Greetings mate and Welcome aboard! Stuart Charles here, HomeStudioBasics.com helping YOU make sound decisions, so…
When it comes to choosing the perfect pair of headphones for your audio needs, understanding the fundamental differences between Circumaural and Supra-Aural headphones is crucial.
These two headphone designs, often referred to as “Over-Ear” and “On-Ear,” offer distinct listening experiences, comfort levels, and use cases.
The decision between the two ultimately boils down to your personal preferences, intended usage, and how you prioritize factors like sound isolation, sound quality, portability, and comfort.
In this discussion, we will delve into the disparities between Circumaural and Supra-Aural headphones, exploring their design characteristics, sound-related attributes, portability, and, most notably, the comfort differences that play a pivotal role in determining which style of headphones best suits your unique listening habits and lifestyle.
Whether you seek a cocoon of audio immersion or a balance between portability and audio quality, understanding these distinctions will help you make an informed choice that enhances your auditory experience.
With that, let’s dive in!
Circumaural (Over-Ear) Headphones
Circumaural headphones, also known as Around-Ear, have larger cups that completely encircle the ears.
They are designed to fit around the outer edges of your ears without putting pressure on them.
Even so, some headphones possess the technical label of Circumaural, even despite the cups being a bit small for such a moniker.
A good example of this is the Oppo PM-3. While comfortable, its cups will touch the ears a little to a lot depending on the size of your auricles.
The Sony MDR-7506 also suffers from this issue, as I would classify it as a cross between the 2 types. Though marketed as Circumaural they tend to rest more on your ears.
In other words, they don’t touch your ears at all while fitting rather snugly and providing plenty of space inside for even the largest of auricles.
So if you’re like me and have ears the size of Texas, you’re in luck!
Over-ear headphones typically offer better passive noise isolation due to their larger ear cups, which help in blocking out external sounds.
This does depend on whether they’re closed or open, but generally speaking, you can expect at least some isolation with an around-the-ear fit.
- Recommended: Closed Back vs. Open Back Headphones
The Circumaural variety is generally considered more comfortable for extended listening sessions because they distribute the headphone’s weight evenly around the ears.
This is probably the most important thing to consider.
Out of 130+ demoed units, I’ve found that Circumaural headphones, concerning comfort, are superior to Supra-Aural 99.9% of the time.
I can’t really think of an On-Ear headphone off the top of my head (no pun intended) that I’d prefer over an Over-Ear one in terms of raw comfort.
There’s simply no contest.
Over-ear headphones often have larger drivers, which can lead to better sound quality, deeper bass, and a more immersive audio experience.
- Related: What is a Headphone Driver?
Again, some of this also depends on the model.
For instance, the HD25 provides one of the most immersive and engaging experiences I’ve ever heard, but it’s Supra-Aural and rests on your ears.
Size and Portability
Circumaural headphones are typically bulkier and less portable than on-ear headphones.
They may not be as suitable for on-the-go use, but again, it depends on the model in question.
Circumaural headphones that fold up are ideal for those who value a more premium comfort experience but need something for travel.
Off the top of my head, the AKG K371 is a great example of this.
Heat and Sweating
Due to the enclosed design, on-ear headphones can sometimes cause the ears to become warm and sweaty during extended use, especially in hotter climates or in a gym setting.
This is also true of Circumaural headphones, but in my opinion to a lesser extent.
I suppose this depends on your genetics and sweat habits (lol) but I’ve found that on-ear headphones collect moisture a lot faster than over-ear ones do.
And this is coming from a guy who doesn’t sweat all that easily.
Supra-Aural (On-Ear) Headphones
Supra-Aural headphones have smaller cups that sit directly on the surface of the ears. They do not completely envelop the ears but rest on them.
On-ear headphones generally provide less effective noise isolation compared to over-ear headphones because they do not completely seal the ears from external sounds.
That said, headphones like the HD25 do about as good of a job as you can expect, and surprisingly block out a considerable amount of noise. This is of course the exception and not the rule.
Comfort can vary widely among different on-ear headphones.
Some users find them less comfortable for prolonged use because they can exert pressure on the ears, leading to discomfort or fatigue.
Again, out of all the On-Ear headphones I’ve ever demoed or owned, every single one of them put pressure on the ears to the point of having to take them off.
This can range anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, but generally speaking, and in terms of the most comfortable On-Ear only, I’d say any Grado headphone that utilizes S-Cushions are probably your best bet.
They don’t dig nearly as much as other On-Ear offerings, and the padding is pretty soft all things considered.
While on-ear headphones can provide good sound quality, they may not have the same level of bass response or noise isolation as their over-ear counterparts.
This to me entirely depends on the headphones’ tuning, drivers, etc. but yeah, you’ll be getting next to nothing in terms of isolation, so bear that in mind.
Size and Portability
On-ear headphones are typically more compact and portable than over-ear headphones, making them a better choice for travel or use in situations where portability is important.
That said, as with the K371 discussed earlier, there are certainly exceptions to this.
Not every On-Ear is supremely portable, and not every Over-Ear should only be used in the studio. It just depends on the design and manufacturer.
A perfect example is the Grado we just discussed. I would never travel with those even despite them being On-Ear.
The cabling is simply too bulky and fragility is also a concern with Grado products – depending on who you ask.
I’ve heard both horror stories and “til death do us part” tales, so keep that in mind.
Let’s delve a bit deeper into comfort.
Because it’s a subjective aspect, individual preferences play a significant role in determining which type of headphones are more comfortable for you.
If you prefer a more immersive listening experience and don’t mind the bulkier design, Circumaural (Over-Ear) headphones are often considered more comfortable for extended use due to their even weight distribution and cushioned ear cups.
On the other hand, if you prioritize portability and don’t mind some pressure on your ears, Supra-Aural (On-Ear) headphones might be a better choice, especially for on-the-go use.
Also, take into account your typical listening session duration. Do you listen to music in bursts or chunks?
An On-Ear might be completely fine if you don’t plan to wear it for a long time.
Are you more of a marathoner?
If that’s the case, I would seldom recommend you an On-Ear – unless of course, you’re into Metal music.
For that, I recommend the HD25 every day of the week and twice on Sunday, homie!
Keep in mind that factors like head shape, ear size, and the specific design of the headphones can also influence comfort.
Trying on both types of headphones before making a decision is advisable, especially if you plan on using them for extended periods.
Ultimately, the choice between circumaural and supra-aural headphones depends on your personal preferences, listening habits, and intended use.
Both types have their advantages and limitations, so it’s essential to consider your priorities when selecting the most comfortable option for your needs.
Ultimately, whether you opt for circumaural or supra-aural headphones, the world of sonic bliss awaits you.
Interested in my top picks for the most comfortable headphones of all time?
Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed this Circumaural vs. Supra-Aural Headphone Discussion and came away with some valuable insight.
Which type of headphone are you more inclined to purchase? I would love to hear from you…
All the best and God bless,