Headphones and Headsets – Hot Ears

No matter what you do or how you use your headphones or headset, it’s still a device that is insulating your ears and remains attached via force.  Because of this, many users have complained about headaches from having the devices apply too much pressure on their head, sweaty ear pieces and incredibly hot and uncomfortable ears.  As I write this blog post, I have to admit, I’m an individual that gets very hot ears from wearing headphones, so for me, I really need to look for headphones that combat this effect.

Hot Ears – Symptoms

While there are some known medical conditions that can account for an individual having hot ears, such as being sunburnt, being emotional (usually anger but could be related to embarrassment), and even an ear infections, when it comes to headphones the culprit lies in the materials and workmanship.

Much like the insulation and vapour barrier works within your house, the ear cups actually seal your ears off from receiving air and insulate your ears from the outside world.  The ear cups consist of the ear pads, speakers, and a foam cover.  Headsets add in additional features such as the microphone and additional circuitry for volume and mute buttons, macro buttons, etc.

Added to the insulation factor of the ear cups, is the headband itself.  You’re likely thinking this has nothing to do with hot ears, or tension headaches, but this is where you’re wrong.  The headband is designed to apply equal pressure on the ear cups to seal around the ears; otherwise the headset would just slide off your head. If the headband is adjusted too tight, it applies extra pressure on the ears, contributing to both extremely hot ears and pain and discomfort from extended use.  For this reason, almost
all headsets have an adjustable headband, however there are differences.

The Headband

This is where the differences between headsets for gaming and headphones for listening to music really separate themselves.

In gaming headsets, the material for the headband is traditionally made of a ridged plastic that slides into another section of the headband.  Most of these styles of plastic headband have built in notches that the headset locks into place by.  The downfall to this is that adjustments can only be made by approximately 1/8 or 1/16 at a time per side.  Now 1/8 or 1/16 of an inch are pretty small, however that little bit is amplified by the headband across the ears like a pulley and lever system and it can apply more pressure than is necessary to the ear cups, which in turn can cause hot ears, pain and discomfort.

Headphones on the other hand are normally made with a thin metal slider into the headband.  This operates like a spring adjustment that easily slides in an out without any notches and allows for ever distribution across the headphones and over your ears.  It’s very difficult to have this style of headphones apply excessive force over the ears because of this adjuster mechanism.

Ear Pads

After several hours of intense gaming, ear pads can take a beating, finding them completely covered in sweat.  This is due in part to being completely covering the ears, but it also has to do with the material.  Ear pads covers come in a variety of material, ranging from artificial leather (made from either a rubber, silicon, or naugahyde), leather, valour, velvet, and polyester.

Much work over the years has been done to improve the comfort of headphones and headsets, with the primary focus being on the ear pad materials within the ear cups.  In this case, you get what you pay for.  Entry level headphones and headsets traditionally come with artificial leather ear pads, which will result in sweating and can cause hot ears due to the inability to breathe.  Mid-range to higher end headphones and headsets are made with either leather or a textile fabric (valour, or velvet).

Couple an entry level headset with artificial leather ear pads with a plastic headband that doesn’t allow for perfect adjustments is just begging the user to have issues.

Open Back Headphones

The majority of headphones and headsets on the market today are a style known as a “closed-back” style, as the ear cups fully encase the ear and the outer shell of the ear cups do not allow for airflow.  They do produce a better quality of sound though, as there’s nowhere for the sound to go except into your ear canal.  Closed back headphones also block out a significant amount of background noise, as the ears are completely sealed off and actually reduce noise level by approximately 10 decibels.

Recently, after numerous complaints from users regarding hot, sweaty ears, manufacturers started developing a new style called an “open-back”.  The name is a bit deceiving, as the headphones don’t actually have an “open back” but rather the outer shell of the ear cups have ventilation slits, or mesh. These ventilation slits or mesh allow for airflow through to the ear, but by doing so, there is a small amount of sound leakage from the device, meaning others in the room will be able to hear a bit of what is going on through your headphones.

Conclusion

Hot or sweaty ears is caused from a combination of having your ears fully encased by the headphone ear cups, the material the ear pads are made from, and the material and adjustability of the headband.

If sound quality is of the utmost importance to you as you’re listening to ether hi-fi or CD quality music, then you’re going to be limited to a closed back system, however look for models with a metal sliding headband and ones that have fabric (specifically velour) ear pads.

If you’re like me and find yourself getting uncomfortably hot ears, then you really want to look for an open-back model.  Higher end open-back models will ship with the metal headband and fabric ear pads.

For gamers, who end up in the bracket of sweaty ears, but listen only to digital music and sounds, then it’s honestly not worth spending the extra money unless money is of no object.  Your best bet is an open ear model, but construction of the headband or adjustability may not be that much of an issue.  I’ve seen great quality headsets produced by companies like Razer which will feature an open-back style with silicone rubber ear pads – These will run you under $150, but will be some of the most comfortable ever.  If you do want to step it up a notch, then you can look for some that come with a fabric ear pad.

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