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In-ear monitors vs earbuds: which one is better? These devices might seem similar at first glance, but they have a lot of differences regarding things such as sound quality, noise cancelation features, and price.
While both can be used in similar settings, deciding which one is better will depend on your particular use case and what you expect from the device.
Table of Contents
- IEMs (In-Ear Monitors) vs Earbuds: Which One is Better?
- What are IEMs (In-Ear Monitors)?
- What are Earbuds?
- IEMs (In-Ear Monitors) vs Earbuds – Main Differences
- Frequently Asked Questions
IEMs (In-Ear Monitors) vs Earbuds: Which One is Better?
While in-ear monitors are better for musicians and audiophiles thanks to their sound quality, earbuds are a more reasonable choice if you’re looking for convenience, portability, and features such as Bluetooth connectivity.
What are IEMs (In-Ear Monitors)?
In-ear monitors are monitoring devices primarily designed for musicians to hear themselves and the band more accurately in live concerts. Since stages are pretty noisy, these monitors often feature state-of-the-art noise cancelation technologies and superior sound quality if compared to earbuds.
While in-ear monitors are designed with musicians and audio engineers in mind, many audiophiles swear by them for casual music listening thanks to their high-quality components, which translates to more accurate reproduction of your songs.
There are a few disadvantages though: IEMs tend to be less versatile than earbuds for routine usage, often not featuring things such as Bluetooth connectivity.
Examples of IEMs
1. Linsoul KZ ZS10 Pro
These in-ear monitors serve as an example that you can find IEMs on a budget, priced at $40 by the time this article was written.
The KZ ZS10 Pro is designed to adapt to your ear shape, and has features such as a detachable cable, a sturdy design made with a stainless steel faceplate, high-quality drivers, and a surprisingly good sound quality for the price.
2. BASN MMCX
On the higher-end side, we have the BASN MMCX. Priced at around $100, these in-ear monitors can be used both by musicians and audiophiles.
One of the flagship features of the BASN MMCX is its triple drivers, which offer a better bass performance and a richer experience overall. It also comes with 12 pairs of ear tips of different sizes, meaning you will most likely find one that better suits your ear shape.
What are Earbuds?
Earbuds are small headphones designed for portability and daily usage. They are quite popular with the average consumer due to their convenience and low price.
The biggest advantage of earbuds is that they can be used anywhere without much hassle: in the office, in the gym, on the plane, etc. Often offering features such as Bluetooth connectivity, you can easily connect them to your smartphone and enjoy your music.
While earbuds have come a long way and we have a lot of high-quality pairs in the market nowadays, they still don’t offer the same experience as in-ear monitors if you plan on using them in professional settings, such as in the stage as a musician.
Examples of Earbuds
1. Soundcore by Anker P20i
The Anker P20i features 2 built-in mics as well, for taking calls. This is a convenient feature you will hardly find on in-ear monitors.
2. Sony WF-1000XM5
The Sony WF-1000XM5 is proof that you can find earbuds with audiophile-grade sound quality. While this model is on the more expensive side, they definitely offer a high-level listening experience.
These earbuds have many convenience-related features as well, such as a portable design, AI-based noise reduction for calls, noise cancelation technology, and water resistance.
Also Read: Westone B50 Review.
IEMs (In-Ear Monitors) vs Earbuds – Main Differences
As you can see, there are in fact many differences between in-ear monitors and earbuds, and it is important that you keep them in mind in order to find the best option for your use case.
Below, we will list all the main features you will find in IEMs and earbuds.
Since in-ear monitors are designed for usage in professional settings, they often have better components, which translates to better sound quality and more accurate and transparent sound reproduction.
That isn’t to say that earbuds don’t have the same sound quality: you can easily find earbuds that are designed for audiophiles as well.
There is also a subjective difference between IEMs and earbuds: while IEMs have a flatter frequency response, they might sound dull or boring for casual usage. Earbuds have their frequency response tailored to give you a more listening exciting experience in exchange for fidelity.
For example, earbuds such as Beats have an emphasized bass presence that can color the sound in a pleasant way and is praised by many people, especially fans of music genres such as rap and hip hop. That’s why sometimes the sound quality is subjective.
Of course, the sound quality of a device will largely vary depending on its price and components, so we can’t give it for granted that an IEM will always sound more accurate than a pair of earbuds.
A high-end pair of earbuds, for example, will probably sound better than a budget pair of in-ear monitors.
Since concerts and live stages are noisy, in-ear monitors are designed to seal your ear canal completely. They often come with a wide range of ear tips in different sizes made with materials that mold to your own ear shape over time. This technology is called passive noise cancelation.
Some companies even offer custom-fit in-ear monitors, tailored to fit your ear shape perfectly, which greatly enhances the passive noise cancelation effect.
There’s a caveat, though: the powerful noise cancelation IEMs provide might be a problem if you’re in a situation where you need to hear the environment around you for safety, such as the gym.
Earbuds, on the other hand, won’t provide you with the same passive noise cancelation level as IEMs. However, some earbuds have a technology called active noise cancellation, which is not found in most in-ear monitors.
