The Ultimate Guide To Earbuds, Earphones, IEMs, And In Ear Headphones

Since earbuds (in ear headphones) are small and portable, they are always the best options for people on the go. They seal music in the ear, creating a chamber in the ear canals, where the sound travels through, and they offer an unique listening experience compared to other type of headphones. In ear headphones also don’t look silly on you like sturdy over ear headphones when you wear them on the public. They not only sound incredibly good but recently have been integrated with a lot of smart features like HRM, an accelerometer, noise cancelling, Bluetooth and more…Even they embody of fashion and your style.

Stock earbuds in ear headphones might not have been good for all kinds of music. And they are not satisfied active individuals who workout daily. Aside from sound quality, headphone makers quickly realized that their headphones must adapt to suit portable use and life style. They also produce the high quality of earbuds–high-end models designed for audiophiles.

Beside the functionality of those gadgets–music, people also care about how it looks in the ear–style matters. This has been seen on some kinds earbuds, though they don’t sound very good, but a lot of people like it because of cool design. Regular people still preferred to use the stock earbuds such as apple ear-pods and Amazon Premium earbuds. These Apple fans stayed loyal to Apple products because they were considered stylish and cool. Apple earpods were actually more than just personal gadgets – they were jewelry.

Everywhere you look nowadays, be it on the street, the train, or the bus, you will not fail to notice someone wearing a set of in ear headphones. The popularity of these gadgets has skyrocketed at an astronomical rate, now that everyone owns a Smartphone and wants to listen to music, watch Youtube video or play games on the go just by a couple of taps. Students on campus walk around with their earbuds, sticking their eyes to phone screen, tapping and going as far as studying in the library with these gadgets. Even athletes, joggers, and fitness enthusiasts are not being left behind, enhancing their workouts by popping in a pair of in ear headphones and listening to their favorite tracks from Spotify, Pandora.

The fact of the matter is that all music lovers appreciate the difference that having a great pair of in ear headphones makes. You can simply listen to whatever you want in private without interfering with others. Furthermore, earbuds are extremely portable, being small in size, and the sound quality of most of them has improved significantly over the years.

Note that since the in ear headphones don’t accommodate big driver like over the ear headphones, they sound less bassy and spacious and don’t offer a wide soundstage as over ear sets. Since sound emitted from In ear models don’t react with pinna, you will ear their sound less realistic.

Here are everything you need to know about earbuds in ear headphones and how to pick the right pair for your need.

Type of In Ear Headphones

By design, there are two different types of in ear headphones (also called inter aural headphones or earphones), which are earbuds and canalphones. They are engineered to fit differently into your ears. While earbuds just sit on the outer ear, canalphones feature eartips and these parts are inserted directly into ear canals- in a more intrusive manner.

In fact there are a few of in ear headphones that come in a form of combination of these two types of in ear headphones, called a hybrid of earbud and canalphones.

Earbuds vs canalphones

Budget in ear headphones: Sennheiser MX 365 (type: earbuds) and Panasonic RPHJE120S (type: canalphones)


When Apple introduced the first generation of iPhone together with its earbuds, Apple earpods, there was a revolutionary response by users in the Smartphone market. This was soon to become the turning point in the popularity of in ear headphones all over the world. The headphones market continuously grows since then and it was estimated worth 11 billion by 2015 and in ear headphones accounted for more than 60%.

In March 2015, Apple again announced another great wearable gear, the Apple Watch Sport. The device doesn’t feature a headphone jack, so the only way users can stream music is via a Bluetooth headphone. Which also gave a boost the search for BT headphones work with this watch. Beats Power Beat 2, the wireless in ear headphones model, has new colors to matched apple watch band.

In 2016, Apple announced their Iphone 7, removing headphone jack. At the event they also introduced the Airpods, a totally wireless earbuds.

