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Earphones vs. Headphones: What’s The Difference?

Last updated: 7 months ago
6 min read

Headphones are the term that covers all designs, from on-ear, over-ear, and in-ear headphones, whereas earphones only cover in-ear styles (earbuds and classic earbuds).

However, there’s a massive confusion regarding how users and even reviewers use both terms. We made this article to clear out some of the misconceptions.

Also, we list everything that makes one type better than the other, so you’ll know which one you should pick.

Earphones vs. headphones
CONTENTS (show more)

    The main difference between earphones and headphones is how they cover your ears. Earphones are small and fit in your ear canal, while headphones generally are bigger and cover your ears like earmuffs.

    Consequently, the two types differentiate in comfort, fit stability, and sound perception.

    Earphones are often a name for non-in-ear earbuds (without ear tips). However, there’s a massive confusion surrounding the 2 terms. More on that later.

    KEY TAKEAWAY

    • Earphones are a sub-category of headphones that only represent the ones that go inside (or sit in front of) your ears, like earbuds.
    • Earphones separate into earbuds (with or without ear tips) and in-ear monitors (IEMs), which must be wired and use ear tips to ensure seal and fuller bass response.
    • The difference between earphones and earbuds is that, in this case, earphones describe non-in-ear (classic) earbuds, whereas “earbuds” stand for in-ear headphones with ear tips.
    • Headsets and earphones only differ in whether they use a microphone for making phone calls or not.
    • Headphones (as in on or over-ear headphones) are typically healthier to wear because they don’t push earwax back into the ear canal and scratch your skin, which can lead to infections.

    The Difference Between Earphones vs. Headphones

    The difference between headphones and earphones is in how they sit on your head. 

    • Headphones go on top (on-ear headphones), around (over-ear headphones), or inside your ears (in-ears), with ear cups connected by a headband or with the use of ear tips.
    • Earphones go inside or in front of the ear canal (with or without ear tips).

    But before we start counting the differences, let us first address the term “earphones.”

    In the audio community, earphones stand for earbuds without ear tips (we also call them classic earbuds). A great example of earphones are Apple AirPods.

    Apple AirPods 3 buds in case
    Apple AirPods are the most “famous” example of classic earbuds.

    However, many people understand earphones as earbuds, in-ear monitors, or the in-ears in general.

    It’s confusing.

    Some manufacturers and websites started using the term “earphones” for all in-ear types to appeal to the masses, which led to massive confusion.

    • Generally, earphones are in-ear headphones without ear tips
    • Whereas earbuds are in-ear headphones with ear tips

    There are also in-ear monitors (or IEMs). These are wired in-ear headphones with ear tips that musicians use for monitoring their performance during live shows.

    TRUTHEAR x Crinacle Zero Red on a tree
    In-ear monitors are essentially wired earbuds with ear tips that seal your ear canal.

    Audiophiles also started using IEMs due to their neutral tuning. That’s why they’re mostly known in the audiophile community, even though audiophiles use them for critical listening and not monitoring.

    Now that we got that out of the way, we can safely redirect you to our separate article comparing earbuds vs. headphones.

    The Difference Between Earphones vs. Earbuds

    As stated above, the terms earphones and earbuds can be interchangeable (depending on who you ask). They can describe the same thing: in-ear headphones.

    However, you also know by now that in the audio community, earphones and earbuds can point to different in-ear designs and technical characteristics. To recap:

    • Earphones are usually non-in-ear classic earbuds without ear tips (like AirPods).
    • Earbuds are in-ear headphones with ear tips (like AirPods Pro), with the exception of in-ear monitors (IEMs).
    Earbuds vs. classic earphones
    SoundPEATS Air3 Deluxe HS represent earphones, whereas Google Pixel Buds A-Series represent in-ear earbuds.

    Note that some don’t use the term “earphones” at all. They simply call in-ear headphones without ear tips “earbuds”. So, be careful about the context in which these two terms are used to avoid confusion.

    Now that we know the fundamental differences between earbuds and earphones, we can go in-depth.

    Earphones

    • They sound less bloated, but that’s mostly because they lack strong bass and sub-bass extension.
    • Are generally comfier thanks to non-in-ear fit.
    • But since they don’t create that much skin friction, they lack a stable fit, making them unsuitable for anything more than outdoor walking.
    • Non-in-ear fit also affects passive noise isolation, which is almost non-existent in earphones.
    • The lack of an in-ear seal prevents them from (effectively) implementing features like active noise cancelling.
    • You should pick earphones for casual listening, or if you dislike in-ears and bigger headphones.
    Best classic earbuds
    Classic earbuds (or earphones, in this case) are primarily used for casual listening and not critical work.

