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Are Headphones Better Than Earbuds?

We’ve all been there: one day, you plug your earbuds into your iPhone, and the sound doesn’t come out. It looks like it is time to get a new replacement. But will you be better served by opting for a set of headphones this time around?

Generally, headphones offer better audio quality, soundstage, and noise cancellation than earbuds. Headphones are also better for your ears compared to earbuds. However, earbuds are more lightweight, portable, and affordable. Earbuds are also more suitable for workouts.

Read on to learn more about headphones and earbuds as we cover the following:

  • How headphones and earbuds work
  • Kinds of headphone and earbud design you may come across
  • Some considerations to help you decide if headphones or earbuds are better for you
Earbuds and headphones

Different Types of Headphones

There are a few different styles of headphones. All of them have their own pros and cons and each headphone design is suitable for a specific purpose. Let’s take a closer look.

Closed-Back Headphones

Closed-back headphones, as their name implies, are closed off around the back. This trait creates an isolated listening environment that keeps noise from coming in or leaking out.

So, you can hear all the details in your music. Plus, people near you won’t hear what’s playing.

However, closed-back headphones are often warmer, which may prove uncomfortable for some.

Recording artists generally favor closed-back headphones because they allow them to monitor everything their microphone picks up directly.

Furthermore, any monitoring on the headphones will not get picked up by the microphone because of the sound isolation. The lack of feedback will also help the audio engineer perform their job later on.

Related article: Are Closed Backed Headphones Bad for Your Ears?

Open-Back Headphones

Open-back headphones sport ear cups with open backs. These headphones allow sounds to travel in and out of the ear cups. As a result, your listening experience will become more natural and airy.

Most listeners describe this sensation as listening to speakers in an open room. However, that also means those around you can hear what you are playing as well.

Another benefit is that open-back headphones provide a more comfortable, ventilated fit.

Open-back headphones are preferable to audio engineers and mixers because it helps them understand how a recording would sound in an open room.

Higher and lower frequencies can build up in closed-back headphones, resulting in the engineer hearing more background noise. This frequency build-up may convince the engineer to implement unnecessary plugins that make the recording sound unnatural. 

On-Ear Headphones

Headphones described as ‘on-ear’ have cups that rest on the ears rather than engulfing them.

The effect is similar to open-back headphones since on-ear sets have less isolation

However, on-ear headphones can have open or closed backs.

They generally put more pressure on the ear, which could be a problem for some.  

Over-Ear Headphones

Over-ear headphones fully encompass the listener’s ear, usually by lining the cups with cushioning of some kind.

These headphones create more sound isolation, especially for closed-back models.

And while there are open-back over-ear headphones on the market, most casual over-ear users prefer a closed-back design to get a more all round kind of headhpones.

These headphones are relatively bulky and can make your ears sweat. However, the cushioning, especially on high-end models that feature velvet or leather, makes a very comfortable wearing experience.

Related article: 7 Best Wireless Hi-Fi Headphones (Buyer’s Guide)

In-Ear Headphones

In-ear headphones and earbuds look very similar. The difference is that in-ear headphones sit inside the ear canal, while earbuds rest on the outside.

Both consumers and some manufacturers use the words earbuds, earphones, and in-ear headphones interchangeably, which makes everything very confusing.

In-ear headphones usually use silicone padding to make a tight fit in your ear and isolate sound. So, they provide the noise cancellation of a closed-back set without all of the bulk.

This style suits active listeners on the go who need a compact design without sacrificing sound quality. If you don’t mind the feeling of something in your ear, in-ear sets are relatively comfortable.

Breaking Down Earbuds

Earbuds are a less isolated and less intrusive alternative to in-ear headphones. Therefore, if you wish to listen to music without losing situational awareness, you’ll likely appreciate earbuds more. 

However, they’re less form-fitting, which means they’re likely to slip out of your ear when engaging in physical activity.

While some sets come with silicone inserts to fit different ear shapes, some may not appreciate the less-tailored fit.

Earbuds are usually cheaper but aren’t the best choice if you really enjoy listening to high-quality audio.

Related article: 29 Best Audiophile Wireless Earbuds (Buyer’s Guide)

How the Technology Works

Headphones and earbuds use the same technology and therefore work pretty much the same way. These devices use small-sized loudspeakers to play directly to your ears.

The only exception is bone conduction headphones, which send the sound in a slightly different path to the cochlea, bypassing the eardrum.

For our question, I will focus primarily on traditional headphones and earbuds.

Headphones are electroacoustic transducers. What does that mean? In sum, headphones receive electrical signals and convert them into electromagnetic vibrations, creating sound. Let’s break the process down. 

Starting at the Digital Audio Source

Suppose you listen to a digital playback device like an iPhone (instead of an analog device like a tape deck or record player). When you play an audio file on your device, it converts the digital information into an electronic signal, which travels through wires to the headphones, where the signals are processed.

Converting the Signal Into Sound

Once the electrical signals reach the headphones, the driver unit converts the signals into vibrations creating sound. The three standard driver types are dynamic, planar magnetic, and electrostatic. However, most headphones use dynamic drivers. The parts of a dynamic driver unit are as follows:

  • Electromagnet Coils: Electrical currents hit the electromagnetic coils. In response, the coils’ polarity rapidly changes depending on the signal. Plus, the electromagnets vibrate faster to produce higher frequencies and more slowly to produce low frequencies.
  • Permanent Magnet: As the electromagnetic coils change polarity, they either move towards or away from the permanent magnet. The electromagnets’ movement to and from the permanent magnet creates vibrations.
  • Diaphragm: The diaphragm is a thin membrane that vibrates according to the vibrations made by the permanent magnet and electromagnets. As the diaphragm vibrates, so does the air around it, creating sound.

Hearing the Sound

Once the headphone produces the analog sound, the resulting waves travel through the ear canal and vibrate against the eardrum.

The cochlea picks up these vibrations and sends them through the auditory nerve to the brain.

Headphones vs. Earbuds: How To Choose

Now let’s return to our initial question: “are headphones better than earbuds?”

Headphones offer better sound quality and better comfort.

But the answer isn’t a simple yes or not. Each style offers something different. To make the best choice, ask yourself these questions:

  • Purpose: Do you need a lot of sound isolation for recording or a more open and natural sound for mixing? Or are you doing some everyday casual listening? Maybe you need a set suited for your HIIT workout?
  • Sound: Are you craving every little detail or want to stay connected to the outside world?
  • Fit: Do you like the idea of two cozy, cushioned ear cups on your head? Or, would you like some room for your ears to breathe? Maybe you want to skip cups altogether for a lighter, more compact feel?

Final Thoughts

Although headphones and earbuds generate sound using similar mechanisms, they’re designed for different purposes.

So, you can’t really say that one is better than the other. It’s much more important to understand what you need as a listener and find a device that fulfills those needs. A great way to figure this out is to consult an expert at your favorite AV retailer.