Beginning The Ultimate Headphone Guide On-Ear Headphones


On-Ear Headphones (Ear-pad, Supra-aural)
This category contains headphones that have earpads that rest on your ears. Called "On-Ear" headphones in this guide and sometimes called ear-pad headphones, the technically correct name is "Supra-Aural" meaning on-the-ear. Just like with over-ear headphones, on-ear headphones can be broken into two major categories: open and sealed. (See Over-Ear category introduction for discussion of acoustically open and sealed headphones.)

The primary advantage of on-ear headphones is their small size, which makes them easier to transport and store. Some models will also fold into an even more compact size to easily fit into a backpack, purse, or even a shirt pocket. This ease of transport makes a sealed, on-ear headphone with a mic/remote on the cable an excellent choice for general portable use with your smartphone.

Generally speaking, on-ear headphones don't sound as good as over-ear headphones. Because they can't form a seal as well as over-ear headphones bass response is more likely to fall off in the lowest notes, and is likely less tight and punchy. With sealed on-ear headphones, the acoustic space behind the driver is very small making it more difficult for engineers to design a headphone with an even and uncluttered sound. Acoustically open on-ear headphones have less problem in this regard, and can sound quite good in the mid and treble ranges of music, though they too will have problems reaching the lowest notes and delivering good bass response.

Versatility is the strong suit of on-ear headphones and should be strongly considered when convenience outweighs the need for absolute fidelity. Their ability to easily store in a desk drawer make them ideal for general purpose home and office use. And with small size also comes a generally smaller price tag making them a great choice for students and kids.

A Bit of History
130526_blog_UHG_Photo_OnEarSenn414For a long time the only kind of headphones that existed had big, sweaty, sealed ear-cups. Then, in 1968, Sennheiser introduced the HD 414—the very first acoustically open back, on-ear headphone. Being acoustically open to the rear of the driver allowed Sennheiser engineers to better control resonances behind the driver that cause unevenness in mid and treble response. Back in the day, the Sennheiser HD 414 was one of the best sounding headphones around.

It became immensely popular in recording studios in part because of it's sound, but the HD 414 was also a very light and comfortable on-ear design. Musicians and audio pros could use them for hours without fatigue, and they became ubiquitous in studios everywhere. The bright yellow cushions were not only comfy and important to the sound, they also looked cool, making these headphones attractive in every way. The HD 414 caught on with consumers as well as pros, and the HD 414 eventually sold more than 10 Million units before being discontinued, making it one of the all-time best selling headphones.

130526_blog_UHG_Photo_OnEarPortaProAnother major product in the world of on-ear headphones was brought to us by the Koss Corporation. In the early eighties the Sony's Walkman had just appeared and was taking consumers by storm. It was in this environment that John C. Koss decided to jump on the portable audio bandwagon and produced the "Koss Sound Partner" or KSP headphone, and a portable AM/FM radio called the "MusicBox."

Over the next couple of years, Koss continued to work on the design of these headphones and discovered they could improve on the KSP. In 1984 the Koss Porta Pro was introduced. Now with it's new driver housing and "Comfort Zone" earpad pressure adjustment, the headphone was ready for prime time. It is truly a testament to the performance of these little portable headphones that they remain little changed today after all this time ... and that they remain strongly competitive long after cassettes and the Walkman have gone the way of the dodo. Still available and great sounding after all these years.

For Smartphones
130526_blog_UHG_Photo_OnEarBWP5Smartphone sales are skyrocketing, and right along with it the need for a good portable headset. Manufacturers are scurrying to respond and consumer choice for portable headsets is getting better by the day. Models are available from sub-$50 cans for kids, to $300+ for plush leather and chrome headsets for executives.

