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Earbuds vs. Headphones: Which Should You Get?

Last updated: 9 months ago
12 min read

Headphones are bigger and generally have superior sound quality and longer battery life, whereas earbuds are more portable, stable, durable, and cost less.

Learn the differences and reasons why you should pick one over the other below.

Earbuds vs. headphones

However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s take a more in-depth look into each type to determine which should be your new pair.

CONTENTS (show more)

    Earbuds vs. Headphones: Which One Should You Get?

    You should get earbuds if…

    TOZO Golden X1 earbuds

    1. You want to use them for working out and sports

    Earbuds are smaller, provide a more secure fit than bigger headphones, and are usually water-resistant, perfect for sweaty workouts. Plus, they’re portable so they don’t take much space in a gym backpack.

    2. You want to use them for running

    Earbuds are lighter and remain stable on your head during a run. With earwings or ear hooks they’re fully resistant to fast movement. Plus, many are water-resistant or waterproof so you can safely wear them in rain or wash them under a tap.

    3. You prefer having a smaller device that’s portable

    Earbuds are the perfect choice for listening to audio on-the-go. You can put them in a pocket or small bag and have them ready when needed.

    4. You don’t like wearing headphones because they make your ears sweat

    Many people don’t like wearing headphones. They make their ears sweaty and uncomfortable. Earbuds leave your ears open to breathe.

    5. You have a low budget

    While you can get cheap wireless headphones, there’ just more choice among cheap earbuds. You get value for your money if you choose to buy smaller earbuds. Here are some of the best options right now:

    You should get headphones if…

    Skullcandy Crusher ANC 2 headphones

    1. You want to lift weights in gym in comfort

    Lifting weights in gym is more comfortable with cushy headphones, as long as you don’t move too fast. If you spend a lot of time in a gym, headphones are the more comfortable option. You can easily wear them during bench presses, squats, deadlifts and other weight lifting exercises. As long as you don’t sprint on a threadmill. In that case get earbuds.

    2. You want to use them for flying

    Airplane cabin noise is quite loud. So having active noise-cancelling headphones is a wise decision. Generally, headphones have better ANC than earbuds. But their main advantage is comfort. Wearing in-ear earbuds for a long flight can be irritating. Big, comfy over-ear headphones are perfect for the job.

    3. You want to use them for gaming

    Bigger headphones provide better soundstage and imaging creating a more immersive gaming experience. Plus, they’re more comfortable for long gaming marathons. Competitive gamers will prefer closed-back cans that block ambient noise.

    Casual, singleplayer gamers can also get open-back headphones with a bigger soundstage. You can also get a dedicated gaming headset with virtual surround sound which is rare in earbuds.

    4. You want to use them for audio mixing

    Get studio headphones instead of earbuds for mixing and recording. Bigger headphones are more comfortable to wear during a long mixing process. Plus, there are many more studio headphones to choose from. Closed-back cans are preferred because you don’t want sound leakage to creep into the recording microphone.

    Check the top mixing headphones here.

    5. You regularly lose your earbuds

    If you often lose your earbuds, headphones are a better choice. Earbuds are more likely to fall out of the ears and it’s much easier to lose one side too. Most top-end earbuds come with “find my earbuds” function for a reason. People lose them often. Headphones, on the other hand, don’t have that problem.

    6. You prefer a longer battery life

    The average AirPods battery last less than 5 hours. Modern headphones last much longer. Some of the best models have a longer battery life than 60 hours per charge. This is many times more than one charge in earbuds. If you forget to charge your earbuds and often end up with dead ones, get headphones. That’ll fix your problem.

    You can choose either earbuds or headphones if…

    Earbuds vs. headphones

    1. You want to use them for commuting

    Any closed-back headphones or earbuds are good for commuting. Preferably pick the ones with active noise cancellation to reduce the ambient noise, like engine or traffic noise.

