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Circumaural vs. Supra Aural Headphones: Which is Better?

Circumaural vs. supra aural headphones
Circumaural vs. supra aural headphones

Wondering about the differences between circumaural vs supra-aural headphones? Check out our attempt at getting a clear-cut answer to which one you should get.

You may have heard the terms circumaural and supra-aural getting thrown around a lot. If you’re new to the headphones scene, you may be a little bit curious about what they mean and the differences between the two.

It’s even more confusing if you’re trying to make a decision on which headphones to buy. Audiophiles tend to prefer circumaural headphones, but supra-aural ones are easier to travel with.

Hoping to add a more decisive answer to which one between these two types you should pick, we’re going to compare circumaural and supra-aural headphones for you. Let’s dive right in.

What Are Circumaural Headphones

Circumaural headphones are headphones with ear cups that can surround your ears – you may know them as over-ear headphones. Due to the larger driver size, circumaural headphones are often bulkier than other form factors. But these headphones make up for the lack of portability with superb sound quality.

The world’s first stereo headphones, Koss SP/3, were a pair of over-the-ear or circumaural headphones. They were invented in 1958by John C. Koss in Milwaukee.
 
Wearing circumaural headphones
Wearing circumaural headphones

Pros and cons of circumaural headphones

What We Like
  • Great comfort for the ears
  • Excellent noise cancellation
  • Sound leakage prevention
  • Amazing sound quality
  • Refined listening experience
  • Higher maximum bass and volume potential
What We Don't Like
  • Heavy and bulky
  • Lack of portability
  • More expensive
  • Can overheat on prolonged use
  • Wide headbands can be uncomfortable
  • Loose grip

Circumaural headphones are heavily regarded as the most comfortable form factor for the ears. In most cases, your ears won’t even get in contact with the ear cups. As a result, your ears won’t be sore even after prolonged use.

Their large ear cups also form a seal around your ears, which helps with noise cancellation. They also have bigger drivers with a broader range of frequencies, making them suitable for studio use.

But due to the larger ear cups, circumaural headphones are typically bulkier. In other words, it’s not ideal to use them for physical activities or carry them on your daily commutes.

Circumaural headphones are typically more expensive than other form factors due to the larger audio drivers, physical body, and packaging, which cost more to manufacture.

Aside from that, the tight seals can also get your ears quite warm after prolonged use. Some over-ear headphones also have a wide headband and weigh more than other types, which can be uncomfortable at times.

For a better idea of what circumaural headphones are, and how they generally perform, check out our reviews on some of them:

What Are Supra Aural Headphones

Supra-aural headphones are headphones with ear cups designed to rest on your ears instead of around your ears. You may also know supra-aural headphones as on-ear headphones.

Due to their smaller ear cups, supra-aural headphones are typically more compact and portable than circumaural models. But on the other hand, the smaller drivers tend to have lower sound quality.

Sony Walkman TPS-L2, the gadget that revolutionized music on the go, came with a pair of proprietary supra-aural headphones.
Wearing supra-aural headphones
Wearing supra-aural headphones

Pros and cons of supra-aural headphones

What We Like
  • Better portability
  • Lightweight and compact
  • Suitable for daily use
  • More affordable
  • Better air circulation
What We Don't Like
  • Less bass
  • Sound leakage
  • Lack of noise isolation
  • Can be uncomfortable
  • Less secure grip

Thanks to the smaller form factor, supra-aural headphones are easier to carry around in your daily activities. They are lightweight and compact, which means you can just toss them into a laptop bag without taking too much space.

But since they just rest on your ears, you won’t get that complete sound isolation and cancellation from supra-aural headphones. On the flip side, these headphones are more suitable in situations where you need to be aware of your surroundings, like at the office or in public places.

The on-ear design also allows air to pass through the gap between the ear cups and your ears. It means that your ears won’t be as warm as they would with circumaural headphones.

But you may also feel sore after using supra-aural headphones for a couple of hours, depending on the fit. And due to how they rest on your ears, they may slide around and require frequent position adjustments.

If you’re looking to get a pair of supra-aural headphones, here are some of the models that we’ve reviewed:

Circumaural vs. Supra Aural: Which Is Better

Circumaural vs. supra aural headphones
Circumaural vs. supra aural headphones

There’s always someone asking the question about which one is better, but there’s no right answer.

Why? Because both circumaural and supra-aural headphones are excellent in their own turfs.

While the bigger drivers in circumaural can deliver excellent sound quality, their clunky form factor is less than ideal for travel. On the other hand, supra-aural headphones are compact and portable, but they’re not as comfortable as circumaural.

To objectively judge the best between the two, let’s talk about specific aspects of each form factor.

Design

Winner: Draw

Circumaural headphones are bulkier than supra-aural ones, so there’s more room to experiment with the visual aspect. The Beoplay H6, Steelseries Arctis 9x, and Gold Planar GL200 are some of the circumaural headphones with a stylistic design that makes them fashion-worthy.

However, we can’t exactly say that supra-aural headphones aren’t aesthetically pleasing. Since supra-aural headphones are designed for daily use, brands like Beats have produced fashionable and celebrity-endorsed headphones like the Solo3 and Solo Pro.

