The IEMs vs. headphones debate isn’t much of a debate as it’s usually a matter of preference. Logically, if you’re an audiophile, you belong in one of the two groups – and happily so. For those who aren’t knee-deep in the hobby yet and are still dipping their toes in, then you might be stiff for choices. It’s one or the other.
So, which one suits you better? Let’s take a look at a few things.
In-ear monitors have improved a lot over the past years. The depth of sound quality has broadened and can now compete with or even surpass headphones. Generally, this is the area where you’ll be more likely to find something that’s cheap but sounds expensive.
Upgrading also makes sense as you hear the definite differences over your older stuff whereas, with headphones, you’d probably have to spend a good extra thousand dollars to hear an improvement over X quadrant.
I can’t simply state which one has superior audio quality unless, of course, we do an old-fashioned shoot-out of IEMs vs. headphones and compare two gears. Somehow even then, it wouldn’t be fair as there are different strengths and weaknesses to both that are simply too complex to chalk down as a simple compare and contrast.
There are relatively cheap in-ears that mop the floor with headphones in their respective price ranges. Take for example the famous Truthear Hexa.
Although the reverse can be true as well, headphones don’t tend to beat out IEMs by presenting an insane cost-to-performance ratio — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. You might need to shell out a whole lot more to see more substantial performance.
If you plan on saving the moolah while still getting good sound, you might want to take a look at IEMs first.
Form Factor and Portability
Headphones are heavier. That much is apparent. This isn’t just a matter of preference as with the case of many who won’t mind but it highlights the confines of where it’s usable. Most consumer headphones are built with a form factor that remains light and unencumbering. With audiophile headphones though, this isn’t true.
You’ve seen a Sennheiser can before right? Well, they’re relatively smaller than the average pair of Hi-Fi cans. They’re quite bulky and that being said, most cans stay home where they can comfortably access the beefy audio chain.
There exists though, those who are very daring and use their cans throughout their day. This obviously involves the use of bulky storage cases. It’s that, plus whatever else you’re carrying. A ghastly image, but as they say, the world belongs to the bold.
What about IEMs? As our friendly neighborhood pocket rocket gizmos, they fit just about in everyone’s pocket – even shallow ones. You can use them at home, during your daily commute, at a cafe, or literally anywhere. Perfect, right?
Much of its portability is what draws many people to it. However, smaller shells have driver limitations, and as much as portability is nice, the inherent abilities of IEMs are lesser than headphones because they skirt around the acoustic cavities that confine the drivers.
Ergonomics and Fit
For headphones, the wearing experience is a combination of two things: the headband and the ear pads. The headbands are generally adjustable, which allows a range of head sizes to extend or retract to their preferences.
The headband material is something else though. Thinner headbands make the fit feel loose, affecting an otherwise perfect feeling fit. This also extends to ear pads, where the opposite is also true. Some ear pads are too chunky for their own good whereas thinner pads may yield better ergonomics.
Now, with IEMs, the only real problem would be their shell shape and the nozzle size. I’d pick a universal IEM over anything that has hard edges and protruding fins that may cause discomfort. A universal-shaped in-ear uses a mold that has been based on an array of various ear shapes.
This ensures that it’s comfortable in anyone’s ears, hence universal.
For IEM nozzles, the average size is either 4 or 5 millimeters. On occasion, some have abnormally big nozzles, like the Moondrop Blessing 2. The only remedy to a rather big nozzle would be appropriately sized aftermarket ear tips.
Let’s face it. Open-back headphones suck at isolation. If you decide to go with closed backs though, the supposed soundstage benefits disappear-but you do get good isolation.
Personally, when it comes to isolation, my pick would be IEMs. Isolation blocks out external noise and essentially enhances the perception of bass through something called “the cabin effect”. The absence of this kind of pressure chamber may be the cause of some speakers not producing nearly enough bass, therefore needing the assistance of a subwoofer.
Here’s some food for thought: why don’t you often see anyone at a concert perform with headphones on? Or why don’t you often see an audio engineer mastering tracks using IEMs? Well, that’s because whether someone picks headphones or IEMs can also depend on their specific use case.
Here are some brief key points.
- Ideal for portable use, such as commuting, jogging, or traveling
- Excellent choice for musicians who need stage monitoring
- Great for those who want passive noise isolation
- Light carry for gaming on the go
- Preferrable for glued-in home listening
- Better soundstage reproduction
- Scales considerably with higher-end sources
- Enjoyable technical chops for games that need it
If you’re comparing IEMs vs. headphones for gaming, in my mind, it’s pretty simple. It depends on your gaming setup. Headphones would be perfect for gaming on your beefy PC rig at home while IEMs would be better for gaming on a handheld while you’re out and about.
Games that rely on atmospheric sound effects would benefit from soundstage rendering and imaging capabilities on open-backs. I could only imagine the joy of playing Phasmophobia or Dead by Daylight and getting jump-scared to death using open-back headphones.
That’s not to say IEMs are incapable of producing a similar experience. It’s just that headphones are typically better on the technical front.
This is something I didn’t expect to cover. When building a collection of either IEMs or headphones, one thing to consider is if you have the space to store them.
For in-ears, you can simply get a sizeable watch box and your storage problems are solved. For headphones though, you may need to buy an organizer rack or have a custom wall mount made, which can be a bit pricey.
You’ll find IEMs to have a lower cost of entry than headphones. And while there are headphones with extremely good value, the upgrade costs to go even further up are exponentially more compared to those of in-ears.
A counter-argument can be made.
Generally, the price ceiling of IEMs in the lower budget segment creates an illusion of infinite affordability – meaning you’re spending some real mad dough throughout many budget-buying sprees. Put all of that cash together and you can get substantial headphones that’ll last for a really long time.
Despite all of its merits and detractions, IEMs remain to be more accessible. If you really like headphones, you can start with a decent pair and plan wisely for your next big upgrade.
Let me tell you, it’s easier to resell IEMs than headphones.
In our region in Asia, people aren’t so big in the audiophile hobby. If you try to sell headphones, the only ones that’ll be attracted to your listing are hardened audiophiles who’ve been in the hobby for several years.
Also, a successful sale doesn’t mean you made a profit. People don’t usually bite at your price even though it’s already lower than the SRP. Of course, in my case, my items are in relatively mint condition, so I’d want to keep the price fair and not have to sell at a loss.
The law of diminishing returns hits like a truck. As much as I’d want this to only apply to headphones, IEMs are just as difficult to sell. Yes, they’re popular but they’re still pretty hard to sell.
So before you upgrade, it’s important to remind yourself that you only have two ears. You can’t listen to all your gear at once. And when you inevitably make that upgrade and realize you want to cut down on your collection, the challenge becomes real.
IEMs vs. Headphones: Final Thoughts
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to IEMs vs. headphones. They each have their own game where each of them plays ball, but they also have less attractive qualities that require compromise.
For all intents and purposes, the decision relies heavily on your lifestyle and specific use cases. You can skip the deliberation and have both, which is many an accursed soul’s path in the audiophile hobby.
Gavin is a college student who has a lot going on. From collecting IEMs and modding mechanical keyboards, to different hobbies like digital drawing, music mastering and cooking. It is safe to say he is a complete multi-faceted geek (and he's kinda cool too)