Over-ear headphones vs earbuds: Which should you buy?

Man in orange hat wearing headphones next to a woman wearing a leather jacket with earbuds in her ears
(Image credit: Getty Images/Jacob Wackerhausen/Westend61)

If you want to enjoy some private listening – whether that’s on the train, in the gym or kicking it at home – then you’re going to need something that delivers your favourite music or podcasts straight into your lugholes. We could’ve just called them headphones, but it isn’t as straightforward as that: when it comes to choosing a new pair of ‘phones, you actually have plenty of choice between cans that clamp to your bonce with the help of a headband, and earbuds that sit securely inside your ears. The big question is, then, which of these is right for you?

In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of both over-ear headphones and earbuds, looking at key considerations like comfort, sound quality and features, to help you make the right buying choice for your particular needs. Of course, there’s also third category of on-ear headphones, which differ slightly to the over-ear variety. For now, we’re focusing specifically on over-ear cans and how they compare to their ear-inhabiting counterpart. By the time you’ve got to the bottom of the page, we reckon you’ll have your mind well and truly made up.

Over-ear headphones vs earbuds: Sound quality

Generally speaking, over-ear headphones deliver better sound quality than earbuds, thanks to the larger drivers they can house and the better acoustic isolation provided by the ear-covering cups. That’s not to say that you won’t get a good listening experience with in-ears, though. Indeed, in our guide to the best in-ear headphones and earbuds, we praise Sony’s flagship earbuds for their “awesome audio delivery”, and the House of Marley Redemption ANC 2s for their “lovely warm sound”. And that’s just two examples. From AirPods to Bose Quiet Comfort buds, these discrete headphones have never sounded better.

Winner: Over-ear headphones

Over-ear headphones vs earbuds: Comfort

Whether you prefer to have your ’phones over your ears or inside your ears ultimately comes down to personal choice (for example, we know people who hate having anything inside their lugholes, whether that be earbuds or cotton buds). One thing worth noting is that over-ear cans distribute their weight over your entire ear, rather than exerting pressure directly on your ear canal like earbuds. This can make the former option more comfortable during lengthier listening sessions. That said, over-ear headphones generally cause your ears to sweat more, so horses for courses and all that.

Winner: Draw

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(Image credit: Getty Images/F. J. Jimenez)

Over-ear headphones vs earbuds: Noise isolation

Even though earbuds are stuffed inside your lugholes, it’s over-ear cans that typically provide better passive noise isolation, as they cover your entire ear area. Of course, some over-ear headphones and earbuds also offer active noise cancelling (ANC), where tiny microphones work to cancel out exterior noise by creating an equal and opposite noise.

Notable examples include, in the over-ear category, the Sony WH-1000XM5 and the Mark Levinson No. 5909; and, in the earbuds category, the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds and the Earfun Air Pro. On the whole, though, ANC is better in over-ear headphones, largely due to there being more room inside for better technology.

Winner: Over-ear headphones

Over-ear headphones vs earbuds: Battery life

That comment we just made about more room inside equating to better technology? The same principle applies to batteries. Over-ear headphones are much bigger than earbuds, and can therefore accommodate a weightier lithium-ion power pack. This means you’ll get more listening time between charges.

As an example, the AirPods (3rd Generation) will give you around six hours (up to around 30 hours with the charging case), while the Anker Space Q45 over-ear headphones offer up to 65 hours of playtime. Obviously, none of this applies if you’re using wired ’phones, which don’t rely on batteries.

Winner: Over-ear headphones

Over-ear headphones vs earbuds: Durability

Due to their smaller size and lighter weight, earbuds are clearly the more portable of these two options. Indeed, they should easily fit inside a jacket or trouser pocket when you’re not using them. Over-ear headphones will need to be hung around your neck or stowed away inside a bag – though a foldable set won’t take up too much room.

Winner: Earbuds

Over-ear headphones vs earbuds: Suitability for active use

Want something to listen to music on while you’re at the gym or pounding the pavement? Earbuds are much less cumbersome than over-ear headphones, which could start to feel heavy on your skull during a strenuous workout. On the downside, buds could fall out of your ears during a sprint on the treadmill or bike – and their generally flimsier sound might make it harder to hear them over the gym’s pounding dance music (though that shouldn’t be an issue with the more high-end buds).

Winner: Draw

Man stares at camera weating a pair of Marshall Motif ANC earbuds

(Image credit: Marshall)

Over-ear headphones vs earbuds: Style

If you’re the shy and retiring type – or if you’d rather not draw attention to the fact that you’re wearing expensive cans – then you might prefer to wear earbuds, which are obviously more discreet than over-ear headphones. Discreet certainly doesn’t have to mean boring, though – as demonstrated by the Apple AirPods’ iconic long-stemmed design, beloved by millions. If you prefer over-ear headphones and want something really eye-catching, take a look at the Bang & Olufsen Beoplay HX or the Sennheiser Momentum 3.

Winner: Draw

Over-ear headphones vs earbuds: Price

Ultimately, your final decision is going to come down to what you can afford. The good news here is that, while the top-end over-ear headphones are considerably more expensive than the best earbuds, there’s a broad range of products in both categories, with all budgets catered for – just check out guides to the best budget wireless headphones, the best headphones for vinyl and the best headphones under £100.


Clearly there are pros and cons to both styles of headphone. So, when deciding what is right for you, it’s important to first think about what you will use them for most and what your budget is. This should help guide you down the right path to audio nirvana.

Paul Dimery

Paul has spent the past eight years testing and writing about gadgets and technology for the likes of Louder, T3 and TechRadar. He might not have the wealth or the looks of Tony Stark, but when it comes to knowing about the latest cool kit, Paul would surely give Iron-Man a run for his money. As for his musical leanings, Paul likes everything from Weyes Blood to Nirvana. If it's got a good melody, he's on board with it.