Headphones vs Earbuds – Which Should I Buy?

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Earbuds and headphones started as luxury items one would use for a limited set of activities, including portable music systems, home entertainment, or professional audio. Today, they are a common must-have item in almost every home. As the applications of these items have grown, the demand, variations, and innovations have inherently evolved as well.

History of Headphones and Personal Playback Devices

The first recorded mention of headphones goes back to the late 19th century when telephone operators utilized a single earpiece situated upon the user’s shoulder and weighed 10 pounds! Less than two decades later, a pair of headphones resembling the designs we are familiar with today were manufactured by the hands of an American engineer known as Nathaniel Baldwin. Shortly after he invented these revolutionary headphones, the United States Navy ordered 100 pairs to be used for military communications.

In the mid-1900s, Jazz music lover John Koss successfully developed the first set of stereo headphones, specifically for music enjoyment rather than forcing music listeners to utilize military-grade headphones. Which were only capable of performing in a mono configuration and being equipped to playback a small frequency range- just enough to make the human voice intelligible. The introduction of stereo personal music playback systems, in turn, revolutionized the way people reacted to and appreciated recorded arts.

sony walkman original

Fast-forward to the late 1970s. Sony technology released the legendary Walkman player: a pocket-sized device capable of playing your favorite cassette tapes in full stereo through a pair of headphones. The portability of the device, and of course, the way consumers could suddenly listen to whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, proved to change music consumption habits forever.

It is worth noting that the development of the in-ear earbud design happened parallel to the evolution of over-ear style headphones. From stethoscopes used by doctors to the first earbuds used in conjunction with wax cylinder playback devices to the sudden introduction of similar designs as we know them today, the earbuds make up over half of the portable music listening device industry.

After the release of the Sony Walkman, Apple Technology took portable music reproduction a step further with the development of the iPod. This handheld music device saw various evolutions of its form. At the same time, the stock-issued white earbuds became a common sight worldwide.

Today, headphones are available for specialized use, including gaming, office/conference, music listening, pro audio or military and aviation, and fashion-based headphones, focusing on the unit’s aesthetics. Headphones are available in various configurations, which I’ll explain later in this article. Wireless technology has also revolutionized the headphone world, as they are becoming increasingly more standard, including wireless earbuds.

Types of Headphones

Headphones come in various styles and configurations, each designed to suit different uses in diverse ways. Headphones differ from earbuds as their over-ear arrangement allows for longer periods of use and comfortability. And often tend to sound ‘better’ than earbuds due to larger drivers, increased isolation, and the larger space to work with allows for additional features, including onboard microphones for gaming and office use, comfortable padding, or wireless receivers, to name a few. 

Closed-Back Headphones

Closed-back headphones are arguably the most commonly seen and bought for several reasons. Most importantly, they effectively cancel out external noise when they are in use, as they cover the ear entirely using comfortable reinforcement around the ear. This promotes audio intelligibility, which comes in handy in many circumstances, including office, pro audio, gaming, or even casual listening. This isolation feature means that those around them cannot hear what the user is listening to. 

Closed-back headphones are favored by musicians and recording engineers for this very reason and can even be used in live concert applications or studio sessions. Overall, closed-back headphones are relatively inexpensive for a quality pair, and their durable nature allows for a lifetime of use. They are available through a wide array of manufacturers.

Open-Back Headphones

Open-back headphones are made very similarly to their closed-back counterparts. However, as the name suggests, the back of the speaker is left open. This design allows sound to ‘leak’ into the outside world, which is done purposefully. The enabled sound leakage means a more speaker-like sound characteristic can be achieved and is therefore favored by mixing and mastering engineers and audiophiles alike. 

Closed-back headphones often create a buildup of lower frequencies, creating false impressions of a song’s frequency content. However, open-back designs mean that this low-frequency energy can be dissipated through the room as if you used a pair of speakers.

Open-back headphones also allow one’s perception of reverb, delay, and other spatial elements of a mix to be more accurately examined. Aside from the sound characteristics, open-back headphones are generally considered more comfortable than closed-back headphones as there is less pressure applied to the cheek and ear bones. It is worth mentioning that semi-open back headphone configurations are available. However, they are fairly challenging to source. 

These provide a ‘best of both worlds’ situation where some isolation is allowed, yet the unwanted low-frequency buildup is effectively prevented, allowing for a more accurate and informed mix and you can make master decisions.

On-Ear Headphones

The on-ear headphone category is less commonly seen nowadays but was very popular during the Sony Walkman’s reign over the portable music industry. On-ear headphones are very similar to over-ear designs – think closed-back headphones. However, they are slightly smaller in design and fit simply on the user’s ear. 

