Many people ask the question, “What is the difference between IEM Vs Earbuds?” To answer this question we first need to understand what each term means. Earbuds are a type of headphone that sit on top of your ears and will only cover one side at a time. In-ear monitors (or IEMs) are also headphones but they go inside your ear canal and provide an unparalleled listening experience with superior sound isolation from outside noise.
Earbuds are good for portability, but don’t offer much protection against outside noise or hearing damage due to their lack of acoustic seal. On the other hand, IEMs can provide excellent sound quality even without high power output because they have better acoustic seal than.
IEM Vs Earbuds – What Is The Difference? How to Choose?
1. Noise Isolation – IEM is better
Just like how the name implies, noise isolation blocks out surrounding noises. This is very important when you are listening to music on your mp3 player or smartphone (etc). If you want to play your favourite song as loud as possible without being disturbed by people around you then noise isolation will be a major factor that you should consider before making a purchase. As with earbuds, there are good and bad ones among both in-ear monitors and earphones. It all boils down to the design of the nozzle tip which allows air flow into the inner ears while blocking out surrounding sounds. Noise Isolation can be described as:
So for example, if an earphone has a high noise isolation (sup. isolations) then it means even if you are in an air-conditioned room (where there is no sound), the music will still sound very loud to you compared to other earphones with lower noise isolation levels. This makes IEMs perfect for listening to music when in noisy environments like bus, train or plane rides etc. With the added advantage of noise isolation, Bluetooth headphones become almost obsolete (but they have their own purposes).
Anyhow, don’t be fooled when reading specs because some companies are deceptive and may show false specifications just to mislead consumers. It is only after you try out your new purchase that you will know whether it was worth making a purchase or not. For example, earlier this year (2015), I picked up a set of Vsonic GR06 Bass Edition Plus (sup. isolations) earphones when I was having a nap in the afternoon at an MRT station and they were really good! They were so sleep-inducing that I had to force myself to snap out of it and make my way home 🙂 Every company has its own way of showing noise isolation but very few actually state how high their isolation level is. Just google search “noise isolation” or “sup. isolations” for more information and you will get plenty links for comparison reasons.
Experiment with different songs/genres to see which ones sound louder after inserting your favourite headphones into your ears – this should give you a rough idea on how well the noise isolation is. Also take note that, if you are using a pair of IEMs on a commuter train or bus ride, you still have to be mindful of the environment outside your little ear bubbles because there can always be someone talking loudly etc so it won’t be fully noise-isolated.
NC = Noise Cancelling
SLC = Sound Leakage Control (IEM with lower SLC rating means louder music when not isolating)
SBC = Sound Barrier Compression (this helps in increasing sound isolation – choose wisely)
2. Volume – IEMs are louder than earbuds
If you want to listen to music as loud as possible then go for in-ear monitors. This is because IEMs can produce higher volume levels compared to earbuds. Some people may argue that there is no point having your headphone volume at 200% or 300%, it will only damage your hearing over time, but how many times do we get the chance to experience high volumes? These people also have their own purpose too – DJs and audiophiles. There are even some DJ headphones that allow users to reach up to 100 db of sound and these units can be customized according to a club’s specifications! (not sure if all manufacturers offer this service) Just like with noise isolation and sound leakage, volume output is determined by the driver and driver size too. Some manufacturers may show higher volume levels in their specifications but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is automatically better than lower specs.
It’s really up to you as a consumer to decide on what sounds right for you because no one knows your ears better than yourself, so don’t be afraid to experiment! As I mentioned above, if the headphone has wide soundstage or imaging then this will help in producing louder volumes compared to something more closed sounding like an S-Logic headphone. Many people are caught off guard when they listen to high impedance headphones (250 ohm) for the first time because they get this intense “whoosh” sound/feeling like a wave inside their head. With lower impedance (less than 50 ohm), the volume output is louder, but clear and detailed sound signature will not be as good. This may lead you to think that low impedance headphones can produce a better sound overall but this is only true if the other specifications are matching i.e. drivers, etc.
3. Sound Quality – which one sounds better?
Okay so here comes the fun part! Yes, sound quality is subjective and objective all at once but we can still compare different characteristics between IEMs and earbuds to help in making our choice on what sounds better for us! For example, if someone claims that a particular pair of IEMs/headphones is more enjoyable to listen to than the other, it isn’t 100% true because we all have different preferences. This is where comparison comes in!
