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Headphone features explained

10 February 2022

Closed headphones or open headphones? Wireless or cabled? We explain the important headphone features to consider so you can buy the perfect pair of headphones for you.

Pair of headphones
You’ll find good quality headphones at all price points from a wide range of companies.

A quality pair of headphones will make listening to your music a real pleasure. When it comes to choosing a pair of headphones, you’re typically faced with an overwhelming choice of models with different features and specifications. You’ll find good quality headphones at all price points from a wide range of companies. When it comes to shopping for headphones, the choice of models can be overwhelming. From small earbuds for listening on the go to large models that let you enjoy your music at home, there are lots of models from brands such as Sony, Bose, Sennheiser and Philips.

To add to the choice, headphones have a range of features – from onboard controls and mobile phone functionality to noise cancellation and wireless operation – which can make choosing the right headphones for you a challenge. Take time to select the right pair of headphones for you and the result will be the perfect combination of sound quality, comfort and style.

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What headphone type is best for you?

The four main types of headphones are earbuds, in-ear, on-ear and over-ear. Small and cheap, earbuds are commonly included as a freebie with smartphones and portable music players.

In-ear models extend into the ear canal and some come with clips to help them fit more securely on the ears – handy when listening to music while exercising. Although lightweight and portable, neither earbuds or in-ear headphones offer the sound quality of large headphones.

On-ear headphones sit on the ear, while over-ear models completely cover the ear to avoid noise interference from the outside world.


Cheap and portable, these tiny earpieces are often bundled with smartphones and music players, with the iconic white Apple earbuds being a particular favourite. They sit just inside the ear without sealing the ear canal, which makes them prone to sound leakage (which can be a benefit for bass-heavy music) and the sound they emit is poor compared with other headphone types. Comfort and fit varies across models with many prone to falling out of the ear, so they’re not suitable if you’re exercising. They're a good option for anyone who finds in-ear headphones uncomfortable but wants something small and lightweight.

In-ear headphones

Thanks to their portability, in-hear, or canalphones, are the most popular headphones and often come bundled with smartphones. They've seen huge jumps in quality over the years as technology improves. They sit deep in the ear canal and produce good quality sound though they can struggle at the bass end. Some models offer noise cancellation, making them suitable for travelling. However, some users find them uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time.

On-ear headphones

On-ear headphones, also known as supra-aural headphones or earpad headphones, consist of foam or leatherette pads that sit flat on the ear covering just the ear canal. Many are lightweight and foldable, which makes them more portable than over-ear models. However, as they don’t form a proper seal, they allow ambient noise to leak inside and their audio performance isn’t a match for over-ear models, particularly with bass frequencies. Many people find them more comfortable than over-ear headphones as they create less pressure, so they're a good all-rounder for someone wearing headphones for several hours a day.

Over-ear headphones

Over-ear headphones, or circumaural headphones, have large cushioned cups that cover the entire ear, making them comfortable to wear, although they can be heavy. Available with either closed or open backs, they deliver excellent sound quality. With increased airflow, open-backed headphones offer phenomenal sound with exceptional bass, while a closed design eliminates outside noise completely providing excellent noise isolation. Over-ear headphones are heavier and bulkier than other models so they’re best kept for use at home.

Additional headphone features to consider

Noise cancelling headphones

External noise can intrude when using ordinary headphones. But this is where noise-cancelling headphones come in: they typically use special technology to analyse external sounds and effectively block them out. Noise-cancelling headphones use tiny microphones and battery-powered electronics to virtually eliminate background noise so you can listen to your audio with annoying interruptions.

These headphones aren’t cheap but they’re ideal for anyone who travels in noisy environments such as flights, or who enjoys being fully immersed in their music, game or film.

Noise isolating headphones

Unlike noise-cancelling headphones’ active approach, noise-isolating headphones passively block ambient room noise by creating seals around the ear or in the ear canal. 

With over-ear headphones, this takes the form of soft, thick foam on the ear pad to keep noise out, while in-ear headphones effectively form a seal within the ear canal, blocking external sounds. 

Noise isolating offers safer listening, as users don’t have to whack up the volume to drown out external noise.

Closed-back headphones

Also known as sealed headphones, the back of these over-ear or on-ear headphones are fully closed, which helps blocks ambient noise and at the same time avoid sound leakage. 

Noise-cancelling and noise-isolating headphones typically use closed designs. They're often favoured by musicians or music fans wanting an immersive experience without sound leakage. They can be bulky for listening on-the-go but are ideal for anyone wanting a private listening experience that doesn't disturb others in the vicinity.

Open-back headphones

With these over-ear or on-ear headphones, the back of the ear cups is open or vented, typically showing the internal circuity behind a mesh. Although this allows people nearby to hear your music, the increased air flow delivers realistic sound with natural bass reproduction, and in fact is intended to somewhat replicate the authentic sound of listening to music over speakers. For this reason they're popular with audio engineers when mixing and mastering, and audiophiles who want to listen to the intended sound.

Semi-open headphones

Some headphones combine the best of both worlds with semi-open back, which feature only a small opening with slight sound leakage that avoids the low frequency build-up that can happen with closed-back headphones, but without being too noisy.


Wireless headphones remove the need to be connected to an audio source. They let you enjoy your music anywhere without trailing or tangled cables, so they’re perfect for sports and outdoor listening. 

Two main types of wireless technologies are used to transmit the sound wirelessly over short distances from the audio source: infrared or Bluetooth. Most wireless headphones use Bluetooth as it’s easy to use and reliable. Bluetooth functionality is standard on many smartphones, laptops and other mobile devices which makes syncing with a Bluetooth-enabled headphones quick and easy.

Wireless headphones tend to cost more than wired and they will need charging, but they're a good option for those who want to listen to headphones while walking around at home or who don't want wires dangling off them when out and about.

In-line volume control 

Usually found towards the top of a headphone cable, this lets you change volume, skip tracks and stop your music playing. Many have microphones that allow you to talk on the phone, make voice recordings, dictate and speak commands to Siri, and other voice-control software. They can also be used on laptops for Zoom calls.


A headphone design where the headband hangs around the nape of your neck.

Folding design 

Many on-ear and over-ear headphones have headbands that folds in on themselves so that they can be easily stored when travelling.

Detachable cable

With headphones often facing frequent use on the move it's not uncommon for the wire to get damage and stop the headphones working. Some models have a detachable cable that can easily be replaced when broken, meaning a worn out cable doesn't consign your pricey headphones to the bin.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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