Do Over-Ear Headphones Hurt?

by Alex.   Last Updated On June 7th, 2022.
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Although I wish to wear headphones or earbuds full-time (even while sleeping), it cannot be done, especially when modern over-the-ear headphones can still feel uncomfortable and cause ear pain. So until we get Elon Musk’s Neurachip, we will have to endure uncomfortable headphones.

Since we are settled on that, let’s ask a fundamental question: Can over-ear headphones hurt your ears?

Yes, headphones (or earbuds), when worn incorrectly, can hurt your ears. If you wear ill-fitting headphones and use them improperly for too long, you can experience ear pain along with a host of other problems such as headaches, ear infections, and permanent hearing loss.

Thankfully, as long as you understand these issues and learn how to overcome them, you will be able to enjoy the superior listening experience afforded by many headphones.

Here’s what we will cover in the following sections:

  • How do Headphones hurt your ears?
  • Methods on how to prevent headphones from causing you pain
  • Other tips and tricks for attaining a more comfortable headphone experience

Let’s begin.

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Can Wearing Over-Ear Headphones Hurt Your Ears?

In my opinion, the best piece of audio equipment to listen to music are headphones, not speakers, and definitely not earbuds. The level of quality achieved by headphones ( for sound reproduction and noise isolation) cannot be attained by earbuds or speakers — at least, not right now.

If you’ve read our comparison between headphones and earbuds, you’ll know what I’m talking about; headphones are just so damn good. However, there’s a dark side to headphones. Unlike speakers or earbuds, most headphones (especially the low-quality ones flooding the market) are very uncomfortable to wear, and they tend to hurt.

There are several reasons why wearing headphones is not as easy as it sounds, especially for a newcomer. So in this section, I want to talk about the factors that can cause discomfort and ear pain.

Extreme Clamping Force by the Headband

One of the biggest unpleasantries of wearing headphones is the clamping force of the headband. Depending on your head size, it could be a low clamping force or a tight one, and if you fall into the latter, you will have a hard time using that pair of headphones.

Most headphone manufacturers design their headphones to cater to the average consumer (who coincidentally has a “medium-sized” head). As a result, most headphones won’t fit users who are on either side of this spectrum i.e., people with smaller heads and larger heads.

Although the headband padding and adjustable headband components do help to some extent, they aren’t guaranteed to solve the problem, and you still might feel tightness and discomfort while wearing them.

If you keep powering through, allowing the tight headphones to dig into your skull (hoping your ears will adjust), I’m here to tell you: it’s not worth the trouble, there are growing pains, and then there’s just suffering. In this case, it’s the latter, and you are going to be left with a headache (caused due to external compression) or an abrasion.

Ear Infections and Allergic Reactions

Another reason why headphones can start hurting your ears is when you suffer from an ear infection or an allergic reaction. These can occur because of headphones, an injury, or other medical conditions.

In most cases, outer ear infections can occur due to ear wax buildup or germs transferring from the headphones to the ears. On top of that, wearing headphones for long periods can accelerate bacterial growth. (Don’t worry, you can still wear your over-ear headphones even though you have ear infection.)

Earbuds are also guilty of this, and they have an even higher chance of causing earwax buildup, inner ear pain, and skin inflammation.

Insufficient padding on the Ear Cups

As I mentioned earlier, most headphones on the market are built with low-quality materials with minimal padding. Even though some of them may look premium, the ear cushions and liner material on the ear pads will be insufficient or too rigid to wear comfortably.

When headphones don’t have enough padding (either on the ear pads or the underside of the headband), you’re going to feel the plastic and metal parts of the headphones digging into your skin, especially if the headphones clamp on tightly. This can result in headaches and skin abrasions. On top of that, it could also cause a temporary dent/impression in your head.

There are a ton of different cushioning materials used for headphones, along with additional accessories you can put on to make them more comfortable.

Effects of Noise Isolating Headphones

Noise-isolating headphones, or more specifically, closed-back headphones, are the preferred option to listen to music whenever there’s a lot of background noise. Compared to open-backs, close-backed noise-cancelling headphones create a tight seal around your ears, and this can cause discomfort or health issues when taken to the extreme.

Although there is no definitive proof stating that the active-noise cancelling effect is harmful to the ears, these headphones and earbuds will try to close off your ear canal to prevent sound from leaking in. When the ears are covered, they can trap heat and moisture inside the ear canal, which creates a more habitable environment for infectious bacteria and fungi.

Listening to Loud Music

We’ve all had someone in our lives yell at us, saying that we might pop an eardrum if we continue blaring music inside our headphones. Even though they won’t understand the joys of listening to the BFG Division, they make a good point: we should stop listening to loud music.

Loud noises (over 70dB) can start to overwork the hair cells in our cochlea. During an extended period, it can fatigue the cells and cause irreversible hearing damage. Other than that, it can trigger tinnitus (ringing in your ears) and headaches (which of you can avoid).

Glasses, Piercings, and Headwear

It’s very difficult to make glasses, jewelry, and hats work with headphones, and if you’ve tried playing video games with glasses on, you know it’s not fun. Even though I don’t wear glasses personally, I know a couple of my friends who’ve always had a tough time adjusting to new headphones and headsets.

Headphones aren’t designed to accommodate these different pieces of headgear; hence, they can be uncomfortable (or even downright painful). Glasses dig into the sides of your head, and apart from major discomfort, they can scratch your skin, causing abrasions and headaches.

