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Earbuds vs. Headphones (Pros & Cons Explained)

Last updated: 2 weeks ago
10 min read

Learn the differences when comparing earbuds vs. headphones. And which type is better for you.

Earbuds vs. headphones

Headphones are bigger than earbuds and generally have a superior sound quality and long battery life, whereas earbuds are more portable, stable, and durable.

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

Table of Contents

    Earbuds vs. Headphones: The Differences

    Which Sound Better?

    Earbuds

    • Sound quality depends on earbud’s type. In best can scenario, it can be superb and extremely clean. However, earbuds typically don’t have as impactful listening experience as with bigger headphones (the bass tones don’t produce the same rumbling sensation).
    • Since they have a smaller soundstage, it gives them a slight advantage with imaging.

    Headphones

    • Their sound feels smoother and more impactful. 
    • They also sound roomier, aka have a wider soundstage (especially the ones with an 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

    • It depends, from earbuds to earbuds. Some people don’t like how they fit.
    • If bulky, they can create unnecessary pressure in your pinna.
    • Of course, there are exceptions. Some are very comfortable, don’t cause any pressure, and are so lightweight you don’t even know you’re wearing them.

    Headphones

    • It also depends on the model.
    • On-ears have decent comfort and are comfortable enough for short listening sessions.
    • Over-ears are the comfiest of all, especially the truly over-ear models.
    • Some models have smaller earpads that don’t fully enclose your ears, putting 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?

    Earbuds

    • If you seek headphones for working out, pick earbuds.
    • In-ears are usually pretty stable, especially if you use them with foam ear tips.
    • More sport-oriented models have stabilizers to help them stay in place (ear fins, wings, hooks).
    • Some models have the over-the-ear wire that better distributes the weight, reduces cable noise, and improves stability.

    Headphones

    • Plusher headphones with tight clamping force can be pretty stable but can also cause discomfort over some time.
    • Generally, some on-ear models can be used for sports. 
    • In contrast, full-sized headphones are more suitable for home use.

    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?

    Earbuds

    • The battery on a single charge is only okay, but it’s getting better.
    • Their total battery life (earbuds + case) can be extremely high, right up there with the best batteries in over-ear headphones.

    Headphones

    • Much better battery life on a single charge thanks to bigger casing.

    Conclusion: In raw battery duration, headphones are still more reliable since you can listen to them for more hours straight.

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

    Which are More Expensive?

    Earbuds

    • In-ear monitors (wired ones) can be quite expensive, but they’re generally still not as expensive as bigger headphones.
    • Premium earbuds are usually cheaper than premium headphones from the same brand.
    • General price range of earbuds is starting as low as $30 up to $300+ for consumer models.

    Headphones

    • Audiophile headphones are by far the most expensive, costing thousands of dollars, with Sennheiser Orpheus topping at $50,000.
    • They are often made from luxurious materials, which add to the total cost.
    • Price ranges start at low $30 up to $700 for consumer models.

    Conclusion: Headphones are, in most cases, noticeably more expensive.

    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

    • They’re so small you can quickly forget you’re wearing them.
    • You can tuck them in any pocket.
    • True wireless earbuds (TWS) earbuds have an additional charging case that protects them from harm and charges them at the same time.

    Headphones

    • Usually, full-sized ones are the least portable of the bunch.
    • Over-ear headphones are particularly bulky and can take up a lot of space in your backpack.
    • Some of them combat the issue with foldable earcups and carrying cases for 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?

    Earbuds

    • If having a fixed wire, earbuds are more susceptible to failure since the cables break quite easily.
    • True wireless earbuds can be very 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 will eventually stop working.
    • Silicone tips can last for years without changing their quality. In comparison, foam tips are much worse at longevity.

    Headphones

    • They’re heavier and fall with greater impact. Because of that, there’s a higher chance of something breaking.
    • Also, affordable ones have cheap plastic that can easily snap in half.
    • Leather earpads tend to start cracking after 2-3 years. With proper maintenance, you can slow down the process; here’s how you clean your headphones.

    Conclusion: In general, earbuds, especially true wireless ones, are the toughest. However, with proper care and maintenance, headphones can still surpass earbuds in longevity.

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

    Which Better Isolate Outside Noise?

    Earbuds

    • Since they go fully into your ears, they isolate quite well. Especially if they use multiple flanged ear tips (Etymotic Research earbuds or swimming earbuds).
    • Custom-made ear tips are the best solution for those seeking ultimate passive isolation.
    • Foam tips are also great at blocking more ambient noise compared to silicone ones.

