We decided to make a dedicated list of the best on-ear headphones for 2021 just because so many other sites mix on-ear headphones with a more general headphone classification as a whole. On ears have their own following and their own unique properties, which makes us think they deserve a top 10 all of their own.
Many people prefer On-Ear headphone designs, and we want to put forward the advantages and disadvantages before giving you our pick for the 10 best models to buy in 2021. We will be covering a wide range of styles and price points, so there should be something for everyone.
As always, if you have any specific questions about these styles of headphones or want to know our thoughts on models that aren’t mentioned, please feel free to ask via email or Facebook, and we will get back to you ASAP.
On-ear headphones vs. over-ear headphones?
Let’s get right into a simple explanation of what on-ear headphones are. As you might have guessed, these headphones sit on top of the ear instead of encompassing it. You may also see the latter referred to as circumaural or full-size headphones, but the simplest explanation is the one above.
Complicating things a little further, there are a couple of variations of the on-ear headphone. You can have the one that has the circular padding like on full-size headphones or the one that is just a single pad, usually with perforations.
Of course, which one you choose to buy will come down to personal preference, and there are excellent options in both styles on on-ear headphones. The circular pads tend to be a bit more breathable and airy sounding whilst the straight pad versions are a bit comfier due to the more even distribution of contact points across the ears.
Why are On-ear headphones better?
There are a few unique advantages to using an on-ear headphone that we want to discuss. Bigger does not always mean better, and if you are someone who likes to travel or doesn’t like the oversize look, then on-ear headphones could be right for you.
- Smaller Size – That’s right, with less space having to be dedicated to the earcups, this means that on-ear headphones are usually far more compact. This makes them perfect for traveling and better suited to cases where you don’t want to be carrying around a large set of cans.
- Lightweight – Whilst not always the case (a lot depends on the material choices), it is fair to say that on-ear headphones are generally a bit lighter than over-ear models. This is down to less material being needed to encase the ear and smaller headphones using smaller drivers fully.
- Tuning – Some on-ear headphones have a unique sound that can’t be replicated within a bigger earcup. Many headphones are designed to be on-ear because that is what makes them sound good.
- Good for sports – This ties in with the smaller size, but when using headphones for working out, they tend to be lighter and less obtrusive during movement.
Disadvantages of on-ear Headphones
Of course, it’s not all roses and rainbows when using on-ear headphones. Just as they have some unique advantages over larger models, there are also some disadvantages that you need to consider.
- Ears can get sweaty – With the direct point of contact being your outer ear and less air underneath each cushion, ears can get a little bit hot. This is usually remedied by taking them off for a couple of minutes, but it’s worth considering before buying.
- More pressure – Again, because your ear is not sitting unencumbered, you will be taking the full clamping pressure of the headphone directly onto your ear. In our experience, this is only an issue for a few days before your body adjusts and any initial discomfort subsides.
- Less Tech – On-ear headphones have, until recently, been neglected in many companies’ headphones lines. Yes, bigger headphones have been the focus in the past, but more and more companies are putting a lot of work in on their on-ear models in the past few years.
Some things to consider when buying headphones
On-Ear and Over-ear aside, there are a few key areas that you should consider before making any headphone purchase. Many people fall into the trap of going all out and seeking the best-looking headphone, or the best-sounding headphone, or the cheapest headphone. All of these can be fallacies in unto themselves.
The most important thing I tell anyone when looking to buy headphones is first looking at how you intend to use your headphones and then organize your other priorities. There is no point in having the best-sounding set of headphones if they are completely impractical to wear. There is no point in having the best-looking set of headphones if they sound like junk. Get the point?
So with that said, what are the key areas that make up a good set of headphones?
Sound Quality –
To me, this is the most important. I want something that sounds good. Not all headphones sound the same, and as such, some work better with certain genres of music than others. Therefore think about what genres of music you listen to and search out the appropriate headphones sound-wise.
Build Quality –
The build is significant when choosing headphones. You don’t want to be putting down a lot of money only to find out they fall apart after a year. Thankfully companies have started to pay real attention to the construction of their headphones and, as such, are offering longer warranties.
Let’s face it, you are going to be wearing these for hours on end, so why would you want to wear something that doesn’t fit or causes irritation. You wouldn’t do it with your clothes, so why do it with headphones. In the best case, you should look to try them on before purchase and if that isn’t possible, look for a retailer with a simple (preferably free) returns process.
Many audiophiles don’t care about the style of the headphones they wear to them. It’s a means to an end. They will endure in the pursuit of all-out fidelity. While I tend to agree with a home setup that looks don’t matter on-ear, headphones are most likely going to be used by people on the go. Appearance is important to me and many others, so I appreciate a good clean aesthetic when choosing a set of portable headphones.
Open Back vs. Closed-back headphones
Open back and closed-back headphones are yet another area you should be aware of when purchasing. Closed-back simply means that the driver is enclosed inside the housing, whereas on open-back headphones, the driver is heavily vented and open to the outside world.
As I mentioned above, the people who usually use ear headphones do so when out of the house, so open-back headphones aren’t going to be as well suited due to external noise ingress through those vents. I have, however, included a couple of open-back headphones in this list just because they sound so good. As a general rule of thumb, open-back headphones (those with an exposed driver) are best suited for when you are alone, and closed-back is best for nosier listening environments.
The Top 10 best On-Ear Headphones
Jabra Elite 45H – Outstanding Value for Money
We kick off the list with the 2021s hottest on-ear headphone release. Jabra is known for its excellent value wireless headphones, and they have a full and deep lineup of headphones for every use case. In the case of the 45H, we have one of the best-looking on-ear headphones you can buy, and they aren’t short on features.