    2. You need them for work

    For working you should get any headphones or earbuds with good passive isolation and ANC. You want the best noise-cancelling performance that blocks distractions, so you can focus on work at hand. While for most people, headphones are a better fit because of better comfort, earbuds also have advantages such as smaller-design and high portability. If you also need a microphone for video calls, both headphones and earbuds come with solid choices.

    Earbuds vs. Headphones: The Differences

    Which sound better?


    • Earbuds typically don’t have as impactful a listening experience as bigger headphones (the bass doesn’t produce the same rumbling sensation).
    • Sound quality depends on the earbud’s type. In-ear earbuds generally sound the best with deep, powerful bass response and good noise isolation.
    • Earbuds have a smaller soundstage, but it gives them a slight advantage with imaging.


    • Headphones sound smoother and more impactful (thanks to bigger drivers)
    • They also sound roomier with bigger spatial audio (wider soundstage, especially open-back).
    • Full-sized headphones are the closest to the sound of room speakers.

    Conclusion: Headphones offer a fuller, more realistic sound.

    Sennheiser headphones HD 820
    While both earbuds and headphones can get very expensive, the latter sounds bigger and more lifelike.

    Which are more comfortable?


    • Earbuds’ comfort depends from earbuds to earbuds. Some people don’t like how they fit.
    • Bulky earbuds create unnecessary pressure in your pinna.
    • And some are very comfortable, don’t cause any pressure, and are so lightweight you don’t even know you’re wearing them.


    • Headphones’ comfort also depends on the model.
    • On-ears have decent comfort, enough for short listening sessions.
    • Over-ears are the comfiest of all, especially the truly over-ear models.
    • Models with smaller earpads that don’t fully enclose your ears put pressure on your earlobe’s edges.

    Conclusion: Both headphones and earbuds can be very comfortable if you pick the right model.

    Apple AirPods Pro out of the box
    Many consider Apple AirPods Pro are one of the most comfortable true wireless earbuds.

    Which are more stable during activity?


    • Earbuds are far more suitable for working out and sports thanks to their stable fit.
    • In-ears are usually the most stable, especially if you use them with foam ear tips.
    • Sports-oriented earbuds have stabilizers to help them stay in place (ear fins, wings, hooks).
    • When possible, putting the wire over-the-ear better distributes the weight, reduces cable noise, and improves stability.


    • Plusher headphones with tight clamping force are pretty stable but cause discomfort over time.
    • Generally, headphones with a tight clamping force can be used for light activity. 
    • In contrast, full-sized headphones are horrible for use during movement and should generally be avoided.

    Conclusion: Earbuds are more stable during rigorous head movements thanks to stabilizers and lower weight.

    Ear wings and ear hooks assorted colours
    Earbuds can use special stabilizers to help them stay in place.

    Which have longer battery life?


    • The average earbuds’ battery life is around 6-8 hours per charge (up to 10).
    • Their total battery life, including the carrying case’ capacity, is much higher, comparable with the best batteries in headphones.


    • Headphones generally have longer battery life per charge thanks to their bigger casing (most over 40 hours).

    Conclusion: In raw battery duration, headphones offer longer battery life per charge than earbuds (6-8h vs 40h+).

    Sony WH-1000XM4 travel
    Big headphones have a more reliable battery life if you plan to travel with them.

    Which are more expensive?


    • Earbuds, especially wired in-ear monitors, can be expensive, but they’re generally not as expensive as premium headphones.
    • Earbuds are usually cheaper than headphones from the same brand.
    • The general price range of earbuds is starting as low as $30 up to $300+ for consumer models.


    • Audiophile headphones are by far the most expensive, costing thousands of dollars, with Sennheiser Orpheus among the top at $59,000.
    • They are often made from luxurious materials, which add to the cost.
    • Price ranges start as low as $30 up to $700 for consumer models.

    Conclusion: Headphones are more expensive, in most cases.

    HIFIMAN Ananda planar magnetic headphones
    Some high-quality headphones are made of premium materials and equipped with high-end tech, which raises their price.

    Which are more portable?