Looking at frequency response curve (FR) will not tell us if a particular headphone sounds better than the other but it still helps to compare different headphones and/or drivers within the same IEMs/headphones. The FR of earbuds typically goes from 20 Hz to 20KHz while that of IEMs vary between 10-20+ kHz. If you look further into an FR chart you can see peaks and dips on the right side of the graph which shows how specific frequencies are emphasized or de-emphasized for your listening pleasure. Some say that bass rolls off after 8-10kHz but looking at my FR chart below that is way off because the bass still goes up to 500 Hz and above!
4. Driver Composition – Passenger or Monoblock?
Passenger : these are standard multi-driver earbuds or IEMs where each individual driver does its own job by covering one certain frequency range. These usually have a crossover inside the cable so this is why people believe that they sound better compared to monoblock drivers. The problem with crossovers is that they do not equalize frequencies well due to different impedances of each driver, for example: if there’s a subwoofer in your car, it has lower impedance than other speakers and sometimes the stereo will clip when you try to play bass heavy music because the stereo itself can’t handle the bass. I have tried both DriverCom and Equalizer APO by XHiFiMan (free on Android) and found that they do a really good job in frequency adjusting!
Driver Composition vs Monoblock
Monoblock : these headphones are more expensive than passenger models because each driver covers the entire frequency range, which is from 20 Hz to >20kHz. This means that there are no crossovers inside the headphone’s cable and usually it takes one less PCB board for drivers compared to 2-way/3-way/4-way systems inside earbuds or multi-driver units. Monoblock drivers sound better than passengers but this isn’t always true because there are many factors including impedance.
8mm vs 6.5mm
Passenger Type : Each driver has its own magnet, voice coil, basket and diaphragm which means that it’s harder to get each driver sounding differently i.e like earbuds where there is only one driver per side. Some manufacturers have better technology than others but in general passengers are less costly to produce compared to monoblocks so this is why they’re usually the first choice for IEMs/headphones (not necessarily). Monoblock Drivers : As mentioned above these drivers only cover one frequency range and each driver will be on a different PCB board with matching impedance such as 32ohm or 50ohm etc. This allows producers to customize sound signatures more easily without having to worry about producing multiple drivers for different frequency ranges. This also means that it’s easier to make headphones with exact sound signatures (i.e Audio Technica AT-H2 or H3) because each driver is on the same PCB board and is connected to one another via a copper ribbon inside the cable which you can find out by looking at the IEMs/headphones itself. This is also why we see less distortion in monoblock headphones compared to passengers but if there are two drivers in one side, we still experience some distortion due to crossovers inside cables but that’s better than having passengers i.e MEElectronics A151 vs Final E3000 .
5. Comfort – how do they feel?
For multi-drivers, typically earbuds are lightweight since the cable is short but if you have IEMs with a long cable or even a hanging one then that means that it’s heavier because there are more stuff inside (the reason why some multi-driver headphones aren’t very light).
The Y-splitter of these 3.5mm cables actually adds weight and for example: the M50x has an 8.7′ cable while the M100x has a 10.2′ cable which will add a bit more weight compared to stock cables on other brands such as KZ ATE . This also means that you can buy longer cables for your IEM/headphones from other manufacturers like 1MORE , JVC etc.
6. Other Definitions – what do we call this technology?
IEM = In Ear Monitor/Headphone – these are made so that you can just put them inside your ear canal without any other attachments.
Earbuds = Stick-type headphones – have no other attachments and the only way to wear them is to stick it into your ears just like regular earphones but they usually sound worse than IEMs (though this isn’t always the case) because of portability. These are also called Eartips or Earphones and they fall under two major categories:
Passenger Type : When there’s a driver for each side in one housing and when they’re separated from each other, it’s easier to make a lower impedance with higher sensitivity (i.e KZ ATE) and also easier to make a higher impedance with lower sensitivity (i.e Noble 5). This means that you can use the same earbuds from 20~80 ohm if they have passengers because each driver has its own voice coil but this isn’t always true for monoblocks such as the M-Duo by Audio Technica where there’s one common voice coil for both drivers so if one driver is producing 10kHz then the other is producing 3kHz which means that your ear drum will be exposed to more pressure even though they’re working at half power (5V instead of 10V, twice 2 = 4 times voltage).
Monoblock : When both drivers are in one housing with one magnet assembly, it’s easier to make an earbud with a higher impedance because they don’t need to be separated from each other. This means that it’s easier for them to produce high sensitivity earbuds (i.e KZ ED9) while 1MORE Triple Driver only has 120mW of power but are one of the better sounding earbuds on the market today because of their low impedance so you get more power out of your source device compared to portables such as Final E3000 which have a higher impedance and require more voltage from whatever you’re using so if you’re using a phone or FiiO X1 , these won’t be as loud as ED9s even though they have 8 times the power output.
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