Most earbuds you find today are included with your phones, tablets. These stock earbuds don’t have eartips, some good earbuds have paddings to cover the housings in the front of their speakers for more comfort. Due to the sound leakage and none sealed style, earbuds don’t perform the bass as good as canalphones and you hear a lot of background noise. The sound emitting from speakers of earbuds aims into the ear canals, not the way as cannalphones do with eartips.

Recently, canalphones have been widely perceived as earbuds by most consumers in the US. This misunderstanding I think because of the popularity of Apple earbuds, also known as Apple earpods. So on our website sometimes we use earbuds and in ear headphones interchangeably.

Check out best unsealed earbuds


Canalphones can refer to IEMs–in ear monitors, in-ear-canalphones, ear-canalphones, ear-canal headphones. Canalphones have eartips (earbuds cover, earbud tips) and are designed with nozzles, if you remove this part, the nozzles are uncovered and there is no way to fit them on your ears. Because eartips enter the ear canal, they do the job for isolating the outside noise and sealing the sound in, which in turn the bass response and sound quality are significantly improved. 


In Ear Monitors IEMs

Most audiophiles call their in ear headphones as in ear monitors, so do artists, who perform on stage or singers work in the record studio… I think, the term “IEMs” is used for professional listening rather than casual listening. IEMs are very sophisticated with a number of BA drivers, like Kern AKR03 with 12 units on each side. The more driver, the better, since each driver will handle a range of frequency response, then you will be able to get more fullness of sound for all kinds of music.  These IEMs are very expensive, they may cost up to thousands $$$.

So if someone approaches and asks me which kind of headphones are you having on? (I am wearing FiiO EX1), generally I would say an in ear headphone, but more specifically I guess, a canalphone.

Specification of In Ear Headphones

The Specs don’t make sense a lot for the sound quality, when you just stare at the specs and think hey, this is a really good headphone, you’re wrong! However, there is a tricky co-relation between those specs and sound quality. It is hard to describe, but here’s 4 things I can point out: impedance, sensitivity, BA/Dynamic driver and frequency response.


  • Waterproof (IPX7)/Water resistant, this feature is rated by IPX scores: most earbuds couldn’t be used under water. The IPX scores just tell you how they can stand in the condition, which is evaluated by deepness and time.
  • Mic and controls they may be compatible with android or iOS phones.
  • Additional features

Choosing the In Ear Headphones: You couldn’t judge an earbuds/in ear headphones based on the build quality, design and feature. The sound quality is another aspect you would highly consider. There is no standards, unlike TV it is all about the screen resolution or sharpness, the sound signature of earbuds is varied to please different listeners. In ear headphones can range in price from $7 to $2000.

  • Best Budget Earbuds In Ear Headphones: Most stock earbuds sound mediocre, you would replace them for a better fit and sound quality, not to drop hundred of bucks, these decent earbuds are surprisingly cheap, some even sells for lest than $8. It is extremely hard to choose upon the sound for newbies to audio world, you may find them sound identical, but you can simply pick by their style.
  • Top Bass Earbuds: Young listeners or less experienced listeneers prefer strong bass. Beats was one of the first audio makers, engineered this sound signature in their products and they succeeded. These earbuds offer massive bass. You will even find some pairs that are able to shake your ear canals.
  • Best Earbuds In Ear Headphones For Kids: These earbuds have the impedance higher than average earbuds to restrict loudness levels. So when kids crank up the volume even to maximum from the device, it never reaches to levels which are supposed to be dangerous for hearing.
  • Best around the neck Bluetooth In Ear headphones (behind the neck Bluetooth headphones)
  • Best earbuds for sleeping, these earbuds are so comfortable that it makes possible for travelers who want to block noises in their sharing rooms can sleep with.
  • Earbuds with stellar noise isolation, housing weight and design as long with eartips will determine the noise blocking ability of earbuds. These earbuds are even used as earplugs, when you want to escape from noises in your work places. A notable brand is Etymotic Research. Originally, their products are hearing aids, with BA drivers, and taking this advantages and advanced technology, they make some incredible earbuds with great detail and clarity.