    • Earbuds are so small you forget you’re wearing them.
    • You can tuck them in a pocket.
    • True wireless earbuds (TWS) earbuds have an additional charging case that protects them from harm and charges them at the same time. Perfect for on-the-go use.


    • Big headphones are the least portable.
    • Over-ear headphones are particularly bulky and can take up a lot of space.
    • Some of them combat the issue with foldable earcups and carrying cases for easier transport and protection.

    Conclusion: Earbuds are much easier to store and transport due to their smaller design.

    Samsung Galaxy Buds Live pocket size
    Charging cases for true wireless earbuds are small enough to fit in most pockets.

    Which are more durable?


    • Wired earbuds are more susceptible to failure since the cables can break.
    • True wireless earbuds are often durable primarily because they lack wires. Models like Jaybird Vista 2 are also fully waterproof, shockproof, and even have splashproof protection on the case.
    • Their small, lightweight housing makes them more durable if they drop on the floor.
    • The biggest disadvantage with Bluetooth earbuds is batteries, which eventually stop working.
    • Ear tips also play a role: Silicone tips last for years without changing quality. But foam tips deteriorate much sooner and have to be replaced.


    • They’re heavier and fall with greater impact. Thus, there’s a higher chance of something breaking.
    • Affordable headphones are often made of cheap plastic that is prone to breaking.
    • Faux leather earpads start cracking after 2-3 years of use. With proper maintenance, you can slow down the process; here’s how you clean your headphones.

    Conclusion: Earbuds are more resistant against water and drops on the floor but battery eventually fails. On the other hand, wired headphones can last for decades with proper care and maintenance.

    Jaybird Vista waterproof case
    Best true wireless earbuds can be fully submerged down to 10 feet (3m).


    Which have better noise isolation?


    • In-ear earbuds isolate the most noise since they go fully into the ears, especially with multiple-flanged ear tips.
    • Custom-made ear tips are the best solution for those seeking ultimate passive isolation.
    • Foam tips are better at blocking ambient noise compared to silicone eartips.
    • However, non-in-ear earbuds don’t block much noise.


    • Closed-back headphones have comparable noise isolation to in-ear earbuds.
    • Because headphone active noise cancellation (ANC) is generally superior, they block more noise than ANC earbuds.
    • Open-back and semi-open headphones don’t block a lot of noise. This type of headphones has the most sound leakage.

    Conclusion: In-ear earbuds with custom or multi-flanged ear tips and closed-back headphones with ANC are the best choices for blocking background noise.

    Different ear tips
    Different ear tip materials and designs offer different characteristics that can affect the sound.


    What are Earbuds?

    Earbuds are tiny headphones that use ear tips that go inside your ear canal or rest right in front of it (non-in-ear).

    Their small and lightweight housing doesn’t require an over-the-head headband to keep them in place.

    They’re much smaller and inconspicuous than full-sized headphones and much more portable.

    True wireless earbuds

    TWS earbuds work independently using a wireless connection, with each earbud having its own battery and Bluetooth chip.

    EarFun Air Pro 2 on a rock
    Truly wireless earbuds have no wires, giving you the ultimate freedom of movement.

    Since they receive audio signals wirelessly, they offer greater freedom of movement. And you don’t have to worry about pulling on the wires. That makes them a perfect workout companion.

    However, while the battery life is getting better each year, it can still surprise you and leave you without music after a couple of hours.

    Furthermore, they’re easy to lose. It’s best to store them straight into the charging case after use.

    Wireless earbuds

    Wireless earbuds have no wire connecting the earbuds to an audio source, but they still have a wire connecting the two earbuds. TWS earbuds have mostly replaced this type of earbuds.

    Plantronics BackBeat FIT 350 wireless sports headphones
    Wireless earbuds still have a cable connecting the two earbuds.

    This design has its advantages and disadvantages. The good thing is that they last a few hours more on a single charge, and you can hang them around your neck when you stop using them.

    On the other hand, the wire causes cable noise. Also, most manufacturers have abandoned the design and don’t make many new wireless earbuds of this type.