Comfort

Winner: Circumaural

The use of memory foam has improved the comfort of supra-aural headphones from a few years ago. But since they still sit on your ears, prolonged use can lead to mild discomfort or pain around the sides of your head.

Circumaural headphones are much more comfortable for long listening sessions. Instead of resting directly on your ears, their ear cups simply circle around them.

However, if you have a closed-back model, chances are your ears will sweat after a few hours of usage in exchange for better sound isolation.

Portability

Winner: Supra-aural

Since supra-aural headphones are typically smaller than circumaural, they are much easier to carry as you go about your day.

However, while circumaural models are clunkier, the technology advancement has made them more portable. You can now find circumaural headphones with Bluetooth connectivity and foldable designs, making them portable enough for most.

Either way, supra-aural headphones will always have better portability due to the smaller ear cups size.

The portability of supra-aural headphones also contribute to their comfortability. The general consensus in the community is that headphones that weigh below 0.55lbs are considered light, and above 0.75lbs are considered heavy.

Isolation

Winner: Circumaural

Supra-aural headphones only sit on your ears, which means they don’t block external sound as well as circumaural headphones. But with newer models having memory foam that adjust to the shape of your ears, there shouldn’t be too much external audio getting into them either.

However, circumaural headphones are miles better when it comes to sound isolation. The larger ear cups allow you to get much better sound isolation and hear the best and purest sound quality.

Sound leakage

Winner: Circumaural

On-ear headphones usually have sound leakage problems since the ear cups don’t sit on a flat surface. On the other hand, the earcups on circumaural headphones wrap around your ears, which means the sound they produce is isolated inside the ear cup area.

Audio quality

Winner: Circumaural

The bigger drivers in circumaural headphones have a wider range of frequencies, which means you’ll get deeper lows and smoother highs. Supra-aural headphones have been improving as well, but the fact remains that they have smaller drivers who tend to have a narrower frequency range.

Price

Winner: Supra-aural

Circumaural headphones can get super expensive. For example, the Sennheiser HE-1 is a pair of open-back circumaural headphones that cost $59,000. And while there are high-end supra-aural headphones that can break your bank just as easily, they’re generally more affordable than circumaural models.

How to Decide Which Headphone Form You Should Get

Shopping for headphones
Shopping for headphones

The best way to know which form factor to get is by deciding what you want to use your headphones for.

In a perfect world, you should have several pairs of headphones for different situations. But that’s not always the case.

You should pick headphones from the form factor that’s best suited for your needs. Below is a list of who should use a specific type of headphones and some sample situations.

Who should get circumaural headphones?

Music producers and DJs

Circumaural headphones can deliver more accurate sound, which is crucial for music production and audio mixing. The sound isolation also helps block any external noise that may disrupt the sound accuracy.

Home office workers

If you’re working from home and want to get the best music listening experience, circumaural headphones are for you. While you’re at home, you can afford to be less aware of your surroundings.

Circumaural, closed-back headphones can also help you block out potential distractions (TV sounds, the laundry, your kids, etc) so you can focus on your work.

Audiophiles and musicians

Musicians and audiophiles have one thing in common: their ears can pick up minor details in the sounds. If you are a musician or an audiophile, chances are you want your music to sound as clear as possible. Circumaural headphones can help you achieve that better than any other form factor because of their larger ear cups and drivers.

Sound leakage can lead to a recording problem called bleeding. That’s why it’s better for musicians to wear closed-back circumaural headphones which are less prone to sound leakage. Read more about it here: Why Do Musicians Wear Headphones?

Frequent flyers

The sound of airplane engines is loud, and the air pressure during flights can be very uncomfortable for your ears. If you’re a frequent flyer, a pair of circumaural headphones will be your ears’ best friend as soon as you get on board. Plus, you can listen to your favorite songs with top-notch quality during your flights.

Active-noise canceling headphones are the best for long flights. They’ll allow you to enjoy your trip without the humming noise of airplane engines or the pressure discomfort of high-altitude flights.

Who should get supra-aural headphones?

Daily commuters

If you want to listen to good music while commuting to work on public transport, a pair of supra-aural headphones are a perfect choice. They can deliver better sound quality than earbuds, but still, let you be aware of your surroundings.

Athletes and people with active lifestyles

Since the first Walkman was released, listening to music on the go has evolved to be a habit for athletes and people with active lifestyles. Supra-aural headphones offer the perfect balance between portability and audio quality, making them an ideal choice to wear while doing physical activities.

Travelers

If you travel a lot, chances are you’re getting good at packing your belongings in bags and suitcases. Supra-aural headphones are compact and lightweight, allowing you to save more space in your backpack or suitcase.

Conclusion

There’s really no right answer when it comes to which form factor is better. The fact is, neither is better than the other. It all comes down to how you want to use your headphones.

If you prefer high-fidelity audio, then circumaural headphones are the way to go. But you’ll be sacrificing portability and have to settle with bigger and clunkier headphones. But if you want to listen to your music with decent quality during your commutes or travels, then supra-aural headphones are the better choice.

There’s no perfect pair of headphones that can deliver the best of all aspects. There’s only the right choice, and it is always subjective to your personal use case scenario for your headphones.

Whichever one you end up getting, you will get an advantage in exchange for a disadvantage. If you have any questions or thoughts about circumaural and supra-aural headphones, feel free to leave a comment down below.

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