    Earbuds

    • Sound fuller thanks to better bass extension and clearer and more detailed due to better outside noise isolation.
    • Are very comfortable, although not everyone likes the in-ear fit.
    • Conversely, they’re far better at providing stability during rapid head movements, making them a better fit for sports.
    • Ear canal seal provides better external noise isolation.
    • The seal ensures the earbuds can successfully use active noise cancellation.
    • You should pick earbuds for better noise isolation, stronger bass response, and features like ANC to block the sounds on your daily commute.
    SoundPEATS Capsule3 Pro earbuds on a stone
    Thanks to a better ear seal, earbuds produce a fuller, more natural sound and provide better ambient noise isolation.

    The Difference Between Earphones vs. Headset

    A headset is a term used for headphones with a microphone. So, if earphones are all in-ear headphones, headsets are only the ones with a built-in mic.

    Interestingly, the first Bluetooth wireless headphones were an in-ear mono Bluetooth headset.

    Earphone headsets come in 2 different designs:

    • Wired earphone headsets have an inline microphone built into a cable.
    • (True) wireless earbuds typically have multiple built-in microphones for phone calls, ANC, and voice assistant commands.
    Wireless vs. wired headset
    Wireless headsets (Apple AirPods) have microphones all over their body, whereas wired headsets have one built into the inline module.

    Here are all the differences between regular earphones and headsets:

    Headsets

    • Thanks to a microphone, they can offer more features, like making calls, summoning smart assistants, ANC, and ambient sound mode.
    • Wired headsets also have at least basic inline controls, so you don’t have to constantly use your phone to change songs or volume.
    • Inline modules in cables frequently break and cause issues like static noise.
    • Some TWS earbuds (which are all headsets) require ANC to offer the best sound, making them inconvenient to use outdoors (since mics pick up and play wind noise in your ears).
    1MORE Quad Driver wearing
    Having a microphone, headsets can receive calls, summon smart assistants, and even have ANC (if implemented).

    Earphones

    • Earphones without a mic are only suitable for music.
    • While they lack other features, they focus more on better sound quality.
    RAPTGO x HBB HOOK-X in the bush
    Earphones that lack a microphone are specialized for producing better audio quality.

    Which is Healthier: Headphones or Earphones?

    Considering every possible aspect of how you use each headphone type, headphones are indeed healthier or safer than earphones. However, the reason is different from what you think.

    Headphones vs. earphones loudness

    A common misconception is that earphones damage your hearing more than headphones, primarily because the drivers sit closer to your eardrums.

    However, what matters is the loudness and not the driver’s position. While some frequencies get louder inside your ear canals compared to headphones. This is already considered when designing the earphones.

    Uncomfortable fit on earbuds
    Always play music at comfortable levels, even if you really love blasting it loud. Your hearing will thank you in the long run.

    One thing that might back this argument is that earphones sound slightly different than headphones (less full-bodied). Some users might raise the volume higher than usual to achieve a similar sensation.

    Headphones vs. earphones hygiene

    On the flip side, hygiene is where headphones become healthier than earphones. While headphones also become nasty and soaked in sweat and grease, earphones are more concerning.

    • Headphones‘ earpads act like sponges. Over time, they soak in the sweat and grease, which happens much faster if they’re made of velour. The accumulation stales and becomes smelly. Some earpads even become moldy. While that isn’t a direct health hazard, you should immediately replace the pads and regularly clean your headphones.
    Dirty velour earpads
    Velour ear pads are especially susceptible to soaking up sweat and collecting dust and dirt.
    • Earphones sit in front or inside your ear canal, which disrupts the natural self-cleaning mechanism. Excess earwax is either pushed back inside or accumulates on ear tips and over the nozzle, which hurts sound quality and is a nice “garden” for bacteria. Also, wet and warm inside of the ear canal is excellent for bacteria. All of that leads to infections ranging from mild itching to a painful rash. That’s why cleaning your earbuds regularly is important.
    Dirty in ear headphones
    Earphones can get nasty after years of use.

    FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About Earphones and Headphones

    Is it better to use headphones or earphones?

    It is better to use headphones if you plan to use them at home and enjoy music. On the flip side, it’s better to use earphones if you plan to use them outdoors or during workouts.

    Are headphones and earphones the same thing?

    Headphones and earphones aren’t the same thing. Headphones are bigger and use on-ear or over-ear fit, whereas earphones are much smaller and fit inside the ear. That primarily affects the comfort, stability, and sound.

    Conclusion

    Now you know about the differences between earphones and headphones. You can make an educated decision.

    Remember that when buying a new pair, consider where and how you plan to use them.

    Pick earphones if you plan to use them for:

    Also, take a look at the best Bluetooth earbuds under $100 and the best true wireless earbuds under $50 for more budget options.

    Pick headphones if you plan to use them for:

    Check the best headphones under $100 to get great performance on a budget.

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