The term “headphones” applies to a great variety of audio-to-sound transducers. A major difference in headphone types is between earbuds and regular headphone
Before we begin, it’s critical to note that “headphones” is an all-encompassing term. However, people often call headphones the ear-covering type of headphone while they call earbuds the ear-inserted type of headphone.
- Earbuds: common in the consumer market; medical market, and the professional in-ear monitor market.
- Headphones: also common in the consumer market but also popular in professional audio, film, and broadcasting industries.
What Are The Differences Between Headphones And Earbuds? The most obvious difference is the form factor: earbuds are small and made to fit inside the ear while regular headphones are bigger and designed to sit on top of the ear. The way in which we hear these types differs. Each of these headphone “types” is further divided into “sub-types.”
So the terminology is a bit off from the get-go but in this article, we’ll sort this out. We’ll discuss the different types of headphones and their differences.
What Are Headphones?
Headphones, generally speaking, refer to any sound transducers that you wear on your head. This definition includes earphones and headsets. However, when comparing headphones to earphones, they can take on a more specific definition.
A more specific (but broad, nonetheless) definition of headphones is a pair of transducers worn on the head with cups that press on or around the ears.
Visuals always help explanations. Here is a labelled picture of the various parts of a pair of headphones:
As an aside, the headphones in the above picture are the popular Sennheiser HD 280 Pro (link to check the price on Amazon).
We can see clearly how the headphones are worn: the headband goes over the head and the ear cups are placed around the ears. The Sennheiser HD 280 Pro is an example of a closed-back circumaural (over-ear) headphones.
Let’s quickly describe the various parts:
- Headband: the headphone headband is a nearly essential part of the device. It physically connects the ear cups together and helps tremendously in keeping the ear cups in their proper positions around the ears.
- Ear cups: The ear cups host the electronics and drivers of the headphones. Active noise-cancelling headphones include microphones in the interior or exterior of their earcups and active circuity within the ear cups to produce their “anti-noise” signals. Cups can be designed with open or closed backs that disallow or allow air to exit/enter the cups, respectively.
- Cushions: The cushions are mostly for ergonomics but also play a role in tuning/damping the headphones and provide the sealing around the ear in many circumaural (over-ear) headphones.
- Drivers: The drivers are the transducer elements in headphones. They are essential in turning audio into sound. Headphone driver types include moving-coil dynamic, planar magnetic and electrostatic.
- Cable: Wired headphones have cables to carry the audio signals from the audio source to the drivers. In wireless headphones, the cable is replaced by a wireless receiver (or receivers) built into the microphone itself, generally in the ear cup(s).
- Plug: The plug, again, is reserved for wired headphones and connects the headphones to their appropriate headphone jack. Note that many non-Bluetooth wireless headphones have external transmitters that physically connect to their intended headphone outputs via plugs.
To learn more about audio plugs and jacks, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Differences Between 2.5mm, 3.5mm & 6.35mm Headphone Jacks
• What Is The Difference Between A Microphone Plug And Jack?
There are different types (form factors) of headphones. Let’s discuss each of them briefly:
- Open-back: The ear cups are designed to allow air to escape and enter. This typically yields a more open, natural sound with less bass response and more bleed to/from the outside environment.
- Closed-back: The ear cups are designed to be a closed system and provide passive noise-cancellation. These models typically have increased bass response and a narrower stereo field.
- Circumaural: The ear cup fits around the ear and makes contact around the ear.
- Supra-aural: The ear cup sits on top of the ear.
|Open-Back||•Relatively less comfortable|
•Most bleed to environment
•Less bass response
|•Relatively more comfortable
•Some bleed to environment
•Widest stereo width
•Good bass response
•Tyically more expensive
|Closed-Back||•Relatively less comfortable|
•Some bleed to environment
•Less bass response
|•Relatively more comfortable
•Least bleed to environment
•Best passive noise-cancellation
•Best active noise-cancellation
•Narrowest stereo width
•Great bass response
•Trap heat around the ears
•Tyically more expensive
For more info on open-back and closed-back headphones, check out my article The Complete Guide To Open-Back & Closed-Back Headphones.
What Are Earphones?
Earphones, as opposed to headphones, sit in the ear canal. Their drivers produce sound within the ear canals rather than just outside of the ear canals.
As we did with the headphones, here is a labelled picture of the various parts of a pair of earphones:
The earphones in the above picture are the Shure SE215-CL (link to check the price on Amazon).
As we can see, earphones are designed very similar to headphones. Both types have their necessary drivers and the required signal path to get the audio signal to the drivers. Again, this could be via a wired cable or through wireless transmission.
The ear cups of the headphones are replaced with the housings of the design of the earphones. These “housings” are placed within the ear canal.
Like the ear cup of the headphones, the housing may or may no allow external noise to reach the eardrum. Custom in-ear monitors typically do an excellent job of sealing the ear canal of the person they’re designed for. Earbuds, on the other hand, generally allow some external noise to reach the eardrum.
If a seal is possible, then a good amount of passive noise-cancellation is achieved. In addition, sealing earphones can also be designed with active noise-cancellation.
The analog of the headphone cushions is the earphones’ sleeves/covers. Not all earphones have these silicone or rubber covers (earbuds often don’t) but many do, so they’re worth mentioning.
The Differences Between Headphones And Earphones
There are two immediate differences we notice between headphones and earphones: the size and the way they’re worn.
The size difference is particularly important for the driver sizes. While headphone drivers are often between 20mm – 50mm, earphone driver sizes are typically limited to 8mm – 15mm. Driver size refers to the diameter of the driver diaphragm.
