Looking for a new set of headphones or earbuds and not sure what to buy? We get it. The terms “headphones” and “earbuds” are often used interchangeably, but despite performing a similar primary function, they’re really not the same. Headphones go over or around the ears, providing a more immersive soundscape, while earbuds are inserted directly in the ear canal.
Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and the winner in the headphones vs. earbuds debate is really up to your preference. But sometimes, we all need a little guidance in figuring out what works for our lifestyle. In this guide, we’ll help you decide when earbuds or headphones make more sense and suggest a few to check out.
Get Earbuds If…
You’re a fitness junkie.
Think about how much you sweat during a hard workout. Do you want all that sweat soaking up into a pair of bulky headphones? Wireless earbuds are a far more preferable option for exercise. They’re unlikely to get in your way while running or lifting thanks to wireless designs, and many models are built with active lifestyles in mind. Some also offer sweat resistance and in-line controls to manage your music without grabbing your phone.
- Letsfit U8L Wireless Sports Bluetooth Headphones, $19.99
- HyperGear Active True Wireless Earbuds, $28.99 (reg. $39)
- ZX10 Wireless Bluetooth Headphones, $44.99 (reg. 119)
- Culture Wireless Waterproof SportBuds, $64.99 (reg. $94)
- JBL Endurance JUMP Waterproof Wireless Sport In-Ear Headphones, $68.95
- Bose SoundSport Wireless Headphones, $149.95
You prefer a more minimalist style.
Over-ear headphones certainly make a statement, but that statement isn’t for everybody. If you’re looking for something as lightweight, portable, and unnoticeable as possible, earbuds are the way to go.
Most earbuds come with a pocket-sized charging case that can keep your earbuds elegantly stored while recharging them to full power. They’re easy to take out and stick in your ears for quick listening, and some are so discreet, people won’t even realize you’re wearing them.
If you’re listening to music and podcasts for hours each day and you don’t like how headphones make your head ache after a few hours, earbuds are a better choice.
- Swayaway Super Clear Sound Bluetooth Earbuds, $29.99 (reg. $99)
- CX2 True Wireless Earbuds, $39.99 (reg. $79)
- Nokia Power Earbuds, $70 with code LISTEN29 (reg. $149)
- LUNE Active Noise Cancelling Wireless Earbuds, $89.95 (reg. $99)
You’re a commuter.
Earbuds are a popular choice for people who spend time commuting to work or school. Because they’re lightweight and often wireless, you can just stick them in your ears and not have to worry about getting them caught on anything. Also, their portability makes them easy to remove and tuck into your pocket whenever it’s time to buckle down with work or speak to somebody. Waterproof, too? That’s just a bonus for when you get caught in the rain.
- Bluetooth Wireless Headphones + Earhoox Bundle, $25.99 (reg. $59)
- Urbanears Alby True Wireless In-Ear Headphones, $49.95 (reg. $69)
- Xpods Pro True Wireless Earbuds + Charging Case, $49.99 with code XPOD20 (reg. $69.99)
- xFyro xS2 Waterproof Wireless Earphones, $79.99 (reg. $249)
You’re a bargain hunter.
The top-line earbud options tend to be less expensive than the top-line wireless headphones without sacrificing performance. Some of the most costly on the market, like the AirPods Pro, still come in about $100 cheaper than even average wireless headphones.
Just because they tend to be less expensive doesn’t mean that earbuds are short on features. Many options deliver strong active noise cancellation (ANC), custom audio controls, and more leading tech treats that any audiophile will enjoy. You can get those features for a lot less than hundreds of dollars.
- xFyro Active Noise Cancelling AI-Powered Wireless Earbuds, $40 (reg. $250)
- Audio Technica QuietPoint Noise-Cancelling Wireless In-Ear Headphones, $72.98 (reg. $129)
- ComfoBuds Pro True Wireless Headphones, $89.99 (reg. $105)
- Samsung Galaxy with Active Noise Cancelling True Wireless Earbuds, $104.99 (reg $169)
You’re on video calls all day.