Today, this headphone design is most commonly used as the airplane-issued sets you receive on a long flight. They feature many of the same components and features of over-ear style headphones, aside from size, of course. When looking at a pair of on-ear headphones, it is important to consider the headset’s weight as a heaver pair can apply excessive pressure to the user’s ears, causing discomfort in the form of earaches and headaches over extended periods of use.

Noise Cancelling Headphones

Lastly, we’ll look at noise-canceling headphones. These are incredibly convenient for uses that require total elimination of ambient noise that could leak in from the user’s surroundings to provide a more intimate and focused listening experience. This works by using phase cancellation technology- an audio phenomenon where if a waveform is reversed and ‘layered’ upon the original waveform, all sounds that are not present in both waveforms are effectively removed. 

This is done by using a small onboard microphone to transmit background noise into the headphone’s signal path, then reverse the waveform to successfully remove it from the listener’s bubble of focus. Noise-canceling headphones are also often able to amplify outside noise at the same time if desired.

Types of Earbuds

Now that we understand the workings of some common headphone designs and types, let’s take a quick look at the different earbud styles available.

In-Ear Earbuds

In-ear style earbuds are growing in popularity by the day and are quickly becoming the stock- standard. In-ear earbuds come in various styles and are most commonly used by performing musicians. They fit snugly into the ear canal, making them not only comfortable to wear over a long time period but also won’t fall out as easily. Their deeper ear situation means that a greater degree of outside sound is canceled out.

In-ear earbuds are also referred to as ‘canal phones by some. Their sound quality is becoming increasingly more impressive as modern technology allows for improved sound quality on a smaller device. The only real disadvantage of in-ear configured earbuds is the inherent health concerns: they are positioned slightly deeper within the user’s ear canal, which means there is less protection from potentially harmful sound pressure levels. Users are advised to remain cautious of their listening volume at all times and take frequent breaks when using in-ear earbuds during prolonged listening hours.

Earbuds

While these may seem very similar – if not exactly the same – as in-ear earbuds, the main difference here is the earphones are slightly larger and do not fit as deeply into the user’s ear canal. This presents a series of pros and cons to weigh out when deciding between the two options. Firstly, as standard earbuds rest on the outer ear, the speaker driver(s) are further from the ear canal, which in turn alters the frequency response as well as the amount of leakage allowed to enter the eardrum, and music from the earbuds into the world around the user. 

For those looking for more isolation and privacy, in-ear-style earbuds are the way to go. While in-ear earbuds can be custom molded to your own ear size and shape, they are generally more comfortable. Standard earbuds that rest on the outer ear are usually available in a one-size-fits-all configuration, which can mean some discomfort for specific ear shapes and sizes. 

However, higher-end models often come shipped with different-sized ear tips for you to test yourself. As for sound quality, the outer ear placement essentially provides a slightly flatter frequency response, with far less low-end accentuation than in-ear earbuds. Aside from this, the only major upside to this design is the portability and lightweight. If you’re looking for audiophile quality audio standards, I would recommend looking at in-ear style earbuds or over-ear headphones.

Wireless Headphones & Earbuds

Today, wireless headphones and earbuds are slowly becoming the standard, arguably due to the Apple AirPods release. Bluetooth and other wireless technology have been around for some time now. However, they are still considered fairly new in the consumer audio market, hence the price differences of wireless devices compared to their wired variants. 

If a wireless pair of headphones or earbuds suits your intended uses – such as gym and outdoor exercise, live music performance, or even just to get rid of the cable  – there are many great options available. As for the sound quality of Bluetooth and wireless audio devices, not much audio quality is lost. However, you can experience a slight lag or delay at times, which can, of course, cause trouble for you if you’re using them for time-sensitive applications like online meetings, gaming, music performance, etc. 

The only real downside to Bluetooth headphones and earbuds is that they need to be charged or powered by batteries. As we know, batteries aren’t getting any cheaper, so it all depends on how much you’re willing to spend on the pair or potentially take charging breaks.  

Stock Earbuds vs. Upgrades

Nowadays, when you purchase a new cellphone, a pair of earbuds are included in the deal. These are usually the standard earbud-style we discussed earlier. Depending on the manufacturer, these earbuds can be pretty decent or poor. Apple, for example, include their iconic white pair with all Apple device purchases, which perform to a reasonable standard. 

However, if you’re using them to listen to lots of music, watch a film, or even use them for long time periods and you’re looking for better audio quality, a better-sounding, more comfortable, and durable pair of earbuds may be worth considering.

Health Concerns

One of the biggest debates surrounding earbuds vs headphones is the related health risks, particularly over long exposure times. When using an earbud or headphones for a long period of time at a high listening level, you are placing your hearing at risk of temporary or permanent damage or loss. No matter how tempting, it is very important to monitor your listening level at all times. Many smartphones feature a volume-checking function, where your listening volume is limited to a certain output volume, and you can find a detailed report of your average listening levels on such phones. This is worth taking a look at if this is a concern to you.

