What is the difference, between IEM and Earbuds?

Earbuds or IEMs? Which One Suits You?

  • When it comes to portable audio, the words earbuds and IEMs are frequently used in conversations within the community. What exactly are they? Which is better? Which one is best for you? Let's find out!

    So, what exactly are earbuds and IEMs? What are their differences?

      • In a nutshell, IEMs, or in-ear monitors, are earbuds that are inserted into your ear canal. Earbuds, on the other hand, just sit outside your ear canal, on the outer concha of your ear. Common examples are the Apple earpods (yes, earpods and also airpods, not the pro version), which fall into the earbud category, and the Samsung AKG Earphones, which fall into the IEM category.

        Now that you are familiar with their definition and form factor, let us now talk about their differences.

          Noise Isolation

          • One of the primary characteristics and what separates them is noise isolation. Earbuds, in general, lack sound isolation, resulting in sound leakage. Consider the earbuds to be little headphones. IEMs offer an advantage in this regard since they are put into your ear canal, resulting in passive noise isolation, allowing you to listen to and enjoy your music in noisy environments such as public transit, malls, libraries, and so on. However, because IEMs are generally closed-back, they have a smaller and sometimes "non-existent" soundstage compared to earbuds, which have lots of natural air and soundstage, which brings us to the second difference:


          • Because of the isolation, most IEMs have a lower volume demand than earbuds. For example, if the needed volume on the earphones is 50/100, IEMs may require just 20% or even less, depending on how sensitive your ears are. In terms of drivability, IEMs are usually easier to drive properly than earbuds, at least in my experience. However, with a dongle or a DAP, both will sound to their full potential most of the time.

          Sound quality

          • Technically, sound quality is determined by how well the IEMs and Earbuds are tuned by their respective manufacturers. Earbuds, in my opinion, are the more "worthy" in terms of price-to-performance ratio. In terms of sound quality, for example, a ten-dollar earbud is more likely to outperform a ten-dollar IEM. However, if you desire a powerful bass response to your music, you may find the lows of the earbuds lacking because there is no wall of the ear canal to resonate its sound with, unlike IEMs, which may sound and feel bassy and are referred to as "bass cannons" by some due to its requirement to be inserted inside the ear canal.

          Driver Composition

          • Again, these type of configurations depend on what the manufacturer use for their products. But technically, earbuds use Dynamic drivers that are suited for earbuds, commonly called “flathead” earbud drivers. They are also bigger in size as well. Most IEM Dynamic drivers are sized within the range of 6mm to 14mm, while earbuds are commonly sized at 14-16mm. Balanced Armature drivers are also only found in IEMs by the time of this writeup being published. Both earbuds and IEMs have mostly the same driver compositions, whether it be Beryllium, Liquid Crystal Polymer, or even titanium-plated - it just really varies on what the manufacturer use for their products.


          • This is the point at which you, the user, should personally test both before purchasing your next upgrade. When people ask me what to buy, I usually tell them to try them on first or to get inexpensive IEMs and earbuds first if they don't have the option to try both form factors for free, because not knowing what you actually like may make or break your listening experience. Some people's ears are suited to earbuds but not to IEMs, and vice versa. This is perfectly normal because not all ears are the same from person to person, especially because most people do not have the same ear canal depth and diameter in each ear.

          With that said, what should you buy, you may ask? It all depends on your personal preferences. Some people dislike the sensation of having IEMs placed into their ear canals, while others are the polar opposite. You can never go wrong in terms of sound quality with any form factor for your portable audio demands as long as you love your listening experience.

          Thank you for reading!

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