IEMs vs. Headphones: The Differences Compared

IEMs (in-ear monitors) and headphones are two ways to listen to music and other audio, both on the go or in a studio setting. They mostly do the same job, with loads of options for each. But how do you know which is the best option for you?

IEMs are high-quality earphones that sit in your ear and block out ambient noise. It’s often used by musicians on stage and by audio engineers when mixing, but also by audiophiles on the go. Over ear headphones are bulkier but can provide superior sound quality and are usually more comfortable to wear for longer periods.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at both IEMs and headphones, some of their differences, and the pros and cons of each. Once you’ve been able to compare their differences, you can make the best choice for your listening needs.  

IEMs vs headphones

IEMs: A Basic Overview

In-ear monitors, known by the abbreviation IEMs, are very popular among audiophiles and those interested in the highest-quality listening experience. The small device creates a seal just inside the ear for a snug fit that blocks most external noise. The seal over the ear canal keeps the audio confined to the listener’s ear, meaning people surrounding are not disturbed. 

IEMs are often the choice of professionals in the music industry, especially those who do live performances. In fact, they’re called “monitors” because they were initially designed so that individual performers could “monitor” various audio feeds while on stage. 

These devices are also used by people working on television or in front of live audiences who may need to receive information on-air. (Think news anchors, television hosts, or award-show presenters).

IEMs fit more snuggly than earbuds, and they’re shaped more like an ear, with most of what’s available on the consumer market offering a universal fit. Still, many professionals opt for custom molded IEMs for their ear canal (Alex Van Halen was the first artist known to take this approach).

From a technical aspect, IEMs have impressive power for their tiny size. Today, many IEMs use a balanced armature driver to produce sound, the same technology used in hearing aids.  

Other IEMs use dynamic drivers, which are great for improving the sound performance of bass. Some very high-end, professional IEMs can have as many as 12 drivers. More drivers typically mean better performance over various frequencies, which creates a better listener experience.

This YouTube video from NCIX Tech Tips explains the differences between the various types of drivers in audio equipment:

These devices are so popular for live performers because the listener can hear multiple audio tracks simultaneously. The sound level for each track can also be adjusted. 

How Do IEMs Work? 

In-ear monitors are a two-part system, including a transmitter and a receiver. The receiver is typically worn on the performer’s back (on a belt), and the sound is picked up by IEMs and amplified into the wearer’s ear. This usually happens over a radio signal.

The variation in cost is usually due to the earpiece. A generic, universal tip is less expensive than the molded variety, which is less expensive than custom-fitted pieces.

Pros of IEMs

While IEMs can be costly, there are options available at all price ranges. There are also many benefits to owning in-ear monitors, ranging from convenience to comfort. Some of the advantages of IEMs include:

  • Light and comfortable. Their small size and tight fit in the ear make IEMs comfortable to wear, even in the heat. Unlike headphones that cover your entire ear and part of your head, IEMs minimize direct contact.
  • Excellent noise isolation. IEMs block out all external noise, which will allow you to focus only on your audio. This is great if you want to hear every aspect of your music and give it 100% of your attention.
  • Perfect for on-the-go. Unlike bulky headphones, you can easily tuck your IEMs in a backpack, purse, or pocket. Their snug fit keeps them in place during your run or on the bustling subway platform, so you don’t have to worry about them falling off mid-stride.
  • High-quality sound. IEMs have some of the best sound quality out there. The audio is extremely clear, and you will be able to hear every detail of the music. The bass is enhanced, and the sound quality is the same, even at low volumes.
  • Easy to find. At one time, IEMs were really only available through specialty retailers or those in the music industry. Now, they are widely available to consumers at every price point.
  • Accessibility for musicians with hearing loss. Musicians suffering from hearing impairment may benefit from using IEMs, according to a 2015 study.
  • Consistency for performers. Not having to set up the monitors and adjust the sound settings for the room’s acoustics is a big time-saver and creates a more consistent experience for live performers. 

