Earbuds vs. Headphones: Pros and Cons
Earbuds (also known as "in-ear headphones") and over-the-ear headphones are the two most popular types of headphones available today. Both have their benefits and drawbacks, as well as their uses in different situations. Below, we do a thorough comparison to show you which suits you best, depending on your listening habits, lifestyle, style preferences, and activities.
- Designed for active use. How many runners and professional athletes do you see using over-the-ear headphones while they run or train? Not many! Earbuds are the sportier option, especially sports or running earbuds designed to stay firmly in place as you run, jump, and play. Over-the-ear headphones are too bulky for active use.
- Lightweight and discreet. A set of earbuds weighs less than 50 grams, while a pair of headphones weighs anywhere from 0.50 to 1 pound. You can tuck earbuds in your pocket for easy storage, but even the most collapsible and portable headphones still require space to carry.
- Less likely to be stolen. Big, fancy headphones are much more attractive to thieves, but the easy-to-conceal earbuds are far less likely to be stolen.
- Versatile. Whether you're DJing a party, running a marathon, or listening to music in your car, earbuds can do anything and be taken anywhere.
- Available in waterproof design. Swimmers and athletes can find a wide selection of waterproof and sweat-resistant earbuds. It's nearly impossible to find over-the-ear headphones designed to be even water-resistant, much less waterproof.
- Inexpensive. You can find earbuds priced as low as $2 or $3, while the cheapest set of headphones will run you anywhere from $5 to $10. However, the difference in sound quality will be significantly more noticeable with cheap headphones. Cheap earbuds don't lose as much in terms of quality.
- Comfortable. Thanks to their light weight and slim design, you can usually wear a pair of earbuds for hours without overheating. The only real threat to your comfort is the itching/irritation caused by the earbud being inserted into your ear.
- Better noise isolation. The fact that there is something inserted into your ear means you get much better noise isolation with earbuds. The silicone tips help to block out all surrounding sound, and the directional speakers send the sound directly into your ear. Properly fitted earbuds are the best for noise isolation.
- More prone to irritating your ear. The fact that the earbuds are inserted INTO your outer ear canal means there is a higher risk of irritation and infection. Ear wax, dust, debris, sweat, and even water can build on the silicone tip of the earbuds. When you insert that into your ear, you increase the chance that you'll develop an ear infection. The inserted object also stimulates the increased production of ear wax, meaning there's a greater risk of clogged-up ears.
- Sound quality good, but not great. With earbuds, you never get the same truly responsive, versatile, and well-rounded sound of headphones. The sound quality may be good, but never truly professional-quality.
- Break more easily. The compact design of earbuds works against you in terms of durability. Earbuds are more prone to damage and breakage, especially with regular use. And don't get us started on how easy it is to lose those silicone tips!
- Lacking bass. Earbuds tend to produce very well-rounded sound, but they can't match the depth of bass offered by the larger over-the-ear headphones. You get a good mix of mids, lows, and highs without the ability to emphasize any specific range of sound.
- Greater risk of noise-induced hearing loss. Noise-induced hearing loss affects roughly 16% of American teenagers, and it's largely caused by music played at loud volumes being piped directly into the ear canal. Given that smartphones and MP3 players can play music at 120 decibels (significantly higher than the 90 decibels that can lead to hearing loss), it's no surprise that earbuds carry this potential risk.
Over-the-Ear Headphone Pros:
- Better sound quality. If the quality of your sound is the most important thing, ALWAYS opt for over-the-ear headphones. The over-the-ear cups provide space for larger, more responsive speakers, providing a depth and range of sound that no earbuds could ever match. Even the best-quality earbuds will never come close to the sound quality provided by high-end over-the-ear headphones.
- More professional. If you're a musician, DJ, recording artist, transcriptionist, or someone who needs high quality sound output, over-the-ear headphones are the more professional option.
- Excellent noise cancellation. Your average pair of over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones will be far more efficient at cancelling out noise (detecting and inverting ambient sound waves—see the next section for more information!) than a pair of earbuds. Only the very highest-end earbuds can provide decent noise cancellation.
- Longer lifespan. Your average pair of earbuds will last 1-2 years, maybe 3-5 if they're high-end running/sports earbuds. A good pair of over-the-ear headphones, however, will last up to 10 years. The fact that you're only using them indoors and away from water, sweat, dust, and debris extends their lifespan beyond any pair of earbuds.
- Better frequency response curve. Over-the-ear headphones have a significantly better frequency response, meaning there is a lower risk of distortion as the headphones transmit all frequencies (pitches) of your music, audiobooks, or podcasts. Headphones also have a better range of frequencies than earbuds.
Over-the-Ear Headphone Cons:
- Bulky. There's no getting around it: over-the-ear headphones are bulky. Not only do you have the heavy over-the-ear cups, but there's the headband as well. Even the most portable and collapsible headphones will still take up a good deal of space in your bag and there's no way to transport them in your pockets!