    Headphones

    • Regular headphones have a slight edge over earbuds, especially closed-back ones and over-ear leather earpads.
    • Also, they have a great noise cancellation performance that’s a bit more effective than the ANC found in earbuds.
    • Specially designed noise-isolating headphones more effectively block surrounding noise. However, those don’t play music.

    Conclusion: If you want the best passive isolation, getting earbuds with custom or multi-flanged ear tips is the best solution.

    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 to go inside your ear canal or rest right in front of it (earphones).

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

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

    True Wireless Earbuds

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

    EarFun Air Pro 2 on a rock
    Truly wireless earbuds lack wires completely, giving you the ultimate freedom of movement.

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

    However, while the battery life is getting better by each year, it can still surprise you and leave you without music on your trip.

    Furthermore, you have to be extra careful where you put them. Unless you place them straight into the charging case, they might get lost or accidentally fall on the ground.

    Wireless Earbuds

    While they lack a wire connecting earbuds to an audio source, they still have a wire connecting the two 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 bad thing is that the wire causes cable noise. Also, manufacturers have abandoned the design and don’t make many new wireless earbuds.

    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 can also be made from more luxurious and durable materials like various metals. While that makes them heavier, the cable helps distribute the weight better (if you wear earbuds with a wire behind the ear).

    Of course, cables can be 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.

    Ear Hook Earbuds

    Hooks help to grab an entire earlobe and prevent earbuds from falling out. They’re an accessory that you either attach or come permanently attached to 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 the best stability during exercise.

    On the other hand, they can also 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 only 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.

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

    Earbuds vs. Earphones

    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.

    Earbuds vs. earphones
    Wireless earphones and earbuds vs. wired earbuds and earphones.

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

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

    In contrast, 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 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 the 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, a 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. Vibrations are then picked by your middle ear and cochlea.

    This type of headphones is a good solution for people with specific hearing problems 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 from them. Fine details are easily lost, and the bass doesn’t get very low or powerful.

    Closed-Back Headphones

    The most common type of headphones uses closed-back earcups. The latter encloses 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 quite recreate big soundstage or airiness in the sound, as if you’re listening to room speakers.

    Open-Back Headphones

    Open-back ear cups usually have exposed drivers that are only protected with a wire mesh.

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

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

    They’re also masterful at recreating big soundstage, giving you a perception as if you’re listening to room speakers.

    Though, fully open earcups leak a lot of 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 can be 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-1000XM4 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.

    Earbuds vs. Headphones: Which One Should You Get?

    For working out/lifting weights

    Earbuds are smaller, provide a more secure fit than bigger headphones, and are usually water-resistant for that sweaty workout. If you really want to go with headphones, choose on-ears.

    For running

    (True) wireless earbuds are lighter and remain more stable on your head during rapid movements. Again, if you still want to go with headphones, on-ears are the lightest and the most stable of the bunch.

    For commuting

    Any closed-back headphones or earbuds will do. Preferably pick the ones with active noise cancellation to reduce the outside world, like engine sound or traffic noise.

    For working

    You can pick any headphones or earbuds with good passive isolation. ANC is a huge bonus, and bigger over-ear headphones usually have the best noise-cancelling performance.

    For flying

    Cabin noise can be quite loud, so picking noise-cancelling headphones is a wise decision. You can also opt for the ones with great passive isolation and block the rest of the ambiance with music.

    For sound mixing

    Closed-back headphones or earbuds are the best when recording since you don’t want sound leakage to creep into a microphone.

    On the other hand, open-back headphones with neutral tuning and excellent sound are the way to go when you mix. You may also use closed-back ones since they offer a better bass extension.

    For gaming

    Competitive gamers will prefer a closed-back solution since they don’t want to hear any ambient noise. Also, good imaging is vital when playing competitive shooters.

    In contrast, if you want better immersion, pick the open-back ones with a bigger soundstage. You may also choose a dedicated gaming headset with virtual surround sound.

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

    Are Earbuds Bad for Your Ears?

    In a way, yes. Since earbuds skip the pinna and play music straight into your ear canal, some frequencies appear louder than with full-sized headphones.

    As a result, they might cause more harm to your hearing health when playing at the same volume than full-sized headphones.

    Earbuds vs. Headphones: Which are More Harmful?

    Sound-wise, earbuds can be slightly more problematic since they boost specific frequencies more than headphones.

    Furthermore, ear tips push earwax back into the ear canal, preventing it from cleaning itself naturally. Consequently, your ear canals become a suitable place for bacteria to grow, causing infections.