Earbuds vs. Headphones

Young Asian woman listening to headphones
Ultimately, you need to choose the earphones or headphones that work best for you. MOAimage/Moment/Getty Images

Monster-sized headphones became all the rage back in the 1970s. Portable music players began to emerge in the 1980s, and headphones began to shrink. Then Apple debuted the iPod in 2001, and included a pair of sleek, white earbuds in every package [source: Hormby]. Suddenly, earbuds were all the rage for listening to music on the run [source: Fekadu]. Today, earbuds are still ubiquitous -- just take a look around you -- but high-quality headphones are emerging as an increasingly popular alternative, despite their girth. So which device allows you to best enjoy your favorite tunes?

It all depends. Earbuds and headphones both have their pros and cons, and the best device for delivering your tunes depends on the circumstances you'll be in and your preferences. Let's consider headphones first.


Headphones rest on your outer ears. Supra-aural models cover your entire ear surfaces but don't entirely seal them. Over-the-ear models, or circumaurals, fully enclose each ear (think of the ear coverings worn by those who work on airstrips, or inside noisy factories). The biggest advantage with headphones is that they deliver superior sound quality, especially when it comes to capturing bass tones. They're also great at blocking out ambient noise -- background noise that's always present, such as traffic on a street.

Open-cup headphones are quite affordable; you can purchase a pair for well under $20. Closed-cup models start off a bit pricier, and can run as high as $500 or so. Why such a hefty price tag? Top-quality closed-cup models like Beats by Dr. Dre contain advanced speaker designs, powered amplification and excellent active-noise canceling [source: HP Home & Home Office Store].

But headphones aren't perfect. They're bulky and not too portable, which is why you don't see runners wearing them, or people strolling around town with a pair snugged onto their heads. If you wear headphones for a while, they can get all hot and sweaty, too, especially if you're exercising. And the bigger the headphones, the more they'll smoosh your hair. They can also interfere with glasses and earrings [source: CNET].

Earbuds can also rest on your outer ear, but most are meant to be inserted into your ear canal. Earbuds are typically less expensive than headphones, much lighter and far less bulky. This means they're quite portable, which is why you probably see people with wires hanging out of their ears every day in cafes, on the sidewalk and at work. Because earbuds only sit in your ear canals, they don't affect your hairstyle, or the wearing of glasses and earrings. Unfortunately, earbuds deliver inferior sound quality, especially when it comes to bass tones. They also don't filter out external noise very well, so earbud-wearers tend to crank up the volume on their tunes, which can wreck their hearing. Some people find earbuds hurt their ear canals, too, while others simply can't wear them because they always slip out of their ears [source: CNET].

Final decision: If you want to enjoy high-quality sound -- and really, all the sounds in a piece of music -- headphones are your best bet. They're also great for enjoying tunes in your home. But if you're working out at the gym or commuting, earbuds are probably better, due to their light weight and portability.

But there's one more thing to consider before making any purchase. Both headphones and earbuds are typically "noise isolating" devices, meaning they block some of the noise around you, much like when you place your fingers in your ears or put earmuffs on. But some folks prefer to have headphones or earbuds that are noise canceling, and that's a different thing.

Noise cancellation is an acoustical technology that detects ambient sounds outside of your headphones or earbuds, then reverses the phase of the sound waves, which cancels them out. This technology works best on steady, low-frequency background noise -- think of the sounds of a jet engine while you're flying, or steady traffic along a busy street -- but not so well with high-frequency and sporadic sounds: a dog that suddenly starts barking, or kids who come running down the street laughing and screaming [source: Noise Cancelling Review]. So, consider your circumstances and surroundings before you make a purchase.

Still not sure which is best for you? Many people purchase both headphones and earbuds, swapping them out depending on their circumstances. That way, you're ensured of always getting the sweetest sound of all.


Earbuds or Headphones FAQ

Which is better, headphones or earbuds?
Headphones are considered a better option than earbuds because they are outside the ear, creating a barrier between the music and your ears.
Is it worth buying wireless earbuds?
If you are a frequent traveler or a fitness freak, earbuds are worth the money. They are easier to carry and provide a better range of motion.
Can earbuds be used for gaming?
As compared to earbuds, headphones are considered a better option for gaming. Headphones are more comfortable as they are over the ear and also provide cleaner, more wholesome sound.
Can earbuds be as good as headphones?
Earbud sound quality is almost on par with the sound quality of headphones. Therefore, earbuds are definitely as good as headphones in terms of sound quality.
Is it safe to wear earbuds?
Ideally, you are advised not to wear earbuds for long periods as they are in direct contact with your ears. Due to this, loud sounds can damage your hearing ability.

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Author's Note: Earbuds vs. Headphones

For me, this issue is simple. Earbuds always fall out of my ears -- my doctor said I have "generously sized" ear canals -- so I use headphones. After researching this article, though, I'm ready to pop for a higher-quality pair.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • AuSim. "Selecting Headphones (and Headsets)." (June 7, 2012) http://www.ausim3d.com/products/AuWeb_selecting_headphones.html
  • Barker, Adrian. "Pros and Cons of Ear Buds." Ear-Buds. R-Tools Technology. Sept. 28, 2010. (June 6, 2012) http://ear-buds.articles.r-tt.com/
  • CNET. "Headphones buying guide -- CNET Review." CNET. Nov. 24, 2009. (June 6, 2012) http://reviews.cnet.com/headphone-buying-guide/
  • Earphone Solutions. "Noise Cancelling Headphones." (June 6, 2012) http://www.earphonesolutions.com/coofsoiseaan.html
  • Fekadu, Mesfin. "Headphones vs. Earbuds: Dr. Dre Joins The Eternal Battle." Huffington Post. Dec. 22, 2011. (June 6, 2012) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/22/headphones-vs-earbuds_n_1165385.html
  • Gadgetry Wizards. "Headphones and Earbuds for a World of Distractions." (June 6, 2012) http://gadgetrywizards.com/blog/computers-and-technology/personal-tech/headphones-and-earbuds-for-a-world-of-distractions/
  • Gray, Katherine. "5 noise-canceling headphones." USA Today. June 2, 2012 or Feb. 6, 2012. (June 6, 2012) http://www.usatoday.com/tech/products/story/2012-06-02/noise-canceling-headphones/55330864/1
  • HP Home & Home Office Store. "Beats by Dr. Dre Studio High-Definition Headphones." (June 8, 2012) http://shopping2.hp.com/en_US/home-office/-/products/Accessories/Speakers-and-Headsets/AU164AA?Beats-by-Dr.-Dre-Studio-High-Definition-Headphones&aoid=12655&srccode=cii_5784816&cpncode=33-54125781-2
  • Hormby, Tom and Dan Knight. "A History of the iPod: 2000-2004." LowEndMac. Sept. 2007. (June 7, 2012) http://lowendmac.com/orchard/05/origin-of-the-ipod.html#0
  • Noise Cancelling Review. "Noise Cancelling Review." (June 6, 2012) http://noisecancellingreview.com/
  • Sood, Natesh. "Gadgetell Guide: Should I buy headphones or earbuds?" July 7, 2009. (June 6, 2012) http://www.technologytell.com/gadgets/48700/gadgetell-guide-should-i-buy-headphones-or-earbuds/