Gadgetell Guide: Should I buy headphones or earbuds?

Sections: Accessories, Audio, Features, Headphones, Originals

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Headphones vs Earbuds

A MP3 player is only as good as its headphones or earbuds. With that in mind, it is very important to decide whether headphones or earbuds are the way to go when listening to music. For me the difference between using headphones and earbuds is relatively simple. However, for others, deciding which to use can be a difficult process. Based on my personal experiences, I will break down the pros and cons of each.

Headphones: Pro

Headphones are typically bulkier than earbuds, but the sound quality is much greater than earbuds. If I want clear, rich sound quality I would opt to use headphones as they are designed to be of better quality and some come with noise canceling technology. Now, they are also more comfortable as the cans are typically coated with padding to keep your ears feeling comfortable. They fit snuggly over or behind your head, so they will not fall off easily, which is a big plus. I can’t run with earbuds as they almost always fall out, so I have to use headphones when running. To me, that makes me more likely to purchase headphones over earbuds.

Headphones: Con

I alluded to the fact that headphones are bulkier than earbuds, which is true. They are not as portable as earbuds and usually come with a carrying pouch. It is not a big inconvenience, but I enjoy keeping earbuds in my pockets for quick access. Good quality headphones also stick out since they are much bigger than decent headphones. If you take a look outside or on the subway, chances are most people are using earbuds over headphones due to portability factor.

Earbuds: Pro

If you purchase an MP3 player, chances are it comes with a pair of earbuds so you can listen to music right away. For example, Apple ships their own earbuds with every iPod, but many people end buying a new pair due to lack of quality. Personally, I don’t have too much of a problem with the Apple earbuds, as they are small and can fit easily inside my pocket. There are higher quality earbuds designed by manufacturers that feature noise canceling technology, similar to headphones.

Earbuds: Con

Unless you are buying high end earbuds, chances are they lack quality that can be found in similarly priced headphones. They are much smaller and can’t pack the same features as headphones. In addition, they are designed to fit outside your ear canal or directly inside, which poses a danger to your hearing. Most earbuds don’t feature any noise canceling technology, so we often blast our music to reduce outside noise. This is a big no-no as it can cause permanent damage to your ear drum.

Final Thoughts

If you are looking for sharp sound quality combined with comfort, headphones may be the way to go. However, if you are looking for style combined with portability, earbuds may be the way to go. I own a pair of headphones as well as several earbuds. When running, I typically use headphones as they don’t fall off, but when going outside either for school, with friends, or just walking around, I carry earbuds with me as they are smaller and more portable. If you are still conflicted, evaluate when and where you’ll be using your music player and that ought to help you make a decision.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to let me know below.

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  • Don Dibert

    As a person with a major hearing loss, I like the idea of earbuds. I own a midlevel pair of Shure noise canceling buds. I like the idea of interchangable cushions that allow me to "fit" them to my ears. Using headphones gives me tons of exterior noise, meaning I can't hear the music without blasting it all the way up. (No, my hearing loss was not due to excessive volume)

  • Wired Headphones

    I always prefer headset with earbuds coz I can hear the real quality and loudness of sounds and I feel more in the groove while playing music!

  • ggendel

    Personally, I believe that such generalities do a disservice to your readership. There is no way that blanket statements like headsets sound better than earbuds has any merit at all. There are a wide range of quality in both camps and they each have a unique place.

    As a long time audiophile, I use a pair of electrostatic headphones at home. The accuracy of these are unsurpassed, but they don't make any sense for portable electronics. When I travel on planes, I use a pair of high-end noise-isolating earbuds. These allow me to remove myself completely from my surroundings, but I need to read lips to have a conversation with them on.

    When I look for headphones or earbuds, I have three criteria:

    1) Does the music sound natural? The equalization that manufactures think makes things sound better (i.e boosting the low or mid range) colors that sound.
    2) Is it comfortable? Earbuds can irritate and hurt after a while. Headphones may not sit right and can get very hot and sweaty.
    3) What's the fatigue factor? (1) and (2) contribute to this, but even headphones that are comfortable and sound great may have a characteristic that makes it hard to listen for long periods of time. I do the same type of test for any audio component and it has served me well over the years.

    The best thing to do is to have a few diverse tracks that you utilize for subjective listening tests. Always use the same equipment for these tests and try to equalize the volume when comparing. It solves problems like "but it sounded great at the store". If a friend bought a pair that you are interested in, see how it sounds on your playing device. There is a lot of interplay between the driving electronics and the headphones that will change the sound characteristics. Since many manufacturers forgo providing any meaningful specifications any more, subjective analysis is the only way.

  • normanj

    I've owned both expensive headphones and earbuds, looking for the optimal, and the best by far for me have been Monster Beats by Dr. Dre. They are designed to work with iPhone, and are flawless.

  • DJ CyborGeisha

    Most DJ's use headphones and i actually like the style of headphones better than earbuds. For example when you look at the lady gaga CD cover (yes i know she's not a real DJ) you see her wearing Headphones instead of earbuds. Many other famous celebrities including rappers and singers wear them. You also get better sound quality especialy in cars and on the bus. I also like the bass quality of headphones

  • Peter Sundell

    Are there any higher quality headphones that have a built in remote and mic that will work with my iPhone? That is the one major drawback for me. I wish I could listen to my iPhone with some high quality headphones and not lose the ability to control my music playback with the headphones.

  • Laura Granich

    This is a question?? What is better for someone with hearing loss and has to watch volume. I am supposed to keep the volume lower. Are earbuds or headphones safer? And what is the best brand of each to buy?