Headphones vs Earbuds: Which Is Right for You?

Headphones vs. earbuds
Headphones vs. earbuds

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Should you go for headphones or earbuds? Find out in this complete guide.

If you’re thinking about buying some new gear for your ears, deciding between headphones vs. earbuds is a helpful first step towards narrowing in on your purchasing decision.

The differences between the two are sizeable, which means that one of them will almost certainly serve your needs better than the other.

In this article, we’ll help you decide whether headphones or earbuds are right for you based on activities, lifestyles, and general use cases. There’s something here for everyone!

For People on the Go

Man using earbuds outside (From: Pexels)
Man using earbuds outside (From: Pexels)

If you’re looking for something you can take anywhere, earbuds are the way to go. This is especially true for true wireless earbuds, which usually come in pocket-sized protective charging cases.

Some headphone models are designed to fold in on themselves, which allows them to fit inside a small bag or backpack. But with earbuds’ significantly smaller form factor, they’re the obvious choice for those who prioritize maximum portability.

Winner: Earbuds

Best for: People who commute, or who simply want to take their music everywhere.

For Those Who Love Long Listening Sessions

Woman wearing Bose headphones (From: Amazon)
Woman wearing Bose headphones (From: Amazon)

If you want something comfortable for all-day listens, headphones generally have the edge over earbuds.

Earbuds are more invasive to our ears than headphones. They touch up against the sensitive skin on our conchae and ear canals, which can become irritated after hours of listening. They’re also more fickle in their fit, with some people finding that earbuds fall out of their ears easily (often due to using the wrong ear tip size).

Headphones, on the other hand, sit on the skin surrounding our ears, which, in my experience, is less sensitive than the skin in our ears. Headphones also have a more universal fit with their adjustable sliders, and don’t have to contend with the complex and varying contours of the ears’ conchae.

Winner: Headphones

Best for: Listening to music at home or in the office for extended periods of time.

For Workout Enthusiasts

Plantronics BackBeat Fit Wireless Bluetooth Workout Headphones
Plantronics BackBeat Fit Wireless Bluetooth Workout Headphones

For those who need audio headgear that doesn’t interfere with their movements during workouts or manual labor, earbuds are usually a better option than headphones.

Headphones are heavier than earbuds due to their larger size, and are thus more prone to slipping out of position during rigorous activity. Earbuds, on the other hand, are lightweight and can seal in the ear so long as they’re fitted with the correct ear tip.

Consider using wireless headphones or earbuds if you have an active lifestyle.

Though earbuds win this category, it’s a close call. Headphones are still a competitive option for people who partake in physical activities like weight lifting that don’t require a lot of head movement.

Winner: Earbuds

Best for: People who do cardio workouts or manual labor.

For Frequent Callers

A woman wearing earbuds. (From: Pexels)
A woman wearing earbuds. (From: Pexels)

Both headphones and earbuds can provide a smooth phone call experience, so long as they have a microphone. However, earbuds narrowly win this round for one simple reason: you can comfortably wear just one bud in one ear, which feels more like a “natural” phone call experience.

That said, call-aiding features like clear voice capture (cVc) and transparency mode are featured in headphones and earbuds alike, making this another close call.

Winner: Earbuds

Best for: Remote workers and other people frequently on calls.

For People Who Don’t Like Getting Distracted

Boy reading while listening using Bose 700 (From: Bose)
Boy reading while listening using Bose 700 (From: Bose)

Generally speaking, over-ear headphones are the best option for attenuating outside environmental noises. The seal they provide around the entirety of our ears makes them particularly effective at blocking out background sounds.

Earbuds that rest in our ears’ conchae don’t provide much of a seal and thus allow for more noise to enter our ears. However, earbuds that fit into our ear canals (like in-ear monitors) can provide very effective seals, especially if equipped with foam ear tips.

If you’re trying to keep background noise as quiet as possible, you might want headphones or earbuds with active noise-cancellation features.

So, while headphones have a slight edge here, the right earbuds can still provide an excellent sound isolation performance.

Winner: Tie

Best for: People who live in noisy areas, commute on public transportation, or fly frequently.

For Kids

A young boy wearing headphones. (From: Unsplash)
A young boy wearing headphones. (From: Unsplash)

If you have health on the mind, or are just looking for a safe gift for a younger kid, headphones are the better option.

Earbuds are generally more sensitive than headphones, which means they can reach significantly higher volumes and increase the risk of hearing damage. Also, as previously mentioned, headphones are less invasive than earbuds and thus come with a reduced risk of irritation or ear infections.

If safety is a top concern, skip the earbuds for some headphones.

Winner: Headphones

Best for: Kids, and adults who want to reduce their risk of hearing damage.

For Music Producers, Audio Engineers, and Artists

Studio Monitor Headphones Are Comfortable
Studio Monitor Headphones Are Comfortable

In what might be the hottest take on this list, headphones and earbuds can be valuable tools at different points in the mixing and recording process. Regardless, a good pair of closed-back monitoring headphones is the most well-rounded headgear to keep in a studio.

During recording, closed-back headphones and earbuds (specifically in-ear monitors) allow a musician to monitor a click track or supporting tracks without worrying about their headphones’ output bleeding back into a hot mic.

However, headphones edge earbuds out when it comes to sitting down and working on a mix. A solid pair of open-back headphones can provide a more realistic soundstage and bass presentation than earbuds, and are often designed for the explicit purpose of mixing.

