Headphones vs Earphones/Earbuds – What’s the Best Option?

Sam-SoundGear | Last Updated On September 7th, 2021 | This post may contain affiliate links.

If you looking to upgrade or buy your first personal sound solution, choosing between headphones and earphones should not be hard. There are several factors you need to consider to make sure you get the best out of your new purchase. Size, sound quality, portability, comfort, your preferences – are some of the considerations that will influence your final decision.

In this post, I’ll share the pros and cons of headphones and earphones to help you make a better decision. Enjoy.

For this article, headphones will collectively refer to devices that rest on the pinna. Earphones will refer to devices that go inside the pinna.

Headphones

Headphones in their simplest forms are speakers (headphone drivers) attached to a headband. Headphones, unlike earphones, are worn over or on-the-ear. Over headphones, also called circumaural, are large and usually cover the whole ears. On-ear headphones also called supra-aural sit on the ear. Both on-ear and over headphones have their advantages and disadvantages.

Over-ear headphones include all the biggest headphones around. Over-ear headphones are considered better than on-ear headphones because of the larger headphone speakers, which means more power and hence better sound for a good listening experience. The sound quality – from the bass to the mids and the treble response, is usually better in over-the-ear headphones.

HIFIMAN HE1000 Over Ear Planar Magnetic Headphone

HIFIMAN HE1000 Over Ear Planar Magnetic Headphone

Over-ear headphones are also some of the most comfortable headphones around (see our guide to making headphones more comfortable with glasses). However, they also have disadvantages. First, the big design makes them less portable, and they also tend to be more expensive compared to on-ear headphones and earphones.

On-ear headphones sit on-the-ear and are more versatile and compact compared to over-ear headphones. They are easy to carry around because they can fold into compact designs. They are also light in weight and flexible to hand around your neck.

Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear

Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear

For the sound quality, on-ear headphones might not be great as over-ear headphones, but some still offer good sound quality. The main disadvantage of supra-aural headphones is comfort. Because they sit on-the-ear, the pressure exerted can get uncomfortable after a while. However, the comfort of a headphone is still affected by the build material and the headphone’s clamp.

Earphones/Earbuds

Earphones, in this case, will be referring to in-ear headphones. Earphones might also be referred to earbuds, in-ear monitors (IEMs), or better yet custom in-ear monitors (CIEMs). Earphones are small and sit either shallow into the ear pinna or some like IEMs or CIEMs deeper inside the ear.

Jabra Elite Active 65t and Jabra Elite Sport

Jabra Elite Active 65t and Jabra Elite Sport

Earbuds sit shallow in the ear pinna. They are comfortable, but they will not isolate well like IEMs. IEMs sit deep inside the ear and offer the best isolation by completely blocking the ear canal. CIEMs are IEMs that are custom molded to the shape of your ear. They require getting your ear impressions to get a custom fit. They are much expensive unlike IEMs or earbuds, but they offer the best comfort levels of all in-ear headphones.

Compared to headphones, earphones tend to be the cheapest on average. These days you can even get earphones with a new smartphone.

Comfort/Fit

Both headphones and earphones have their strengths and weaknesses. Comfort is largely subjective, but earphones tend to be worst compared to headphones. The shape of the ear canal is different among different people. Earphone manufacturers try as much to provide a universal fit that will fit most people. Unless you get yourself a pair of CIEMs, you will have to deal with universal IEMs and earbuds. Earphones can quickly become irritating and even painful at times. However, you can lessen or eliminate the pain by using a correctly sized ear tip or using an earphone with short breaks.

Headphones, especially over-ear headphones go over the ear. They cover the whole ear, which is much better in terms of comfort than going into the ear. A plus for headphones is that they will also keep your ears warm during the cold season. On-ear headphones are less comfortable, but using better cushy materials like memory foam can drastically improve comfort. However, some factors like wearing headphones with glasses can affect the comfort of a headphone.

Portability

Portability is one of the main reasons people turn to Earphones. They can fit into your pockets, slip easily into a small pouch, or your bag without you ever worrying about the weight or size of the earphones. For working out or sports, earphones offer better flexibility and will most likely stay put when you are running or lifting weights. There are plenty of sweat-resistant in-ear headphones you can try in the market.

Campfire Audio Andromeda In-Ear Monitor

Campfire Audio Andromeda In-Ear Monitor

Headphones are mostly best for use around your home, or at the office. This is because headphones are bulky and less portable. No matter how compact they fold or whether they come with a carrying case, they are not great for portability compared to earphones.

Noise Isolation

A good fitting earphone will have the best noise isolation. No ambient sound in, and no sound out. The better a pair of in-ear earphones seal the ear canal, the better isolation you get. Unless you want to be aware of your environment, earphones are the way to go.

Headphones, even over-ear headphones cannot match noise isolation from earphones. To better enhance noise blocking, headphones will employ active noise cancellation. Because they are bigger than earphones, there is more room for active noise cancellation circuitry to be added. Though some earphones come with noise cancellation, the small size limits them. Headphones will tend to be a little better at active noise cancellation, while earphones will perform better at passive noise isolation. Read our indepth guide on noise isolation vs noise cancellation.

Sound Quality

Earphones have been largely associated with poor audio quality. Though this is common with earphones not all of them suck. There are earphones that sound great, however, most will be more expensive than average. Headphones, most of the times will deliver rich sound than earphones. Larger drivers result in better sound reproduction across the entire audio spectrum. Everything from the lowest to the high-end frequencies is well reproduced.

Earphones, however, seem good at reproducing deep and punchy bass. This is mainly because of the good seal they have with your ears, and because they go deeper into the ear. With headphones sitting outside your ear, it gives the music more room to breathe, which results in better virtual soundstage perception, imaging, and realistic details. This is why headphones, especially over-the-ear headphones, are preferred for critical listening.

Overall, both in-ear-earphones and headphones have their pros and cons. I find headphones better in comfort and sound quality. This makes headphones best for critical listening, or in long sessions where comfort matters. Earphones offer better portability and flexibility when moving around or working out. Personal preferences should weigh in on your final decision to choose headphones or earphones.

Which would you choose and why? comment below and let’s continue this conversation in the comments.

 

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