Headphones have been around in one form or another for decades. Earbuds are much, much newer. But which is best? And are headphones better than earbuds? Let’s find out…
I think it is fairly safe to assume that most people, of a certain age demographic, own a pair of headphones. If you commute to work on public transport, headphones are essential. Ditto if you work out regularly or like running. Headphones, like phones, are just a part of life for most people these days.
As with most things in the tech space, you have many, many different options when it comes to headphones. Different options from different brands as well as different styles of headphones too. You have over-ear headphones, wireless earbud-style headphones, wired over-ear headphones, and even bone-conduction headphones.
Phones used to come with headphones. But since Apple stopped doing this and Samsung shortly thereafter, millions of people have found themselves looking at headphones more and more. And one of the most common questions about headphones that comes up is whether headphones – as in the over-ear type – are better than earbuds like Apple’s AirPods?
It’s a good question too. But like all good questions, there is not a definitive answer. Instead, it depends on a range of factors from what you plan on doing in your headphones to your budget and what kind of sound quality you want from them. This post will cover all the bases, however, so by the end, you’ll know which is best for you and potentially which ones you’re going to get.
Headphones vs Earbuds: How They’re Different
The main difference between earbuds and traditional headphones relates to their design and how they’re worn by the user. Over-ear headphones have two speakers, connected by a headband, that sit on top of your ears, whereas earbuds, again like Apple’s AirPods, sit snuggly inside your ear canal kind of like earplugs.
With earbuds, you’re dealing with a much smaller piece of hardware; the earbuds themselves are really small, usually smaller than the size of a 50p coin. The upside to this is they’re incredibly lightweight. The downside is that battery life is usually pretty bad – there’s just not enough room inside each earbud to fit a large battery. This is why most, modern earbuds come with a charging case.
With headphones, the over-ear kind, you’re dealing with a much larger product. Headphones run significantly larger batteries than earbuds, so, generally speaking, the battery performance is significantly improved. My Bose QC35 II headphones will last 20 hours from a single charge, whereas my AirPods will be dead after 4-6 hours of use.
That’s a huge difference in battery performance, right? I’d also argue that headphones, like the Bose QC35 II over-ear headphones, sound better too and this is, once again, down to how they’re designed. Having a larger area to play with means more technology and specs can be fitted inside the headphone which, in turn, combines to make for better-sounding music.
Modern earbuds like Apple’s AirPods Pro now run Active Noise Cancellation but, again, I find headphones tend to have vastly superior noise-canceling performance – notably the Bose QC35 II and Sony’s amazing WH-1000XM3. Apple’s AirPods Pro and other earbuds are fine in this context too, but if you value ANC, it will always perform better on larger, over-the-ear headphones.
Headphones are also better for your hearing too, as noted by Atlanta Hearing Doctor:
While both earbuds and headphones present the risk of high decibel levels and long exposure, earbuds are actually more likely to cause damage.
Since earbuds sit right inside your ear and are very close to the ear canal, they naturally increase the volume by around 9 decibels. Headphones sit outside the ear, so there is less natural amplification.
Headphones also block more of the background sounds. With earbuds, distracting sounds aren’t dulled, so we often reach for the volume control and turn it up to dangerous levels. Finally, it’s much easier to find cheaply made earbuds at any convenience store or shopping center. These poor quality earbuds distort sounds or play at uneven volume levels, making us turn up the volume even more.
Wireless or Wired?
You can still buy wired headphones. In fact, some of the best headphones you can buy right now ONLY come as wired options. Audiophiles tend to swear by models like the Sennheiser HD 820 or the Grado SR325x and both of these headphones are wired.
Again, wired headphones are popular with people that like to listen to music properly – via records or a home system or on CD. Music streamed via Spotify or Apple Music isn’t HD, it lacks much of the detail and finesse you get from a record or a CD.
Granted, the number of people that actually still listen to CDs and vinyl is small, but there are people that do this and not a single one of them would be caught dead with a pair of wireless headphones or earbuds. This type of user is very much in the minority, however, and will happily spend $800 to $1000 on a set of headphones.
For 99.9% of people, though, you’ll probably want to be using wireless headphones or earbuds. Why? Well, most people use iPhones or Samsung phones and these phones no longer have a headphone jack.
For this reason, it is probably worthwhile cutting the cord for good when you buy your next pair of headphones. Apple and Samsung WILL NOT be bringing the headphone jack back, not when they both sell wireless earbuds. They’d much rather you just buy them instead.
Which Are More Expensive?
Headphones, generally speaking, tend to be more expensive. They’re larger by design, have more internal components, which means higher build costs, and this, in turn, is passed onto the consumer via a higher price tag.