How to Wear In Ear Headphones

It is very tricky to wear earbuds/earphones, because your left or right ears may required different size of earbud tips. You need to fix the earbuds in your ear to get the tight seal, which in turns give you a better sound. To reduce microphonics most people choose over-the-ear wear by wrapping the cable around the ear. This also helps keep the earbuds from falling out.

Annoying microphonics from cable bouncing

The term, microphonics, you can find elsewhere (Wikipedia, Head-Fi) for their meaning. In short, it is the noise you hear when wearing earbuds, which the cable rub against itself or your cloth when you move. By using shirt clip or wrapping cord over ears will significantly reduce this noise. There is a scientific evident that why earbuds cords get knotted or tangled in your carrying case or pockets. Audio makers resolve this by making flat cable or zipper cable, which add more weight and microphonics. Flat cable also reduces the possibility of cable knot or tangle. Kevlar-reinforced cable are also commonly used, which is rugged and limit cord noise.

Categories of In Ear Headphones

Bluetooth Earbuds

It seems every device today integrates Bluetooth, which enable them to connect wirelessly to other Bluetooth accessories. But most Bluetooth earbuds you’ve seen today are not fully cordless. They have a band around the neck or a headband, most commonly a cable to link two separate earbuds. Audiophiles seems not to satisfy with the sound quality of Bluetooth, but for sport lovers, Bluetooth earbuds give more freedom–no more cable bouncing or tangled cables.  But you can use them in office as well. One of the best Bluetooth earbuds in ear headphones is JayBird X2, it was rated by solid sound and practical sport features. Another set is Beats Powerbeats2, a bass enhanced in ear headphone.

Some Bluetooth earbuds are an ideal choice for sports, since they are designed with earhook, hangers or wingtips. These parts will be worn around the ear or just fit the outer concha ridge of the ear to keep the earbud from falling out. The most secure Bluetooth earbuds are the ones with hangers, but it is not always comfortable. Wingtips also do the job for snug fit, but they don’t work for all ears.

Fully cordless earbuds

This type of earbuds have been recently crowd funded by a lot of kickstarters, aiming to produce wireless earbuds with high quality of sound and useful features for fitness. Wireless earbuds include 2 earbuds, portable charging case. Though they present some downsides, but many people are eager on their convenience that fitness tracking, mp3 players (can hold up 1000 songs) all packed in a hearable.

Noise Cancelling Earbuds, Earphones In ear Headphones

These headphones are engineered to actively cancel out the noise coming from outside, not in the passive way as most earbuds with eartips do. The noise cancelling circuitry requires the battery to power its function, which is located inline. So you will see most ANC in ear headphones have a battery box. Innovatively, Sony has developed the H.ear in earbuds with ANC function powered by phones rather than inline battery.

When an ANC in ear headphone is active, you can hear audible hiss sound, called white noise naturally produced by the circuitry. And due to this you will find this kind of headphones don’t pour a sweetness and purity to the music as regular in ear sets do.

If you travel on flights or work in noisy areas, these gears inhibit the noise from jet engine or unwanted noise from environment.

Smart Wireless Earbuds–wearables and hearables

We have smartphones, now we have smart earbuds.

Unlike regular Bluetooth earbuds with a short cable linking 2 earbuds, totally cordless earbuds may easily to get lost, if they accidentally fall out of your ears, image that situation happens when you are on train or bus.

These in ear items incorporate a lot of smart features like heart rate tracking, measuring calories burned and distance, step counting (accelerometer) and more. Most of them are synced with app available both on Android and iOS. Since they all are built with very compact size, so battery life is one of the issues commonly seen in those smart wireless earbuds–2.5 to 4 hours. The kickstarters solve this problem by including a portable charging case, which can full charge earbuds up to 3 times. In addition to short battery life, the connectivity issue may arise that 2 earbuds have to connect to your phone at once but actually there is shift of the sound between 2 earbuds.

