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Beauty, we're told, is in the beholder's eye. But what about the ear? We tend to think of the aural aesthetic as emerging in the late 1970s and early 1980s when headphones came bundled with personal stereos. Smaller, lighter earphones, so conventional wisdom goes, appeared some time later as portable devices became smaller.
In fact, both types of listening devices have been around for well over a century, which shows that even in the early days, people had personal preferences for how they received their sound. Fast forward a hundred years and not that much has changed. Which type of device you favor hinges on a variety of considerations. Let's look at some of them.
An Open and Shut Case
Headphones themselves can be split into two main categories: supra-aural and circumaural. The former, which are also known as on-ear headphones, are the kind that feature a pad that presses against the ear. Soul's TRANSFORM, IMPACT OE and ULTRA models are examples of supra-aural/on-ear headphones. Circumaural phones, which are variously referred to as over-ear, over-the-ear or full-sized headphones, generally have an ellipsoid shape that completely covers the ear. Examples of this type of headphone would be the SOUL XTRA Wireless and COMBAT+.
The main advantages are on-ear headphones are two-fold. First, they generally allow for a more natural sound. Some on-ear phones feature an open-cup or open-back design that allows air and outside noise to filter through. Even where an open-back design is not incorporated, many sound aficionados actually prefer this kind of headphone as they feel it gives them a more earthy, realistic feel – kind of like listening to your music on a speaker.
Of course, the downside to this is your listening experience might be disturbed when you're in a location where there's a lot of ambient noise. By the same token, just as these phones let more sound in, they also let more out. While you can hear him chattering away to his girlfriend, the guy standing next to you on the subway can hear the bass lines and drum beats on every tune you're pumping.
Portability is the other plus point for on-ear headphones. Supra-aural models are usually more lightweight and compact than their circumaural cousins. However, the recent trend in over-ear models toward foldable designs, such as that employed by the SOUL X-TRA Wireless, have rendered this advantage less clear-cut.
If you're the kind of person who wants complete isolation from the outside world, circumaural phones are the way to go. It stands to reason that the ear-encompassing design of these phones makes them much more effective at blocking out extraneous noise. While supra-aural phones create the feeling that the sound is coming from around you, over-ear headphones make it seem like the music is inside your head.
Models such as the SOUL JET PRO take noises reduction to the next level by including noise cancellation technology, which uses microphones on the outside of the ear-pad to pick up and actively block sounds coming in from the outside.
Overall, a good pair of circumaural headphones is the best choice for specific users. Studio professionals, for example, might need to keep the voices and noises of the people they are working with out. The same goes for online gamers, who will favor over-ear headphones because the sound doesn't leak out and get in the way of any microphone activity.
Lend Me an Ear
When it comes to audio, things are never simple. Just as headphones can be split into different categories, so too can earphones.
These days, the term earbuds is used rather generically to mean anything listening device that can be inserted into the ear, but this is actually incorrect. Earbuds technically refer to the type of earphone that sits on, rather than in, the ear canal. In theory, they are kept in place by a part of the ear known as the concha ridge (that rigid bit of cartilage that sticks out an an angle). At the lower end of the market, these phones are generally one-size-fits-all designs, which means they don't rate highly in terms of comfort and secure fit. Some models comes with loops, wings or hooks to address this latter issue.
Like open-back headphones, earbuds usually let in a fair amount of ambient noise. In everyday, urban environments, this is sometimes seen as a benefit. Some users might not want to completely block out the world around them. Being able to pay attention to one's surroundings is a blessing when rushing to work down a crowded street or jogging in the park. In general, though, the sound quality one gets with earbuds is much weaker than with other devices – tinny is a an adjective that is frequently employed.
For comfort, fit and audio quality, true earphones – or in-ear headphones as they are known – are where it's at. As the term in-ear indicates, these phones fit right into the ear canal. They usually feature tips or cushions to maximize comfort and top-notch models such as the SOUL Run Free Pro HD might feature ear locks that guarantee the earphones stay in place. In fact, as you can see here, the Run Fee Pro has a range of cushion, tip and lock options for all ear shapes and sizes.
Another advantage of in-ear models is that they are more akin to over-ear headphones in terms of blocking outside noise. A potential downside is the possibility of long-term hearing impairment from having music delivered right into one's ear canals. As with any type of electroacoustic device, caution is advised when handling and adjusting volume.
The obvious advantages of both earbuds and earphones are their size and portability. They're perfect for travellers looking to save space and also understandably popular with athletes and casual fitness enthusiasts. After all, no one wants a clunky, cumbersome lump on their head while working out. That said, many headphone sets these days, including most of SOUL's models, are designed to be less obtrusive, so weight, size and compactness are less of an issue than in times gone by.
A century after personal audio wear was first developed, there are more choices than ever. What best fits you is a matter of personal taste. Hopefully some of the considerations listed here will have given you some useful pointers.
Headphones: The complete history Advantages of On-Ear compared to Over-Ear and IEM?
"Open" and "Closed" Headphones Explained, and Which You Should Buy
Earbuds vs. Headphones
Headphones: In-ear vs Over-ear or On-ear