Cons of IEMs

Here are some of the downsides to using IEMs:

  • Potential for eardrum damage. Because these devices are placed snugly into the ear canal, the audio is very close to your eardrum. If used improperly, it could lead to damage to the eardrum or hearing loss.
  • Finding the right fit. To truly benefit from the superior listening experience of IEMs, you will need the right fit. That means finding and inserting the right size for the tip into the ear canal. This process could take some time and patience to find the right tip to prevent the device from sliding out.
  • Can be uncomfortable. Having the IEMs inside your ear can take some getting used to. You might find that they are not comfortable for you to wear (some might even hurt your ears), and getting a pair that is designed for comfort is going to be more expensive.
  • Many require a standard headphone jack. Of course, there are wireless options on the market, but many IEMs still have standard cable with an audio jack. Make sure that you check for this when making your selection.

Headphones: A Basic Overview

Headphones originated from a need to listen to a phone receiver without holding the device, and the early models weighed over 10 pounds (4.5 kg). That’s quite a difference from the wireless options available today.  

The modern-day headphone was developed in 1910 by Nathaniel Baldwin. Since then, they’ve become widely available in every size, shape, color, and purpose imaginable. Today, they even serve as fashion accessories, much in the same way as watches or handbags.  

Headphones are small speakers that listeners wear on the outside of the ear. They are held in place by a headband that goes over or around the head or neck. Headphones come in both wired and wireless varieties and are available at virtually any price point. 

Wired headphones usually have a typical audio jack plug, 6.3 mm (¼ cm) or a minijack (3.5 mm), but it’s always best to verify that your purchase is compatible with your devices. 

Headphones work the same way that loudspeakers do, by turning electric energy into sound through magnetics and vibration. While loudspeakers move soundwaves through the air to fill a large space, headphones do this on a much smaller scale, only needing to produce enough energy to move the soundwaves into the listener’s ear. 

Even though pretty much everyone has one (or many) pairs of headphones lying around their home, there are some interesting facts about them that you probably didn’t know!

Pros of Headphones

Headphones are some of the most popular electronic accessories on the market. Let’s check out some of the pros of choosing headphones.

  • There’s a huge number of options. The types, designs, and cost varieties are endless, meaning that you will undoubtedly find a pair that fits your style and budget. Whether you are looking for something sleek and stylish or a pair of noise-canceling headphones, there is something for everyone on the market.
  • You can buy them virtually anywhere. You can purchase a pair of headphones in a convenience store, drug store, airport, supermarket – almost anywhere. That makes them a super convenient option if you forgot yours at home or when you need a way to occupy yourself before a long flight.
  • High-quality, immersive sound. A nice pair of headphones will offer some of the best sound quality out there. With or without actual noise-canceling technology, most (closed-back) headphones will create a cushioned seal around your ear and let you drown out the outside world while listening to your favorite tunes.
  • Better sound stage. Using some high-quality pairs of headphones with an open-back design will let you experience music more like in a concert hall in some ways. You will be able to hear the distance between yourself and the instruments in a much clearer and more realistic way. You will feel more like your sitting in a bigger room listening instead of having all the sounds in your head or right next to your ear.
  • Availability of high-end features. Headphones come in a wide range of price points and available features. If you decide to spring for a premium pair, you won’t be disappointed by the performance. (We recommend Sony WH-1000XM4 Headphones, as they’re Alexa-capable and available on Amazon).
  • They’re comfortable for longer wear. If you’re going to be on a long flight or car ride, headphones are perfect for passing the time. They will be more comfortable than a device inside the ear for an extended period.
  • You can use them as an accessory. Some headphones have become fashion statements. Others have such a recognizable logo that they were all the rage among young listeners. Whether you like sparkles, funky colors, or top-of-the-line features, you can make a statement with a bold pair of headphones.

Cons of Headphones

  • Headphones are bulky. Even if you select a sleek design, they still can’t compete with the small, portable design of IEMs. If you’re looking for something that you can carry in your bag, headphones may not be the right choice.
  • Health concerns. A 2002 medical journal stated that prolonged use of headphones could cause reactivation or prolonged symptoms in individuals already suffering from chronic ear infections.
  • They’re not great for working out. Headphones are not the ideal accessory for hitting the gym. Because they sit on your head, they can easily bounce or slide off during your run. Not to mention, it can get pretty hot and sweaty underneath those earpieces.
  • Popular ones can be pricey. If you want the best noise-cancellation technology or the hottest brand, you’re going to have to pay up for it. That being said, there are plenty of options with great sound quality at a reasonable price if you’re not interested in flash.