For Sports
130526_blog_UHG_Photo_OnEarKSC75Specialty headphones for sport use come in a wide variety of shapes and types, but two special types of on-ear headphones are well suited for action sports with helmets: Clip-on style headphones clip to your ears using clips similar to the earpieces on a pair of glasses, and another type, sometimes called Sport-band headphones, that have a headband the goes around the back of your neck. Though these types of headphones often compromise a bit on sound quality, they do work particularly well for bicycling, snowboarding, and skateboarding. Because these types of headphone don't seal your ears completely you will be better able to hear outside sounds—but you still have to pay attention to be safe! Please be careful when using your headphones near traffic.

For Kids
130526_blog_UHG_Photo_OnEarKidsHeadphones for kids need to be small enough to put in a backpack; durable enough to take a beating in the back seat of the van; and cool enough for a kid—they're not going to be happy with a gray plastic lump. Fortunately manufacturers are well aware of kids needs and many choices are available. Parents may well be served with an open style headphone for kids so that you can hear how loud they're playing their music, and so that they'll be able to hear you when you need to communicate with them.

Byrnie's picture


I hope the phone numbers and emails addresses, listed in those mock-ups, are fake, so the internet trolls don't get their hands on them.  Also I hope theres some attention devoted to some beyerdynamics as I don't see you mention alot of beyerdynamics in reviews, even if you don't like/enjoy them, your perspectrive on the new t70 & t90s would be interesting.  Anyway regardless I love what you and your staff do for the headphone community and will continue reading regardless and I am itching to buy this guide as I'm currently looking at the picking up a pair of closed headphones (currently looking at the MDR-1R, Polk Ultrafocus 8000, and Beyerdynamic t70).  Unfortunately, I don't have smurf ear so the Momentums are out.  For some reason the Philips Fidelio X1 have my eye too but i can't explain but i think they're really neat looking and supposedly sound great too.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

There won't be very much in the way of recommendations in the guide, like I said, it's sort of a yearbook for headphones. It's worth mentioning how this guide came about: Source Interlink Media (SIM) has another special interest publication called "The Ultimate Wheel and Tire Guide", which sold very well at the newsstand, and did very well garnering advertisers. There's also an on-line component to this publication that you can find here.  

What they (SIM management) learned with this publication is (and this should come as no surprise) that people love to look at pretty pictures. Before someone starts to seriously research a product for purchase, they sort of have to dome some preliminary window shopping to see what's out there. Basically, people have to get oriented to what the market looks like. The Ultimate Wheel and Tire Guide, and now the Ulitmate Headphone Guide does that. It exists to give people a broad look at the market, from which they'll gather some first inclings of the stuff they want to look into.

The point is that this guide will not have comparitive buying information. Models won't be called out in particular. The reason for this is that advertisers need to feel very comfortable just showing off all their wares knowing that they're not going to be disected for their faults. So the guide acts purely as a showcase. Headphone makers can submit all their gear for folks to have a look at; consumers get a dandy place to see the gear that's available; advertisers get to place ads in a book where their ads are just as interesting---and maybe more so---as the content of the pages; and SIM gets a property that sells ad space well, and sells well on the newsstand. It's a win-win-win-win situation. A nice little formula.

Byrnie's picture

Yea I guess I didn't understand before but i still plan on buying this :D

Impulse's picture

I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out... I think the initial the amp/DAC section could be expanded tho. From what I've seen this is a subject that's very very confusing for a lot of people, specially if they don't have much experience or exposure to computers, portable players etc. You'd be amazed how many grandpas, fathers etc get handed an iPod or hard drive full of music and that's their first encounter with digital outside of CDs...

Maybe some examples of the form factors DAC can come in or something? Like tiny portable ones vs desk units etc. Dunno, the basic concept is what could be fleshed out a little IMO, maybe cut the 414 history lesson as it serves no practical purpose to the average buyer... It'd sorta leave the Koss bit flailing but I dunno. I think you could add some mention of Bluetooth audio too, and integrated BT vs BT receivers etc.

