If you're in the market for headphones, you've probably seen the terms circumaural and supra-aural being thrown around. But what do these terms mean, and how are they different from over-ear and on-ear headphones? Which ones are better? Well, let us clear the air. These are the differences and specific benefits of each of these headphone styles:
Circumaural simply means the headphones completely surround the ear, so they seal the ear off from the environment. People with large ears might argue this, but they should sit fully around the ear so your ears don't touch the cups at all. The term over-ear headphones typically refers to circumaural headphones. Classic examples are the Audio Technica ATH-M50x monitoring headphones.
This type of headphone is widely regarded as full-size and the best quality headphone style you can get. They can be large and bulky, but the over-ear style offers the best comfort, sound leakage protection, noise canceling, and sound quality.
As the headphones themselves are usually larger, they tend to have bigger drivers and more advanced audio technology than their smaller counterparts. This allows them to deliver accurate and detailed audio playback with high frequency ranges, as well as reach higher volume potential and a boomier bass. If you're looking for an immersive high fidelity sound experience, circumaural is the way to go.
Of course, as they create a full seal from the outside environment, circumaural headphones also have greater noise canceling capabilities. With a high quality pair, you'll probably even notice a significant amount of noise canceling just by putting them out, with or without power. Additionally, comfort is a big factor with headphones if you plan on wearing them extensively, and circumaural headphones offer the best comfort without question. Depending on your ear size and shape, it can be hard to find a pair of headphones that is truly comfortable after hours of use, but over-ear headphones are more likely to deliver that as they don't rest on your ears and bend them, causing ear pain over time.
Now you're probably wondering, why would I choose any other headphone style? Well, the drawback of the quality that circumaural headphones offer is in size and portability. It's simply not possible to make a pair of headphones with all of those features that are as small as an on-ear headphone. If you want advanced drivers, noise cancellation, or a comfortable fit, the headphones are going to be heavy and large. Aesthetics are also worth mentioning -- some people aren't into the giant headphone look, so if you're not comfortable being seen in public with a product, why buy it? If your motivation is having a pair of headphones that is super easy to travel with and you don't care as much about audio drivers, you might be interested in a smaller style. It's also worth mentioning that circumaural headphones are typically the more expensive style since they are larger and include more advanced audio technologies.
Supra-aural headphones also do what the name implies -- they sit on top of the ear. These are also known as on-ear headphones. As you might expect, the hallmarks of supra-aural headphones are the opposite of circumaural. What they sacrifice in audio quality and comfort, they make up for in aesthetics, size, and portability. Check out the Samson RTE2 for an example.
That being said, on-ear headphones still offer fantastic audio quality for a consumer headphone, and can still have tons of convenient features like wireless connection and built-in microphones. If you don't understand what audio drivers do, then supra-aural headphones are probably going to offer great playback quality for you. But, if you're more of an audiophile and you care more about the meat and potatoes than the fancy extras, on-ear headphones will probably not impress you.
Back to the benefits: supra-aural headphones are much easier to store, carry, and wear during daily activities and commutes. They're also more affordable and offer better air circulation which is important if you wear your headphones while walking, exercising, or moving around in the heat. They also will be quite comfortable initially, but do note that on-ear headphones, no matter how well-designed, commonly cause ear pain after a few hours of use.
Now that you know the differences, you can make an informed decision on the headphones that will satisfy your needs! The right style for you just depends on what you want out of the product and how much you're willing to spend. Happy headphone hunting!