Earbuds vs Headphones: Are Headphones Better Than Earbuds?

Earbuds vs. headphones, which one is better? As cliche as it sounds, the short answer is “It depends on your needs.” You might have a specific personal preference for fit, portability, audio quality, and sound isolation. You might even prefer Bluetooth connectivity with a charging case for longer battery life. Luckily, here is a comparison between these two audio devices so you can make an informed decision. 


Winner: Headphones

The “headphones vs. earbuds” debate usually starts with their structure: How are they designed? How do they fit on your head and transmit sound to your ears?

In this category, headphones are the clear winner. They’re more comfortable and universal, offering a broader appeal to wearers from all walks of life. But let’s break it down for you by examining the different styles of headphones and earbuds.

Different Types of Headphones

Photo of a headphone with an open-back design
Open-back headphones

While there can be numerous differences in headphone styles, the most important are found within ear cup design and placement. Ear cups are what set headphones apart from earbuds in the first place, and there can be many variations that affect comfort levels, sound quality, and noise-isolating features.

Earcup design is divided between open-back and closed-back headphones. On the other hand, ear cup placement is divided between on-ear and over-ear headphones.

  • Open-Back Headphones: These headphones have small, mesh-like openings in the earcups that allow peripheral noise to filter through. They’re ideal for things like sound mixing and mastering.
  • Closed-Back Headphones: For noisy environments, choose closed-back headphones. They’re meant to create a more isolated audio experience.
  • On-Ear Headphones: Going directly over your ears, these are lighter headphones with less ear coverage than other varieties. However, given that they sit directly on your ears, they are uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. 
  • Over-Ear Headphones: Over-ear headphones have ear cushions or ear pads that entirely envelop the ears. They’re bulkier than other types, but their coverage means superior seal, blocking outside noise as much as possible.

Different Types of Earbuds

Photo of an in-ear earbuds
In-ear Earbuds

Earbuds are known for their light and portable design. They lack the heavy padding of headphones, which can mean less sound filtration, but they often compensate with things like foam or silicone ear tips that mold to the ear canal and improve noise dampening. Their differences in structure are usually related to how they fit in or on the ear.

  • In-Ear Earbuds: In-ear earbuds have soft tips (usually silicone or foam ear tips) extending past the concha (the shell of your ear) and into the ear canal. Some people prefer this type of earbuds because it offers provide a secure fit, while others hate ear fatigue, especially when worn for hours. They’re the equivalent of closed-back headphones with the most sound isolation. AirPods Pro falls under the in-ear earbuds category. 
  • On-Ear Earbuds: On-ear earbuds rest over your concha without dipping into it much or at all; you can think of them as tiny speakers that hang out close to your ear drums. Apple’s AirPods (non-pro version) is one of the most popular on-ear models. 
  • Over-Ear Earbuds: Over-ear earbuds hook over your ears’ helix (top). They’re usually wireless and less of an invasive fit than other earbuds, but they’re the least powerful at filtering ambient sound.

Sound Quality

Winner: Headphones

This is one of the most important questions to ask if you’re wondering, “Are headphones better than earbuds?” Sound quality is paramount if you’re a professional who works with audio in any capacity. It can also provide a much richer experience if you’re a music, film, or video game hobbyist.

Here are just a few factors that make up sound quality:

  • Frequency range
  • Distortion ratio
  • Signal-to-noise ratio
  • Total harmonic distortion
  • Bitrates from streaming or stored music files

Generally speaking, headphones win over earbuds when it comes to sound quality. They have less distortion of wanted sounds and more filtration for unwanted sounds. They also provide better bass, especially if you choose headphones specifically designed for more bass than treble. They also tend to have fewer issues with one side sounding louder than the other because there is less dirt build-up.


Winner: Earbuds

Earbuds are the easy champ when it comes to portable tech. While it isn’t impossible to carry headphones around, especially if you invest in a padded headphone case, earbuds are simply designed to be portable in ways that headphones aren’t.

They’re compact, lightweight, and without bulky earcups that take up even more space. There are also many true wireless earbuds that eliminate hanging cords. AirPods are the most well-known wireless earbuds, but you can also find varieties from Bose, Earfun, Technics, and Beats.


Winner: Headphones

As you’ve already read, headphones provide better audio isolation than earbuds, especially if you’re buying ones with padded and closed-back earcups designed to block out exterior sound.

Another feature to look for is active noise cancellation (ANC). This is distinguished from “passive” noise cancellation in the sense that it actively engages with the surrounding environment to detect ambient frequencies and neutralize them. Some brands like Sony and Anker have even introduced adaptive ANC systems that can continually and automatically re-calibrate themselves without any effort on your part.

In general, you can expect headphones with ANC to cancel around 20 – 40 decibels (dB) of ambient noise, a higher percentage than other headphones or earbuds.


Winner: Tie

Ask a dozen people about the comfort levels of headphones vs. earbuds, and you’ll get a dozen different answers. Some folks like the complete coverage of over-ear headphones; others find it to be a sweaty or bulky sensation. Some people like the snug fit of in-ear earbuds with moldable tips; others find it intrusive or distracting.

If you don’t yet know what style of headphones or earbuds you like, here are just a few things to keep in mind as you shop:

  • Weight
  • Padding of the earcups
  • Clamping force/headband tension
  • Material type for earbud tips
  • Availability of different tip sizes and shapes

Sound Leakage

Winner: Earbuds

Have your roommates ever complained about your music even though you’re listening through headphones or earbuds? It’s because of sound leakage: the sound that other people can hear when it escapes your device.

The general rule of thumb is that larger devices lead to more leaks because they have bigger drivers, the electrical units that convert signals into sound.

Since earbuds are smaller than headphones, they usually have smaller amounts of sound leakage. Of course, this can be very dependent on brands, model types, and more.

Battery Life

Winner: Tie

Battery life is another category where it’s hard to crown a single winner. So much is dependent on how you’re using your headphones.

For example, you’ll want wireless headphones if you’re looking for an audio device that can hold a charge the longest. Brands like Sennheiser can keep you going all day long without needing more juice. By contrast, even the best wireless earbuds will max out around 10 hours or so, and the average battery life is only half of that.

On the other hand, headphones often come with battery-draining properties like ANC. Wireless earbuds present a simpler, longer-lasting option if you don’t need any fancy tech.

However, if you are using wired headphones, then battery life will never be an issue unless your phone or other audio device runs out of juice.

And the Winner Is…

Are headphones better than earbuds? Ultimately, no victor outperforms the other in every category. Both types of tech have pros and cons, so you’ll need to determine which suits your particular needs. 

Ultimately, pick headphones if you value sound quality above all else, especially in a professional setting. Choose earbuds if you’re more interested in casual use or features like small size and affordability.

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