Active noise cancelation is a technology that picks up the noise from the environment around you and suppresses it artificially. This feature tends to work quite well and is nowadays present even in some budget earbuds.
Volume and Power
In-ear monitors tend to provide more volume and power to the user since their components are tailored for that and these devices are often used in noisy situations such as live concerts.
While IEMs can sound louder, they have a big advantage compared to earbuds: the passive noise cancelation provided by these devices means you won’t have to turn the volume up too much to hear your music clearly, meaning its safer and healthier to your hearing in the long term.
Even with earbuds that feature active noise cancelation, what often happens is that, in noisy environments, you end up needing to turn up the volume way too much for a better experience, and this can cause hearing problems in the long run.
Driver and other Components
By far, in-ear monitors tend to have better components. This is quite apparent when you do some research and notice that IEMs tend to have a more technical product description, often stating which drivers and components are used in the product.
The better-quality components present in in-ear monitors translate to longer durability as well: with features such as sturdy head plates and detachable cables, IEMs can last you a lifetime.
The driver and the components found in most earbuds are consumer-grade, and will largely depend on the value of the device as well. Products on the higher end of the market are, naturally, made with better and much more durable components.
Its oftentimes difficult, however, to know which components are inside a pair of earbuds, since companies tend not to disclose that information to the public, so it ends up being a matter of trying and testing different devices.
Comfort and Convenience
When we talk about comfort, there are many factors that come into play: it can be both related to how the device fits your ears, or it can be related to factors such as convenience and features such as wireless connectivity.
In terms of fit, in-ear monitors take the prize. These devices are designed for long sessions and to fit your ears perfectly. The previously mentioned BASN MMCX, for example, comes with 12 ear tips in different sizes and shapes so you can find the most comfortable one for you.
Nothing beats, however, the comfort of a pair of in-ear monitors designed to the shape of your ears. These can be very expensive, though.
Earbuds, on the other side, are mass-produced and designed to provide an ok fit for most people. Some come with a set of ear tips but are much less customizable if compared to IEMs.
Regarding convenience, earbuds take the lead, since most of them have features such as Bluetooth connectivity, built-in mics, and portability that you won’t find in most in-ear monitors.
The price range for both IEMs and earbuds is pretty wide since there are many options on the market. In our research, the cheapest in-ear monitor we could find was priced at $18.99. Earbuds can be found for as low as $10 (even less in some cases).
On the higher end, IEMs can reach a couple of hundred dollars, especially if you pick a custom piece, but most devices are priced in the $50 to $200 range.
Medium-tier earbuds average lower: you can get a great pair for $30 to $40, but some such as the Apple AirPods can go for more than $100.
It is important to keep in mind that the price reflects the quality and the components used in the product. A cheaper pair of IEMs, for example, might not be as premium as a more expensive pair.
Is it worth it to invest in a cheap pair of earbuds/IEMs? Well, the answer depends. If you’re on a budget, the Linsoul KZ ZS10 Pro, for example, has a reasonable price and can definitely give you an above-than-average listening experience.
Finally, the main difference between IEMs and earbuds is that they are designed with different uses in mind.
In-ear monitors are excellent for use by musicians and music engineers in live stages and studios, while earbuds cater to the average consumer with their convenience and portability.
In the end, it all comes down to what you expect from the pair and your preferences. If sound quality and total noise isolation are a must, then IEMs sure can be used for casual music listening. If you’re ok with sacrificing a bit of sound quality for convenience, then earbuds are a better choice.
Check out our article on ‘Dynamic Drivers vs Balanced Armature Drivers‘.
Frequently Asked Questions
In our research, we only found one option in the market: the MEE audio M6 PRO. It’s difficult to find IEMs with Bluetooth connectivity since this technology isn’t commonly used for monitoring in the world of professional audio.
IEMs can be used in the gym, but there are a few caveats. Since they provide total noise isolation, you won’t be able to keep yourself aware of your surroundings. Plus, most don’t feature Bluetooth connectivity, and dealing with a cable while you exercise might be a hassle.
It is not common to use earbuds in professional music settings such as live stages and music studios since they don’t provide the necessary audio fidelity and noise isolation for these tasks.
As you can see, there isn’t an objective answer to whether IEMs or earbuds are better, since these devices are designed with different usages in mind. While they are, to a certain point, interchangeable, it largely comes down to preference.
We always suggest if you have the opportunity, to try different models of IEMs and earbuds since this is the only surefire way to find the perfect match for you. If that’s not possible, online product reviews are a great source to base your purchase.
Thank you for reading this article. Make sure to check our lists and guides about IEMs and earbuds as well!
Since the time I got my first pair of headphones in 2012, I’ve been fascinated by these little gadgets that have the power to change our moods through our favorite music. Whether it was the cheap $5 earphones or the premium JBL headphones, I have played my favorite music on tons of different audio devices for all these years.
At AudioReputation, I test and review headphones of all kinds. From popular earbuds like the Airpods pro to the expensive HIFIMAN Susvara, I always perform a deep test and present my honest and unbiased opinion to my readers.