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Should I Buy Earbuds Or Headphones? (In-Depth Comparison)

My New Microphone Should I Buy Earbuds Or Headphones? (In-Depth Comparison)

With so many options on the market, buying your first or next pair of headphones/earphones can be overwhelming. Perhaps the first factor to consider is whether you want a proper pair of headphones or relatively simpler earbuds.

Should I buy earbuds or headphones? Earbuds are bought for their lightweight, small size, easy storage, wear/style, and low price, often for physical activity and public use. Headphones are bought for improved sound quality, design variation, wear/style, and better noise cancellation/isolation, often for at-home immersive listening.

In this article, we'll discuss whether earbuds or headphones are the right choice for you and give you some insight into which style within these two camps you ought to consider.


Earbuds Vs. Headphones

Let's begin with a broad overview of the major differences between earbuds and headphones.

The main difference between the two is that headphones rest over or on the ear, while earbuds and earphones fit into the ear canal.

So, the first question you should ask yourself is whether you want a pair that sits on or around your ears or a pair that fits into your ear canals. Though there are plenty more differences worth considering, this is the key question to ask.

Related article: What Are The Differences Between Headphones And Earphones?

Let's now consider each style of “headphone” to understand which choice will be correct for you. We'll discuss the following as distinct options:


Earbuds

Although other types of headphones are gaining ground, earbuds are still the most widespread and widely used. Their popularity is not precisely because they are comfortable but rather because they are cheap to produce, small and easy to carry. Earbuds are shaped to fit comfortably in the average outer ear; the bud itself (the part that fits the outer ear) is typically made of hard plastic.

The problem with earbuds is that they usually offer poor sound quality and do not isolate from the outside, so many choose to turn up the volume to try to hear something with the consequent damage to the ears.

Another classic problem with earbuds is their extraordinary tendency to fall out of the ear.

Earbuds are often the cheapest option available, though their sound leakage all too often prompts users to turn them up too loud. This results in hearing damage over the long term and bleed to the exterior environment, which can be a nuisance for those around the user.

Most earbuds are not recommended, but even in this category, there are some exceptions.

Some earbuds incorporate ear cushions to simulate a sense of comfort that is a far cry from the rest of the headphones on this list. If you use them regularly, it may be best to move on through this list to discover better models without spending a fortune.

Personally, I wouldn't spend money on earbuds.

Earphones

Leaving earbuds aside, the first truly interesting quality devices in this buying guide are the so-called earphones or in-ear headphones. They are usually as small or smaller as the earbuds mentioned previously, but they are inserted into the ear canal instead of fitting in the outer ear.

Earphones offer a much higher average quality than traditional earbuds. There is a wide range of options thanks to their popularization over the last few years.

For many users, earphones are the best option for listening to music on public transport, walking down the street or playing Spotify in the office. Of course, they are not usually the best choice for sports on the street – especially if you ride a bike – because they tend to isolate ambient noise.

Either way, it all depends on the materials used. Earphones can be made of polycarbonate, different kinds of plastic or aluminum. One of the keys to detecting good headphones is the cable because if it is too thin and flimsy, these headphones will probably enjoy a relatively short life.

When buying earphones, it is essential to look at the ergonomics, as they are not suitable for everyone. It is necessary to look at the shape of the earphones and the material of the ear cushions to assess whether they are the most comfortable to wear in the ear. And of course, try before you buy if possible.

You can find mid-range earphones for less than $40. High-end options are often available for under $100 that incorporate technology to block outside noise and interesting extras such as flat cables or practical carrying cases.

The main disadvantage of earphones is that the sound quality cannot be compared to larger headphones unless you invest a significant amount of money.

If you want to listen to music while practicing sports, the best option is clip-on headphones, also known as ear clip headphones. This type of headset is perfectly attached to the ear, so it is unlikely to fall off no matter how hard you run.

There are many ear clip headphones on the market with different systems of attachment to the ear to suit the tastes of each athlete. Some are waterproof, making them ideal for use in the swimming pool.

