There are many different terms used to describe all the various types of in-ear listening devices. You’ve probably heard several terms such as earbuds, earphones, in-ear headphones, and in-ear monitors. However, you may not be sure what the differences are between all of them. Let’s take an in-depth look at each of these terms and see how they differ.



iPod Earbuds

This is the term that is most commonly used. Technically, “earbuds” are the types of listening devices that sit at the entrance of the ear canal but do not actually go inside. Rather, they have a flat or slightly convex surface where the sound comes out so the bud can rest up against the entrance to the ear canal. The original iPod earbuds are a good example of this style (pictured on right).

Because earbuds do not actually go inside the ear canal to form an air-tight seal, they do not really offer much noise blockage or sound isolation. However, it should be noted that not all earbuds have a completely flat listening surface. Some models are designed to protrude slightly into the entrance of the ear canal without actually going in and forming a seal. Bose’s IE2’s and Apple’s more recent Earpods are both good examples of this design. This style of earbud has a slight advantage over the flat-surfaced models because it allows the sound to seem slightly closer and provides a small amount of sound isolation.

Earbuds are usually found on the cheaper end of the spectrum of personal listening devices. There are some higher quality and more expensive earbuds out there, but for true high-quality audio you’ll want to look into a good pair of in-ear headphones.


In-Ear Headphones/Earphones:

Monster Turbine“In-ear headphones” and “earphones” are basically the same thing. These are the types of listening devices that actually get inserted into the ear canal. A complete seal must be formed around the tip of the earphone to isolate the sound and block out noise.

The true sound quality of the earphones will not be able to come through if they are not sealed off from the outside. Therefore, these types of listening devices usually comes with different sized tips made out of silicon, rubber, or foam to help create a comfortable yet complete seal within the ear canal. The Monster Turbines are a popular example of this style (pictured on right).

In-ear headphones are best suited for listening situations where sound quality and noise blockage are important factors. Because they form a seal within the ear canal, they are much better at blocking out noise than regular earbuds. They are also able to provide much better sound quality because they create their own closed-off sound environment within the ear.

There are several manufacturers who produce cheap in-ear headphones that are just as affordable as earbuds, but a high quality pair of in-ear headphones will usually be significantly more expensive than even the best earbuds that are available. This is because earbuds generally can’t provide the level of sound quality, noise blockage, and stability that in-ear headphones are capable of.

If you want to go one step above in-ear headphones and move up to the highest quality that is available, consider purchasing a pair of professional in-ear monitors.


In-Ear Monitors:

In-ear monitors are essentially the same as in-ear headphones or earphones. They have some slight differences, but the main reason they have a different name is because they have a different intended use. Products labeled as “in-ear monitors” are primarily designed to be used as reference monitors by musicians during live performances. The term “monitor” is used because these devices take the place of traditional wedge monitors (the speakers that sit on the stage facing the musicians allowing them to monitor their own performance).

The reason they are called monitors instead of just speakers is because they are used to monitor an interactive process. For example, your computer monitor is actually just another type of TV, but it’s called a computer monitor instead of a TV because you use it to “monitor” your interaction with your computer, as opposed to just passively watching it.

Westone 4Like earphones, in-ear monitors are designed to go into the ear canal and form a complete seal which blocks out noise and isolates the sound. Most consumer-level earphones are “universal fit”, meaning the earpiece is made to fit the general shape of the outer ear, and various sized tips are provided to help get a comfortable fit within the ear canal. The Westone 4’s (pictured on right) are a good example of a popular universal fit model.

Many in-ear monitors are universal fit, but the most expensive ones are designed to be used with custom molded earpieces. To get custom molded in-ear monitors, you would have to visit a qualified audiologist who would take a mold of the shape of your ear and send it to the manufacturer, who would then use that mold as the template to create your own custom earpieces.

Even though in-ear monitors are designed for live performances, they are also favored for regular, passive listening because they still offer the best possible sound quality and comfort.



As you can see, there are several different names used to describe a variety of similar products. However, the term “earbuds” is generally used as an umbrella term to cover to any of these particular devices. On this website for example, the word “earbud” is often used as a general term in reference to a product that may technically be an earphone, in-ear monitor, or something else.

Generic terms like this are useful for simplifying communication. But, now that you know the differences and the proper terminology, you will be better able to identify which specific product type you’re looking for that will best suit your needs. To begin exploring some of the different types of earbuds, click here to visit our reviews section.



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