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.
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 are more expensive than conventional wireless earphones, but if that wire running between the earpieces is a constant nuisance for you, it could be a worthy purchase.
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.
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 list of The Best Headphones 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: Exceptionally accurate mids and highs coupled with rich, full bass response. Detachable, high-quality cable. Plethora of eartip options in various sizes and styles. Ships with several accessories, including zip-up case.
Cons: No inline remote control or mic.
Bottom Line: The stunning Etymotic ER4 XR earphones deliver the sonic accuracy sound professionals need, and add some subtle depth in the lows to complement modern mixes.
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: Affordable. Handsome design with quality materials and a decent array of included accessories. Clear mic intelligibility.
Cons: Remote control has single button. Mids are scooped out a bit.
Bottom Line: The $30 RHA MA390 Universal earphones outperform more expensive options in both design and audio performance.
Pros: Excellent audio performance. Super-secure in-ear fit, with some passive noise reduction. Removable/replaceable audio cable.
Cons: No extra cable included. Mediocre mic quality.
Bottom Line: The Shure SE215 Wireless earphones offers some of the best in-ear Bluetooth audio performance available under $200.
Pros: Powerful audio performance with boosted bass response. Exceptionally secure fit. Water-resistant design. Simple, easy-to-use on-ear controls. App simplifies pairing process.
Cons: Expensive. Very sculpted sound signature.
Bottom Line: The bass-forward Bose SoundSport Free earphones are expensive, but nail the design and operational details right better than any other pair in the growing wire-free category.
Pros: Powerful bass response matched with sculpted, bright highs. Easy to use heart rate monitor gives live results, can also sync with popular fitness apps. Sweatproof design.
Cons: Audio performance not for those seeking accurate mix. Extra secure fit might feel a tad uncomfortable/invasive for some users.
Bottom Line: The JBL Reflect Fit delivers Bluetooth audio with intense bass depth and bright highs-along with a built-in heart rate monitor.
Pros: Powerful bass response. Nice charging case. best battery life in category.
Cons: Bass-forward sound signature not for purists.
Bottom Line: The JLab Epic Air headphones deliver strong bass response, a gym-friendly build, and the best battery life we’ve seen in a truly wireless design.
Pros: Very affordable. Powerful bass response matched with sculpted highs.
Cons: Not for purists seeking accurate frequency response. No inline volume controls.
Bottom Line: Bluetooth earphones don’t get much more affordable than the Skullcandy Jib Wireless, which packs a strong bass punch for the price.
Pros: Strong audio performance with rich bass depth and bright highs. Solid mic clarity. Water-resistant design. Ships with generous array of eartips.
Cons: Cable slack can get in the way. Not the strongest design for exercise.
Bottom Line: The RHA MA650 Wireless earphones deliver rich bass and bright, sculpted highs with a solid balance between the two.