It's hard to put oneself in the shoes of someone outside the hobby to see figure out what info's needed the most and what may not be so obvious to others... But even in the world of PC gaming (where you'd think people would have a pretty good grasp over some basic tech) I've noticed huge confusion over the concept of a DAC, amp, sound card, optical output, AVR, etc etc. (I realize a lot of that is well beyond the scope of this, but confusion usually stems from a misunderstanding of basic component concepts)

Should add some bit somewhere mentioning that many/most external USB DAC are fairly plug and play affairs too. It's not something that's inherently obvious. Just my 2c.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

It's a tough struggle, I think I've actually already gone over budget with words on that intro page, So, I'll likely have less not more words there. I agree with you though, explaining amps and DACs and their various form factors is a good call. Perhaps I might be able to expand on that subject in an article in the back of the book. I'll think about it.

A page on Bluetooth stuff might be good in the back as well.

I like the 414 spot, is a little break from dry info, maybe gives the reader of a sense of history re: headphones. I'd rather cut the PortaPro stuff instead. Anyway, cutting stuff on that page doesn't make more room on the amp page. Every intro gets a two-page spread, and that's it.

I'm glad you mentioned gaming, I'd certainly like to see a little copy devoted to the subject here and there, I'll try to work something in.

Good point on the USB PnP compatibility, I think I can fit a phrase in on the amp page somewhere.

moose's picture

Skimped through the guide. Only a few minor details:

  • Detachable cables are sometimes a deal breaker for people, maybe that can be included?
  • Different earpad and headband materials, and headband form factors could be added, like the spilt headband from the HD-25-1-II
  • Some (most of us "audiophile" types) people have more than one headphone. Some leave the rest hanging on a stand and let them look pretty, add a few of those too? Those wooden Sieveking omega shaped ones are great for photography.
  • Travel cases are included, but maybe mention that there are after market ones for IEMs and common DJ headphones? I know some folks use Pelican and Otterbox cases for their IEMs


So when can those living outside of the states get their hands on this magazine, if ever? An online ordering system would be great (and cheap).

Tyll Hertsens's picture

...detachable cables is in the product spec grids, but I'm not sure if that particular data point will end up on the list for things to display under the product pictures.  That's likely going to be very basic information, stuff like: Sealed or Open (or Noise Canceling); Price;Does it have a mic/remote; connector size. But spare cable is not too far down that list, so maybe. 

I don't know about foreign distribution. I'll let you know sometime this fall, I'll surely post when the guide is released and will give some details about availability then.

mikeaj's picture

I'm not particularly sure where these things would go, but here are some points that could need explaining:

  1. What kind of benefits more-expensive headphones might have; particularly if people haven't used any or are used to seeing and feeling certain celeb cans or maybe some other overpriced brands, it may not be apparent what you can gain in sound quality, comfort, durability, microphonics, etc.
  2. Circumaurals may not really be circumaural for all people, depending on ear size; to be honest, if individual headphone descriptions could include inner/outer dimensions of earpads and headphone weight, that would be something very useful to know.
  3. Okay, not so much of a good marketing point, but differences between speakers and headphones in terms of acoustics—headphones can't rattle the body with bass, and putting the speakers next to your head messes up the imaging of sounds produced and intended to be played back on speakers (where there's natural delayed crosstalk)

Some other initial thoughts:

  1. Yeah, I kind of see who the target audience is and the heritage of SIM, but... really? I guess you're probably not in charge of this, but the fonts, layout, and colors are rather hypermasculine and frankly look a bit ugly and overbearing; the blatant consumerism is unavoidable, but the product pictures spilling all over the place don't really help. Geez. Don't women listen to music too? Isn't this also a guide for moms and others to buy presents?
  2. I would either expand or contract the amps section (the full thing, not just the preview here). I'm only guessing blindly on how many pages you'd actually have covering it, but my guess is either too little or too many. Either give the full rundown or just a brief overview with links to resources. That's not to mention how many people have buying fatigue after getting a good headphone for the first time; then, a whole mob tells them they "have" to get a headphone amp for hundreds of dollars, where in reality it won't really make too much of a difference in their overall experience.
Tyll Hertsens's picture

1. & 3. I think there needs to be a section in the back called something like "Why Headphones" where, among other things, the relative value/cost of headphones vs. speakers is discussed, and something about he price of headphones not being very closely tied to sound quality. Should be able to mention some of the points you make.

