Have you ever asked yourself, which is better: earphones or headphones? Whether you’re looking for something to spice up your next workout, a sound solution for that next conference call, or a personal sound device to drown out the drone of the engines on your next transcontinental flight, a good set of headphones can make the difference between a good day and a not-so-good one. But before you decide which model to buy, you first need to figure out what sort of headphone design works best for your intended purposes.
In this post, we’ll discuss the three main categories of headphone design—traditional headphones, earphones, and the newer crop of neckband Bluetooth headphones (or behind-the-neck headphones) that have cropped up in recent years—and the potential pros and cons of each based on your specific needs and desires.
If you hear the word “headphones” in isolation, chances are good that a very specific image comes to mind: a pair of cups with some manner of padding around the lip, connected by a curved band of some sort designed to rest atop your head. By their very design, headphones are the biggest of the bunch, so if you like to travel light, that’s something to consider. Even smaller on-ear designs like the Phiaton BT 390 — which offer some features that many over-ear designs don’t, like a flexible folding design—will still take up a lot more space in your purse, carry-on, backpack, or briefcase than a good set of earphones.
But partly as a result of their larger size, headphones do have several distinct advantages over other styles. For one thing, they generally deliver better sound quality and a more universally comfortable fit, and are known for being the best Bluetooth headphones for calls. If you opt for a model that offers such features, headphones also generally boast better battery life, especially for wireless listening. The BT 460, for example, can go 20 hours or more on a single charge. Due to their size and universal fit, headphones also generally offer superior active noise-canceling and/or passive noise isolation (if you’re asking yourself, “how do noise cancelling headphones work?” read our recent post).
- Pros of full-sized headphones include: Better audio performance, longer battery life, no need to dig through a bag of ear tips to find the ones that fit your ear canals best.
- Potential cons of full-sized headphones include: Not as portable as earphones, may not stay in place well during vigorous exercise, and they can get a bit warm when worn for extended periods.
- Best for: Discerning music enthusiasts; long-distance travelers; and those with small, uniquely shaped, or sensitive ear canals.
Headphones may represent the platonic ideal, but these days it’s hard to deny that earphones rule the personal audio market in terms of ubiquity. But if your only experience with earphones is the free pair that came with your last smartphone, you might be surprised to find that these small in-ear devices often offer many of the technological features of their larger counterparts. Features like active noise cancelation (not to be confused with noise isolating) go a long way toward making up for the fact that some people find it harder to get a good, tight seal with silicone or foam ear tips (read our post to learn about noise cancelling vs noise isolating). And many earphones these days—like Phiaton’s BOLT BT 700—offer noise cancellation technology and are wireless, which takes portability to whole new levels.
In-ears also often use their size to their advantage in other ways, like the use of balanced armature driver technology on the aforementioned BOLT BT 700, and are also regarded as arguably the best Bluetooth headphones for running.
- Pros of earphones include: Ultimate portability, customizable fit, easier to wear (and keep wearing) while working out, better sweat resistance, and their small size means they don’t trap heat the way some full-sized headphones do.
- Potential cons of earphones include: Smaller drivers sometimes struggle to deliver the deep bass and open sound of full-sized headphones; battery life on wireless and other active models is way less than that of full-sized headphones; finding the right fit can be tough for those with peculiar ears.
- Best for: Fitness enthusiasts, daily commuters, and travelers who are tight on space.
This new style of headphones—alternately referred to as neckband headphones, behind-the-neck headphones, or even collar headphones—can best be described as earphones evolved. As with earphones, they include a small earpiece that fits into your ear canal. What sets them apart is the band that rests behind your neck, which often houses electronic components like batteries, noise-canceling circuitry, microphones, controls, etc.
As such, they represent something of a compromise between regular in-ear and traditional headphone designs. They generally offer better battery life than earphones (though usually not as good as the best headphones), as well as better portability than full-sized headphones (though not as compact as regular earphones). The one advantage they have over both other styles, though, is accessibility. Since the earphones are housed in a convenient collar, they’re there for you anytime you need them. And they can easily be removed from your ears without needing to be stowed away.
- Pros of neckband headphones include: Instant accessibility with minimal inconvenience or discomfort; better access to controls; better portability than full-sized headphones; better battery life and noise-canceling than many earphones.
- Potential cons of neckband headphones include: to truly reap the benefits of neckband headphones, you need to wear the collar even when you’re not using them; battery life still doesn’t compare to full-sized headphones.
- Best for: Endurance fitness enthusiasts and business professionals who participate in frequent (or unexpected) conference calls.
By Dennis Burger