Headphones vs Earbuds—Differences Explained

Headphones and earbuds are not new to the world of audio, and have become a must-have for most music lovers. Unlike loudspeakers which emit sound signals into the air for everyone to hear, these music devices allow you to listen to your music source privately. So, what’s the difference between earbuds and headphones?

In most contexts, the word headphone is used as an all-inclusive term for earpieces, including regular headphones, earbuds, and bone-conduction headphones. However, in a formal context, headphones are used to refer to the ear-covering headsets, while earbuds are typically the ear-inserted ones.

Whether you prefer over the ear headphones or in-ear earbuds, these audio gadgets play a critical role when it comes to jamming to your favorite tunes at home, pumping yourself during workouts, or taking crucial conference calls in the comfort of your living room. That said choosing the right audio gadget between earbuds vs headphones is incredibly important.

Headphones vs Earbuds head-to-head Comparison

Comes with a band that rests at top of the head to support the speakersPlugs inside the ear canal
Most headphones include noise cancellationMost don’t come with noise cancellation, but some high-end versions may offer ANC
Includes both wired and wireless optionsMost are wireless
More comfortableCan be uncomfortable for long listening sessions
Relatively expensiveAffordable

Overview of Headphones


In general, headphones refer to pair of small loudspeakers (typically fitted with drivers) that you can wear over your ears. These audio gadgets come with a band that rests over the user’s head to support the speakers. Other words used to refer to headphones include headsets and earphones, but the term headphones offer a more specific definition when comparing earbuds vs over ear headphones.

Benefits of headphones over earbuds

Better Sound Quality

If you’re looking to enjoy the best sound quality possible, then headphones are your best option. High-end headphones come with larger drivers, which allow them to reproduce powerful and full sound that envelops your ears.

The sound coming from headphones is more impactful, and feels roomier thanks to the wider soundstage. If you’re using a pair of full-sized headphones, its sound quality can be matched to that of home theater speakers.

Furthermore, most headphones include premium and well-thought features to allow them to bring your music to life. For instance, some model offers support for hi-res audio, thus allowing users to enjoy a superior listening experience. So, when it comes to the battle of earbuds vs headphones sound quality, the headphone is the undisputed winner.

Noise Cancellation

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages that headphones offer over their earbuds counterparts is the inclusion of the Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) system. Considering that most headphones don’t have the capacity to block most of the low-frequency noises, the installation of an active noise canceling feature helps make your headphones sound a lot better.

ANC headphones work great in blocking unwanted noise from reaching the drivers, and this helps to shield your ears from noise and the outside world in general. In addition, with noise-canceling headphones, you don’t need to keep turning up the volume to hear the music well since it blocks out any sounds that might interfere with your hearing capabilities.

Competitive gamers may also appreciate the advantage offered by ANC headphones vs. earbuds for gaming. This is because the headphones help isolate gamers from the outside world, plus they are comfortable for extended gaming sessions. However, this matter is highly subjective, and it doesn’t imply that you can’t choose earbuds for your gaming applications.

Superior Comfort

The over ear headphones tend to be more comfortable than the earbuds versions. This makes the traditional headphone ideal for longer listening sessions, and they are especially ideal for people who are irritated by the idea of having anything inside their ear canal. In addition, most people find headphones to be more secure as compared to earbuds that tend to fall out of the ears frequently.

So, if you are not a fan of having foreign objects sit directly inside your ear canals listening to music for hours on end, investing in a pair of over ear headphones will be a superb idea. However, it is not uncommon to find headphones that are pretty uncomfortable. Some headphones models come fitted with cheap ear pads, which put pressure on your earlobes and may even fail to cover your ears fully.

Reduced Risk of Ear Damage

Another benefit of having over ear headphones is that there is a reduced risk of hearing damage. You can further reduce the risk by playing at low volumes. However, playing loud music on your headphones can still damage your hearing or even lead to permanent hearing loss.