2. It's a good point, but probably too fine for this guide. I agree makers should publish ear cup size.  I'll keep it in mind and maybe I can do something to influence makers.


1. Ha! Funny. Um...I reckon there's probably a pretty strong filter for this type of publication to be attractive primarily to males. How many females do you see at Head-Fi? And yes, SIM publishes for the "male enthusiast."  For thier "About SIM" page:

Source Interlink Companies, Inc., is a leading, integrated media, publishing, merchandising and logistics company, whose principal businesses are producing content for enthusiast audiences, primarily in the prized male 18 – 34 demographics, and effectively distributing magazine content of all kinds to retail locations in the United States and abroad.

And true, I have no control over the graphic look...and thank goodness for that, my graphic abilities suck. I agree it's bold and masculine, but I have to believe the SIM folks know way better than I what will jump off the newsstand.

2.I talked a bit about amps in a reply above, but I tend to agree that it's really tricky. I also agree that it's more important to tell people about how to buy a headphone than how to buy an amp. But you comment has me seeing the issue a bit differently now, thanks for that. I reckon all that info will end up in the back of the book.

veggieboy2001's picture

I think you nailed it! The only thing I can think of would be including one potential problem with IEM’s, namely earwax buildup. The use of filters and ear cleaning is essential to protect your investment. You did a great job with a ton of info! Thanks for all you do!!

Tyll Hertsens's picture

I will definately have a section on headphone saftey in the back.  The two main issues are music too loud and inattentional blindness. I might be able to include a section on ear-care there as well.

I've also though of having a section on how to insert and fit IEMs, and ear-care could go in with that as well. 

It's a good point, there should be something about it in the guide.

lafaard's picture

I really hope this guide will cover budget headphones in more detail. Many "budget" guides online strongly recommend dated headphones which underperform for the price like the koss portapro. I would buy them in a heartbeat if they were 20$ but for 50$ there is more competition than you think. Just look at the new philips downtown. On the other hand nobody mentions the criminally underrated JVCs such as the s400, s500 and the fx40. 

And about the font: Yeah, it looks very masculine. But whatever, tech magazines are pretty macho anyway. Just look at T3, Stuff and whathifi. It's just as irritating as the girly-ness of celebrity gossip, fashion or cooking magazines. Men like these things too.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

We want to include as many headphones as possible. I think 265 pages is going to fill up pretty quickly, however. What headphones go in the guide will in part be determined by the advertisers and headphone makers themselves. It's already been discussed in previous comments, but this is essentially a mens publication and the products that go in it will likely reflect that demographics needs. Presents for kids is a need for that demographic, so we'll see.

I'll mention that I'll likely have only minor influence on what headphones get included. 

Impulse's picture

I'm sure your contact with the sales/PR department is limited but I think if Tyll Hertsens emails a manufacturer and tells them they should get involved in a project like this then they'd at the very least consider it. For instance, it seems a company like Philips with some excellent low budget and mid range offerings would do well to get as much of their lineup represented as they can... Specially with their shelf space at retail seemingly shrinking as of late.

Big Al's picture

Awesome project to be a part of. I don't envy the great responsibility it brings. I hope to see my all time favorite in there...drum roll....the Sony MDR-V6. Maybe not the most stylish, but hard to beat for the money wouldn't you say?

Speaking of style, how do you think the magazine will deal with the new crop of "fashion headphones?" If I had to choose a pair of headphones based on looks alone, I suppose I would choose these:

Good luck and keep us posted of the progress!

Cami's picture

I have to say I was expecting the typical buyers guide that's more like a long list of ads to repeat and quote the slogans and hype of the manufacturers financing the publication. I'm positively surprised! Let's hope editing let's it stay that way.

