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When I plug headphones into my Windows 10 laptop, the system asks me what I installed, and particularly, whether the headphones are "earbuds", "on-ear" or "over-ear".

I was not sure exactly what to choose (I have some old headphones and not sure if they are called "on ear" or "over ear") so I tried all three options and did not notice any difference.

What is the difference between choosing "on ear" vs. "over ear"? (and what is the difference between this and choosing "earbuds"?)

  • 15
    To clear up the terminology: over-ear refers to headphones with large cups that fully enclose or surround your ears, on-ear are similar in style but have smaller cups and sit on your ear lobes instead. Some people, especially those with glasses, have problems with over-ear headphones while on-ear headphones can have more problems with audio leak due to the less head-sealed and softer nature of the design. I'd suspect that on-ear headphones might need more of a volume boost to deal with environmental sound but don't really know why windows cares hence only a comment. – Mokubai Jan 7 at 10:19
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    I wear glasses and it's on-ear headphones that cause me issues. They squish the ear over the eyeglass temple, which hurts after a while. I suppose it varies though. – Carl Kevinson Jan 7 at 15:44
  • @Mokubai Small correction: on-ear headphones sit on the whole ear, not just the lobe. – wjandrea Jan 7 at 16:08
48

I have a Dell laptop with an audio controller tool MaxxAudioPro, and these pictures are what it shows on plugging in the headphones.

Earbuds pic
(Earbuds)

On-ear pic
(On-ear)

Over-ear pic
(Over-ear)

Depending on how the tool optimizes the sound quality regarding the headphone/headset type, you might get different depth, bass, detail, etc. the differences might be unrecognizable in some cases, but you can apply different settings to each type. For instance, I like high bass. For the earbuds, I set max bass. As the over-ear already has a good bass, I have set it to mid.

  • 12
    Good answer. I'd add that generally as the cup size goes up you can use larger speakers that moves the performance down towards the bass frequencies. Smaller speakers tend to be better at high frequencies and needs good mechanical design and a little boost from the incoming signal to compensate. – Mokubai Jan 7 at 10:36
  • I think the main reason they ask is not for EQ, but rather for the spatial audio plugins included in Windows 10 (Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos), or via your laptop`s audio controller. You can turn those on and off by right-clicking the mixer icon in the notification area. The type of headphones or the position of speakers has a greater impact for those calculations. – Drunken Code Monkey Jan 7 at 21:20
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    I wonder how you turn off all this guff and get to listen 1:1 without any "corrections". With a decent set of headphones, we really don't want anything interfering with the signal path. – spender Jan 8 at 11:40
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    @DrunkenCodeMonkey I don't think it's about EQ, it's about driver impedance. Some modern sound cards or chipsets may support changing their output impedance to better match the larger, higher impedance drivers in over-ear studio or reference headsets. Windows should be explicit about it if that's the case (ie: the option should be "Low-Z", "Mid-Z", "High-Z", or some such) because it's very possible to get high impedance, high end in-ear monitors which should use the same settings, for example, as the larger over-ear sets. – J... Jan 8 at 13:22
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    @wizzwizz4 Tragic, I know. I ran into this recently with FFXV having a weird audio setting with options "Television" and "Home Theater" - what the option actually did was switch between Stereo and 5.1 output. It hurt my brain to have to look this setting up only to realize they'd dumbed it down so much that it was completely unclear what the setting actually did. Welcome to the future (sigh)... – J... Jan 8 at 19:35

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