Types of (In-Ear) Headphones: A Primer

Although this website is focused upon the functionality and social implications of in-ear headphones, because in-ear headphones are a relatively new addition to headphone technology, we thought it’d be a good idea to give readers a quick crash course in the different types of headphones available in the marketplace. As technology improves, the distinctions between these models will grow fainter and fainter. These general characteristics, however, tend to remain true.

Home or Studio Headphones
Large, traditional headphones, what this technology lacks in portability it makes up for in quality of sound. These headphones can be either circumaural or supra-aural in design, meaning, respectively, they either encase the ears in order to block out background noise, or sit directly atop the ears on padding. Most home or studio headphones come with cords that are 3 to 8 ft. long so they can connect to a sound source, such as a laptop or gaming system. Because they’re so bulky, they have to be carefully designed for comfort. Often, they even come with carrying cases for people interested in making them more portable.

Wireless Headphones
A blend of the home and portable models, wireless headphones redefine portability. While all other types of headphone must plug into the sound source in order for wearers to listen, wireless headphones use infrared technology or radio signals to communicate with the sound source so that wearers are truly free to roam around as they tune in. (Sometimes people distinguish “wireless” headphones as using infrared technology, as do remote controls, and “cordless” headphones as using radio signals.) The sound source can be anything that uses stereo technology — an iPod, the TV, a CD player, the home computer. How does it work? A “base station,” which is where the headphones recharge their battery, communicates with the stereo-compatible gadgets inside a certain perimeter (usually about 30 ft.), the base station transmits this signal to the headphones. A convenient domestic technology, wireless headphones have only one glaring weakness: interference from cordless phones and microwave ovens is almost guaranteed on lower-quality models. These headphones are typically supra-aural.

Portable Headphones
For all intents and purposes, portable headphones are the model of the modern era. Immortalized alongside the iPod in Apple’s famous black silhouette commercials, these headphones don’t give wearers the highest-quality sound. They make up for it, though, by giving wearers total freedom of movement — not just in the house, and not just within 30 ft. of a signaling sound source. Small and lightweight, portable headphones fit just about anywhere, from backpacks to pockets to palms of the hand. Because of the recent rise in portable music players, or PMPs, portable headphones feature the most variety of styles — all of them, except for the supra-aural “sporty” design, models that qualify as in-ear headphones. Earbuds “rest in the bowl of the ear,” canalphones “are inserted into the ear canal [to] form a seal that keeps out extraneous sounds,” and some new in-ear models designed just for iPods and smart phones come with pause-and-play controls right on the wire (Consumer Reports).

Active Noise Reduction Headphones
Also called noise-canceling headphones, this technology is available in every size, from full-on headphones that encase the ears (circumaural) to earbuds that fit cozily inside the ears. The best quality noise reduction is achieved when this type of headphone combines passive noise reduction with active noise reduction. Passive noise reduction is achieved when the headphones block out external noises by completely surrounding the ears and closing them off; active noise reduction occurs when “tiny microphones … monitor noise frequencies, and then produce those same frequencies out of phase in an effort to cancel them” (Consumer Reports). When these headphones are high-quality, background noise is reduced so greatly that enjoyable, detailed listening can be had a lower volume levels — good news for people concerned about “masking” and hearing loss (see our blog post), and good news for people who want to hear the low-volume features of music in greater detail.


Types of headphones from Consumer Reports . (n.d.).Consumer Reports: Expert product reviews and product Ratings from our test labs. Retrieved April 3, 2011, from http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/electronics-computers/audio-video/headphones/headphone-buying-advice/headphone-types/headphone-types.htm

France, J. (2011, February 7). Best noise-canceling headphones – CNET Reviews.Product reviews – Electronics reviews, computer reviews & more – CNET Reviews. Retrieved April 3, 2011, from http://reviews.cnet.com/best-noise-cancelling-headphones/

Headphones – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (2011, March 18). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved April 3, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Headphones#Types_of_headphones

Mithra, S. (n.d.). What are Wireless Headphones?.wiseGEEK: clear answers for common questions. Retrieved April 3, 2011, from http://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-wireless-headphones.htm

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