Learn all the differences separating headphones and earbuds plus how to decide between the two
For many, music and podcast preferences are extensions of personality, things that are unique to the individual. It makes sense, then, that people think so hard when choosing between headphones and earbuds. They’re some of the most personal devices you’ll buy, both in that they’ll play your favorite audio and that they’ll likely spend a lot of time on your head throughout your everyday life. They need to be what you need them to be.
Whether you’re back to commuting to the office every day, taking calls from home, or still in school, headphones and earbuds each have their pros and cons. Taking your lifestyle into consideration, there’s really no wrong side in the headphones vs. earbuds debate—they both come in handy for different aspects of your life.
Here, we’ll discuss what headphones and earbuds are, the key differences, and why you might lean toward one style over the other.
What Are Headphones?
Headphones consist of two small loudspeakers connected by a band. You wear them over your head or resting on or over your ears.
While every pair of headphones may look different, the purpose is the same. They’re meant to give an individual a private soundscape to listen to their preferred audio.
What Are Earbuds?
Unlike headphones, earbuds are not usually a single unit. They’re two compact devices, each one with its own audio driver that fits directly into the ear or rests on the inner part of the ear. They’re smaller than headphones and designed to have fewer components to be more lightweight and portable.
Types of Headphones
Over-ear headphones have large pads or cups that surround the ears, resting on the side of the head. They usually come with extra padding on the earcups and the headband for added comfort, but they also tend to be the bulkiest kind of personal audio device. Due to that bulkiness, though, they are suitable for sealing against the head to help isolate noise and create more immersive sound.
On-ear headphones rest on your ears rather than around them. They have a smaller design than over-ear headphones and, as such, tend to be lighter as well. Still, after resting on your head for long listening periods, you may experience more discomfort than with over-ear headphones.
They’re also more susceptible to outside noise and tend to leak audio to the outside world more than over-ear headphones do.
Closed-back vs. open-back headphones
In addition to on-ear and over-ear headphones, you have to decide between closed-back or open-back headphones.
Closed-back headphones have a solid enclosure on the outer shell that keeps audio inside the headphones, directing it right to your ears. Open-back headphones have a more breathable design on the outer surface that helps airflow and keeps your ears from sweating. While that creates a more natural sound by eliminating echoes, they tend to be worse on noise isolation.
Most headphones on the market are over-ear, closed-back models, but you should try out a few different types before choosing what works for you.
Types of Earbuds
Earbuds come in two types: in-ear monitors (IEMs) and standard earbuds. Both are designed to deliver audio directly into your ear but rest on your head differently. IEMs go directly into your ear canal, while traditional earbuds rest on the inner part of your ears. IEMs usually come with detachable ear tips that let you customize the fit for your ear canal and offer better noise isolation.
Wireless vs. Wired vs. True Wireless
Headphones and earbuds are both available in wired and wireless varieties. Most modern headphones offer wired and wireless options in the same device, while many earbuds provide just one or two of the connection types. Here’s the difference:
- Wired: Both earbuds or headphone ear cups connect to an audio source directly via a cable.
- Wireless: Both earbuds or headphone ear cups connect to each other via a cable but connect to a Bluetooth-enabled audio source wirelessly.
- True Wireless: Reserved for earbuds, True Wireless connections link each earbud to one another and an audio source wirelessly.
Why Choose Headphones?
So, why would you choose headphones instead of earbuds? There are several areas where headphones excel:
- Noise isolation: Closed-back, over-ear headphones usually offer the best passive noise isolation, thanks to their design. The best over-ear headphones deliver best-in-class Active Noise Cancellation (ANC). If you’re looking for an audio source to block out distractions and get in the zone or to wear while traveling, earbuds can’t compete.
- Sound quality: Earbuds have caught up in terms of sound quality—and some pairs beat out over-ear headphones—but, generally, headphones offer more significant drivers and intricate components to give you further customizable and immersive sound.
- Battery life: While many wireless earbuds come with portable charging cases that make it easy to get a quick boost of power, headphones tend to have much longer battery lives, sometimes more than 90 hours.
- Comfort: If you’re a true audiophile who always has their music streaming, or you’re stuck in video calls all day (our condolensces) headphones are far more comfortable for all-day wear than earbuds.
- For kids: Kids’ eardrums are still developing through their teen years, so experts advise against putting audio sources directly in the ear. That’s a win for headphones.
Why choose earbuds?
Don’t count earbuds out though. There are still some areas where earbuds have the edge:
- Portability: Both headphones and earbuds offer wireless options that are good for commuting, but earbuds are much easier if you plan to remove and put on your listening device frequently. They’re just far lighter and have been specifically designed with portability in mind.
- Exercise: Working out in headphones is, well, disgusting. True wireless earbuds are by far the best choice for working out. They’re lightweight and utterly devoid of wires, so whether you’re running, biking, lifting, or anything else, you won’t pull the earbuds out of your ear. They’re also often well waterproofed.
- Price: Both earbuds and headphones run the gamut in terms of price point. But if money is a real factor, you can find more budget-friendly earbud options than you can headphones.
The truth is nobody can tell you whether headphones or earbuds are “better.” The choice is a personal one and depends on your lifestyle and your daily needs. While earbuds tend to be more compact and affordable, headphones usually deliver superior sound quality and noise cancellation. In either case, if you’re willing to pay a premium, you can enjoy some of the best features that audio devices have to offer. Looking for some more-specific guidance? Check out our guide to the best headphones and earbuds deals for you.