I like the general and reader friendly tone, and the yet sufficiently clear and informing text, which manages to grab ones attention and shed some light. There is a good overall picture that manages to organize things without confusing anyone, and the eye-candy sure helps rub it in.

As the guide is intended to be more an introduction to the wide universe of headphones, v/s a what to buy or how to buy guide, I like the balanced tone, that on one hand informs the reader at a basic yet significant level, and that manages to stay relatively neutral regarding manufacturers and sponsors. Certainly a good dose of Tyll's diplomatic and cavalier character - a major plus I would say.

I think having it concise and clear is good, that's the right amount of info to make it a provocation for the reader to start digging a little deeper on his own. A list of references to websites and blogs like Innnerfidelity, The well Tempered Computer, Golden Ears or NwAvGuy are of course a good clues as to where to start digging (and show of the good and democratic will of the sponsors).

The only thing I would add to the Amp section - or perhaps introduce the Amp section with -, is a brief comment to pairing cans with Amps, and in one or max three sentences refer to impedance, sensitivity and efficiency. Not take the subject into depth or technically define the concepts, but nevertheless give the hint to these parameters when it comes to chosing an Amp for a pair of cans, and relate them to Ohms, output power and voltage. Finally these aspects are not just part of engineering headphone Amps, but also the reasons why Amps are needed.

Further on the - non-intrusive - technical aspect, regarding the "lush", "yummy" and "romantic" sound of tubes v/s the "tight", "clear" and "black-between-the-notes" sound of solid state, perhaps incorporating the reference to frequency response (which is already present in the noise-cancelling section) could be a good clue to be left there for the reader's further exploration.

I agree with making the classic reference to the comparative value of headphones v/s speakers, and that certainly makes a good and catchy starter. I think people largely underestimate headphones as gadgets that don't quite make it to hifi grade, but for those that are willing to give cans a try, there's certainly a surpise heading their way.

Gaming is of course a popular application one could include, but I would add it to the TV & movies section, and reserve an aditional section for innovative technologies that offer further niceties, like HRFT, DSP, Dolby surround or binaural recordings, etc.

That would be just about it.


atothex's picture

Good stuff as always, Tyll!

I realize your word limits probably feel a bit restrictive at the point, but when you think about the target demographic, I feel that putting a lot more emphasis on gaming applications would be very helpful. The people getting into quality headphones are often college kids and renters, and they're often male. These guys who are just getting into fancy headphones are the same ones getting the mechanical keyboards, expensive mousing surfaces, that kinda "nerdy" stuff. I was gonna write about all this stuff earlier, then I had to go out to a social function, and a bunch of guys beat me too the punch haha.

Impulse's picture

In the last year or two I've bought two mechanical keywords (one was a gift, I swear), about half a dozen pair of headphones (tho half of them were gifts, pinky swear!), and I replaced a fUnc mouse pad and Logitech mouse with identical models... Guess I'm a total nerd. :p Does a growing interest in micro 4/3 camera/lenses make me even more of a nerd or does that hobby straddle another line? I need to find some manly hobbies...

In all seriousness, gamers are usually hugely undeserved by gaming peripheral companies pushing a ton of underwhelming headsets at them, I gotta think this is one market some of the traditional or even mainstream headphone companies would love to reach. Even budget headphones tend to stomp headsets by Logitech, Razr, and other gaming/PC peripheral companies.

flatmap's picture

Nice idea to do this overall and might expand awareness that there are more than just one or two brands on the market.

Although aimed at an audience that buys on paper, you might consider links  to some of your existing videos -- or make some specifically for this project.  For example that explication about how to insert IEMs could be a short video.  There could be one that makes plain the difference in how circumaural and supraural 'phones fit on the ears.  Etc.

Another thought:  Could each manufacture put a little symbol on their spec sheet that clarifies "amp required" or "just fine out of your iPod".  Lot's of people are going to be thinking about these as extension of their portable music players -- and would be nice to sort that out for them.  Another thing in the spec sheet to highlight would be length of the cord.  And I'm sure this will be on the spec sheet, but many consumers new to the topic will not be tuned in to look for it.  The average iPod user will be surprised when ordering one these and finding that the cord is 2 meters...

