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Headphones vs earbuds: Which audio device should you buy? A comparison


We’ve created this guide to provide an in-depth comparison of headphones and earbuds, covering aspects such as sound quality, comfort, portability, battery life, and more to help you make an informed decision while making a purchase.

1. Sound quality

Headphones:

Generally, headphones are designed to deliver superior sound quality compared to earbuds, especially in over-ear and on-ear designs. The larger drivers in headphones can produce a wider range of frequencies, leading to better bass response, clarity, and overall soundstage. In addition, over-ear headphones can deliver a well-rounded experience by enclosing your ears completely, which helps in isolating external noise and providing a richer audio experience. If this is something that tickles your musical bones, perhaps you should buy headphones.

Earbuds:

Earbuds, on the other hand, have smaller drivers due to their compact design and are generally easier to carry, store, and wear. While high-end earbuds can produce impressive sound quality, they often struggle to match the depth and fullness of sound that good-quality headphones can deliver. Even then, most contemporary earbuds that sit in one’s ear canal can provide decent bass and sound isolation, but they may not be able to compete with the overall performance of headphones.

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2. Comfort

Headphones:

Comfort can vary greatly depending on the design of the headphones. Over-ear headphones cover the entire ear, which can be comfortable for extended listening sessions but might cause sweating or discomfort after long periods. On-ear headphones sit directly on the ears, which can become uncomfortable if the clamping force is too strong or if the ear pads are not adequately cushioned.

Earbuds:

Earbuds are lightweight and less obtrusive, making them ideal for users who need mobility or don’t want to deal with the bulk factor of headphones. However, comfort can be an issue if the earbuds do not fit well. Poorly fitting earbuds can cause discomfort, fall out easily, and fail to provide proper sound isolation. Many earbuds come with multiple ear tip sizes to ensure a better fit, but this is not always a guarantee of comfort.

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3. Portability

Headphones:

Headphones, particularly over-ear models, are bulkier and less portable than earbuds. While some models feature foldable designs and come with carrying cases, they are still more cumbersome to transport. On-ear headphones are slightly more portable but still larger than earbuds.

Earbuds:

Earbuds are highly portable due to their small size and lightweight design. They can easily fit into a pocket, purse, or small bag, making them an excellent choice for on-the-go listening. True wireless earbuds, in particular, come with compact charging cases that not only protect the earbuds but also provide additional battery life.

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Also read: Comprehensive buying guide to help you choose the best headphones for every need

4. Battery Life

Headphones:

Wireless headphones generally offer longer battery life compared to earbuds. Over-ear and on-ear wireless headphones can last anywhere from 15 to 30 hours on a single charge, with some models even exceeding this range. Wired headphones, of course, do not have battery life concerns as they draw power from the connected device.

Earbuds:

True wireless earbuds typically offer 4 to 8 hours of playback on a single charge, with the charging case providing additional charges to extend the total battery life to around 20 to 30 hours. Some high-end models can last longer, but generally, earbuds need to be charged more frequently than headphones.

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5. Noise isolation and noise cancellation

Headphones:

Over-ear headphones offer the best passive noise isolation due to their design, which completely encloses the ears. Many high-end headphones also feature active noise cancellation (ANC) technology, which can significantly reduce ambient noise, making them ideal for travel or noisy environments. On-ear headphones provide less passive noise isolation but can still be effective with ANC.

Earbuds:

In-ear earbuds with a good seal can offer effective passive noise isolation by blocking external sounds from entering the ear canal. Some true wireless earbuds also come with ANC, but the effectiveness of ANC in earbuds is generally less impressive compared to over-ear headphones due to the smaller size and design constraints.

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Also read: Best OnePlus wireless headphones and earbuds: Top 10 options to pick for every budget

6. Durability

Headphones:

Durability in headphones can vary based on the materials used and the build quality. Over-ear and on-ear headphones often feature sturdy headbands and ear cups, but they can be susceptible to wear and tear over time, especially if not handled properly. Hinges and folding mechanisms can also be points of failure.

Earbuds:

Earbuds, particularly true wireless models, are more prone to damage due to their small size and frequent handling. The cables on wired earbuds are often the weakest point and can fray or break over time. However, many modern earbuds are designed to be sweat and water-resistant, making them more durable for active use.

