Learn the difference between in-ear monitors vs earbuds and which one might suit you better.
Whether you’re an audiophile looking for impeccable sound quality, a performer who needs to be able to hear yourself above the din of a screaming crowd, or just someone looking for a great music listening experience on the go, earbuds and IEMs are probably your best options. That’s especially true if you don’t want to resort to the bigger and often more expensive alternative of headphones.
That said, the question remains, which should you choose, an IEM or an earbud?
The best way to answer that is to compare IEM vs earbuds head to head in the categories that matter, so let’s get right into it!
So what IS the difference between IEM and earbuds?
IEM, or in-ear monitors in long form, were first made famous by bands needing on-stage monitoring solutions that didn’t involve big speaker wedges. Over time audiophiles and musicians have come to enjoy the comfort and sound quality you can get from an IEM.
These earpieces extend to the ear canal and beyond, creating a tight seal that blocks out external noise while also keeping the earpiece in place. This provides impeccable sound isolation and prevents sound leakage. This also means that you don’t have to blast music at the loudest volume settings just to hear them. What’s more, the best IEMs are typically easy to hook up with microphones and amps as necessary, making them a favorite among performers.
That being said, all that extra performance comes at a cost, and IEMs aren’t inexpensive. In addition, it can be hard to find the right fit IEM-wise, and custom IEMs can be especially costly.
Finding the right balance between cost, comfort, and performance can be tricky with IEMs. With more recent models coming to market from brands like KZ and Linsoul it is getting easier. On the other hand, the ceiling they have on how the best models perform is extremely high as you’ll see in our list of the best iems under $1000.
In contrast to IEMs sealing off your ear canal, earbuds simply slide right in or ‘sit’ or hang in your ear. On the one hand, this makes them easier to put in. On the other hand, it means they do not create the kind of sound-isolating seal that IEMs do, which means they do not block out sound nearly as efficiently as IEMs.
This also means that earbuds allow for a lot more ambient sound. There are a lot of people who may view that as negative due to a lack of sound isolation, but that can also work in your favor. For example, if you are walking around a busy city while listening to your music, it is probably a good idea to be able to hear approaching cars. IEMs could potentially block that sound out, whereas unless you’re blasting your music to dangerously loud levels, chances are you will hear that with earbuds.
As a result, earbuds may actually be a better choice for music listening on the go in metropolitan areas.
Earbuds sometimes feature soft tips that slip right into your ear canal, but typically with less noise isolation, and are thus typically very comfortable to wear. In addition, they tend to be more discreet than a lot of IEMs, which take up a considerably larger portion of your ear and are so can be far more visible. What’s more, while it can be hard to lie down while listening to music while wearing an IEM given its size and cost, this is quite easy and comfy to do in slimmer, less expensive earbuds.
So essentially, IEMs or in-ear monitors create a seal in your ear, isolate all outside noise and tend to have foam or silicon tips. earbuds and earphones tend to rest or hang in the ear without isolating noise and leave airflow in to the ear canal.
Now we know the basic physical differences, we can get in to the other differences between IEM vs earbuds.
in-ear headphones vs earbuds
With the details outlined each has important let’s break down the features to look for, whether you are looking to choose an IEM or earbud.
#1: Drivers – Dynamic and Balanced Armature
It isn’t unheard of for IEMs to have as many as five drivers or more, meaning that they are able to deliver fuller and more nuanced sound. I have a pair of Heir Audio 8.0 Custom IEM which have 8 drivers and the JH Audio Layla have 12 drivers in each ear.
The reason drivers matter is because you can put a crossover in each IEM to manage the sound across the drivers. The drivers are generally going to be dynamic or balanced armature (BA) and if you have 12 of them you can assume they are BA drivers.
Dynamic drivers can be found in hybrid IEMs but are most common in earphones. There is nothing bad about dynamic drivers, just look at the Sennheiser IE800s for example. but they have their limits compared with an IEM which can isolate frequencies to specific drivers. e.g A 6 BA driver can send bass to two drivers, mids to two drivers and treble to two drivers.
#2: Sound Isolation
There is no question here – IEMs have a huge edge. As mentioned, IEMs excel at blocking out external sound to an extent that is simply not possible for earbuds. The real question here is whether you want to make use of a standard IEM or one customized to fit your ear. The latter can provide the best sound isolation and are naturally more comfortable, but also cost far more. CIEMs are typically the go-to answer for musicians who need to wear these devices for hours while performing.
The real win with sound isolation is bass response. Anyone who has purchased a set of Apple Airpod Pro will notice a nice improvement in Bass thanks to a better seal in the ear. This is, in my opinion, even more accentuated in a pair of IEM which create a really nice seal.
I would liken the AirPods to a pair of Etymotic’s as they both prefer a silicon ear seal. You can upgrade Etymotic’s to include foam ear tips which makes a difference.
So, for this section consider that most, not all but most, earphones lack decent ear tips, or any ear tips at all i.e Apple AirPods or earphones first generation are just plastic. All in-ear monitors will have a silicon or foam ear tip on them which can come in different sizes and fittings.
The pinnacle for fit would be getting custom in-ear monitors but that’s pretty extreme if you’re really just looking at affordable earphones or iem. There are the new UE Fits which inject and mix a special mold when you first wear them. You can only do the fit once but this will give you a custom fit without needing to get earmolds.
They have been working on these for a long time and early reviews are positive.