    Wired earbuds

    Wired in-ear earbuds rely on old-school analog technology by sending the audio signal via cable.

    Strauss & Wagner EM205 with an amp
    Wired earbuds aren’t as popular anymore, but they still offer some advantages over wireless ones.

    While you don’t see many new (consumer) wired earbuds out there, they’re still the best for sound quality and audio latency.

    They are often made from luxurious and durable materials like metals. While that makes them heavier, the cable helps distribute the weight (if you wear earbuds with a wire behind the ear).

    Nonetheless, cables are problematic since they get easily damaged or tucked on. 

    Also, using different audio devices means slightly different audio quality. Unless you have a good amp or use powerful listening devices, you might not experience the full potential of wired earbuds.

    Read more on the topic.

    Ear hook earbuds

    Ear hooks grab an entire earlobe and prevent earbuds from falling out. They’re an accessory that is attached or an integrated part of the earbuds.

    Beats PowerBeats Pro outside
    Beats PowerBeats Pro are still the most popular ear hook earbuds right now.

    Lots of sports earbuds have ear hooks to offer optimal stability during exercise.

    On the other hand, they can cause some discomfort during long listening sessions. Like with Beats PowerBeats Pro.

    Ear fin earbuds

    Ear fins/wings are the most common earbud stabilizers. Instead of grabbing your entire ear, they latch inside your ears, making them a more comfortable solution compared to ear hooks.

    Bose Sport Earbuds earbud
    Ear fins (or wings) are a reliable tool to keep earbuds firmly in place.

    Though, they aren’t as secure as ear hooks, and some people don’t like how they feel.

    Generally, they’re the optimal solution for comfort and stability.

    Earbuds vs. earphones

    In common usage, the 2 terms (earbuds & earphones) are used interchangeably, referring to the same type of headphones.

    Both earbuds and earphones are small portable audio devices designed to deliver sound directly into the ears.

    But this is contrary to what audiophiles might think.

    Some say the main difference is that earbuds use ear tips that go into your ear canals, whereas earphones only hang in front of the ear canals (we often use this definition).

    Some say the exact opposite.

    Generally, both names can mean either

    Earbuds vs. earphones
    Wireless and wired earphones and earbuds

    Earbuds are also called in-ear monitors, although the latter is more often used for wired in-ear headphones.

    Since in-ear earbuds completely seal off the ear canal, they offer a better, fuller sound quality.

    In contrast, non-in-ear earphones can sound quite airy and relaxing but can’t reach the same fullness as earbuds do.

    Earphones also let in and leak a lot of sound, making them a poor choice for commuting. However, some users like to have more awareness, so it comes down to personal preference.

    What are Headphones?

    Headphones are big, on-ear or over-ear headphones. They have 2 ear cups that connect with a headband frame. 

    There are many types of full-sized headphones, and neither go inside your ears. Instead, they use earpads to rest on or over your ears (as the name suggests).

    Over-ear headphones

    Over-ears are one of the most common types of headphones. They have the biggest earpads to accommodate an entire earlobe.

    How Sony WH-1000XM4 look on the head
    Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones with an over-ear fit.

    As a result, they don’t squish your ears, preventing wearing fatigue during long listening sessions.

    Circumaural headphones do an excellent job with passive noise isolation and comfort (as long as earpads are thick and genuinely go around your ears.

    On the other hand, they aren’t the best pick for outdoor use and sports activities due to their bigger size.

    On-ear headphones

    On-ears rest on top of your earlobes and are usually much smaller in comparison to over-ears.

    Jabra Elite 45h wireless on-ear headphones
    Jabra Elite 45h headphones have an on-ear fit.

    Due to obvious reasons, they aren’t the most comfortable (at least for more extended listening sessions).

    While their earcups are noticeably smaller, most of them still house 40mm dynamic drivers. Meaning they can still produce a powerful sound.

