Earphones Vs Earbuds – Is There a Difference?

In the world of high-quality audio, finding the right pair of headphones can be a daunting task. Headphones tend to go by different names, all denoting their types, but the names can refer to the same thing, or sometimes a different one, making things harder for the casual consumer.

Earphones and earbuds have a similar name but there is confusion around what type of headphones they actually refer to. Are they the same or do they denote a different set of headphones? Let us explore the topic further.

Earbuds Vs Earphones – Why So Many Names?

When transistor radios were popular and were sold to the general public, earphones were often packed with them, to provide users with a relatively silent way of listening to music. Earphones are small and are supposed to be comfortable, resting on the outer ear. They are not inserted in the ear canal, like in-ear headphones are. They tend to be cheap to produce but are, at least by modern standards, pretty good in terms of quality to price ratio.

What does that mean for earbuds? Earbuds are simply another term for earphones, one that originated around 1984. The term did not become popular until 2001, however, when earphones and earbuds became even more widespread (as standard equipment with mobile phones at the time).

Below are a pair of Samsung Galaxy Buds.

samsung galaxy buds

What Are In-Ear Headphones, Then?

Compared to earbuds or earphones, as we’ve come to learn, in-ear headphones actually go inside the ear. They are also known as canalphones. The name stems from the fact that they enter the ear canal. In-ear headphones have better sound quality, often by a lot.

Their very design is better, mostly because they offer insulation. Insulation is achieved through a good fit inside the canal, thereby restricting airflow and more importantly, sound waves. In-ear headphones are used in professional applications, but are also offered as consumer solutions, because of their better fit and insulation. Noise-canceling canalphones are popular among modern consumers.

In-ear monitors are used by professionals, both on stage and in the studio. Some buy professional-grade in-ear headphones for listening to music.

Below are various in-ear headphones. You can tell by the tips that they are meant to enter the ears.

various in ear headphones

Where Does the Confusion Come From?

These two terms refer to the same type of headphones, the ones that rest on the outer ear. However, due to the liberal use of both earphones and earbuds by various manufacturers (namely due to the simplicity of marketing these terms), in-ear headphones are often the search result of earbuds or earphones. This depends on how much “organic SEO” the companies applied, not to mention how much they paid the search engine companies to place their sites (also known as pay per click or PPC advertising).

Earphones and earbuds mean headphones that rest on your outer ear, while in-ear headphones and canalphones mean headphones that go inside your ear. That leaves the question of sound quality and price.

Which One to Buy?

When talking about earphones or earbuds versus canalphones or in-ear headphones, sound quality and price comes to mind as the determining factors. Whether they are wired or wireless also matters to some consumers, but both are available in this format.

Sound Quality

Depending on the price, the sound quality can be decent on both canalphones and earbuds. Typically, in-ear headphones will have a better sound quality simply due to the way they are constructed. That does not mean that earbuds will not sound good. For most use cases, earphones will have a good enough quality. Dynamic drivers are used to make the best out of their small size.

For those consumers who have to get the best sound quality, earphones will probably not be good enough. They should start looking at in-ear headphones if the quality is the most important thing. Most in-ears in the upper price range have detachable cables, which is a great feature.

Wireless formats of these headphones exist, but wireless headphones cannot have the same sound quality as their wired counterparts, due to compression. Take note that this can only be noticeable with higher quality source files, as well as better DACs (digital to analog converters). Sound quality might suffer if one does not remember to clean their earbuds every once in a while.

Price to Quality Ratio

This is where things get trickier. At the lower end of things, some earbuds can sound better than in-ears for the same price. Very cheap headphones will sound awful, no matter the type. In-ears might have a benefit due to their natural insulation. That, however, might not be a good thing, due to horrific sound quality.

At the lower price point, it is recommended to try both headphone types in order to establish which might sound the best for your use case. In-ears typically have an advantage because they insulate better.

Wired or Wireless?

This depends on whether one wants the ultimate sound quality versus practicality and ease of use. Lugging cables around might not be for everybody and on the other hand, battery life, signal quality and sound quality might be a larger priority. Depending on the priority, both wired and wireless in-ears and earbuds are a viable choice.

Below are a pair of AirPods and AirPods Pro. The regular AirPods are earbuds/earphones while the Pro are in-ears/canalphones.

apple airbods and airpods pro

Conclusion and Summary – Earphones and Earbuds Are the Same

Earphones and earbuds both mean headphones that rest on the outer ear and do not enter the canal. They are relatively cheap to produce and have been around since the first transistor radios. The term earbuds was there since the 1980s but started becoming popular in the 2000s.

Over time, companies started using the terms earphones and earbuds liberally, assigning them to all headphones which are small and either enter the ear or rest on the outer ear.

Headphones that enter the ear are known as canalphones or in-ear headphones. With this, let us hope that we dispelled some of the confusion which is often present in the world of modern technology (and advertising).

About The Author

Milan Zagorac

Milan has always been interested in writing and technology, but managed to pick up a love for music, literature and sports along the way. Essentially a jack of all trades, his interest in all things tech as well as love for the written word, keeps him well occupied.

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