IEM vs Earphones: What’s the Difference?

IEM vs Earphones

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IEMs and Earphones: Similarities and Differences, Pros and Cons

In my early days of browsing audio forums, the subject of IEM vs earphones kept coming up. The online pundits were so busy squabbling about their respective favorites that no one seemed to notice that some bystanders (like me) had no clue what they were talking about.

What’s the difference between IEMs and earphones, why should you care, and which should you be shopping for? Let’s explore those questions a bit.

First of all, IEM stands for “in-ear monitor.” These devices consist of a pair of driver chambers topped with silicon or foam ear tips that go right into your ear canals.

By contrast, earphones are the traditional earbud-shaped things that sit in the opening to your outer ears.

IEM vs. Earphones: Key Factors and Considerations

FeatureIEMearphones
Sealing of ear canalYesNo (in some cases only)
WirelessNo (typically)Yes
WiredYesYes
Over-ear cable designYesNo
Can be used for live musicians monitoringYesNo (not ideal at all)
Driver optionsBalanced Armature (BA) / Dynamic / ElectrostaticDynamic
Capable of multiple driversYesNo (typically)
Replaceable CablesYesNo (typically)
IEM vs earphones

Performance Basics

One point we need to get out of the way straight off the bat: Both IEMs and earphones can deliver frequencies that cover the entire range of human hearing (generally recognized as 20 to 20,000 Hertz, although few humans can actually hear that high.) 

However, since IEMs create a seal in the ear canals and earphones allow some sound energy to leak out, you’re likely to experience that much less of however much bass energy your earphones can technically produce.

Despite their tiny size, both IEMs and earphones can blast your ears into a fine powder loudness-wise, mainly because the drivers sit close to your eardrums. 

IEM vs Earphones next to each other on a wood table. Up close on each earbud.
IEM vs Earphones

However, you’ll find yourself cranking the volume higher when you wear earphones. This unhealthy tendency can get especially troublesome if you turn up your earphones to hear a soft moment only to get your head rattled by an unexpected spike in volume.

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Earphones don’t block ambient noise, so your music will be competing against the outside world, forcing you to listen at higher levels. 

By contrast, IEMs sit even closer to your eardrums than IEMS, but they also create a seal that can dramatically reduce outside sound. This isolation allows you to perceive the same volume at lower listening levels. (Your hearing will like that.) 

At the same time, that isolation will help you hear tiny details at low dynamics as well as the crashing fortissimos of your musical climaxes.

Bear in mind, though, that isolation isn’t always a virtue. There are times when you might really need to hear traffic, people’s voices, your baby’s crying, and other stuff that an isolating IEM might block out a little too efficiently. For those situations, you’ll want to keep a pair of earphones standing by.

What I love about IEMs

  • Great sound isolation
  • Wide range of driver configurations available for dynamic changes in sound signatures
  • Wide range of price points between universal and custom IEMs means you can always upgrade
  • Good for playing live music, monitoring or just listening at home or on your commute
  • Comfortable fit
  • Cable over the ear and down the back is comfortable and means no catching the cable and yanking things out of your ears.

What I love about earphones

  • easy to take in and out of your ears – no need to ‘seat’ them in the same way as IEMs
  • fit in your pocket easier

Driver Technologies

Good old-fashioned dynamic drivers, which move a voice coil to reproduce sound, serve as the most popular driver type of both IEMs and earphones. 

Beyond that common ground, however, you’ll see some different alternatives for each type of device. IEM driver options also include balanced armature drivers, with a coil-wrapped piece of iron balanced between two magnets, a technology you won’t find on most earbuds.

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Shure SE215-CL-BT1 Wireless Sound Isolating Earphones with Bluetooth Enabled Communication Cable
Shure SE215-CL-BT1 Wireless Sound Isolating Earphones

Planar drivers, an advanced technology previously reserved for full-sized headphones, have started to pop up in a few deluxe IEM models like the Audeze iSINE LX, 7Hz Timeless, Tin HiFi P1 and P2, and TRI I3 Pro. Earbuds, for the most part, rely on good old-fashioned dynamic driver technology.

Another big difference between IEMs and earphones lies in the number of drivers typically bundled into them. Your average pair of earphones relies on one decent-sized driver for each ear.

However, some IEMs actually contain multiple tiny drivers for each ear. 

Theoretically, this arrangement aids clarity by dividing the frequency response among the different drivers, not unlike the arrangement of tweeters and woofers in speakers.

Design Features

IEMs and earphones both offer a small, convenient, ultra-portable form factor. The smallest IEM configurations house the driver chambers in little can-shaped barrels or rounded buttons. 

IEM vs Earphones next to each other with the differences in cables showing.
Difference between IEM and Earphones

However, you’ll also see IEMs from leading brands such as Moondrop and KZ that appear to fill up the whole outer ear. This design doesn’t block more external sound; it’s just a necessary choice for housing multiple drivers in IEMs that feature them. 

Earphones only get wide at the tips to house their dynamic drivers and cover the outer ear opening.

What about the wacky world of cables

These days you have the option of going wired or wireless, whether you prefer IEMs or earphones. 

True, it’s easier to find a wider selection of wireless models with a full-sized form factor. But as more and more models start showing up with Bluetooth-ready wireless designs, you may come to prefer feeling completely untethered, as if you’re not even wearing any listening gear at all. 

On the other hand, if you have trouble keeping up with small items in general, a pair of wireless IEMs could disappear on you more easily than something physically attached to your body or your music player.

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Linsoul KZ ZS10 Pro IEM

IEMs also stay in the ear more securely than earbuds due to their deeper insertion. As long as you use eartips of the correct size for your ear canals, you’ll find IEMs more practical for workouts or other physical activities, while you may be constantly picking your earbuds up off the gym floor.

Personal Needs and Preferences

If you’re buying for personal use, then your choice of IEM vs earphones depends entirely on your personal needs and tastes. 

Maybe you just need something cheap, tiny, and lightweight, in which case earphones make perfect sense. 

Maybe you hate the sensation of deep ear canal insertion, another reason to choose earphones over IEMS. For critical listening or professional stage monitoring, you’ll want the isolation and higher sound quality of IEMs.

So, which type of listening device should you get? 

Well, many listeners own both types of phones, one for just knocking around town and the other for serious listening at home, work, or the gym. 

Maybe that’s the greatest thing about choosing between IEMs and earphones — the fact that you don’t have to choose at all!

Any questions I’d love to get into it in the comments below.

This post was last updated on 2022-08-04 / Some images from Amazon Product API & some links may be affiliate links which may earn us a commission from purchases.


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