It is physically impossible to fit a 50mm diaphragm in an earphone design to fit into the listener’s ear canal.
Though it is physically possible to put an 8mm driver into a pair of headphones, the small driver size would likely be ineffective at pushing enough air to produce a strong sound. This is particularly true of bass frequencies.
To prove this point, try slowly pulling your earphone away from your ear and you’ll notice a quick drop-off of low-end sound. This is true even if you have your ear cupped.
For more information on headphone driver sizes, check out my article What Is A Good Driver Size For Headphones?
The other obvious difference is how they’re often worn.
Headphones require some sort of headband to connect the two earcups and hold them in place. The headphone ear cups cannot be inserted into the ear canal.
Earphones may have some sort of headband (particularly when combined with a microphone in a headset). However, this is not necessary and most earbuds simply fit into the listener’s ear canals.
So the driver size and the way we wear headphones and earphones differ. What are the other differences?
Well, the way they generally interact with our eardrums is different.
As we know, earphones fit into our ear canals. What this does, besides making it easy to hold them in place, is it seals the ear canal. This is more so the case with properly fitted in-ear monitors than with consumer-grade earbuds that may allow some air in and out. For the sake of argument, let’s just say that the ear canal is sealed.
This sealing causes a sort of direct coupling between the earphone driver and the eardrum. In this closed system, any movement of the earphone diaphragm should induce the same movement in the eardrum but in the opposite direction. This means that the drivers do not need to push much air at all to have perceived loudness.
Headphones, on the other hand, are much less sealed, if at all.
Closed-back headphones are designed to be sealed which improves bass response at the expense of stereo width. That being said, their drivers still need to push quite a bit of air to produce “loudness.”
Open-back and on-ear headphones allow sound to escape from their enclosures and need to push even more air to produce the same bass response and loudness.
Another difference worth noting is that only earphones can have balanced armature drivers. These are miniature dynamic drivers (they work on electromagnetism) that utilize a sort of conductive springboard to oscillate their small diaphragms. Several BA drivers are often utilized in in-ear monitor designs.
To learn more about balanced armature drivers, check out my article The Complete Guide To Balanced Armature IEMs/Earphones.
Similarities Between Headphones And Earphones
After pointing out the differences between headphones and earphones, let’s remind ourselves about how similar they truly are to each other.
Here is a list of similarities between headphones and earphones:
- Transducers that convert audio signals (electrical energy) into sound waves (mechanical wave energy).
- Positioned close to the ear.
- Options for moving-coil dynamic, planar magnetic or electrostatic drivers.
- Wireless and active noise-cancelling capabilities.
- Wide range of sound quality differences among models.
Headphones are earphones are both designed to take audio signals and turn them into sound for our enjoyment (or sometimes displeasure). They even utilize many of the same driver types (transducer designs) to convert audio to sound.
The most common driver type in both headphones and earphones is the moving-coil dynamic. However, planar magnetic and electrostatic drivers are also used to perform the same conversion in different ways. Planar magnetic and electrostatic drivers can be found in both headphones and earphones.
• Complete Illustrated Guide To Moving-Coil Dynamic Headphones
• Complete Guide To Planar Magnetic Headphones (With Examples)
• Complete Guide To Electrostatic Headphones (With Examples)
In the modern days of headphone design, we have plenty of wireless headphones and earphones to choose from. Active noise-cancellation, which used to be exclusive to over-ear closed-back headphones, is now available in earphones as well.
To learn more about wireless and ANC headphones/earphones, 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
• How Do Noise-Cancelling Headphones Work? (PNC & ANC)
• Passive Vs. Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Finally, it’s critical to point out that neither headphones or earphones are better than the other. It is incredibly application-specific, not to mention subjective.
To add to that point, there is a wide range in the sound and build quality between low-end earphones and high-end earphones and the same is true of low-end headphones and high-end headphones.
Now to sum up all the differences and similarities in an easy-to-read table, allow me to present the following:
|Portability||Poor - Good||Great|
|Active Noise-Cancelling Capabilities||Yes||Yes|
|Passive Noise-Cancelling||•Better than earphones|
•Poor in open-back
|•Worse that closed-back headphones
•Excellent in custom IEMs
|40mm - 50mm||7mm - 15mm|
|Driver Types Available||•Dynamic Moving-Coil|
|Width||Seems wider||Seem narrower|
|Fit||More universal||Less universal|
|Comfort||More comfortable||Less comfortable|
|Driver Placement||Near ear||Inside ear canal|
|Sound Quality||Poor - Incredible||Poor - Incredible|
Which type of headphone is best? Each type of headphone has its own strengths and weaknesses. According to popularity, moving-coil dynamic headphones are “the best.” The best form factor (earbuds, open-back, closed-back, on-ear, over-ear, etc.) really depends on the situation. For example, a mixing engineer requires different headphones than a jogger.
To learn more about moving-coil dynamic headphones, check out my article What Are Dynamic Headphones And How Do They Work?
Do headphones have microphones? Headset-style headphones have built-in headphones for telephony. The signals from these mics travel through the same cable (typically TRRS) to the same headphone jack. Active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones also have built-in mics to record the environment. Their signals are used as the anti-noise signals in the ANC circuit.
To learn more about headphone jacks and active noise-cancellation, check out my articles Differences Between 2.5mm, 3.5mm & 6.35mm Headphone Jacks and Do Noise-Cancelling Headphones Work With Or Without Music? respectively.