen to music with and they sound really good for music as well as playing xbox. They are the circumaural style of headphone and I think they work great. When I go work out though I use some planatronics backbeats which are ear fitting and work a lot.

    • Hi Kevin!

      All the different headphone designs are suitable for various applications. Thus, it is pretty normal for you to have two sets of headphones (both of different types) in order to meet your daily needs. Some people even use more than two headphone types!

      Thanks for dropping by, and do come back for more!

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