In summary – sound isolation is better with IEM and a benefit is that you reduce need to turn the volume up too high to hear your music and therefore risk damaging your hearing, especially if you are using these for commuting.
Some say one of the biggest challenges with IEMs can be that they can be uncomfortable to wear unless you either find the right fit or shell out hundreds of dollars for a customized pair. By contrast, there are plenty of inexpensive earphones under $15 that simply slip into your ear canal with rubber or foam tips and are very comfortable. This is a feeling I dispute.
If you have ever tried a set of Shure SE215, Sennheiser IE40 or Westone W40 you’ll know they can be very comfortable. The key is getting the right ear tips. Foam tips are my personal preference. Historically, I have always used the stock tips or purchased others from Comply.
When it comes to earphones, some prefer a single solid piece that rests just outside the ear canal as in classic Apple earphones, while others prefer earbuds with rubber or foam tips that slip into the ear canal a bit further. While I personally prefer the latter, there are plenty of inexpensive and comfortable options for either. In fact, there are more budget earphones on the market than anyone needs which can make it hard to choose.
There is something really nice about earphones where you can easily take them in and out of your ear with very little effort and no need to bed the earphone in your ear for the best sound. The original wired Apple earphones is a great example of this, you just put them in your ear and off you go.
If the earbud isn’t too large or poorly designed then you can wear earphones for very long periods and enjoy excellent comfort. Once reason being they have allow airflow around and in the ear.
As mentioned, IEMs can cost a pretty penny, with it not uncommon for models to cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. That said, while earbuds can be quite affordable, with the least expensive costing only a few dollars, there are still models that reach into triple digits (e.g. the previously mentioned IE800 and plenty in the Sony product line).
However, as is so often the case in life, you get what you pay for, and that may be the case with earbuds and IEMs as well.
If you purchase inexpensive earphones, you can’t be surprised if they break constantly, leaving you needing to replace them and thus spending more money more often. This is classic problem. You pull on the cable accidentally, you get the cable caught in your bag zipper or similar. So, if this is your MO then it might be worth keeping it cheap for now, even if you have to sacrifice some quality.
By contrast, if you purchase an IEM, it will cost much more money upfront, but you should be able to count on it lasting longer. That said, there are plenty of quality earbud brands that last long as well, so rather than simply break this down into IEM vs. earphones, you’ll want to compare particular models.
The growing divide in earphones and IEM is wireless and true wireless earphones. IEM are yet to really solve the wireless or true wireless options. This is most likely because they have to cram all those drivers in. The bottom line on this point is then, if you want to be wireless then a decent set of earbuds like the Apple AirPods Pro or Sony WF-1000XM3 is your better choice (and no wires to get stuck on). They also include noise-cancelling which is impressive.
#5: Sound Quality
IEMs are typically superior to earbuds in overall sound quality, it’s true and I’ll fight you for it.. As mentioned, IEMs can have a huge arrange of drivers (not always a good thing I’ll admit) and some CIEMs have as many as eight, providing you with an incredibly rich and detailed sound. While there are lots of good earphones that deliver quality bass or are clear, high-end IEMs, while more costlier than earbuds, nearly always top them.
As a general rule if you are comparing high end wireless earphones to IEM, you’re going to get better bang for your buck with IEM. The Linsoul and KZ range are a great example of very affordable IEM’s.
This is obviously the most subjective category on this list, but it’s still worth considering when evaluating in ear monitor vs. earphones. I purchased the Sony WF-1000XM3 and they just made me feel like I was wearing little surfboards in my ears. I felt silly and that’s why I say it’s a subjective thing. I like T-Shirts you like Shirts, Stripes vs Patterns etc.
IEMs are typically on the larger side, so you typically cannot wear them in situations where you might want earphones to be a bit more discreet. Affordable ones like the SE215 from Shure can slip away and be barely noticeable front on (like a news presenters earphone) but a lot do stick out a bit. If you don’t want to walk around with a huge slab of colored metal and plastic showing, these might have you being more selective in your choice.
Of course, famous people like Taylor Swift, Pink or Kanye West will embrace the size of their CIEM and get diamontes and all sorts of glitter and pizzaz put on the outside.
By contrast, earphones (specifically wired ones) are typically a lot less…obivous…and easier to wear during everyday activities. You can wear them on the street without them appearing too obtrusive. What’s more, there are also earphone models that are specially designed to stay in place while running and are sweat resistant, making them a natural choice for those who want to listen to music while running or working out.
If you’re going true wireless earphones then you can expect some bulk.
In my opinion you can get away with a low profile IEM better but earphones can just be easier to wear in all situations. With an in-ear monitor you really have to commit to wearing them as you need to get the seal of the earths right and keep it that way. As soon as there is any sound leak, you lose your sound quality.
Grading matrix of features – in-ear monitor vs earbud
This table is a grading that compares the features of IEM vs earphones. I’ve also included the growing category of wireless earbuds. 10 is excellent or high, 1 is poor or low.
|IEM||earbuds (wired)||earbuds (wireless)|
|Ease of Use||5||9||7|
|Sound Isolation||9||5||8 (if they have active noise-cancellation)|
Whether you choose an IEM or earbud ultimately comes down to what kind of music listening experience you want. If you are a performer or prefer a higher ceiling in terms of quality and don’t care about larger earpieces or prices, IEMs may be for you. If you prefer a less expensive, more slimmed down, and easily portable listening experience, earbuds may be the way to go.
Any questions? Let me know in the comments below and I’d be happy to answer.