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Headphones vs. Earphones vs. Earbuds

The particular needs of the listener determine the choice of headphone. The need for portability indicates smaller, lighter headphones, but can mean a compromise in fidelity. Headphones used as part of a home hi-fi do not have the same design constraints and can be larger and heavier. Generally, headphone form factors can be divided into four separate categories: circumauralsupra-aural, on-ear earbud, and in-ear earphone.


To find out the differences between these devices, click on any of the following to read more:
Headphones | On-Ear Earbuds | In-Ear Monitors/Earphones (IEM) | Custom IEM (CIEM)


What is a Headphone?

Headphones are a pair of small loudspeakers that are designed to be held in place close to a user\'s ears. They are also known as earspeakers, earphones or, colloquially, cans.

Circumaural headphones (sometimes called full size headphones) have circular or ellipsoid earpads that encompass the ears. Because these headphones completely surround the ear, circumaural headphones can be designed to fully seal against the head to attenuate any intrusive external noise. Because of their size, circumaural headphones can be heavy. Ergonomic headband and earpad design is required to reduce discomfort resulting from weight.
Supra-aural headphones have pads that press against the ears, rather than around them. They were commonly bundled with personal stereos during the 1980s. This type of headphone generally tends to be smaller and lighter than circumaural headphones, resulting in less attenuation of outside noise.

Both circumaural and supra-aural headphones can be further differentiated by the type of earcups:

Open-back headphones have the back of the earcups open. This leaks more sound out of the headphone and also lets more ambient sounds into the headphone, but gives a more natural or speaker-like sound and more spacious "soundscape" - the perception of distance from the source.
Closed-back (or sealed) styles have the back of the earcups closed. Depending on the model they may block 8-32db of ambient noise, but have a smaller soundscape, giving the wearer a perception that the sound is coming from within their head. One reason for this is that there are sounds reflected back towards the ear.

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What is an On-Ear Earbud?

They can have headband or clip-on to increase comfort, but they do not form an air-tight seal to the ear canal as they are not intended to go into the ear canal like the in-ear earphones do.

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What is an In-Ear Monitor?

In-Ear-Monitors (IEM’s) differ from Earbuds by the fact that they seal the ear canal completely as opposed to earbuds which simply sit outside the ear canal. By doing this, they are able to achieve better noise isolation and in most cases, more accurate sound due to the more efficient transfer of sonic energy into the ear canal.

Most IEM’s require a good seal for them to deliver the full ranges of sound they are capable of.

Foam Tips provide the best seal as they expand into the ear canal. Comply tips are usually preferred however Shure’s Olive tips are also a favourite amongst most audiophiles. Foam tips tend to accentuate bass harmonics and are usually preferred for slightly treble heavy IEM’s such as the Etymotic HF3 and Shure SE535. Due to their porous nature, foam tips have a very limited life-span with those from the likes of Comply lasting only around a month whilst Shure Olives up to a year.
Silicone Flange tips are a common consumer favourite for sheer convenience. They are quick and easy to insert into the ear canal and provide a reasonable seal. They are also extremely durable, offering a life often exceeding that of the IEM itself. Unlike foam tips however, they don’t provide the accentuated bass and noise isolation isn’t as good.
Triple-Flanged Silicone Tips were made popular by Etymotic and are supposed to provide superior noise isolation compared to traditional single-flanged tips. While they do offer very good noise isolation, many say that they accentuate treble frequencies and cause sibilance (high frequency hiss) in balanced armature IEM’s.

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Transducer (a.k.a. Driver) Technologies

Armature Driver
Balanced armature drivers are common in most high end IEM’s. Although more expensive than dynamic drivers, due to their design they are able to reproduce sound more accurately, especially in the treble region. A typical balanced armature driver consists of an armature suspended between two permanent magnets. A current is then passed through a coil spun around the armature which causes it to become attracted to either one of the magnets. The armature is connected to a shaft which joins onto the diaphragm. It is this movement happens thousands of times per second to reproduce the sound that we hear.
Dynamic Driver
Dynamic drivers in IEM’s work in a similar way to the drivers found in over-ear headphones and larger speakers. The diaphragm is mounted on a voice coil to which a current is applied. The entire section is then either attracted or repelled from a permanent magnet which moves the diaphragm and produces sound. Dynamic drivers are relatively uncommon in IEM’s (although are the staple driver type in ear-buds). Because they are able to move more air, bass reproduction is better than balanced armature drivers, however they cannot move as fast, meaning intricate details (including those within the bass range) may be lost.
Grado GR10 - Moving Armature
Moving armatures are relatively new technology which aims to bring the benefits of fast moving balanced armature drivers with dynamic drivers. Moving armature drivers work in a similar principle to balanced armature drivers, but contain a relatively large diaphragm. A single moving armature driver is able to reproduce audio to the same level of quality found in multiple balanced armature IEM’s.


What is a Custom In-Ear Monitor?

In-ear monitors (IEMs) are devices used by musicians, audio engineers and audiophiles to listen to music or to hear a custom crafted mix of vocals and stage instrumentation for live performance or recording studio mixing. They are often custom fitted for an individual\'s ears to provide comfort and a high level of noise reduction from ambient surroundings. Read More >>>

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