Sony earbud and headphone side by side on two different models for comparison

If you’re in the market for a new audio device but can’t decide between a headphone or earbud, this is the right place to get started. While you may have a general idea of what you’re looking for, it’s good to know all your options and the differences between devices before making your decision. I’ll go over everything you need to know about headphones vs earbuds so you can see which device is better for you or a loved one.

Everything you need to know about headphones

When it comes to audio, headphones offer you immersive sound quality for everything you listen to. You can experience the feeling of surround sound and tap into a complete audio range without bothering those around you. One of the benefits of headphones is great comfort for long listening sessions, and there are some models of headset you can use for a whole day without feeling any ear fatigue.

My favorite part about the latest headphones is the wide range of brands and features you can choose from. Some models offer noise cancelling, while others have full-day battery life. There are headphones at every price point, so you can choose headphones on sale and enjoy high quality audio while still maintaining your budget. Even entry-level headphones sound excellent thanks to the enclosed earcup design and audio-enhancing technology. 

On ear vs over ear headphones

Most headphones look a lot alike, so you might be surprised to know there are actually two versions that are quite common. The first style is on-ear headphones that rest just on top of the ear itself. In comparison, over-ear headphones fully enclose your ear inside the earcup. I’ve listed a few benefits and potential downsides to these two styles below.

On-Ear style headphone using Beats by Dre Solo3 as a visual example
Beats by Dre Solo3

On ear headphones

  • Are lighter and more compact for travel
  • Allow you to be more aware of your surroundings because they don’t fully cover your ears
  • Perfect for listening on the go, casual settings, and travelling

On ear headphones are a popular option for commuters and students, but you’ll want to keep in mind that the on ear design may become uncomfortable after hours of wear. They may also leak audio while you’re listening, so people may be able to hear what you do. That being said, some brands who offer on ear headphones do add extra cushion to reduce any potential discomfort and create a more immersive listening experience.

Example of Over-Ear headphones using the Sony WH-XB910N as a visual example
Sony WH-XB910N

Over-ear headphones

  • Design lets you make the most of noise cancellation and sound immersion
  • Very comfortable for long listening sessions
  • Perfect for focusing in busy environments, home use, commuting, or traveling

Over ear headphones have a design that fully encases your ear. As such, they may feel a bit large when you’re wearing them. The design also makes it a bit more difficult to be fully aware of outside noise. If you want to allow ambient noise be sure to choose a pair with adaptive noise cancellation.

Everything to know about earbuds and earphones

Thanks to the quick advancement of design, technology, and accessibility, earbuds and earphones have exploded in popularity. While most people may be used to the standard wired earbud, most products these days are true wireless. The best part of earbuds and earphones is their portability. They are great for outdoor environments and activities, but when wearing you’ll still be aware of your surroundings. They are also small in size so are easy to take off and put away when not needed, and they are both comfortable and stylish to wear.

Like headphones, there are two common types of earbuds or earphones. The first is a standard earbud. It is commonly made from plastic and sits outside of your ear canal. In-ear earphones are slightly different in that they rest fully inside the ear canal and can be custom-fitted using rubber inserts on the end of the device. The only real difference between earbuds vs earphones is the way they sit in the ear.

Raycon wireless in-ear wireless earphones on a white background
Raycon the Everyday Earbuds


  • Offer better sound isolation for that feeling of immersion
  • Have a customizable fit as they fit different ear tips
  • Some models sync with an app so you can use an equalizer to adjust sound for specific playlists
  • Perfect for sports as they fit snugly and won’t fall out

Most types of earphones include several different tips or ear wings you can use to customize the fit. Because they fit so snugly in your ear, you may not want to choose this option for younger children. They are designed to be immersive and may block outside sound just by design, so they can make it a bit difficult to hear what’s going on around you.

Apple AirPod 2nd generation fully wireless earbuds on a white background
Apple AirPod Gen 2


  • One size fits all and are easy to take out and place in your ear
  • Often more affordable than earphones
  • Allow you to be aware of your surroundings as they don’t fit inside your ear canal

One of the most popular types of earbuds is Apple AirPods. They offer quick syncing and easy use, but you’ll want to be aware that they may make your ears a bit sore after hours of wear. Because they don’t fit inside your ear canal they may leak audio and may not offer quite as immersive a listening experience. They are also a bit more likely to fall out of your ear when wearing, so you may want to choose an earphone for sports or outdoor activities.

Tips for making the most out of your headphone or earbud

After you’ve decided which device you want to buy, there are a few important and often overlooked steps you can take to make sure you are getting the full experience out of your new headphone or earbud.

  1. Enhance your comfort – The most important aspect for me is comfort, so if you choose earphones be sure to test out all of the included ear tips. I often wear my audio device for very long periods of time while working or for casual use, so finding a good fit is an essential part of setting up a new audio device.
  2. Download the compatible app  – Many types of headphones, earbuds, and earphones offer apps you can use to adjust sound quality. Both types of devices can be greatly enhanced by changing the EQ levels with either standalone software or options in the app. Even if you don’t want to use an equalizer to mix your own playlists, you’ll want to download the app so you can access software updates or download audio drivers.
  3. Don’t overcharge your device – You may be tempted to let your headset charge whenever you’re not using it, but overcharging may affect your battery quality in the long term. You’ll want to charge your device whenever the battery level is low.
  4. Careful storage for wired devices –  If you opt for wired earphones or headphones, always be careful when packing up and storing. Cords are easy to tangle and I’ve spent up to an hour untangling them after shoving them in my pocket without care.

Sony over-ear headphones showcasing noise isolation in a busy environment at a cafe

Headphones vs Earbuds – which is the right choice for you?

While both options provide excellent listening experiences, your choice between headphones vs earbuds ultimately comes down to personal preference and your listening habits. Those with more active lifestyles that require frequent travel or sudden work calls may prefer earphones. Users who find themselves behind a desk frequently or want a distraction-free listening experience might choose headphones instead.

Despite the pros and cons of both devices and the different styles available, there are higher-end options that remove any potential downsides to both types. I recently wrote about the top wireless earphones for gift giving and found many earbuds do offer soft inserts and have built-in technology like active noise cancellation or have software that lets you customize audio quality.

If you’re shopping for a child, a kid-friendly headphone is also a great choice. It allows you to limit the maximum volume to protect their hearing and is comfortable for children with sensory issues. If you think headphones are the right choice for you, or you’re looking for gift options for a loved one, I recommend taking a look at the detailed best headphone choices list on the Best Buy Blog.

If you’ve decided what device you’re looking for or you want to see more options, you can find a wide selection of both headphones, earbuds, and earphones online or in-store at Best Buy. Feel free to comment below if you’d like to share what you find to be the most important aspect of a listening device and which type you will choose.


Steven Garrard
Steven is a freelance journalist and tech enthusiast who enjoys keeping up with technological advancements and sharing them to improve our daily lives. He also runs a video game and tech review blog and can be found on twitter at @BiasedGamer101.