    Furthermore, smaller size means lighter construction. In conjunction with a tighter clamping force, they’re suitable for exercising.

    Bone conduction headphones

    These uniquely designed headphones skip the outer ear entirely and send vibrations (sound waves) straight to the middle ear.

    AfterShokz Aeropex bone conduction headphones
    AfterShokz make the most popular bone conduction headphones.

    Bone-conducting transducers vibrate your temporal bones. Your middle ear and cochlea then pick these vibrations as sound.

    This type of headphones is a good solution for people with specific hearing problems (with the outer ear) and those who want full awareness.

    Transducers don’t go inside your ears, so you can still hear everything around you. 

    While that’s great for safety, don’t expect great sound quality. Fine details are easily lost, and the bass isn’t very powerful.

    Closed-back headphones

    Most headphones use closed-back earcups. The earcups enclose the sound, providing a well-extended bass response and superb passive noise isolation.

    Aukey EP-N12 Bluetooth headphones
    Aukey EP-N12 headphones have closed-back earcups.

    More so, it prevents sound from escaping out in the open, making a closed-back design suitable for commuting and playing music in noisy places.

    The biggest caveat is that closed-back cans can’t recreate a big soundstage or airiness in the sound, as if you’re listening to room speakers. Instead, it’s more intimate and inside your head.

    Open-back headphones

    Open-back earcups expose drivers to the outside with a wire mesh and openings.

    Sennheiser HD 560 S
    Sennheiser HD 560 S headphones have open-back earcups.

    The advantage of open-back headphones is their capability to portray a realistic, natural sound.

    They’re also masterful at recreating a big soundstage, giving you a perception of listening to a room of speakers instead of headphones.

    Nonetheless, fully open earcups leak sound, even when you don’t use them at maximum volume. Also, they let external noise in, making them a poor choice for commuting and office work.

    ANC headphones

    Active noise-cancelling headphones are either on-ear or over-ear and are always closed-back.

    Sony WH-1000XM4 touch controls
    Street noise can be quite loud, and you require good active noise cancellation to fully drown it out.

    Active noise cancellation tech records the ambient sound, creates the opposite signal (inverts its phase), and plays it back to your ears.

    Consequently, the ambient sound gets cancelled out by the opposite signal. As a result, all you hear is silence. At least in theory.

    Sometimes, the ANC technology can’t entirely block random ambient sounds. In contrast, it does a much better job with continuous noise. Still, there are some impressive models on the market like Sony WH-1000XM5 and Apple AirPods Max.

    How’s a headset different from headphones?

    In general, a headset is a headphone with a microphone. It can be built-in or detachable.

    Most gaming and wireless headphones are headsets since they all have built-in microphones.

    SteelSeries Arctis 7 Wireless gaming headset
    Most gaming headphones generally have mics, which classify them as headsets.

    Read more:

    FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About Earbuds & Headphones

    Are earbuds better than headphones?

    Earbuds are better than headphones in stability for working out and activity, portability for commuting, and are generally cheaper. Headphones are better for long-wearing sessions at home, for work, and gaming, and offer more powerful sound and longer battery life.

    Are earbuds more damaging than headphones?

    Earbuds are potentially more damaging than headphones at high volumes due to their proximity to the eardrum. Also, ear tips push earwax back into the ear canal, preventing natural cleaning. Consequently, ear canals become a suitable place for bacterial growth, causing infections.

    Are earbuds bad for your ears?

    Earbuds are not bad for your ears when used correctly. Nonetheless, since earbuds skip the pinna and play music straight into your ear canal, audio appears louder than with full-sized headphones. But if you keep the volume at healthy levels under 80 dBA, they’re perfectly safe. And regular ear cleaning prevents ear infections due to wax buildup.

    1. I find earbuds like the inexpensive Sennheiser mx365 to present a much more pleasant and detailed image than just about any headphones I’ve used, while being extraordinarily light and comfortable, and with a fiio bluetooth adapter the only thing missing is noise cancelling.


    2. Great article!


    3. I like the info.


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