This last one really bridges both earbuds and headphones. There are benefits to each kind of listening device if you’re a remote student or worker.
With earbuds, you have a lightweight audio source that’s convenient if you’re making a call or attending a class and you don’t want to have a heavy pair of headphones on your head for the entire time. On the other hand, headphones may provide better sound quality and offer superior noise cancellation if you’re attending from a public place like a library or coffee shop.
- Multifunction Wireless Bluetooth Headset, $29.95 (reg. $59)
- Urbanears Jakan Bluetooth In-Ear Headphones, $39.95 (reg. $79)
- HyperSonic Lite True Wireless Earphones, $49.99 (reg. $79)
- Safe All-Day Low Radiation Bluetooth Headphones, $49.99 (reg. $99)
Get Headphones If…
You’re a frequent traveler.
If you’re flying a lot, there’s no question that headphones are a better option than earbuds. Headphones deliver the best, most immersive sound quality possible while offering better ANC and custom sound controls to let you fully sink into your music and drown out plane engines and other background racket.
Wireless headphones also generally have larger drivers and can offer advanced features like support for high-res audio files and upscaling to make your music sound as close as possible to how the makers intended it to sound.
- Drive ANC1000 Noise Cancelling Wireless Headphones, $94.99 (reg. $129)
- Sennheiser MOMENTUM 3 Wireless ANC Headphones, $399.99
- Shure AONIC 50 Wireless Noise-Cancelling Headphones, $399 (reg. $499)
You’re rarely by an outlet.
Bigger headphones usually mean bigger batteries. While most wireless earbuds will give you five or six hours on a single charge, many top headphones can last 24 hours or more. Sometimes, they’re even up to 90 hours on a single charge. That’s convenient if you know you won’t be by an outlet for a while, for instance, when you’re going on a long road trip or know you’ll be running errands all day.
- Toshiba Over Ear Sports Stereo Headphones, $35.99 (reg. 59)
- Beats Solo Pro Wireless Noise Cancelling On-Ear Headphones, $159.99 (reg. $299)
- Marshall Mid Active Noise Cancelling Bluetooth Headphones, $279.99
You’re a gamer.
This is an easy one. If you really want to get into your session, you need a great set of gaming headphones. Gaming is about performance, and earbuds just can’t match the kind of performance that specialty headphones deliver.
- RIG 500 PRO HS Precisely Tuned Stereo Gaming Headset, Refurbished, $31.99 (reg. $69)
- Razer Kraken Gaming Headset, Refurbished, $59.99 (reg. $79)
- HCG1 Pro Gaming Headset, $103.99 (reg. $189)
- SteelSeries Arctis 9X Wireless Gaming Headset, Refurbished, $127.99 (reg. $199)
You want to make music or podcasts.
If you’re an audio creator—of music, podcasts, or something else entirely—working with earbuds just won’t cut it. When you’re recording, a pair of closed-back monitor headphones will offer excellent noise isolation and help you perform better audio mixing.
- Polsen Closed-Back Over-Ear Studio Monitor Headphones, Refurbished, $24.99 (reg. $59)
- Coby Noise-Cancelling Wireless Headphones, $40.99 (reg. $89)
- Marshall Monitor Bluetooth Wireless Headphones, $249.95
You’re shopping for kids.
Kids’ eardrums are still developing at a young age. Earbuds come in more close contact with the inner ear, making them just a touch more prone to cause damage than headphones. It’s not likely if your kids are listening to their music at a responsible volume but, come on, they’re kids. Headphones are a safer choice.
- JBL Kids On-Ear Headphones, $24.95
- JBL Kids Wireless On-Ear Headphones, $49.95
- Skullcandy Riff Wireless On-Ear Headphones with Durable Headband, $52.99 (reg. $87)
Which headphones or earbuds should you buy? Well, that depends on how you plan to use them. Commuters and fitness enthusiasts should probably opt for lightweight earbuds; audiophiles and world travelers may prefer a good pair of over-ear headphones. No matter what you’re looking for, there’s a great set out there just for you—enjoy the hunt!
Prices subject to change.