In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) vs. Earbuds, A Comparative Review

Today, there are many types of audio listening equipment and two, in particular, are getting more attention than others: IEMs or in-ear monitors and earbuds. Users are asking IEM vs earbuds, which one should they pick to get the best audio experience?  Are IEMS better than earbuds? Are earbuds more comfortable than IEMs? Let’s check these out in this comparative review. You’ll be able to find the right audio listening device for your needs after this comparison.

What are IEMs? IEM is short for in-ear monitors. You may have seen singers, musicians, and live performers wearing IEMs as they perform in front of an audience. IEMs help performers listen to their music and block out the noise coming from the audience. This also helps them listen to accompaniment and to their own voice and to avoid distractions.

IEMs are designed to fit deeper in the ear canal and thus, external sounds are completely blocked out. If you're performing on stage in front of hundreds of cheering people, IEMs will help you block out noise and let you concentrate on your music.

The design of in-ear monitors vary. Because this needs to be placed deeper into the ear canal, it has to attach to a small piece of plastic that hooks around the external orifice of the ear. The IEM can be on one or both ears and connect to a small battery-powered amplifier device. This device is mostly secured with a belt around the wearer’s waist.

Related: Best Bass Earbuds

About Earbuds

An earbud set is a very common piece of audio listening equipment that’s simply placed in the ear to listen to any type of audio coming from a device. Earbuds come in different designs and styles but most come with earbuds tips to anchor the device securely and comfortably in the ear.

Because earbuds are only placed at the opening of the ear, not all external sounds are filtered out. There are wired earbuds and there are wireless earbuds. Some designs come with volume adjustments and can be used to answer calls, pause audio, and move from track to track.

In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) vs Earbuds

Now let's compare IEMs and earbuds according to design, function, comfort, audio quality, and price.

IEM vs earbud design

IEMs are placed deeper in the ear and thus are longer. IEMs are hooked over and around the outer part of the ear to anchor it in place and to prevent unnecessary movements while earbuds are just placed in the opening of the ear. Some earbuds have a unique oval shape and don’t come with earbud tips, but are still placed in the opening of the ear.

Both IEMs and earbuds come in wireless and wired designs. Good wired models have at least two to three meters of cable and have independent controls. The controls can be buttons or circular switches to control volume. The jack or connector could be 3.5mm headphone jacks or USB connectors depending on the model. Meanwhile, wireless IEMs and earbuds are also available in different designs. Some are wireless but both earpieces are wired to a small control panel. The control panel has a micro USB charging port and has small buttons for volume, to change tracks, answer phone calls and power the device on or off.

The most popular earbuds design is the Airbud with absolutely no wires and has very tiny controls over one earpiece for volume, changing tracks, and so on. This type of wireless earbud comes with a charging port that also acts as the device holder. All you need to do is to place the two earpieces inside the charger and leave it for a few hours.

IEM vs earbud function

IEMs are used to block out all sounds and thus, are more preferred by performers, musicians, and singers. This is connected to a battery-powered amplifier. There are also IEMs for everyday users and may be connected to the headphone jack of a smartphone, laptop, PC, or any audio listening device.

Earbuds have a simpler design and function as basic audio listening devices. Earbuds cannot completely block out all external noises compared to IEMs. There are some earbuds with noise-canceling features that remove most of the external noise but won't work as well as IEMs.

Some IEMs and earbuds come with independent controls. These buttons or switches control the volume, pause music, receive calls and move audio tracks lower or higher.

Related: Why Do Singers Wear and Take Out their Earpieces

IEM vs earbud comfort

Every wearer wants a comfortable listening experience so it’s important to consider an earpiece that’s more comfortable based on your preferences. Earbuds may not cancel out all sounds, but are more comfortable than IEMs. Because these are simply placed over the opening of the ear, these won’t cause pain or irritation in the ear.

IEMs on the other hand are placed deeper into the external ear and thus may feel intrusive and not as comfortable as earbuds. Some people cannot stand the feeling of wearing IEMs as not only does it stay inside your ear, but some models have a piece of plastic that hugs the ear.

Since earbuds are simply placed around the opening of the ear, these have a tendency to fall off as you move. Joggers, commuters, and fitness enthusiasts often prefer earbuds with a well-fitted design. These won't easily fall off as they move. When you talk about the difference between earbuds and earphones, earbuds are placed in the ear while earphones have ear cups to hug the external structure of the ear. People who are on the move may prefer earphones to earbuds, as earphones stay secure over the head and are less likely to fall off.

Related: Best IEM under $100

IEM vs earbud audio quality

According to IEM users, they find the device better than earbuds when it comes to shielding from external noises. However, the sound quality is the same as earbuds. The make, model, and brand of the device greatly affect the audio quality and in short, you get what you pay for.

There are also other factors that affect sound quality. Despite having a high-end IEM or earbud, you must still use a good quality device (smartphone, MP3 player, gaming console, and many more) plus the audio file you want to listen to should be compatible with your device. Needless to say, the file source such as the audio streaming service you prefer must provide quality music/tunes as well.

IEM vs earbud price

IEMs are generally more expensive than earbuds but some earbuds are far more expensive especially top audio brands. Also, the price is not always synonymous with quality as there are affordable earbuds and IEMs but have equal or better sound quality as expensive ones.

Related: headphone brands list

IEMs vs earbuds maintenance

IEMs should be cleaned very well using a soft cloth and alcohol, as this device settles deep into the ear canal. Meanwhile, earbuds should also be cleaned well and the tips replaced when you notice any tearing or cracking. Care of the device cable and jack are the same.

IEMs vs earbuds longevity

IEMs are known to be more durable compared to earbuds. However, both devices must be handled carefully, especially near the jack, the control buttons, and near the ear-pieces. As with any audio device, you need to select the one made with good quality materials as this is one way to ensure that an IEM or earbuds will last for a long time.

IEMs are for…

IEMs are for users who want the following

  • Those who want to completely cancel out external noise.
  • Those who want an audio listening device that won’t fall off no matter what happens.
  • Those who want to perform in front of a large number of people or audience.
  • Those who wish to enhance their audio listening experience.
  • Those who can withstand a feeling of pressure within the ear canal.

Earbuds are for users who want the following

  • Those who don't care for external noise, although some earbuds have noise-canceling features.
  • Those who don't mind an audio listening that can easily fall off, although there are some earbuds with larger earpieces that are designed to remain in the ear longer.
  • Those who want to simply listen to music, movie audio, or audiobooks.
  • Those who want to improve their audio listening experience.
  • Those who can’t stand the intrusive design of an IEM.

Bottom Line

When it comes to IEMs vs earbuds, the winner will depend on the user's preference. If you're a performer, musician, or singer and you want to cancel out external noise while performing then an IEM device is for you. If you want a device that won't easily be removed from your ear and you are not very particular about an intrusive pressure in your ear canal, an IEM is a good choice. But if you simply want to listen closely to audio and don't want to use an intrusive audio device then a basic set of earbuds is best for you. Compare the pros and cons of an IEM and earbuds to find the ideal device that's right for your needs.

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