Although much progress has been made in this category over the years, these ear clip headphones are only a solution for sports, as they are uncomfortable in the long run.

Their main advantages are that they are usually quite cheap, equipped with noise reduction systems and interchangeable ear cushions for under 30 dollars.

I personally prefer low-end earphones for everyday listening and exercise. I'll spend a few dollars on a decent pair and won't worry too much about maintaining them.

Related articles:
Top 14 Best Earphone/Earbud Brands In The World
Top 3 Best Earphones For Swimming Under $200
Top 5 Best Earphones For Sleeping Under $250
Top 5 Best Noise-Cancelling Earphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Noise-Cancelling Earphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $50
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $100
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $200
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones/Earbuds Under $100
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones/Earbuds Under $200

Circumaural Headphones

Circumaural headphones, also known as over-ear headphones, are headband headphones that completely cover and surround the ear, providing a first passive physical barrier to isolate the external ambient noise.

Circumaural headphones are headband headphones that rest on the head. That's a problem for some, but they are generally the most comfortable to wear, even for long periods of time.

Circumaural headphones are relatively large and heavy. They're often dismissed for outdoor usage but ideal for listening to music or playing video games at home.

They create a system that absorbs 99.7% of all sound.

Over-ear headphones or circumaural headphones have circular or ellipsoidal ear cushions to cover the ear effectively.

Circumaural (and other headphones) are often characterized by greater linearity and precision in their frequency reproduction than earphones and earbuds, which everyone generally appreciates.

Isolation from the outside is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they offer an experience that seduces many users by generating a much cleaner sound than in previous headphones. Still, the sound is sometimes not too faithful because by “enclosing” the sound in the ear, the waves bounce inside the ear cavity, generating some distortions.

What do circumaural headphones sound like? There are many over-ear headphones that emphasize the bass and lows and, in general, give the sensation that the music is coming out of the head.

I personally prefer circumaural headphones over earbuds/earphones and supra-aural headphone designs. They're much more comfortable, especially over the long run.

Related articles:
Top 5 Best Circumaural (Over-Ear) Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Circumaural (Over-Ear) Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Circumaural (Over-Ear) Headphones Under $500

Supra-aural Headphones

Supra-aural headphones usually cover but never surround the ear, which provides relatively poor isolation from outside noise and generates more direct pressure on the ears. As a result, they tend to be more uncomfortable if worn for extended periods.

This type of headphones, known as on-ear headphones, became popular during the 1980s and seem to be enjoying a second youth today for two main reasons: their excellent price/performance ratio and their portability.

As with circumaural headphones, when buying supra-aural headphones, it is essential to pay attention to the materials used in their manufacture, especially the extenders and the cable, which is the cause of many problems.

Although everything varies from headphone to headphone, they usually leak a little more sound and offer less powerful bass.

The main advantage of supra-aural headphones is their small size, with many foldable models ideal for listening to music on the street.

I personally do not enjoy supra-aural designs. I find them uncomfortable and poorly isolated for use in public (causing noise pollution for myself and those around me).

Related articles:
Top 5 Best Supra-Aural (On-Ear) Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Supra-Aural (On-Ear) Headphones Under $250
Top 5 Best Supra-Aural (On-Ear) Headphones Under $500

Closed-back Headphones

Another feature that is often overlooked is that circumaural and supra-aural headphones, in turn, can be open or closed. This factor makes a huge difference when listening to music, so it is also an aspect to pay attention to.

It is complicated to discuss which headphones are the best because there is a recommended type depending on each case.

Closed headphones have two functions: on the one hand, they isolate from ambient noise and, on the other hand, prevent sound from escaping to the outside. They are the perfect headphones for not disturbing or being disturbed, although it is also true that some are more effective than others.

The main disadvantage of closed headphones is that they offer a more artificial sound because they are trapped in the ear.

Many models of closed headphones emphasize the bass by offering a very forceful sound that does not fully represent reality—a matter of taste.

I personally wear closed-back headphones more than any other type. They're great for isolating noise while also sounding great and fitting comfortably.

