Headphones vs Earbuds: which is best for you?

People wearing Sony XM5 headphones and hearbuds at a train station
(Image credit: Press)

Looking to decide between headphones or earbuds, but not sure which best suits your needs? You’re in the right place.

Headphones and earbuds have come a long way in the past few years. As time passes, the latest tech and functionality trickle down from flagship to more affordable models, making both headphones and earbuds more sophisticated than ever before.

But both have their pros and cons and there are things you will need to consider before you choose your path.

We will speak about differences in design, features, and performance in this handy guide which covers all the most crucial things to consider when choosing between headphones or earbuds, whether they be wired or wireless. Without further ado, let’s take a look…

Headphones vs earbuds: design


(Image credit: Google)

On-ear or over-ear headphones are bigger than earbuds, of course, so they can use much larger drivers to create a sound. Of course, the flip side to their bigger size is that this affects portability. Unless you have a bag big enough to store them, with or without a protective case, they may not be ideal in every on-the-go situation. This is especially true of wired headphones where you need to take into account you have a cable to contend with.

Earbuds (or in-ear monitors aka IEMs) are definitely more portable. They are also much lighter, and wireless models, such as the Sony WF-C700N, come with a handy charging case making earbuds ideal if you want something you can throw in and out of your pocket with minimal fuss. Wired pairs such as the excellent Shure Aonic 3 tend to come with a carry pouch for protection.

The fact they are more compact means they are also less likely to be damaged in transit or in a bag – no headband to snap or earpads to tear.

They are, however, much easier to misplace or lose, so a little extra care in keeping them safe goes a long way. Some wireless models, such as Google Pixel Buds or Apple AirPods, can be tracked using a smartphone app, allowing you to either emit a sound from the buds or see where they are located on a map.

And the fit with some earbuds can also be an issue. Earbuds are fussier as they go inside your ear canal, which will vary in shape and size between people. 

Thankfully, most buds include a few different-sized tips which should allow most users to wear them comfortably. The size of the bud itself is also worth factoring in; some models such as Sony’s XM4 earbuds impress sonically, but some users might find them too bulky.

Headphones vs earbuds: features

Noise cancelling headphones: Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

You can buy headphones and earbuds that are wired or wireless depending on your preference. If you go the wireless headphone route you will have convenience but will often also get a cable so you can use them wired. You don’t have this advantage with wireless earbuds. 

Wired headphones and earbuds often feature in-line controls and sometimes a mic for taking calls built into the cable.

If you go wireless, it’s easier for manufacturers to include clearly separated controls on headphones compared to earbuds due to the size of the cans. These controls can include touch gestures for things such as adjusting volume, skipping tracks, and answering calls.

Due to their smaller size, lighter weight, and more discreet appearance, earbuds are often a popular choice if you want something to use while you’re in the gym. However, don’t be afraid to try over-ear headphones if they are your usual preference – comfort is crucial in more active applications.

There are models of earbuds that are water-resistant, such as JBL’s Reflect Flow Pro buds, and designed to be especially stable meaning they shouldn't fall out as you are exercising.

You can get noise-cancelling earbuds but noise-cancelling over-ear headphones tend to perform better in this department, in part simply because of their design. They cover your whole ear, isolating you and creating a seal that assists any active noise-cancelling tech in use.

Headphones vs earbuds: sound quality

Open back headphones: Grado GW100x

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

The fact headphones can house bigger drivers means they are capable of delivering a larger-scale sound, better dynamics, and bass in a more defined manner.

Earbuds give a much different sound compared with headphones. As they inject audio right into your ear canal, they can provide incredible clarity, but they also have the potential to present sound in a less natural way than we are used to hearing.

This is because we are used to our outer ears filtering sound before it enters our ear canals. With earbuds, this process is bypassed altogether. 

Generally, earbuds don’t present audio with the same scale and authority as headphones and music can often sound smaller, despite the clarity.

And if you’re wondering about wired versus wireless when it comes to sound quality, using a cable is the best option if you want superior audio quality.

Headphones vs earbuds: verdict

Your choice, then, should depend on your chosen applications and desires. If you want the best sound quality available regardless of portability and size, headphones are the way to go. They come out on top when it comes to dynamics, bass, and overall authority. Headphones are also the go-to choice if you want the best noise cancelling available.

Earbuds, though, are perfect for when you want to travel light, plan to use them during exercise, or just want something more discreet. They might not present audio quite as naturally or with as much scale as their bulkier brethren, but they can still provide excellent clarity – not to mention convenience.

Whichever you decide to go for, we have covered all the best headphones and earbuds in great detail, so be sure to check our expert picks and reviews to help you narrow down the contenders.


Best headphones 2023 – every type tried and tested

Best wireless earbuds 2023: budget and premium

Staff Writer

Ainsley Walker is a staff writer at What Hi-Fi?. He studied music journalism at university before working in a variety of roles including as a freelance journalist and teacher. Growing up in a family of hi-fi enthusiasts, this naturally influenced his interest in the topic. Outside of work, Ainsley can be found producing music, tinkering with retro tech, or cheering on Luton Town.

  • Jasonovich
    It all boils down to practicality versus sound quality.
    Both my earbuds and headphones are planar magnet designs and the sound quality is excellent on both. If I'm commuting to London I use the KZ earphones and if I'm at home, my ears are hugging the Hifiman Edition XS headphones.