Fun Facts About Headphones

  • They’re sometimes called “cans.” Believe it or not, this is an homage back to the days when kids played telephone with two tin cans and a string. The transmission of sound through the string and into the cans is just like the technology used in the first headphones!
  • They were never meant to be portable. We can’t imagine a world where people don’t take their music to-go. Early in-home use headphones were meant for listening to records, not sweating out the eighties at the gym.
  • You should thank Sony. Sony’s Walkman is what first turned music into a portable commodity and generated a huge demand for listening on the go. 
  • Noise cancellation originated from an airplane passenger. Dr. Amar Bose (yes, that Bose) was disgusted by the shoddy headphones given out on flights, so he decided to develop noise-canceling headphones. While it took another 30 years for them to become “a thing” for the consumer market, pilots and other airline workers were happy to have them.
  • Jobs vs. Dre. Even though Apple’s introduction of the earbud (standard with every iPod purchase) threw headphones to the sideline, Beats by Dre helped the over-the-ear variety come back in a major way in the early 2000s. 

IEMs vs. Headphones: How To Decide

Even though IEMs and headphones serve a similar purpose, they are still quite different. You may want to consider investing in one of each item, especially if you like to carry your electronics and accessories on the go and still have access to noise-canceling technology.

When You Should Get IEMs

  • You do any kind of live performance. There’s a reason people in the music industry swear by IEMs. They’ve become a staple of live stage performances or when it’s essential that you hear your audio precisely.
  • You’ll be doing physical activities. IEMs will be your better option if you plan to go for a walk, go running, hiking, or if you plan to listen in the gym. They will stay in place much better and withstand the constant jolting and jostling of your movement.
  • You like the over-ear loop. IEMs often have an additional loop that goes over the ear to keep the device in place. If you want this added security, then IEMs might be the best option. They will stay in place better than headphones or standard earbuds.
  • You want to avoid noise-leaking. Unlike earbuds that sit just inside the ear, IEMs are inserted into the ear canal, preventing your audio from leaking out at higher volumes. If you don’t want people around you to hear your audio and prefer the sleek fit, IEMs are an excellent option.

Why You Should Get Headphones

  • You don’t like putting things in your ear. No matter how convenient they are, some people still don’t want to insert a device into their ear canal. If that includes you, or if you’re prone to ear infections or other problems, headphones might be your best choice.
  • You want noise cancellation. Even though IEMs offer noise isolating properties due to their tight seal, noise-canceling headphones are the OG of drowning out the world to turn up your favorite tunes.
  • You do your listening while stationary. If you’re not planning to use your listening accessories at the gym or while doing some other physical activity, then headphones might be a great choice.
  • You don’t want to be bothered. Headphones are a great way to keep from being disturbed by strangers striking up a conversation or a family member asking you to take out the trash. They tell people around you that you’re busy listening to your favorite playlist.
  • You’re going to be wearing them for a while. If you’re going to be using your listening device for long periods, headphones are probably a better choice. The over-ear variety is the most comfortable, with plenty of padding and less direct contact for reduced sweating.

Which Is Right for You?

There are pros and cons to both IEMs and headphones. Choosing the right option for you mostly depends on how you plan to use them. True audiophiles would recommend both headphones and IEMs for the highest-quality sound experience depending on the situation and what you’re doing.

To make your choice, you should consider the most important factors, including portability, using them while stationary or on the go, and whether you prefer having the device inside or outside your ear. 

If you’ve never tried any IEMs, the best option may be to check them out and see how they feel. For a great starter pair of IEMs that won’t break the bank, we recommend the Shure SE215-CL, available on Amazon.

Final Thoughts

IEMs and headphones do the same job but in a different way. Both have their advantages, including comfort, use, and price-point. If you’re going to be using the devices while exercising or walking around, IEMs might be a better choice.

For comfort, long travel, or if you don’t like things inside your ear, then headphones may be best.

There are many choices for each item, so the best thing to do is get out there and check them out to see which feels the best. Either way, you will be able to access high-quality audio on the go.