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Also read: Best boAt mic headphones: Top 8 choices for exceptional audio and call quality combined with the latest features

7. Use Case Scenarios

Headphones:

  • Home listening: Over-ear headphones are ideal for home use, where comfort and sound quality are paramount.
  • Professional use: Audio engineers, DJs, and musicians often prefer high-quality over-ear headphones for their accurate sound reproduction and comfort.
  • Travel: Noise-cancelling over-ear headphones are popular for flights and commuting due to their ability to reduce ambient noise.

Earbuds:

  • Exercise and outdoor activities: Earbuds, especially true wireless models, are perfect for workouts and outdoor activities due to their portability and secure fit.
  • Daily commute: Earbuds are convenient for daily commuting, as they are easy to carry and provide sufficient noise isolation.
  • Casual listening: Earbuds are great for casual listening throughout the day, whether at work, school, or running errands.

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8. Price range

Headphones:

Headphones in India come in a wide range of prices, from budget models under 2,000 to high-end audiophile-grade headphones that can cost several lakhs. The price usually correlates with sound quality, build quality, and additional features like ANC and wireless capabilities.

Earbuds:

Earbuds also vary widely in price in India. Budget models can be found for under 1,000, while premium true wireless earbuds can exceed 25,000. As with headphones, higher-priced earbuds typically offer better sound quality, build quality, and advanced features.

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Also read: Best realme Bluetooth headphones: Cut the cords and experience wireless audio, top 5 picks

9. Customisation and additional features

Headphones:

High-end headphones often come with customisable sound profiles, detachable cables, and the ability to upgrade ear pads for a better fit or improved comfort. Some models also offer app-based controls for tweaking sound settings and ANC levels.

Earbuds:

Modern earbuds, particularly true wireless models, offer features like touch controls, voice assistant integration, and customisable sound profiles through companion apps. Many also come with different ear tip sizes to ensure a better fit.

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10. Connectivity

Headphones:

Wireless headphones connect via Bluetooth and often support additional codecs like aptX or LDAC for higher-quality wireless audio. Some models also come with NFC for quick pairing. Wired headphones use standard 3.5mm jacks or, in some cases, USB-C or Lightning connectors.

Earbuds:

True wireless earbuds connect via Bluetooth and may support similar codecs as wireless headphones. Wired earbuds use 3.5mm jacks or USB-C/Lightning connectors. Bluetooth connectivity in true wireless models can be less stable compared to over-ear or on-ear wireless headphones due to the reliance on smaller internal antennas.

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11. Style and aesthetics

Headphones:

Headphones are available in various styles and colours, allowing users to express their personal taste. Over-ear and on-ear models can be sleek and modern, or they can have a retro look, depending on the brand and design.

Earbuds:

Earbuds, especially true wireless models, have a more discreet appearance and come in various colors and finishes. They are less noticeable than headphones and can be more suitable for those who prefer a minimalistic look.

Also read: Best Bluetooth gaming headphones: Top 9 premium options to ace your online matches

12. Health considerations

Headphones:

Prolonged use of headphones, especially at high volumes, can lead to hearing damage. Over-ear and on-ear headphones can cause ear fatigue and discomfort over time if not used properly. It’s essential to take breaks and maintain moderate volume levels to protect hearing health.

Earbuds:

In-ear earbuds can pose a higher risk of hearing damage if used at high volumes due to their proximity to the eardrum. They can also cause ear discomfort or infections if not cleaned regularly. Using earbuds with a good fit and moderate volume levels can help mitigate these risks.

Choosing between headphones and earbuds ultimately comes down to personal preferences, specific needs, and use cases. Here is a quick summary to help you decide:

Choose headphones if you prioritise:

  • Superior sound quality
  • Comfort for long listening sessions
  • Effective noise cancellation
  • Durability and long-term use

Choose earbuds if you prioritise:

  • Portability and convenience
  • Lightweight and discreet design
  • Active lifestyle compatibility
  • Quick and easy use

Both headphones and earbuds have their strengths and weaknesses. By considering the factors discussed in this guide, you can make a well-informed decision that best suits your lifestyle and audio preferences.

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Disclaimer: At Livemint, we help you stay up-to-date with the latest trends and products. Mint has an affiliate partnership, so we may get a part of the revenue when you make a purchase. We shall not be liable for any claim under applicable laws, including but not limited to the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, with respect to the products. The products listed in this article are in no particular order of priority.

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Published: 03 Jul 2024, 01:00 PM IST



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