- Heavy. High-quality over-the-ear headphones tend to weigh more due to the internal components built into the ear cups.
- Inefficient noise isolation. There's no way to get a complete seal with a pair of over-the-ear headphones, meaning some of the ambient noise will leak in through the headphones.
- Awkward in daily life. You'd look goofy wearing headphones to walk down the street, hit the gym, or hang around the mall. Over-the-ear headphones are an "indoors-only" pair of headphones suitable for use at work, in front of the TV/gaming system, or in the studio.'
- Easier to steal. You can't fold up your over-the-ear headphones and put them in your pocket, which means they are always visible. Even cheap over-the-ear headphones look pricier than high-end earbuds, so they'll be a much more attractive target to thieves.
- Hot and applies pressure to your ears. Have you ever worn noise-isolating/cancelling headphones for upwards of an hour or two? The thick fabric/foam used for the ear cups can cause your ears to sweat and get very hot. Plus, the pressure placed on your ears by the ear cups can be uncomfortable.
As you can see, both earbuds and over-the-ear headphones have their unique pros and cons. It's up to you to examine both types of headphones to determine which suits you best!
How Noise Cancellation Works
Many people mistakenly use the terms "noise cancellation" and "noise isolation" to mean the same thing.
Noise isolation refers to a headphone design that prevents sound from entering your ear. Earbuds have the best noise isolation, as the silicone tip creates an airtight seal that blocks out ambient sounds and prevents the sound from your headphones escaping.
Noise cancellation, on the other hand, refers to one of two specific technologies built into the headphones:
- Passive noise cancellation refers to the materials used to build the headphones' ear cups, which blocks out sound. The circum-aural (over the ear) headphones use materials that maximize noise filtering, such as high density foam or sound-absorbing materials. This adds weight to the headphones but reduces ambient noise by 15 to 20 decibels.
- Active noise cancellation is a combination of a microphone, speaker, and noise-cancelling circuitry built into the headphones. The microphone "listens" to the ambient sounds, and the noise-cancelling circuitry matches the "sound fingerprint", the amplitude and frequency of the incoming sounds. An "opposite" sound is generated and fed into the headphones' speakers to cancel out the ambient sounds without altering the sound waves of your music, audiobook, or podcast.
Active noise cancellation is complex and highly sophisticated, and requires a rechargeable battery to power. However, with noise cancellation, you can effectively block out most ambient sounds so you only hear whatever you're listening to.
Note: Noise cancellation will work for general sounds, but sudden/sharp/loud sounds will filter through the headphones before they have time to generate the cancellation sound waves.
Noise cancellation technology can reduce around 20 decibels, or 70%, of background noise. It's typically used by those who travel on airplanes or trains, work in public, or spend a lot of time in high-noise environments (like an open-plan office or home with small children).
With noise cancellation technology, there is a chance that the sound will seem muffled, potentially compromising the sound quality overall. However, thanks to the fact that they can cancel out background sounds, they're highly effective for people looking for a bit of peace and quiet in noisy places.
Running and Sport Earbuds vs. Regular Earbuds
Active earbuds—designed for runners and athletes—are similar to regular earbuds in many ways. They have most of the same features, including the noise-isolating silicone tip, the in-ear placement, and the same limited range of sounds.
However, there are a few features that make them more suited to active use:
Water and sweat resistance. Not only can you find earbuds that are water and sweat-resistant, but you can find 100% waterproof earbuds (used by swimmers). This ensures that the earbuds are safe to use in the pool, in the rain, or anywhere with a lot of sweat or water exposure.
Secure placement. Each type of sport earbuds has their own unique design, but they're all built with one important purpose: staying in place in your ears. Considering how much you run and jump, you need headphones that won't fall out.
Some sport earbuds (like the Bose SoundSport) come with a hook that slips into the triangular fossa (the indentation of the outer ear), while others actually hook around behind the ears. Some sport earbuds are attached to headbands or neckbands that keep the earphones securely in place. Others are designed with a special tip that creates suction in your ears to prevent them from falling out.
Lightweight. Sport headphones are designed to be as lightweight as possible so you don't notice them as you're running or moving.
Outdoor sound responsiveness. The ambient noise of an indoor/gym environment is different from outdoor environments. Most sport headphones are designed to isolate outdoor ambient noise, and offer a depth of sound you don't get with regular low-budget earbuds.
Controls. While most earbuds offer basic controls (volume, skip/rewind, etc.), sport headphones usually have more comprehensive controls built into them. Some allow you to answer your phone hands-free as you run/train, change songs, activate Siri/Google Voice commands, adjust volume, and more. Sport headphones tend to have more control options than your basic earbuds.
Durability. This goes hand in hand with water resistance. Your average pair of earbuds is built for casual use, but sport/running earbuds are built for heavy-duty athletic activity. This means the cables are covered with a thicker wire, the earphones themselves are built to be a bit more durable, and the wire connections are more solid/less prone to breakage.
These few features can make a huge difference when it comes to your athletic activity, runs, or training sessions!