They come with Bluetooth connectivity and manage to give users 50 hours of battery life from a single charge. As you would expect from a company whose roots lie in telecommunication devices, the 45H offers superb crystal clear call quality. The build is also a strong point, with the metal and high-quality headband stealing the show and inspiring a lot of confidence in how durable they will be in the long run.
The sound is immersive, detailed, and articulate. The bass is absolutely spot on with its tight, punchy speed, complemented by the low-down hard hit of its dynamic driver. This is how hybrid headphones should be done
Bang & Olufsen H8i – Luxury On-Ear Headphones
B&O are well regarded for their premium line of audio products and the H8 has a lot of features of their more premium full-size models but in a smaller package.
Build quality is exceptional and they are very good-looking headphones on the head thanks to their low-profile earcups. They are available in 3 separate colors (black, pink, cream) and have excellent comfort for on-ear headphones due to the generous use of memory foam padding in the earpads.
Sound is suited to rock and acoustic with smooth tones and a focus on the midrange. However, these headphones also do well with EDM as the slightly elevated bass delivers punch and textured notes without distortion.
Beats Solo 3 – The Best Beats Headphones
Beats had a bad reputation for years. Seen as a bit more of a stylish headphone than a good headphone they have worked hard in the past few years to make some really good portable headphones. My favorite in their current lineup is of course this. The Beats Solo Pro.
Its well made and pretty rugged, designed to take them everyday abuse of travel and commuting. It sports the apple W1 chip inside to make it work seamlessly with Apple devices. Its also available in numerous color options so you can style it your own way.
The sound is great with hard-hitting lows and a smooth overall presentation with hints of warmth. It is a really fun tuning and much clearer sounding than beats of the past. They have a battery life of around 30 hours from a charge and luckily you can find some killer deals on these headphones right now in the link below.
Jabra Move Wireless Stereo Headphones
One of my personal favorite budget on-ear headphones. Jabra has their second headphones on the list and these are special because they are so cheap yet so good. make some very special headphones.
The design is simply functional but with a touch of class. The material choices are smart and I’m willing to bet they stand the test of time. These are not ultra-premium headphones but strangely at the same time still feel like good value for money. Sound is detailed and a focus to smooth and engaging mids. The bass is hard when it needs to be and the top end never produces sibilance.
What’s more to say? I love these headphones and I own and use a set for the gym.
Koss Porta Pro
The Koss Porta Pro are legendary headphones. Seriously, can you name any other headphones that have remained on the market for over 25 years without needing to be changed?
The Koss Porta pro was one of the best on-ear headphones of their day and they still hold their own in 2021. I love the small form factor and the retro styling but I love the price even more.
Crystal clear sound and a rather open soundstage with lots of detail make them a joy to listen to and you have the ability to mod them and tune them to your own preference thanks to so many frugal audiophiles providing DIY modding guides online.
The Porta Pro is considered by many to be the entry-level on-ear headphone with audiophile-grade tuning.
The Beyerdynamic T51i is a special headphone that is very highly regarded among audio purists.
The sound is balanced and crystal clear and it is an on-ear headphone that is very hard to pick any flaws with.
They are small and surprisingly comfortable and have the build quality of a tank to make sure they are up to the task of professional music monitoring for which they were designed.
More than just a studio monitor I also think that these are a really classy alternative to some of the more garish fashion headphones available on the market today.
It’s hard to talk about the T50p without also managing to bring up Sennheisers legendary HD-25.
You want to go for one of the original designs because this headphone is a serious contender for the best headphone of all time.
It has been used by almost every major DJ in the past 20 years and produces unbelievable clear and crisp notes.
Tuning is balanced with top notes able to shine and bass remaining tight and focused.
Should anything ever go wrong be happy to know that almost every part of this headphone is replaceable?
Feel free to check out our review of the Sennheiser HD 25.
Another classic is the Grado SR80x. It had some mild revisions over the past few decades yet its design essentially remains the same.
This is one headphone that has probably introduced people to a higher level of fidelity than any other and if the clean and crisp neutral sound is what you are after then these are a great option.
The sound however is the main reason to buy them but just know that not everyone gets on with the fit.
Oh and they are of the open back headphone variety, so just like the Koss Porta Pro, they are best used in solitude so as not to disturb people around you.
If you want to stick to headphones with an RRP under $100 then Grado also offers the SR60x which is their entry-level but oh-so-good value open-back model.
The SR60 shares the same traditional design language as other Grado headphones so it’s a stylish-looking model. The soft foam pads are just that, pure foam and they can take a little getting used to.
The sound is mid-focused and light on the bass. It’s a very pure-sounding headphone that takes me back to a time when things were simpler and it was all about the music. A great headphone that can be a gateway into the audiophile headphone hobby for those not looking to break the bank.
Bower & Wilkins P5
Not content with letting Bang & Olufsen get all the attention, Bower & Wilkins really stepped up its game and is putting together a very competitive and comprehensive lineup of excellent sounding headphones.
These are some of my personal favorite headphones to travel with because they not only sound good and have exceptional build quality but their styling and the way they look on the head is super classy. The price is high but it definitely stands out as being worthy of its tag as a luxury goods headphone.
Master & Dynamic MW50 – The Wildcard… 2-in-1 Headphone
We just finished our review of the Master &Dynamic MW50+ headphones and were mightily impressed. The 50 are a set of convertible headphones in that they can be used in either on the ear or over-ear configurations by switching out the included earpads.
This makes them incredibly versatile. The MW50 isn’t just a gimmick though they are one of the best-built and best-looking headphones on the market in 2021 and despite the high price tag, we think they are a great buy.