Impulse's picture

You could encourage the editors to just include some QR codes for a lot of those situations that are better illustrated by video. I'm surprised print mags in general (specially those that already have an online presence) aren't making more use of this as a way to directly link and enhance content without resorting to truncated URLs etc.

Long time listener's picture

Speaking of attractive graphics, a headphone guide of this kind has been published for some years now in the Hong Kong/Taiwan region. One very helpful item it included to accompany text descriptions was a visual breakdown of headphone characteristics such as bass extension, treble clarity, midrange quality, comfort, isolation, ease of drive, etc. Rather than a bar graph, these were presented as pentagrams or star shapes within a circle. You could easily compare phones at a glance. The phones with the best bass response (or whatever) had arms on the pentagram that reached out the farthest toward the outer rim of the circle. You could save time by looking at this first and then delving further into the text for ones that interested you.

larsjunge's picture

Hello, this looks great! Will the magazine also be sold through so that overseas (European) readers also can get it? Or maybe through the zinio magazine app on the ipads, or ebook store?

ednaz's picture

One thing missing from most categorizations in headphone guides that are trying to help us shop is open versus closed.  Yes, all will reference it in the long text, but when looking to treat myself with new 'phones, my thought process is open, closed, in-ear.  Ear pad versus over ear tells me less about really basic sound characteristics, isolation, and application appropriateness than open vs closed vs in ear.

I need to replace a pair of open travel headphones (for room listening) and shopping site after site, there's no way to see the terrain of my open choices.

melvin's picture

I saw the ESW9 on the on-ear's section (I know it doesn't mean anything much) but is ESW9 not good enough to merit a review here on InnerFidelity? I thought they're lovely both on appearance and sound quality (they're musical in a sense I thought) but not much mentioned in the headphone forums.

As for the magazine, I live in Asia and still I'd love a copy. Even if it's a kindle version, I would still like it. :-)

GNagus's picture

They resemble the discontinued Sennheiser HD485

jr's picture


Not a specific response to the copy you've included (although I think you mean "losing--not loosing--track of their surroundings"); but a general appeal for how the information is acquired.  I believe it was after the demise of Audio magazine that Stereophile (and The Absolute Sound) began publishing equipment directories.  Whereas Audio's directories were heroically complete, Stereophile's was--and I imagine is if it still publishes one--incomplete to the point of uselessness.  Major and minor players were excluded.  Nothing nefarious: as I understand it, appeals were sent for information that many companies just didn't or couldn't find the time to return.  But Stereophile should have pursued the companies more ardently.  It would be a terrific surprise if your publication was significantly more complete than, say, Jude's Christmas recommendations at Head-Fi.  (I'd hate, for instance, to miss off the wall phones like Aedle's.)

Good luck on the project, and thanks for what you do for the hobby.  Oh, and great idea above about some indication of amp/headphone compatibility: just a recommendation from the amp manufacturer of the impedance range the amp serves.

HK_sends's picture

Looking forward to checking this out when it releases!



-HK sends

ScaryFatKidGT's picture

I trust that you will do a good job, your pretty good at realizing when a headphone is good but just not for you and when they just sound like shit like the beats pro vs. solos

RobertErickson's picture


Speaking of style, how do you think the magazine will deal with the new crop of "sports headphones?" If I had to choose a pair of headphones based on looks alone, I suppose I would choose these:

Good luck and keep us posted of the progress!

TimD's picture

     Hey Tyll, being that the magazine will not offer recommendations; can you give me any recommendations for good gaming headsets? or give me any links to sites that you trust in reviewing gaming headsets? Im currently not aware of any site that reviews gaming headsets as thoroughly as review headsets. Any help would be greatly appreciated. : )

Rabbit's picture

Tyll, when it's published, is it going to be available only in the USA or is there a way to get copies over to UK?