Let’s talk a bit about the difference between earphones vs headphones, so that we’re all on the same page.
Earphones: Here, the term “earphone” is used to refer to devices which are supposed to be worn within the pinna (that’s the fancy term for the section of the ear you can really see). These are also known as “earbuds,” “buds,” or “in-ears”.
Headphones: This term will refer to devices that aren’t supposed to rest in the pinna, whether they move around or on top of the ear. These are also known as “earphones.”
Now the various things about each to consider…
Frequency response curve
How much is sound distorted? This desirable feature is commonly known as a “flat” frequency response. That means that the signal you are getting out is pretty much the exact same one that has been fed in, at all frequency ranges.
Earphones: In general, earphones have a tendency to have a worse frequency response.
Headphones: Generally speaking, headphones tend to have better frequency response.
Winner: Headphones are most likely the better choice if distortion is what you’re worried about the most. You should read the specs of the device you are considering, however, as there’s a large amount of variability.
What is their pitch range? This term can be used to refer to the frequency response curve I talked about above and occasionally used to refer to pitch range. I know, I know, it is confusing. Pitch range is generally expressed as the lowest sound that can be transmitted followed by the highest sound that can be transmitted. Pretty much everything on the market today can play anything between 20 and 20k Hz.
Earphones: Earphones typically have a smaller pitch range than headphones. Naturally, there are always exceptions.
Headphones: Headphones tend to get a better frequency range than earphones.
Winner: In general, headphones have a better frequency range. That said, it is not really that big of a deal. You can’t actually hear very high or very low sounds that well due to the way that your hearing system works regardless of how well your ‘phones are delivering the signal. Anything that plays sounds involving 20Htz and 20,000Htz should suit you just fine.
This is a measure of how well noise is isolated sounds other than the ones you’re trying to listen to. More noise isolation is usually better, unless there is some reason you need to have the ability to hear environmental sounds as well whatever you’re listening to. Better isolation also means you are not as likely to bother other people with your music. A properly fitted set of in-ear earphones will give you the best noise isolation. It makes sense; if you’re wearing them properly, they should actually form a complete seal with your ear canal. No noise in, no sound out, excellent isolation. Because of this, you’re going to get some sound leakage.
Winner: The best noise isolation will come from well-fitting earphones that sit in the ear canal.
How are ambient sounds corrected for? Noise cancellation is actually completely different from noise isolation. Noise isolation is something which all ‘phones have. Noise-cancelling headsets, do additional signal processing before the sound is produced and sent to your ears. That is, these devices “listen” for atmospheric sounds, like an air-conditioner or a vehicle engine. When they play with the inverted waveform along with your music, it just cancels out the sound. While this is awesome and futuristic, it isn’t perfect. They only really work with steady background sounds. If someone drops a novel, they will not be able to cancel out a sudden, sharp noise. They also don’t work as well with high-pitched noises.
Earphones: Noise-cancelling earphones tend not be as effective as noise-cancelling headphones until you reach the high end of the market (think $200 plus).
Headphones: Headphones tend to be marginally better at noise cancellation compared to the earphones of a comparable quality, in my experience. This is due in part to more room for electronics being available in the over-the-ear products.
Winner: Headphones usually have a small edge here. Naturally, really expensive noise-cancelling apparatus, whether headphones or earphones, usually perform better than their bargain cousins.
Earphones: Now to the main problem with in-ear phones. There’s quite a lot of variation in the form of the cavum conchae, that is the tiny bowl shape just out of your ear canal. Earphone manufacturers have to have somewhere to place their magnets and drivers and driver support gear, and it typically winds up in the “head” of the earphone, placed directly in your concha cavum. This is awesome if it is a shape that fits your ear. If it is not, though, it can quickly begin to become irritating and finally ultimately painful. This is the main reason a lot of people prefer over-ear headsets.
Headphones: A well-fitted pair of over-ear headphones that covers your whole ear is just incredibly comfortable. There are other aspects to take into account; wearing headphones and glasses with a thick frame can become very uncomfortable very fast.
Winner: It depends! Headphones are the clear winner all around for some, but each person will have their own situation and needs to consider. There are instances where earphones are preferable, though. They’re wonderful for travel and for sleep if you’re a side sleeper, or if an isolated signal is needed. When I’m just sitting at my desk working, however, I reach for headphones 99 percent of the moment.