On the other hand, the risk of hearing damage is twice as high when using earbuds. This is because, having the earpieces inside your ear can increase the sound volume level by up to 10 decibels, which is more than enough to cause serious hearing problems.

Enhanced Durability

Enhanced durability headphones

Most headphones are sturdily built, and this usually translates to a longer service life. The tough construction makes them ideal for home use, sporting activities, and other heavy-duty applications. That’s not all. Most headphones come with longer-lasting batteries designed to run the entire day on a single charge.

On the contrary, most earbuds last for about seven hours on the higher end, but this may vary depending on the level of usage. So, if you’re looking for something to use for continuous music playback, headphones will last you longer than their smaller siblings.

What are Earbuds?

Qcy Earbuds

Earbuds are earpieces that are made up of individual speakers and are inserted inside the ear canal. As opposed to over-ear headphones, earbuds sit inside the ear, meaning the drivers reproduce the sound within your ears.

Much like headphones, earbuds are fitted with the necessary drivers and a signal path that allows the transmission of the audio signal to your drivers, often done via a wireless transmission. When it comes to usage, the housing of the drivers, including the ear cups, are typically placed inside the user’s ear canal.

As a result of this construction, earbuds are excellent at shielding the user from external noise. However, most earbuds don’t include an active noise cancellation system, meaning they still expose you to external noise.

Advantages of Earbuds over Headphones

Convenient mobility

earbuds checking smart watch

The mobility convenience that comes with earbuds is pretty obvious. So if you prefer gadgets that are not only lightweight but also portable, always go with a pair of earbuds. In addition, earbuds come in a considerably smaller size to allow them to fit inside your ears.

Their compact size also means you can keep them in your pockets when you’re not using them. On the other hand, you may need to get a bag to store your headphones when you’re not wearing them or leave them to rest on your neck.

The size difference also plays a critical role in how you use your gadgets on a daily basis. For instance, if you want to listen to music while working out, then you may want to go with something that won’t weigh you down. So, if you’ve wondered what’s best between headphones vs earbuds for working out, then we recommend you go with earbuds.

More Affordable

When it comes to ANC headphones vs earbuds, the former is by far more expensive, and it is for obvious reasons. Over ear headphones are made using premium materials, and this adds to the final cost. However, the difference in price between earbuds and headphones does not always mean poor performance. As such, it is not uncommon to find earbuds that cost less but still deliver performance rivaling that of premium headphones.

What’s more, a cheap price tag does not mean earbuds don’t include key features. Some earbuds especially from well-known brands offer premium features, including efficient ANC and advanced software to enhance your listening experience. So if you’re looking for a good combination of performance and affordability, always go with earbuds.

True Wireless Operation


Most earbuds operate independently using a wireless setup, with each earbud featuring its own Bluetooth chip and battery. The wireless connection offers users more freedom of movement, and you don’t need to worry about tangling wires. This makes true wireless earbuds the to-go gadgets for workouts and running.

However, it is important to note that there are a few models that come with a wire connecting individual earbuds. The main drawback of this design is that the wire might distort the signal, and because of this, most manufacturers no longer produce wired earbuds.

The Bottom Line

The debate of which is better between the over ear headphones and earbuds is a truly subjective one. Before you choose your most preferred device, you may want to consider a few determining factors, including performance level, size factor, comfort level, affordability, stability, application needs, etc.

In a nutshell, headphones are associated with superior audio quality, better battery life, and better noise cancellation capabilities. On the flip side, earbuds are more affordable, best for strenuous activities, and are more portable than their banded counterparts.

At the end of the day, it is hard to presume which is better between the two. The choice is entirely application specific, and it all comes down to personal preferences.

Avatar for Jamie K. Martin

Jamie K. Martin holds a degree in Audio engineering from Husson University, Bangor. Martin spends most of his time testing and trying the technology he writes about to ensure that he provides first-hand information to our customers from all walks of life.

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