In-Ear Monitors vs Earbuds vs Headphones

In-Ear Monitors vs Earbuds vs Headphones

When we say we want to feel comfortable while listening to music on the go, we have to know some basics about the audio equipment – such as the different types that we have nowadays, like in-ear monitors, earbuds, and headphones. These small speakers have the same purpose – to create the perfect ambiance for you while using them.

So they come with some differences, like style, design, technology. Which one might be the best between those three for you to choose – you may wonder? Stay with me while I go through all of the things you need to know concerning the above-mentioned audio equipment.

IEMs

IEMs, in other words, In-ear Monitors, are devices that allow you to hear your mix directly in your ears, with much clearer sound. One of the main reasons why we have IEMs is because musicians started using them, instead of floor monitors, to avoid noises and interferences on stage. They can be universal or custom-molded. The materials used for them are silicon rubber or foam.

Apart from musicians, audio engineers, television presenters, anyone can use them nowadays. So, if you want to get a great listening experience, IEMs work great in all kinds of different situations. They go deeper into the ear canal – creating a tight seal that blocks external noise – which means that you don’t have to put your music at the loudest volume.

When we talk about sound quality, we need to mention drivers. Standard single-driver gives a limited frequency range. Dual drivers resemble studio monitors, and three drivers deliver better sound with high, middle, and low frequencies clarity. High-end IEMs can have up to eight drivers per earpiece. So, the higher you go, you’ll get deeper lows, clearer highs, and more articulate middles.

Advantages

  • Custom-made IEMs offer incredible comfort.
  • Universal IEMs come at affordable prices.
  • Canceling noise which is helping you to focus on the audio.

Disadvantages

  • Standard IEM headsets might provide a low level of comfort.
  • Higher sound volume on IEMs can cause long-term hearing damage.
  • Custom-made is quite expensive.

Earbuds

Earbuds sit on the outer side of the ears, in contrast to IEMs. They don’t create the same sound isolation as IEMs do, and when compared to what headphones can deliver, they have less quality sound. Because they only partially seal within the ears, avoid buying them if noise cancellation is on your priority list. But don’t worry if you would choose them – earbuds can still provide significant sound production.

They can be wired and wireless, and nowadays, more people are using wireless Bluetooth earbuds. This type is mostly used by those who are running daily, and probably for that reason, earbuds allow hearing what’s around – so that they can be aware of the environment for safety reasons.

When it comes to overall comfort, the earbuds have a slight advantage. According to some, people don’t like when they can feel something that deep into their ears, and some think the headphones are too bulky – so the comfortability of the earbuds is fine.

Advantages

  • Earbuds have a universal shape, designed to fit anyone, very comfortable.
  • Wireless ones are more convenient and come with a case – which gives you more battery life. No wires, no tangling experience.

Disadvantages

  • Don’t expect the top-of-the-line sound quality, the sound quality of earbuds is below an average level, according to some.
  • Playing loud music can cause issues for your ears and lead to some form of hearing loss.

Headphones

Headphones would still be the primary device for listening to music, as they deliver the best possible sound quality, but some may not enjoy the bulkiness. However, the size makes them have more advantages than earbuds and IEMs. Headphones have a more significant driver, compared to earbuds, which why they deliver a better sound quality.

I would say that headphones give the best experience when it comes to sound quality. The size of the headphone drivers matter, some people would say – the bigger the driver, the better the sound. 

Because the size of the headphones is different, you might feel it’s squeezing your ears. For that reason, you should pay attention to how long you are wearing them on/over your ears, and you should choose the ones that fit you comfortably.

When it comes to closed-back and open-back – headphones that are an open-back often provide a more accurate frequency balance, where closed-back headphones prevent sound from escaping. Closed-back headphones are for recording in a studio, and open-backed phones are for mixing – for example.

Advantages

  • Same as IEMs, some headphones also have good noise cancellation.
  • Great sense for tones of instruments and vocals.
  • They might be foldable and compact, and with their soft cushions, they are not so hard for ears when you don’t wear them for too long.

Disadvantages

  • Since they are bulkier compared to IEMs and earbuds, their large size makes them uncomfortable for some.

Summary Table

In-ears MonitorsEarbudsHeadphones
Driver size8.8 – 12.5 mm8.8 – 12.5 mm20 – 50 mm
Noise cancellationStrongPoorGood
ComfortGoodGoodGood
Sound qualityHighAverageHigh
Approximately Frequency Response20Hz–20,000Hz.20Hz–20,000Hz.20Hz–20,000Hz.

Conclusion

IEMs, Earbuds or Headphones, can all affect your hearing. If you listen to your music at the highest level for longer hours, the chances are bigger you will damage your hearing. The best prevention is that your volume is not on the maximum level and that the number of listening hours is not high.

Choosing between IEMs, Earbuds, and Headphones can be confusing for someone – who can’t hear all those differences in sound, which an audiophile would hear. But, if you want quality features, you should pay attention to the range of the frequency. The stunning bass sound comes with a lower limit of frequency, while the high notes – or treble – come with an upper limit.

Like everything, it is really just a personal preference when you are choosing between these three. Think about what would be your purpose for having something like this, and you’ll know what to do. What is important here is that you get an appropriate one when you need to be professional with a job.

This article was last updated on August 17, 2021 .

By Denis Loncaric

My name is Dennis. I have been in the music business since 2005. I have always been interested in music production, equipment, and sound in general. I work full time as a studio drummer. I've done more than 9000 live gigs and more than 500 sessions. Mixing music is my passion.