Related articles:
Top 5 Best Closed-Back Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Closed-Back Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Closed-Back Headphones Under $500

Open-back Headphones

Unlike closed headphones, open headphones do not isolate ambient sound and let much of the sound they generate escape.

This formula seems to have a disadvantage on paper since we will disturb those around us and suffer the “harassment” of external noises. Still, the great advantage of these headphones is that the sound is much more natural and reliable to the headset.

Due to their architecture, open headphones are usually lighter than closed headphones, so they are more comfortable when listening for several hours or on extremely hot days.

What do open headphones sound like? Open headphones are generally similar to the sound that can be heard at live acoustic concerts, with a noticeable spatiality and a much more accurate timbre than the rest.

The main disadvantage of these headphones is that they are only suitable for listening to music at home or in very quiet environments, limiting their use quite a bit.

I like open-back headphones for mixing and personal listening in quieter environments. They're comfortable and have an openness to their sound.

To learn more about closed-back and open-back headphones, check out my Complete Guide To Open-Back & Closed-Back Headphones.

Related articles:
Top 13 Best Headphone Brands In The World
Top 5 Best Open-Back Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Open-Back Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Open-Back Headphones Under $500


Wireless Bluetooth Headphones

Wireless headphones and earbuds/earphones via Bluetooth, radio frequency, or even WiFi are currently among the best buying options for consumers. This type of headphones is gaining a lot of ground because they are compact, lightweight and portable, the features desired by many users to listen to music without having to worry about wires.

However, the sound quality of wireless headphones is limited for two reasons. First, the device that emits the music signal must compress it to send it via Bluetooth, which generates a certain loss in the final sound.

Although wireless headphones are becoming more and more advanced, they are still susceptible to certain interferences, so they are not to the taste of audiophiles. Another disadvantage of these headphones is that they have a battery inside that must be recharged from time to time, so they are generally heavier than equivalent traditional headphones.

Nevertheless, the latest generations of wireless headphones allow you to listen to music without losing too much quality. They are, therefore, another favourite choice for athletes.

To learn more about Bluetooth and other wireless headphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
How Bluetooth Headphones Work & How To Pair Them To Devices
How Do Wireless Headphones Work? + Bluetooth & True Wireless
• Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $50
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $100
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $200
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones/Earbuds Under $100
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones/Earbuds Under $200
Top 5 Best Wireless Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Wireless Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Wireless Headphones Under $500


What To Compare Before Buying New Headphones/Earphones

If you have the opportunity to test out various options at a physical shop, it's important to compare different options before making a choice.

Unfortunately, most earbuds and earphones will come in sealed packaging. So, if, after reading the sections above, you've decided on earbuds or earphones, then you'll likely have to judge your decision on specs or reviews.

For proper headphones, though, there are often situations where you can test out different options. Here are a few pointers for these situations:

First, consider the immediate comfort of the various options. Though comfort is ultimately a long game, if any particular headphone fits poorly and is noticeably uncomfortable when put on, it won't be a good choice for you.

Have a playlist of songs that you're very familiar with. Having familiar reference material that you know sounds great will help you decide which pair of headphones will suit you best.

When listening for sound quality with your references, be sure to cycle through the headphones at a regular pace. Our auditory system quickly adjusts to whatever it hears, so consistently changing up the headphone options can help us maintain our objectivity.

Finally, the price point is another thing to consider. I'm not here to tell you how to spend your money, only that it's worth considering.

For more information on pricing, check out my article How Much Do Headphones/Earphones Cost? (+ Pricing Examples).

In addition to testing the headphones yourself, here are a few specifications worth your consideration if you're interested in comparing numbers alongside subjective sound quality.

Frequency Response

The majority of headphones cover the audible spectrum of the human ear (20 Hz to 20 kHz). Headphones with higher frequencies are not necessarily better, as the key is how they reproduce sound across all frequencies.

Experts compare the frequency response of headphones through a graph. On paper, it should be flat, but in practice, headphones tend to accentuate certain frequencies more than others.

