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Getting to know your headphones

On-ear, over-ear, noise-canceling, and in-ear monitors are terms you may have seen thrown around when reading about headphones. They may not make a lot of sense at first, but they are actually pretty easy to understand, each offers its own benefits. We're here to help you get a handle on some headphone terminology that may be over your head.


These kind of headphones refer to a style where the pads of each headphone sit on top of your ears. Due to this design choice, some users might find them uncomfortable as they may apply pressure to your ears depending on how the ear pads are designed. Since they don't enclose the ear, they also may let some sound leak out. These negatives don't necessarily mean they're bad or will give you poor sound; our current top Must-have headphones, the Bowers & Wilkins P5, are on-ear headphones.


Over-ear headphones have large enough ear cups to encompass your entire ear. Unlike on-ear headphones, over-ear headphones tend to be more comfortable on your ears due to less pressure on them. But the trade off is that they may make your ears very warm due to a lack of air movement. Another trade off of over-ear headphones is that they often let in less sound, meaning less chance of ambient noises (like oncoming traffic) disrupting your private dance session.

In-ear monitors

In-ear monitors, or IEMs, refer to a type of headphone that sits inside your inner ear, providing a tighter seal. If you've ever seen a musician performing live and they're wearing some kind of earpiece, that's an in-ear monitor. The tighter seal they create in your ear helps to deliver a better sound experience, as well as helping to keep out ambient sounds.


Earbuds look very similar to in-ear monitors and if you've ever seen the headphones that come with an iPhone or iPod, those are earbuds. Since earbuds tend to just sit in your ear, they wont provide as tight of a seal as in-ear monitors, which means the sound quality is pretty lacking in comparison. If you've found in-ear monitors to be uncomfortable, and just want a set of earbuds, consider Sennheiser's CX 300 II.


Photo: HowStuffWorks

We've referenced how headphones can block out ambient noises just by being worn, but if you want the real deal, you need to look for proper noise-canceling headphones. According to HowStuffWorks, noise-canceling headphones work by adding "an extra level of noise reduction by actively erasing lower-frequency sound waves." If you travel a lot by plane or train, noise-canceling headphones are a good investment. Unfortunately, because of the technology involved they can be pretty expensive compared to other headphone options.

As we've stated before, you don't need to spend a lot to get decent sound. What's most important is finding headphones that suit your lifestyle and needs, so make sure you try out these different types to see what works best for you.

Photo: Nick Southall