Earphones vs. Earbuds
If you’re a music lover, chances are you’re not happy with your phone or media player’s bundled earphones. Most of the time, they sound pretty dismal. Some devices don’t come with any earphones at all, but even the models that do include them tend not to offer a high-quality listening experience. Your music and video can definitely benefit from an upgrade.
Technically speaking, earbuds are not earphones, as they don’t enter your ear canal. Instead they sit just outside of it, where it’s easy to become loose and cause problems when it comes to accurate stereo imaging (in which both ears get the same amount of audio) and bass response. Earphones, meanwhile, fit in the ear canal and form a seal inside your ear, blocking outside noise while piping sound directly into your ears. They’re much smaller and lighter than headphones, since they don’t need to fit on or over your ears and don’t require any outside support (though some have stiff wire sections or flexible fins to keep them in place without getting in the way). Plus they won’t mess up your hair.
That said, the term earbuds has become synonymous with earphones and in-ear headphones, so the difference is ultimately academic. Whatever you call them and whatever they say on the box, you should look for earphones that form a good seal inside your ear with silicone or foam eartips. They’ll sound much better than plastic-covered drivers cupped against your ear canal.
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Wired, Wireless, or Wire-Free?
Earphones can connect to your smartphone through a 3.5mm cable or wirelessly over Bluetooth, depending on the model. Wired earphones are generally less expensive, and you don’t need to worry about keeping them charged. Bluetooth earphones are more convenient because you don’t have to physically connect them to your smartphone, but they need battery power to work. For the most part, you won’t find a 3.5mm port and removable cable on Bluetooth earphones; when they’re out of power, they’re out of commission until you charge them again.
There’s also true wireless earbuds, which we also call wire-free. These are essentially Bluetooth earphones, but with no cable connecting the individual earpieces. It took a solid year for the bugs to get shaken out of this category, with issues like short battery life and awkward design plaguing early devices.
We’re starting to see some very compelling wire-free earphones now, with companies like Bose and JLab offering sets with the power, longevity, and intuitive controls necessary for us to recommend them. Typically wire-free earphones were more expensive than conventional wireless earphones, but there are now several compelling sets available for under $150 or even under $100.
Good for Workouts
Earphones might not be as eye-catching as headphones, but they can be much more convenient. Besides their size and weight, earphones are often more resilient than headphones when dealing with moisture. This is important if you want to listen to music at the gym. Earpads can get soaked and worn with a solid sweat, and they aren’t built to withstand the regular, constant friction that comes with working out. Earphones can be built to be water- and sweat-resistant, and hold up much better to activity.
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Besides the rugged factor, earphones are also much better for staying on your head while you’re in motion. A good set of headphones will feel comfortable when you’re sitting or walking around, but when you start running or biking they can easily shake free of your ears. Fitness-oriented earphones often have stabilizing fins built in to them to ensure that they’ll stay in place no matter what you do at the gym. For the best options, check out our lists of The Best Headphones for Running and The Best True Wireless Earbuds for Running.
Not all earphones are workout-friendly, though; don’t assume your earphones will handle what you throw at them unless they’re fitness-oriented earphones, or at least are explicitly listed as water- and sweat-resistant. Really pricey earphones can be as fragile as really pricey headphones, and you don’t want to accidentally ruin a $200 pair with ear sweat.
Caring for Your Earphones
Whichever model you choose, make sure to use the included pouch or carrying case as often as possible in order to preserve the longevity of your earphones. Balling them up, shoving them into a pocket, and then untangling them each time you want to listen does more to wear them out prematurely than just about anything else. For more details, check out 5 Easy Tips to Extend the Life of Your Headphones.
If you don’t want to get tripped up on wires, check out the Best Wireless Headphones. If you place a priority on blocking out external sounds so that you can enjoy your favorite music in peace and quiet, read the Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones. And if you’re shopping on a budget, scan our picks for The Best Headphones Under $50.
Pros: Accurate audio with deep, but clean, bass response. Detachable cable. Lightweight, secure in-ear fit with multiple eartip options.
Cons: Not for those seeking big bass sound. No inline remote.
Bottom Line: The Etymotic ER3 XR earphones offer a near-perfect blend of accuracy and slightly extended bass response.
Pros: Strong audio performance. Quality active noise cancellation. Secure in-ear fit. Hands-free Siri access. Wireless charging case. Splash-resistant build.
Cons: Expensive. No on-ear volume controls. ANC and EQ aren’t adjustable.
Bottom Line: Apple’s true wireless AirPods Pro earphones are vastly superior to the standard model, with solid noise cancellation, quality audio performance, and a far better in-ear fit that justifies the extra cost.
Pros: Powerful audio with thunderous bass and bright high. Excellent in-app EQ. Waterproof, dust-resistant design. Super-secure in-ear fit.
Cons: Expensive. Sculpted sound signature might be too much for some.
Bottom Line: Jabra’s Elite Active 75t earphones improve upon the original pair with a more secure fit and a waterproof design for a real true wireless winner.
Pros: Powerful audio performance that is completely customizable using the app’s EQ. Excellent in-ear fit. Waterproof.
Cons: Short, proprietary charging cable.
Bottom Line: The wireless, exercise-focused Jaybird X4 earphones are supremely versatile, delivering booming bass or balanced audio depending on your EQ preferences.
Pros: Powerful bass-forward but balanced audio performance. Solid mic clarity. Strong battery life. Waterproof. Includes one year premium membership to MapMyRun.
Cons: Cuts off beginnings of newly navigated-to tracks and phone prompts. Minor hiss at low volumes.
Bottom Line: The JBL UA True Wireless Flash earbuds deliver strong audio performance and excellent exercise-focused features.
Pros: Nice array of eartips. Includes swappable tuning filters to increase treble or bass. Detachable earpieces can be used wirelessly or with included cable for passive, wired listening.
Cons: Expensive. Included cable lacks remote or mic.
Bottom Line: The RHA T20 Wireless is a terrific pair of Bluetooth earphones for anyone seeking accurate audio and an excellent in-ear fit.
Pros: Hands-free Alexa voice control. Good active noise reduction. Clear, balanced sound. Comfortable fit.
Cons: Somewhat weak lows and highs. Limited controls. Not waterproof.
Bottom Line: Amazon’s Echo Buds are wire-free earphones with a lot of functionality for $130, including hands-free Alexa voice control and Bose-tuned active noise reduction.
Pros: Powerful audio performance with intense bass depth and bright highs. Strong battery life. Exceptionally secure in-ear fit.
Cons: Expensive. Wildly sculpted sound signature. Auto-play feature isn’t for everyone.
Bottom Line: A secure fit, easy operation, and a bass-forward sound signature make the Powerbeats Pro ideal true wireless earphones for Beats fans.
Pros: Strong audio performance with rich bass and detailed highs. Excellent mic clarity. Secure in-ear fit.
Cons: Not for those seeking booming bass. Design isn’t ideal for exercise.
Bottom Line: Beyerdynamic’s Soul Byrd earphones deliver quality audio in an increasingly rare wired in-ear design.
Pros: Strong audio performance with boosted bass and crisp highs. App features user-adjustable EQ. IPX7 waterproof. Secure fit for exercise.
Cons: Limited on-ear controls.
Bottom Line: The Jaybird Vista true wireless earphones deliver powerful audio performance in a waterproof, gym-friendly build with EQ you can adjust to taste.