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IEMs or Earbuds? Discover 9 Distinct Differences

Deciding on a new pair of in-ear headphones can be surprisingly daunting, perhaps rightfully so. Getting the right pair will bring you closer to the music you enjoy, while the wrong pair could be uncomfortable, noisy, and a waste of money. Recently, you’ve heard more about in-ear monitors (IEMs), and they sound promising, but are they truly better than regular earbuds?

Although earbuds and IEMs are essentially in-ear headphones, they are made for and marketed toward entirely different functions. Earbuds are made for everyday casual listeners while IEMs were initially made for stage performers and offer incredibly high-quality audio.

Now, before you think that IEMs are the obvious right choice because of their high sound quality, that isn’t necessarily the case. First, you must understand that there are pros and cons to IEMs and earbuds and that those factors will determine the best pick for you.

The Main Differences Between IEMs And Earbuds

The similarities between IEMs and earbuds are reasonably evident in that they are both devices that deliver audio into the ear canal. But that is about where their similarities end, so to make the best choice, you must understand their differences.

In-Ear Monitors Were Made For Stage Performers

Suppose you have ever played music on a stage. In that case, you have likely experienced the frustration of hearing yourself in the mashed-up sound mix of the stage monitors. These monitors are basically just speakers pointed at the stage rather than the crowd.

Trying to figure out if you’re hitting the right chords while standing next to the drummer, only hearing the vocalist in the monitor while drowned out by the crowd noise, can feel like a silly undertaking.

Enter in-ear monitors, which, as their name suggests, move the monitor speaker from the stage floor to the inside of your ear.

Using IEMs, performers could suddenly have a completely custom sound mix, isolated from ambient stage and crowd noise. Don’t like the vocalist’s tone? Fine, turn them down. Need to hear more of the bass guitar? Just turn it up.

Because IEMs were originally made for this specific purpose, they are designed with three primary focal points: sound quality, comfort, and noise cancellation. And these focal points have a noticeable impact on designs, such as connectivity.

Earbuds Were Made For Convenience

You could say that IEMs were initially made for a relatively niche market, but that is almost the opposite case for earbuds. The modern earbud has been a gradual evolution that can be traced back to the days of the Walkman.

Those of us old enough to remember the thrill of being able to carry your favorite music in your pocket. Today, smartphones have entirely replaced the Walkman, and the earbuds have become their inseparable companion.

So, while there are earbuds that offer surprisingly excellent audio quality, their focus is often more on features that integrate with the convenience of a smartphone as opposed to purely audiophile satisfaction.

In-Ear Monitors Aren’t Wireless

The first and most obvious design choice is that IEMs aren’t wireless. While Bluetooth is extremely convenient, it is well known to compress audio to the point of quality loss. This loss of quality may not be evident to the average listener, but audiophiles will be able to tell. Or at least claim that they can tell.

But this design choice goes back to the primary purpose of IEMs. As soon as you start isolating specific instruments or sounds, you need high sound quality, or you can lose bits of the other instruments due to the compression.

On the other hand, except for a few exceptions, earbuds are almost exclusively wireless, which isn’t bad. Remember that the focus here is convenience, and there are few things as inconvenient as sitting on the subway, diligently untangling the cobweb of earbud wires.

The loss in quality due to Bluetooth compression is also not such an important factor if you understand the context in which earbuds are generally used, which is often on the go. Just remember to make sure they’re charged, or you will be sitting in silence.

That’s not to say that you can’t have some form of wireless connection with IEMs. For example, if your smartphone doesn’t have a headphone jack, you can buy a Bluetooth audio DAC, which you can then use to connect the IEMs to your phone.

The downside is that you now have another gadget you must remember to carry around if you want to listen to music with your smartphone.

Earbuds Have Microphones

One feature you will not find on a pair of IEMs is a microphone, which means that if you need something to make calls with and listen to music, you should probably lean toward earbuds. This also potentially makes earbuds the better choice for online or multiplayer gaming.

That said, various after-market options are available for IEM microphones, like replacement cables that incorporate a microphone. Obviously, you would have to consider the added cost of these after-market bits and whether the new cable will deliver the same audio quality as the stock option.

IEMs Use Passive Noise Cancellation

One of the critical features of IEMs is their ability to cancel out surrounding ambient noise. And the way they achieve this is passively through their snug fit. Typical IEMs come standard with an array of customizable fittings and earbuds to ensure you get as comfortable and tight a seal as possible.

In fact, many live performers opt to purchase custom IEMs that are molded to fit their individual ears perfectly.

This passive noise cancellation is fantastic if you are sitting at home and listening to music, playing music on a stage, or even if you are gaming. It increases your engagement and immersion in the audio and means that you don’t have to turn up the volume to drown out the noise. Which could protect your hearing in the long run.

But there are some important downsides to passive noise cancellation because there are several circumstances where you absolutely need to be able to hear ambient noise.

For example, if you listen to music at work, you rarely want to drown out ambient noise and risk not hearing your boss call you or not hearing your phone ring, etc.

More importantly, if you are walking, riding the subway, or even sitting at a restaurant, you shouldn’t completely cut out all ambient noise. Doing so limits your situational awareness, and then you risk getting hit by a wayward car or, heaven forbid, being robbed. Hearing what goes on around you is just good practice for staying safe.

Some Earbuds Use Active Noise Cancellation

A nice feature of some higher-end earbuds is that instead of having passive noise cancellation that you can never turn off, you have the option of active noise cancellation. This works by listening to pervasive ambient frequencies and actively canceling them in your ear.

This means that if you are at home, gaming, you can turn the noise cancellation on to immerse yourself but turn it off while you are at work to still hear your coworkers.

In addition to noise cancellation, many earbuds have added features like activating voice commands on your phone.

IEMs Typically Aren’t Waterproof

If you consider the primary use cases for IEMs, you shouldn’t be surprised that they aren’t typically waterproof. Sure, they can handle the average sweaty drummer. Still, they aren’t made for the studio that recorded “Under The Sea” in the literal sense.

However, earbuds being made more for daily life, especially higher-end earbuds, are at least splash-resistant and often water-resistant enough to handle the rain or an accidental pool drop.

IEMs Have More Than One Driver

Have you ever looked at a hi-fi speaker unit and wondered why there is more than one speaker or driver in the unit? The reason is simply to have a separate driver for each band range. For example, it’s common to see at least three drivers: one for the bass, one for the treble, and the last for the mids.

These ranges are best suited for different-sized drivers, with bass requiring a larger surface area driver and the smallest treble. So, splitting the various ranges between drivers makes a massive difference in sound quality.

Apart from entry-level options, most IEMs use at least these three drivers, and some professional units sport upwards of 18 drivers.

That said, multiple drivers are becoming increasingly commonplace in earbuds, but in some instances, this is clever marketing more than actual focus on audio quality.

IEMs Are Expensive

Because IEMs use high-quality audio components designed for a more specialized market, they are typically more expensive than Earbuds. While there are some decent options at around $80, we can expect to pay upwards of $100 for average IEMs and upwards of $ 1,000 for a good pair.

That price tag becomes even harder to swallow if you compare it against questionably priced earbuds like the Air Pods Pro that sell for around $249.

Conclusion: Should You Get IEMs Or Earbuds?

Deciding on which one to get will depend on your specific needs. Unless you require high-fidelity audio quality delivered by IEMs and are willing to pay the price tag, there is very little benefit to getting them.

Instead, you can opt for a good pair of life-proof earbuds that offer decent sound quality and many features, like Bluetooth, waterproof, and a microphone, to make your daily life a little easier.