Care and Maintenance

Headphones are earbuds that are generally constructed reasonably durably and should last a long time, but their lifespan can be exponentially increased if proper care is taken. You can do this by simply caring for important aspects of the earbuds or headphones, such as the cables: avoid packing them away carelessly into your pocket or bag, and rather wrap their attached cable neatly – but not too tight – retiring the pair. 

It is recommended to store your earbuds or headphones in a carry bag, or if you have the space – a hard-shell case or padded bag for additional protection.

Also, take note of your device’s waterproof rating, especially if you’re using them outside where they come into contact with moisture in the air or even your sweat.

Technical Considerations

If you’re looking for any audio-related product, a series of technical specifications will be thrown around on the reviews, websites, or adverts. Here is a short guide to the basic terms used in headphones and earbuds:

Frequency Response

Frequency Response is a way of describing an audio device’s ability to accurately reproduce the media given to it – how the sound characteristics can change within the device. Frequency response is represented on a graph or as a figure and is always relative to our hearing capabilities. 

Human hearing ranges from around 20Hz – 20kHz, and a frequency response that covers most of this range is desired. Next, we look at the deviation factor: by exactly how much does this change? This is displayed as a decibel figure. A deviation of positive or negative 3 Decibels is considered relatively ‘flat’, and this is what we’re looking for in a good-sounding audio device.

Weight

This is an important factor to consider. A heavier pair of earbuds or headphones can place unnecessary strain on your head, causing headaches and other forms of discomfort during use. Flexibility is also important if you have a larger than usual head shape or size.

Wired vs. Wireless

If you’re looking for a wirelessly operational set of headphones or earbuds, make extra sure to check the wireless capabilities to see if they meet your requirements. Some factors to consider are Bluetooth type, range, and code type used on the device.

What Kind of Headphones or Earbuds Do I Need?

Since we’ve taken a brief glimpse of various common styles of headphones are earbuds, we can now devise which design better suits different applications:

For Gaming: Over-Ear Headphones

If you’re a gaming fanatic looking to upgrade your system’s sound, I would highly recommend over-ear headphones for the following reasons:

The over-ear design means a greater isolation factor, minimizing outside noise coming in or your gaming noises going out. Additionally, you can expect a more immersive experience as surround sound capabilities are often included with over-ear headphones, providing improved awareness of virtual surroundings, faint sounds in the distance, etc. I would recommend a wired pair rather than Bluetooth or other wireless technologies to never interrupt your gaming experience due to low battery or charge levels.

For Office Use: On-Ear Headphones

For use in the office or workplace, I would recommend on-ear headphones because they allow a great ratio of private to ambient noise to enter your ears. This means you can listen to your music, phone calls, podcasts, etc., and remain fairly aware of your surroundings. When using on-ear headphones in an office situation, just remember to keep an eye on your listening level to avoid disturbing your colleagues as some of your media may leak into the area around you. 

Sport and Gym: In-Ear Earbuds

My recommendation would be in-ear earbuds for those looking for a pair of headphones or earbuds for working out. This is because they will not fall out of your ear easily, no matter how strenuous your exercise may be. If you plan on using your new earbuds for outdoor workouts such as cycling or running in the streets, I would recommend standard earbuds due to the allowance of some environmental noise to enter the ear canal, which could be a life-saving factor. 

If you’re looking for more sound from your surroundings to stay audible, I recommend looking at bone conduction headphones. These headphones rest on your cheekbones and allow for your ear canal to remain entirely open. While sound quality will deteriorate here, they are ultimately the safest option.

Critical Listening and Music Mixing and Mastering: Open Back Headphones

Open-back headphones have been used for music mixing and mastering for decades due to their improved sound quality owing to various design factors. For mixing and mastering music, these will provide the flattest possible frequency response from a pair of headphones while also permitting greater spatial awareness of a mix, ultimately simulating a stereo speaker pair in front of the user. While open-back headphones may not be the cheapest, they will undoubtedly improve your mixing and mastering capabilities.

Live Music Performance: In-Ear Earbuds

In-ear earbuds are the go-to option for many performing musicians, mostly due to their inherent reduction of outside noise. They enable you to focus on your personalized mix better and in a recording vocalist setting, for example, for minimal leakage to access the microphone, potentially spoiling a recording. Additionally, in-ear earphones are comfortable, and many musicians acquire custom-fitted earpieces for their setups. They will also stay secure in your ear- perfect for some performers with manic stage presences!

Casual Listening: Earbuds or Over-Ear Headphones

A decent pair of earbuds or over-ear headphones will certainly satisfy your media consumption needs for casual listeners. Whether you choose standard earbuds or headphones is entirely up to you and essentially depends on how and where you plan on using your new portable music device.

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