Why Do Headphones Sound Better Than Speakers?

In 2020 alone, over 490 million pairs of headphones were sold worldwide. Their immense popularity is probably due to the super convenient form factor and the superior sound quality they produce over standard speakers in the same price range. But why do tiny headphones sound better than larger speakers?

Headphones sound better than speakers because they deliver sound without interference from the environment, as they’re worn directly over the ear canal for listening. Additionally, speakers are subject to the natural acoustics of sound, while headphones benefit from noise cancelling technology. 

In this article, I’ll explain, in detail, the reasons behind the superior sound you can get from headphones compared to speakers.

Man listening to music with headphones instead of speakers

Reasons Headphones Sound Better Than Speakers

There’s probably never been a time when you put on a pair of headphones and thought, “wow, this sounds terrible.” The same can’t be said for speakers. We’ve all heard the distorted sound that’s produced when the settings aren’t correct or the bass is too much for the speakers to handle. To understand why many headphones consistently have good quality sound, we have to take a deeper look at how they work and how sound travels, in general. 

Headphones Deliver Sounds Directly to the Eardrum 

Even though headphones pack superior sound to speakers, they are, in essence, miniature speakers that you wear on your head. Let’s look at what’s inside your headphones. 

All headphones contain the same main parts, including a driver, which is the part that produces sound. Inside the driver assembly, there is a magnet, a voice coil, and a diaphragm. 

When your headphones are powered up, the voice coil and the magnet create an electromagnetic field. As your music plays, it produces variations in the electrical signals, which in turn cause variations in the electromagnetic field. The voice coil vibrates due to these energy changes. 

The diaphragm is a small piece of plastic attached to the voice coil. As the coil vibrates, the diaphragm moves up and down, moving the air to create waves of sound. In speakers, the waves must be amplified to produce sound capable of traveling longer distances. This is not necessary for headphones, as they direct the sound waves right into your ear and to your eardrum.

Headphones Block Out External Noise

The cup-like shape of your ear works to capture sound waves and direct them into your ear canal. Headphones take this a step further by covering the entrance to the ear canal, pushing the sound waves right to where they need to go. This is the main reason that sound quality is so good in headphones, as all external noise is bypassed.  

Here’s a quick overview of how we normally hear sounds:

  • Sound waves enter the ear canal, headed to the eardrum. 
  • Sound waves hit the eardrum, causing it to vibrate. 
  • Bones in the inner ear vibrate and amplify the vibrations, and send them to the cochlea
  • Fluids inside the cochlea ripple with the vibrations and carry tiny hair cells up and down where they make contact with neurotransmitters. 
  • Neurotransmitters carry chemical signals to the brain through the auditory nerve, allowing us to hear sounds. 

Headphones vs. Speakers: Understanding Sound

When sound is produced, it interacts with the environment. And since sound is essentially vibrations causing air movement, anything that changes the direction of air can influence sound. This is why there’s no sound in space (there’s no air) and why trying to talk or scream underwater sounds different from in the open air (it’s harder to push the airwaves through water). 

Speakers and headphones serve the same purpose, but they do their jobs differently. When headphones produce sound, the waves naturally follow the same path any other sound would, except it goes directly into the ear canal. This results in the purest sounds, straight from the source. 

On the other hand, speakers require a lot more energy, as they must move significantly more air to produce vibrations of sound. Once the vibrations leave the speaker, they travel out into the space around where the speaker is sitting. The end result is at the mercy of the location’s acoustics. This is why it might sound better when you sing in the shower than when you sing in your bedroom. Acoustics are are different from room to room.

Acoustic Properties of Sound

All materials and surfaces have acoustic properties. Thus, when sound waves hit an object or surface in a room, they react in specific ways depending on the materials. 

When sound comes into contact with matter, the waves can be:

  • Refracted: The sound wave bends and changes in speed.
  • Absorbed: The energy from the sound wave is absorbed into whatever it comes into contact with.
  • Transmitted: Energy from the sound wave passes through whatever it hits.
  • Reflected: Sound waves hit objects or surfaces and bounce off.

These concepts are important for understanding why sound emitted from speakers may seem so different than what is heard through headphones. 

When sound waves come out of a speaker and into a space, the waves strike any matter they come into contact with, causing a change to the sound waves. Changes in the sound wave continue to change the sound from the moment the wave exits the speaker until it hits your eardrum. 

There is no interaction between the sound waves and the environment with headphones, so the acoustics do not change the waves in the room. The sound is heard in its intended form without interference from the environment, resulting in a more “pure” sound.

Noise Cancellation Technology

Another reason that the sound quality in headphones may be better than speakers is noise-canceling technology. Similar to the interference of objects and the room’s setup on speaker acoustics, outside or background noise can impact what you’re hearing. 

Today, most headphones come with noise cancellation or noise isolating features, which isolate the sound even more and give the listener a more immersive experience. Even if you don’t purchase true noise-canceling headphones, the placement of the earpiece over the outside of the ear (or into the ear canal in the case of earbuds) will block some of the outside noise and create a better listening environment. 

If you don’t have a great pair of noise-canceling headphones, there’s nothing quite like these Bose Quiet Comfort Headphones, available on Amazon.  

Headphones Provide Big Sounds in Small Packages

Aside from the science of sound, there’s also a practical reason why headphones sound so much better than speakers. Speakers have to move a lot more air into a larger space, which requires more energy and bigger components. 

Speakers sometimes have multiple drivers to produce louder sounds and a wider range of frequencies. Headphones, on the other hand, are usually equipped with one driver per ear (even though there are headphones with multiple drivers per ear as well). This is a reduced production cost that is passed on to the consumer. 

To get the same sound quality you get in a pair of decent headphones from a large speaker, you’d usually have to spend a lot more money. Undeniably, you can get more “bang for your buck” from a pair of headphones. 

Because the mini speaker sits directly on your ear, you get a loudspeaker experience for a fraction of the cost. 

Final Thoughts

The bottom line is that headphones produce better sound quality than speakers for the same price. This is supported by science and the opinions of many music lovers (just ask the folks on Reddit). Reasons include design and placement of headphones and the lower cost associated with a much smaller speaker design. If you’re looking for the best sound for your dollar, headphones are the way to go.