Samsung with Gear IconX, Apple with Airpods, and other kickstarters like The Dash, Earin, Kanoa.

In Ear Headphones Sound Tests

The website called, Audiocheck offers sound tracks to technically measure your in ear headphones. You can check out the flatness of sound, fitting, bass response and more.

Potential risks with In Ear Headphones

  • Listening to earbuds at high volume level potentially cause hearing damage. Hair ears, a part of auditory system, which are closest to audio source of earbuds than any other type of headphones are vulnerable to sound with high intensity. None-seal earbuds don’t isolate ambient sound well, so you may have to turn up the volume loud, which is put your hearing at risk. So if you have this type of in ear headphones, always try to keep the volume at a safe level, recommended below 85 dB, which is commonly accounted for 60% of maximum volume. If you ears are exposed to the sound greater than 85 decibels, the hearing damage may occur.
  • If you are not aware of the world around you, which put you at risk of accidents. There is increasingly articles, news and videos about accidents related to pedestrians, who wear earbuds. So whenever, you walk on the street or cross the road always remember look out what is happening around.
  • Your hearing is good? Take this online audio test to find out.

Celebrity-endorsed In Ear Headphones, Are They Worth it


There are a number of factors which plays an important role for comfort

Eartips: eartips are made from silicon, rubber or foam. The most comfortable option is foam eartips, which you can compress them into custom fit fo your ear, but they is not durable. Foam tips are believed to absorb high-frequencies sound, calming down the treble a bit. Silicon is most commonly used for making eartips, silicon is flexible and more durable than foam. Choosing the types of eartips may effect the sound you listen. This is because each material absorb and reflect sound differently, for instance, foam is porous, which attract high frequencies. So the treble will loose a bit if you wear those.

Weight: Cable and internal component like drivers carry the most weight of earbuds. Some earbuds with metal housings also contribute

Size: Some earbuds are big, IEMs are even bigger. This is because their necessary internal components, drivers and speakers.

Design the nozzle angled and length plays an import role for designing earbuds housing, which will keep balance between the part inserted in to the ear canal and the housing outside. Earbuds are parts of behind the neck in ear headphones or head band. They are attached to the band by a short wire. One of the popular form is the LG Ultra Tone.

Cord: Flat cable has been proved to reduce the possibility cable knotting and tangling. However, they don’t do much for reducing microphonics. The most durable cable is twisted.

Does the material made for earbud housing reflect how the sound is reproduced?

Each material itself have different property-porosity, hardness, which will determine how to the sound is made in their chamber–earbuds housings. The sound from speakers of earbuds will be either reflected or absorbed by housings, which will change the frequency response. If you are thinking replace your earbuds’ housing by a bullet or anything else, be prepared, that will make a difference in sound. Wood, stainless steel, plastic, brass, aluminum, metal, Aluminium Alloy, copper can be used for housings, but the most used material is plastic, since it lightweight, easy to make to any shape and it is cost-effective. Some audio makers evern use ceramic to for fabricate earbud housings.

Audio Brands

JH Audio founded by Jerry Harvey and their product, the JH Audio’sRoxanne is one of the best IEMs.

Sony offers all kinds of in ear headphones with a bunch of features

Beats By Dr recently acquired by Apple famous for their strong bass sound signature.

Panasonic: Cheap earbuds yet their sound may shock you for the first time.


Sennheiser German audio maker

Shure: Famous for their high-end IEMs earbuds like Shure SE846. The mid-range as known for legendary Shure SE215

Bose: They make one of the incredible noise cancelling earbuds, Bose QC20.

Terms explained in earbuds

AptX: A tech for streaming sound via Bluetooth.

NFC Near Field Communication

Kleer technology

Some important terms to depict the sound


Heavy Bass

Balanced Sound


Warm and Smooth

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