Often a topic of confusion among casual listeners, IEMs and Earbuds are words that are more than often used interchangeably. Both kinds of audio devices have unique traits and perks that people usually don’t take advantage of due to a lack of information. Well, not anymore! Cause after reading this content, you’ll be able to make an informed decision regarding the choice between these two devices and use them as they were intended to. So, without further ado, let’s begin!
Visually, they DO appear similar and we can clearly see why the distinction could be a matter of confusion. Both of them are small and portable audio devices you wear on your ear. The biggest discernible difference between these two is the fact that IEMs are inserted deep into the ear canal, whereas earbuds just simply rest on the outer ear.
This simple placement decision impacts a lot of other properties. The most noticeable impact it has is on the level of noise isolation. Earbuds usually are built with an all-plastic construction and come with a one-size-fits-all design. This makes them function similarly to a pair of speakers beside your ears. This all-plastic design and the bud placement don’t really do much for sound isolation. And since IEMs go directly inside your ear canal, they provide a comparatively higher amount of noise isolation.
Another point of difference is the volume that correlates with the isolation. When we listen to music through a pair of earbuds or IEMs, we raise the volume not to hear more of the music, but to drown out the ambient noise. So the more ambient noise there is, the more we have the need to turn the volume up, which ends up damaging our hearing in the long run.
Unfortunately, when using any kind of audio device, you always run the risk of damaging your hearing. In the case of earbuds and IEMs, the closer the driver is to your ears, the easier it is to damage your hearing. IEMs in this case function similarly as earplugs that form a perfect seal and dramatically reduce the ambient noise. Earbuds, on the other hand, lacking a proper seal, suffer from a lot of ambient noises, unless they have a good ANC feature. So in a practical situation like in a noisy environment, you don’t really have a choice but to increase the volume of the earbuds, that too with no guarantee to drown the ambiance. But with IEMs, you don’t need to raise the volume since the isolation is so good, making them the perfect tool for workout enthusiasts. But what about safety? Some High-End IEMs feature ambient modes that keep you aware of your surroundings, so that’s another plus.
The reason why most of us would raise the volume, however, is to hear the subtle details in the music, which might be a bit problematic if you’re using a device with mediocre sound quality. Earbuds, usually the comparatively affordable ones, don’t provide good sound, which makes you turn the volume up and risk damaging your hearing in the process. However, although granted how good IEMs can cost up to hundreds of dollars, they are worth the money since they provide isolation, protection, and superior sound quality.
Now, let’s talk drivers. To make it simple, earbuds usually contain a SINGLE dynamic driver, whereas IEMs can have up to five different drivers with different responsibilities, for instance, a dynamic driver controls the bass whereas dedicated armature drivers handle the mids and highs. With this, you can pretty much imagine why IEMs out-perform earbuds in terms of sheer audio.
Now, comfort is a matter of personal preference. But considering the majority, the common idea that everyone appears to have accepted is how earbuds are more comfortable regarding that one-size-fits-all criteria. But, this could be a hit or miss since they are often of a plastic build. On the other hand, people who use IEMs often have a hard time going back to regular earbuds due to their comfort. However, it does depend on your ear canal, ear tips, and a proper seal, since without them, even the most comfortable earbuds or IEMs can be a nightmare to wear!
So at the end of the day, the burning question is, which one should you actually go for? This is a bit hard to answer since everyone experiences audio differently, and with different audio capturing and processing abilities, it’s hard to pinpoint which one is arguably better. But, with the masses in mind, IEMs appears to be the winner here boasting more customizability, a better fit, sound quality which all scales with the price tag too. But again, at the end of the day, it’s only our opinion, and yours might vary based on your experience, which we would love to hear about in the comments!