Earbuds vs headphones: Which one is right for you?

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Woman wearing wireless Bowers & Wilkins headphones outdoors

Bowers & Wilkins

Earbuds or headphones? It depends on how much you’re willing to spend, and the audio experience you’re looking for.

Headphones offer better noise cancellation, fuller coverage, and a more comfortable listening experience. Earbuds are cheaper and more convenient, slipping into your pocket or bag with ease, and they aren’t as conspicuous to wear. 

You can choose between wired or wireless earbuds or headphones in different price ranges. I personally find that wireless offers a better experience all around. Untangling wires gets in the way of listening to something immediately. Other people may prefer the reliability of a wired connection. When it comes down to the choice between earbuds or headphones, the choice isn’t as simple. Here are the main factors to keep in mind when deciding between the two.

You should buy earbuds if…

A woman holding a phone and wearing Jabra Elite 7 Pro wireless earbuds


1. You like how small they are

Earbuds don’t stand out the way headphones do, and you can discreetly slip them off and into your pocket or into their case when you’re not using them. Earbuds like the AirPods Pro tend to come in small cases that often recharge them too. You don’t have to worry about adding bulk to your workout bag.

2. You have a limited budget

Earbuds and headphones come in a range of qualities, from expensive to more economical. Earbuds are generally under $200, while quality headphones, like the Bowers & Wilkins Px7 S2 wireless noise-canceling headphones, may be around $400. By contrast, the House of Marley Smile Jamaica wired earbuds are noise-isolating and made of sustainable materials, but only cost $20. 

3. You don’t want to cover your whole ear for an extended period of time

Anyone with headphones will tell you that headphones trap sweat, and some smaller headphones may not fully cover your ear for an uncomfortable, and still sweaty, fit. Earbuds are a good way to let your ears breathe, especially during extended workouts. If the earbuds come with tips in different sizes, like the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II, you can customize them for a comfortable fit.

Also: The best earbuds you can buy right now

You should buy headphones if…

A woman listening to Adidas Sol wireless headphones


1. You want the assurance that they’ll always stay on

A major disadvantage to earbuds is that, well, they’re in your ear. They can fall out at inopportune times. Pushing an earbud into your ear to get it to stay put can cause uncomfortable earwax buildup in your ear over time, and you will probably want to clean and sanitize your earbuds regularly. Headphones, on the other hand, stay on until you take them off. The danger of losing a pair of headphones is lower than the danger of losing a wireless earbud on your morning commute. And they don’t collect earwax.

2. You want generally better battery life

Headphones usually have better battery life on one charge than earbuds do. The Sennheiser Momentum 4 headphones, for example, have a battery life of 60 hours and a charge time of 2 hours. The Sennheiser Momentum 3 earbuds only have 7 hours of battery life on a single charge by comparison.

3. You want a wider range of sustainable options

Headphones like the Adidas RPT-02 SOL are leading the way in sustainability. The SOL are completely light-powered, made in part from recycled plastics, and have washable ear cushions and inner headbands. They also offer up to 80 hours of playtime. While there are sustainable options for earbuds, like the solar-powered Urbanista Phoenix, those options are still less powerful than similar ones in the headphones category. The Phoenix earbuds, for example, have half the possible playtime of the SOL headphones, even with the charging case battery reserve.

Also: The best headphones you can buy right now

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