With earbuds, even wireless ones, you can pay as little as $20 for a pair of decent-ish wireless earbuds. Earbuds tend to use fewer components, require less material, and are therefore cheaper to buy. Apple’s AirPods Pro is still pretty pricey, though, as are the top models from Sony and Samsung.
You do have cheaper wireless earbud options available from brands like OnePlus, VIVO, and Xiaomi though but, again, I’d always prefer to pay a little more and get a solid pair of headphones. Right now, my favorite pair of earbuds would have to be Sony’s WF-1000XM4. For overall sound quality, comfort, battery life, and noise-canceling, nothing else come even remotely close – they’re in a league of their own.
If you want a good-quality pair of headphones, you can pay anywhere from $200 to $800. I like the Bose QC35II headphones. They’re brilliantly made, have market-leading noise cancellation, and they sound incredible. They’re also really comfortable and 100% wireless. And the battery lasts for 20+ hours which is enough to fly across the world on a single charge.
If you’re a music lover and want the best possible sound quality, you’ll need to spend a bit more money than someone that just wants a pair of headphones to listen to tunes on their commute. Like phones, headphones are a kind of universe unto themselves. You have loads of brands and loads of different options across a range of price points.
Generally speaking, a pair of headphones will ALWAYS deliver better sound quality than a pair of earbuds. This is why you see music producers and DJs using over-ear headphones, not earbuds. With headphones, you get more clarity and better separation. Because the sound isn’t being funneled directly into your ear canal, the sound has a chance to breathe and this gives it a more organic, natural sound.
Could a non-audiophile spot the difference? Probably not. Again, we’re talking about tiny, hardly noticeable differences here. Earbuds can – and do – sound great. But for me, a pair of decent headphones will always trump a set of quality earbuds. I just find that I tend to always get a richer sound from over-ear headphones than in-ear earbuds.
Still, Apple is one of the biggest headphone manufacturers on the planet right now and its most popular headphones are its AirPods. And they’re in-ear earbuds, so that’s worth keeping in mind. Me? I’d always go with a pair of Sony or Bose headphones over Apple’s AirPods any day of the week. But that’s just me. You might prefer the look and feel of earbuds.
Headphones vs Earbuds For Running
What are the best headphones for running? As a runner, I’ve run in all kinds of headphones – from over-ear headphones like the Bose QC35 II to Apple’s AirPods and pretty much everything else in between. Currently, I run in my Bose headphones and have done for the past 18 months. But there is a downside to these headphones; they’re not water-resistant or sweat-resistant, so you need to be careful.
If the weather is bad, I just use a cheap pair of earbuds. I have a bunch in my office, ones that were sent in for review, so I just grab a pair, pair them to my phone, and head out for my run. My current go-to headphones for outdoor running when it is raining are the VIVO Wireless Sport in-ear earbuds. These are incredible, waterproof, and have very impressive battery life.
If you need a pair of waterproof headphones for running, I’d recommend the VIVO Wireless Sport earbuds. They’re connected by a cord too, so if one comes out you don’t lose it. They’re also considerably cheaper than Apple’s AirPods – both the standard and Pro models. And, in my experience, they sound better too. This makes them the perfect headphones for running.
Headphones vs Earbuds For Gaming
With gaming, it’s all about being immersed in what you’re doing. For this reason, you’ll probably want to go with a pair of actual headphones over, say, a pair of wireless earbuds. With over-ear headphones, you’ll get better sound quality, better sound separation, and clearer, more detailed audio. This is why pro gamers always use headphones, not earbuds.
As for what the best gaming headphones are, I honestly couldn’t tell you. I’m not much of a gamer. But T3 reckons the SteelSeries Arctis 7P Wireless is currently the best gaming headphones you can buy for use on PlayStation, PC, and Xbox. And with a price of just $139/£159, they’re actually pretty darn inexpensive too (for headphones).
As you can see, there’s definitely no clear way to answer the question of whether headphones are better than earbuds. Each style of headphone has its merits, but if we’re totaling up the pros and cons of each style, the traditional, over-the-ear headphone tends to come out on top.
Headphones will deliver better sound, generally speaking, they have dramatically better battery life, and they’re better for your hearing than earbuds which are more prone to cause damage. However, with things like running and average price, earbuds are the superior option – they’re cheaper and better suited to outdoor activities.
Me? If I could only have one pair of headphones, I’d just break the rule and get a pair of Bose QC35II headphones (pictured above) and a cheap pair of wireless earbuds for running in the rain. And the earbuds I’d probably get would be what I am currently using now: the VIVO Wireless Sport earbuds. They’re cheap enough for most users and they sound bloody great.
Richard Goodwin has been working as a tech journalist for over 10 years. He is the editor and owner of KnowYourMobile.