How to Prevent Over-The-Ear Headphones from Causing Ear Pain

So, if you’ve made it this far, you know for a fact that headphones (like words) can hurt. Fortunately, you don’t have to wear headphones and suffer in “silence” because there are lots of DIY hacks and practices to minimize pain and make wearing headphones great again.

In this section, I’ll list out several things you can do to prevent headphones from hurting.

Stretch Out the Headphones

Headphones with a tight clamping force can cause extra pressure on your head. Such headphones can become uncomfortable and can hurt your ears. Above, we’ve talked about this, and below, we will talk about how you can ease up on the strong clamping force.

When you put on a new pair of headphones, it’s going to cause some discomfort right away, making you feel like it’s a poor fit. However, after some time adjusting the headphones, and letting them stay on for a while, you get used to it.

I know because I had the same issue with my first pair of headphones: a pair of JBL Tune 750BTNC headphones. At first, my ears would hurt while wearing them, and I could never get my ears to fit inside the ear pads even though I have a relatively smaller head. Luckily, after a couple of weeks, it started to cause less and less discomfort; now, I can easily slip it on and keep wearing it comfortably for hours on end (that is until it starts getting hot inside my ears).

However, not everyone will find their first headphones to be so accommodating, and some headphones will clamp on extremely tightly, even after a couple of days of using them. Fortunately, there is a little trick you can do to stretch them out and reduce the clamping force. Here’s how:

  1. First, adjust the headband to the size that would fit your head.
  2. After that, find a small cardboard box or a stack of books, anything that’s equal or slightly wider than your head.
  3. Slowly stretch your headphones and clamp them carefully on the box or stack (such that the contraption looks like it’s wearing the headphones).
  4. If you feel like the headphones might fall out, tie around the earcups using rope or paracord. Be careful because you might scratch the outer body of the ear cups or damage any cables or rotating parts.
  5. Keep the headphones stretched out like this for a couple of days.
  6. Take them out and test the fit. If you feel like it hasn’t loosened up, try again for another couple of days.

This will gradually put pressure on the headband and readjust the plastic or metal material to reduce the clamping force.

Replace the Ear Pads

Replacing the earpads on headphones is like replacing the ear tips on your earbuds; you don’t know how good it can get until you actually try it out.

When your earpads don’t have a lot of padding/cushioning or are lined with a tougher material, it can get uncomfortable since headphones (especially closed-backs) put a lot of stress on the sides of your ears (through the earpads) to achieve a tighter fit.

If the earpads are too small and the cushioning is too hard, you will feel the earpads pressing up against your ears. On the other hand, if the earpads are too big and shallow, they will droop over your ears, hanging on and putting pressure on the ear cartilage.

One of the solutions to this (other than dumping these headphones) is to replace the ear pads. Thankfully there are tons of replacement pads you can buy online, each with different cushioning and liner materials.

Despite having various materials, I recommend staying away from cheap leather (that feels like hard plastic). Always go for soft protein leather, velour, or suede liners, and, for added comfort: memory foam internal cushions.

However, when buying online, don’t forget to pick the correct size for the liners and cushions. If you don’t know the sizes, you can always search for the replacement pads using the name of your headphones. If you use well-known headphones such as Bose QC 35s or Audio Technica’s ATH M50x, you’re bound to find ones that would fit your device.

Add Extra Padding to the Headband

Apart from replacing the cushions and liners on the ear cups, you can also supplement the headband padding by covering up the headband with extra cushioning headband covers.

These headband cushions are extremely useful if you have issues with the headband hurting the top of your head. They will soften and spread the weight around so the headband won’t tighten into your head.

You can find headband covers specifically built for well-known headphones. However, I recommend this cover by TXesign because it fits most headband sizes.

Change the Frame of Your Glasses

If you want to use headphones while wearing glasses, there are several solutions to prevent the frame of the glasses from digging into your head; one of these includes replacing the ear pads.

However, you might want a more permanent solution (one that doesn’t involve replacement pads). If so, I recommend changing the frame of your glasses to one that’s a bit sleeker and “low-profile.” It will minimize (or even prevent) the headband from pressing up against your head.

For more tips and tricks on wearing headphones with glasses, check out this article.

Take Regular Breaks

If you’re gaming, streaming, editing videos, mixing videos, or answering calls, chances are you’re wearing earbuds or headphones for hours at a time.

When you are wearing earbuds or headphones, you are blocking the ear canal. As a result, the headphone drivers restrict airflow and trap heat inside your ears. This is not a good situation you want to be in because it can lead to earwax buildup and infections. On top of that, it can fatigue the ear cartilage and inner ears, leading to headaches, migraines, and more ear pain.

So even though your work demands it, I highly suggest taking regular breaks and letting your ears breathe whenever possible. It’s best to let your ears “heave a sigh of relief” for ten minutes every couple of hours.

Avoid On-Ear Headphones

Honestly, I don’t know why people use on-ear headphones over “over ears.” I’ve had good luck with over-ears and don’t intend to move to anything else yet.

Over-ear headphones sit comfortably around your ears instead of slamming directly into the ear cartilage. In my opinion, the only thing that’s great about them is the smaller form factor.

So, if you are using on-ear headphones (and suffering from it), I think it’s high time you give over-ear headphones a try. They are more comfortable and do a better job of isolating noise. (Although, don’t forget to take regular breaks.)

Conclusion

Headphones are definitely going to cause you pain, either physically or financially. However, even if your body won’t get used to the headphones after a couple of days, you should try out some of these lifehacks I’ve mentioned above. They will help you wear the headphones comfortably without hurting.

As for financial pain, you can consider these headphones to ease your burden.