Earphones vs Headphones: A Sound Debate
If you’re shopping for a new personal sound solution and you can’t quite decide between headphones and earphones, there are any number of factors that might influence you to pick one over the other. Size, convenience, comfort, features—all these considerations likely play into your ultimate decision. But what if pure performance is the only thing you care about? Is there a difference between earphones and headphones when it comes to sound quality?
In general, yes. Headphones will, in most cases, deliver a richer sound experience than earphones for most people. As is the case with pretty much everything, though, there are exceptions, but before we dig into why, let’s take a minute to define some terms.
Earphones? Headphones? What’s the difference?
You might know them as cans, in-ears, on-ears, earbuds, over-ears, or any number of descriptive terms, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’re using the following definitions:
- Earphones: personal listening devices that fit inside your ear canal. Examples include:
- Headphones: personal listening devices that rest on or surround the outside of your outer ear. Examples include:
Enough with the vocabulary lesson! Why does one sound better than the other?
As we mentioned in the intro above, if sheer audio performance is your only shopping criteria, you might be better served by headphones than earphones. And there are a few general reasons why that’s likely to be the case:
- Headphones benefit from much larger drivers—generally in the 40mm-to-50mm range, as opposed to the 7mm-15mm drivers more typically found in earphones. These larger drivers often result in better, smoother bass, and more consistent performance across the entire audible spectrum, from the lowest to the highest frequencies. Earphones are often capable of generating bass just as deep and rich, but they manage this feat because their audio drivers are inside or very close to your ear canal.
- Headphones give your music more room to breathe—literally and figuratively. With headphones, you can usually better appreciate the width and soundstage of a musical mix. Close your eyes and the guitar, bass, drums, and vocals seem to spread out around and in front of you. Your music won’t sound as if it’s trapped inside your cranium.
Keeping the outside out
One thing that’s true of any personal listening device is that the better your earphones or headphones fit, the better they’ll sound. After all, everyone’s ear canals are different, and although most earphones come with a variety of ear tips in different shapes and sizes, it can still be difficult for many people to find one that fits perfectly.
Headphones, on the other hand, don’t have to be shaped to fit such a precise and diverse anatomical structure, and therefore can be expected to offer better isolation from outside noise for most listeners. The result? You’ll likely get better bass and purer sound without having to turn up the volume.
A less-fussy fit also equals a more comfortable fit, which means you may find you’re able to wear headphones for longer stretches of time. And headphones, just by virtue of being physically larger, almost always have more room for electronics and generally offer better active noise canceling.
For every rule, there is an equal and opposite exception
You may have noticed a lot of conditional language in the above text: “generally,” “probably,” “often,” “usually.” There’s a simple reason for this: the rules that apply to most people might not apply to you.
You’ll almost certainly get a better sonic experience from earphones as opposed to headphones, for example, if you tend to do most of your music listening while running or jogging. Headphones also tend to trap heat around your ears, making them doubly unsuitable for sweaty outdoor activities.
There’s also the matter of portability and convenience. While many compact, foldable headphones are easier to stash, nothing quite beats the portability of a good pair of earphones, most of which can be tucked into a pocket when you’re on the go. And if you’re asking what on earth that has to do with audio performance, consider this: the personal listening device that you actually have with you is always going to sound better than the one you don’t.
By Dennis Burger
November 1, 2017