For more information on headphone frequency response, check out my article What Is Headphone Frequency Response & What Is A Good Range?

Impedance

One of the fundamental characteristics when buying headphones is to look at their impedance, which is a value that measures the opposition to the passage of current in ohms. The higher the impedance, the more power/voltage is required, so if you are going to use the headphones with a cell phone or a computer, it is advisable to choose headphones with a maximum impedance of 80Ω.

For more information on headphone impedance, check out my article The Complete Guide To Understanding Headphone Impedance.

Sensitivity

This measures in decibels the extent to which headphones can reproduce sounds. The higher the power, the greater the volume, and the greater the likelihood of distortion, so it is advisable to choose headphones with a maximum sensitivity of 100 dB, equivalent to an electric drill in operation.

For more information on headphone sensitivity, check out my article The Complete Guide To Headphones Sensitivity Ratings.

Distortion Specifications

Most headphones on the market have distortion specs under 1%, which is considered acceptable to the human ear. Many DJ headphones promise less than 0.3% distortion, and some studio headphones claim to be below 0.1%.

Noise Cancellation

Noise-cancelling headphones “listen” to what is happening outside to generate a waveform to counteract ambient noise. This system, which requires external power, works well for low and bass sounds but leaves something to be desired for medium and loud sounds, sometimes generating background hiss. The most advanced headphones incorporate various modes depending on the noise they face.

For more information on noise cancellation in headphones, check out my article How Do Noise-Cancelling Headphones Work? (PNC & ANC).

Noise Isolation

This is a passive system since it is based on the architecture of the headphones themselves, which physically block the entry of other sounds. They generally provide better isolation, especially in headband headphones, since in-ear headphones depend on their ability to adapt to each person's ear.

Microphone

Many consumer-grade earbuds, earphones and headphones are built with microphones for telephony (not to be confused with the microphones used for active noise cancellation). If you want to be able to talk through your headphones, opt for a pair with a built-in microphone.

Though the standards for mic specifications in headphones aren't as stringent as proper studio microphones, they're still worth considering. Look for built-in mics with noise suppression and decent frequency responses.

To learn more about built-in microphones, check out my article Do All Headphones & Earphones Have Built-In Microphones?

For more information on headphone specifications, check out my article Full List: Headphone/Earphone Specifications w/ Examples.


What Are The Best Headphones For Me?

If you've made it this far, you probably have a better understanding of the differences between the types of headphones on the market.

It is impossible to talk about the best headphones on the market on a generic level because everything depends on the use they are going to have.

However, we can help you find the most suitable headphones with these small tips:

  • If you are looking for headphones to listen to music at work without annoying your colleagues, you should opt for earphones or closed circumaural headphones. Consider noise-cancelling options.
  • In case you need good headphones to listen to music while doing sports, it is best to look for ear clip headphones or earphones. Consider wireless options.
  • On the other hand, if you want to buy the best headphones to listen to music with your cell phone, you can compare different models of earphones or headphones, whether circumaural or supra-aural.
  • If you are looking for the best headphones for listening to music at home or playing video games without the risk of bothering others, try open headphones, especially circumaural.

If you need more information, check out my article The Ultimate Headphone/Earphone Buyer’s Guide.


Related Questions

How do headphones work? All headphones act as transducers that convert audio signals (electrical energy) into sound waves(mechanical wave energy). The headphone driver reacts to the audio via electromagnetic, electrostatic or piezoelectric principles and causes a diaphragm to move, which produces the sound we hear.

Related article: How Do Headphones Work? (Illustrated Guide For All HP Types)

What are the differences between 2.5mm, 3.5mm & 6.35mm headphone jacks? The primary, most obvious difference is size. The numbers given refer to the diameter of the jack, but the lengths of the connectors are also different. Certain applications have certain standard sizes. In terms of wiring, various standards can be applied to each size jack.

Related article: Differences Between 2.5mm, 3.5mm & 6.35mm Headphone Jacks


Leave A Comment!

Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section at the bottom of the page! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

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