Winner: Headphones

Best for: Musicians and mixing engineers.

For Gamers

E-sports gamer
E-sports gamer

To top things off with another tie, headphones and earbuds are both appealing options for gaming. It’s simply a matter of what you prioritize in your gaming experience.

Casual gamers might prefer headphones as they’re generally more comfortable and can thus be worn during long gaming sessions. A more serious gamer might prefer earbuds, or in-ear monitors more specifically, as their pronounced left and right channel separation can be helpful in pinpointing directional cues.

Winner: Depends on the type of gamer

Best for: Casual gamers (headphones) and experienced gamers (earbuds, or IEMs)

Further Consideration: Types of Headphones and Earbuds

If you’re feeling particularly scrupulous in deciding between headphones vs. earbuds decision, there are still a few things left to consider. Primarily, the particular type of operational design you’re looking for.

Headphones can be designed as:

  • Over-ear headphones, which seal over and around your ears, thus leaving your ears to sit freely in their chambers.
  • On-ear headphones, which rest directly on your ears’ cartilage rather than sealing around it.

There are still further classifications for both on-ear and over-ear headphones:

  • Open-back headphones have cups that leave the backs of their drivers exposed, allowing sounds to pass into and out of the headphones.
  • Closed-back headphones (the most common type) have cups that cover the backs of their drivers, thus insulating sounds from passing into or out of the headphones.
  • Semi-open-back headphones share qualities of both open-backs and closed-backs. Their particular designs vary, but some models have cups that cover the backs of their drivers with small vents along the sides of the cups.

These designs provide significantly different listening experiences from one another, and will thus serve some listeners better than others. For example, someone who needs a pair for their commute might get let down by a pair of open-back headphones that bleed sound that others around them can hear.

If headphones sound more appealing to you than earbuds, deciding between open-back vs. closed-back headphones is the next important decision you’ll have to make.

When it comes to earbuds, their operational categorization is a little less defined:

  • Earbuds carry the connotation of being geared towards casual listeners. They frequently find support in the ear’s concha rather than the ear canals, and usually have only one or two drivers on either side.
  • In-ear monitors (IEMs) are essentially fancy audiophile earbuds. They insert and seal into the ear canals, providing better noise isolation and bass response than regular earbuds. They also come with more technically alluring features, such as multi-driver arrangements.

Though the technical distinction between earbuds and IEMs is a bit vague, keeping this information in mind and an eye out for whether or not a company is marketing their earphones as earbuds or IEMs will give you an idea of the kind of product you’re looking at.


Are headphones or earbuds more expensive?

Both headphones and earbuds come in a wide variety of price and quality. Neither should be considered more expensive than the other.

What’s the difference between headsets and headphones?

The defining difference between headsets and headphones is that headsets come with built-in microphones.

What are bone-conducting headphones?

Bone-conducting headphones sit behind a listener’s outer ear and transmit sound through a listener’s ossicles rather than their eardrum.

💬 Conversation: 10 comments

  1. A problem with earbuds is that they may increase earwax production, cause a earwax build up blockage that may end needing professional cleansing, or even a ear infection that can kill you if used for prolonged times, or if they are not clean properly, etc. So from a health perspective headphones are safer.

    1. I completely agree with you 🙂💯. This is the same reason why today I purchased a pair of headphones.

  2. A problem with headphones that there’s a risk of hair loss if you wear them for 1-2 hours a day. So as long as you be careful with earbuds, you might prefer them instead of risking hair loss.

  3. One thing I want to mention:
    For mixing you ideally want to have monitor speakers.
    When you’re done with your mix you will want to listen to it with as many pairs of headphones as possible (on ear, over ear, closed back, open back) and with earbuds.
    To make sure the mix sounds nice on each device.

    Headphones are not fitting for making a balanced mix tho.

  4. Hi, I’m 77 and live in the UK.
    My neighbour complained that my television was on too loud (after 10pm!), she goes to bed early!
    So I bought over-the-head earphones. When watching a late night movie (a couple of hours), I found they hurt my ears. Despite the fact at £99 they were advertised as ‘comfortable’ all day use.
    My daughter uses earpods suggested I investigate those.
    This article is very illuminating. The best review on this subject I’ve read.
    As a result I’ve made up my mind what’s best for me.
    I’m sure after reading the above, you too will know what’s best for you.
    Only remains for me to thank HEADPHONESTY for their brilliant article. 🙂

  5. I have both. Earbuds when I’m on the go and headphones when I’m home. I found that using earbuds too long made my ears itch and produce more ear wax. I didn’t pay a lot eitherI like that I have the ability to choose

    1. I face the same situation when using earphones (wired or wireless) and so today I purchased a pair of headphones 🎧. Good to know that I’m not the only one who has the earwax problem.

  6. This article is really helpful for me to decide what I really want according to kind of audio work that I do. Some people are telling from their experience that prolonged usage of earbuds or earphones makes your ear produce more earwax and in the long term, you may need professional cleaning. So to avoid that, it’s better to have a good pair of headphones 🎧, probably because earphones are located much closer to your eardrums. I also recently felt an increase in earwax production in my ear canal and so today I bought a pair of headphones and I know that it will serve it’s purpose just as good as earphones but will not be harmful for my eardrums and the earwax problem will be dealt with.

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