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In-ear Monitors vs. Headphones: Differences Explained

In-ear monitors vs headphones

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In-ear monitors or IEMs, and headphones have the same basic functions. Both allow you to listen to music or audio. Both can be used at home, in the studio, or on the go.

Despite these basic similarities, there are some key differences you should know. Once you understand these differences, you can make the best choice for your specific needs and situation.

First, let’s take a closer look at in-ear monitors and headphones.

What are In-Ear Monitors?

In-ear monitors sit inside the ear canal. They actually seal inside the canal, which blocks out the ambient noise. The obvious benefit of this is that you won’t be subjected to distracting noises around you. For this reason alone, in-ear monitors may make your next family get-together bearable.

Sitting inside the ear canal also provides truer sound. You’ll be able to hear details that you may miss with other types of listening equipment.

The lack of ambient noise and the clearness of the sound means that you can listen at lower volume levels. This is better for your ears and makes long-term listening more comfortable.

If listening is part of your job, this can be essential. Lower sound volume prevents ear fatigue, so you can be at your best.

Studio headphones
Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro Open Studio Headphones

Headphones

Headphones are a type of personal listening equipment that sits on the outside of your ear. They are attached with a headband.

Headphones range from incredibly inexpensive to gold-plated masterpieces we should all be envious of. Headphones usually provide better sound quality. They are much larger, so they can accommodate larger drivers.

This particularly affects bass quality. This isn’t always true these days, as technology has allowed smaller drivers to provide big sound. It’s possible to find IEMs that deliver sound comparable to headphones.

There are a few types of headphones. Wireless headphones offer more convenience. You can move around the room without bringing your device. Wired headphones, however, provide better sound quality. An analog signal holds more data, so there’s no need to compress the data. It’s simply streamed straight from your device into the headphones.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS ONE?
beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro Open Studio Headphones
Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro Open Studio Headphones

The second distinction between headphones is the open ear and the closed ear. Open ear headphones don’t seal around your ear. This allows more ambient noise to get through, but they can be more comfortable to wear.

Closed ear headphones do form a seal around your ear. This greatly reduces the ambient noise. Want to skip the awkward conversation on the subway? You’ll need closed-ear headphones.

IEMs vs Headphones

Now that we have an understanding of what IEMS and headphones are, let’s take a closer look at some of the most important differences between them.

Noise Cancellation

There are two types of noise cancellation. The first is passive noise cancellation. This means that sound is physically blocked by the headphones themselves.

Earplugs and sound-blocking ear muffs work this way. They simply create a barrier between the noise and your ear canal. IEMs also work this way. Since they fit into the ear canal, it’s difficult for noise to travel into your ear.

Some headphones use this type of noise cancellation as well. These are typically closed-ear headphones.

The other type of noise cancellation is active noise canceling, or ANC. This is often used in headphones. There’s a tiny microphone that listens for sounds, like your neighbor’s dog barking. Then, the driver sends a sound wave that cancels the sound wave out.

This type of noise cancellation can be beneficial, but there’s one issue. It works well for constant sources of noise. It isn’t effective for sudden noises, like a toddler in the seat next to you.

Sound Quality

The sound quality will vary between IEMs and headphones, although neither is necessarily better than the other.

Many performers use IEMs. They provide great bass, and the sound quality is very clear. You can also hear minute details, which is key for musicians and audiophiles.

In ear monitors and studio headphones
In-ear monitors vs. headphones

Headphones have their own benefits when it comes to sound quality. When listening with headphones, you’ll feel like you are in a room with the music, instead of feeling it streaming directly into your brain. This is particularly true for open-ear headphones.

Comfort

When it comes to comfort, opinions are divided. Some people find headphones more comfortable because they don’t go inside the ear.

On the other hand, headphones weigh more, which can be tiring with long-term wear. Those who don’t like the weight of headphones often prefer in-ear monitors.

The type of IEMs you choose can also greatly affect your comfort. Universal IEMs are designed to fit everyone. This means that you are likely to get an ok fit, rather than a great fit.

Custom IEMs, on the other hand, are created to fit your ears. You’ll need to visit an audiologist to have measurements taken, and then your custom tips will be created.

These offer more comfort than universal IEMs, but both are relatively comfortable.

Who Headphones are Best For

Headphones are best if you plan to do most of your listening while stationary. Headphones are comfortable, but they aren’t great if you are moving around.

You should also consider headphones if you don’t like wearing IEMs. Some people simply don’t like things in their ears, and that is perfectly ok.

If you need or want active noise canceling, headphones are the better choice. IEMs do a good job of noise-canceling to a degree, but they aren’t as effective as ANC headphones.

Lastly, you should choose headphones if you want to be left alone. Headphones are easy to see, so people won’t be attempting to strike up a conversation.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS ONE?
CCA CRA in Ear Monitor Earphone, Ultra-Thin Diaphragm Dynamic Driver IEM, Clear Sound & Deep Bass, Wired Earbuds with Mic and Tangle-Free Removable Cord
CCA CRA in Ear Monitor Earphone

Who In-Ear Monitors are Best For

If you love listening to music on the go, in-ear monitors may be your best choice. This is particularly true if you are active. If you plan on working out or running, in-ear monitors are the way to go.

IEMs are also preferred by most live performers. They deliver clear sound and allow you to hear precise details.

If you want privacy while listening, IEMs are the better option. You won’t have noise leaking, so you don’t have to worry about offending those around you with your music choices.

Final Thoughts on In-Ear Monitors vs Headphones

Ultimately, it’s up to you to determine which option is best for you. However, now you are armed with the information you need to make the best decision.

A passion for writing and ongoing research projects gives Catherine an incredibly broad knowledge of all things. She has authored an incredible number of articles and can be found in the wilderness when not attached to technology or listening to podcasts.

This post was last updated on 2022-11-27 / Some images from Amazon Product API & some links may be affiliate links which may earn us a commission from purchases.


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