In Ear Monitors vs. Earbuds: Know the Difference

In all honesty, IEMs and earbuds are rather similar in the way that both are little, portable audio devices that are directly inserted into the ear. The only wearing difference is that while earbuds are placed on the outer ear, IEMs are pushed into the ear canal. know about the difference in our article on ear monitors vs. earbuds.

Although this isn’t the only prime difference between the two gadgets, most of the other variations are rooted to this.

The lines of difference between earbuds and IEMs is rather blurry and confusing, at least in comparison to that between headsets and headphones.

At first glance, you could easily mistake an IEM for earbuds, and vice versa. After all, both achieve the same things and look pretty similar. But this is where the biggest difference is – as the names suggest, in-ear monitors are inserted into ear canals while earbuds sit on the outer ear.

Differentiating between the two; in ear monitors vs. earbuds, let’s see what you don’t know yet.

You can also read: Easiest Songs to Sing

In ear monitors vs. earbuds

Noise Isolation

Typically, earbuds feature an all-plastic build. They are constructed with more of a one-size-fits-all design. In the simplest terms, they function like speakers positioned right beside your ears. When it comes to noise isolation, the outer eat fit and all-plastic design don’t fare that well

In contrast, as IEMs are inserted right inside the ear canal, they offer much better noise isolation. IEMs also include replaceable, detachable ear tips for any ear size and shape.

The amazing noise isolation isn’t possible if you can’t find the right fir for your ears, so make sure the ear tips aren’t over or undersized. Once you find the right ones, the sound is louder, and not necessarily the “more the decibel, more the volume” kind.


In ear monitors act like earplugs if you manage to make a proper seal, which reduces environmental noise greatly. As we’ve mentioned, ear buds don’t really seal the ear canal off, so there’s still a lot of ambient noise you have to process.

So, in a noisy environment, you will be forced the raise the volume of your earbuds, but there’s no guarantee that it will then filter the unwanted background noise out.

On the other hand, you can use your IEMs on a lower volume but still get good musical payoff as the ambient noise isn’t as big of as a hurdle.

Sound Quality

One more reason you would raise the volume is because it’s gotten increasingly difficult to hear all the details of the music. Again, the problem isn’t specifically the volume, but the device you’re using.

A device with improved sound quality offers a smooth hearing experience where you can hear the smaller details even at lowered volumes.

So, what does this have to do with in ear monitors vs. earbuds?

Well, the reason why many people can’t distinguish between the two devices is because they think earbuds are a low-quality alternative of IEMs. Generally, you either get earbuds for free with your other electronic gadgets, like smartphones, tablets, MP3 players, etc., or you buy them separately for cheap prices.

These earbuds are priced lower than $20, so we wouldn’t expect them to have stunning audio output. IEMs can cost hundreds of dollars. With that said, there are cheaper versions, and we are in no way claiming that affordable IEMs don’t sound as good. In fact, IEMs were made to cater to the need of all demographics.

Driver Composition

Earbuds generally come with a single dynamic drive whereas in ear monitors typically feature multiple drivers. A dynamic drives handles the bass, but the highs and mids often have their very own balanced armature drivers, several of them on some occasions. IEMs with an upwards of five drivers is not a rare sight. As one would expect, the precision and clarity offered by the combination of these five drivers can effortlessly outshine the sole driver found in mainstream earbuds.

But there are also IEMs out there with only one driver. As mentioned earlier, in ear monitors, in ear monitors range from budget to cash-burning-a-hole-in-your-pocket expensive, for casual listeners to the lovers of quality audio, and also professional models.

This is why we don’t think it’s best to use sound quality or driver composition as the main base for determining what forms a good pair of in-ear monitors or earbuds.


In Ear Monitors vs. Earbuds: Know the Difference
Photo by: Oliver Helbig

The common consensus tells us that earbuds are this streamline as they follow the convenient, one-size-fits-all, comfy approach. Sure, this makes sense in theory, but since earbuds are usually entirely plastic, it’s very easily a hit or miss.

The models that come with rubberized ear wings or similar fitting mechanisms are definitely a good solution to this. But in most of the cases, the free earbuds you get with other devices aren’t big on delivering the comfort factor.

Alternatively, in ear monitors can be rather comfortable. But similar to noise isolation, the situation is predicated on finding and using the correct ear tip which will form a proper seal. Top-notch IEMs will include a lot of ear tips so it gets easier for you, but you always order some extras or have custom fitting ones made.

As we progress in this discussion, we get closer to the zone of “apples and oranges,” and this why comparing IEMs and earbuds is a topic not many wish to get to the depths of. However, comparing high-end in ear monitors with cheap earbuds isn’t the proper way to conduct a comparison as the playing field won’t ever be levelled.

Ultimately, we were all born with unique ear canals. Some people find no comfort in using IEMs, regardless of the device’s quality or the ear tips. That’s why it’s best you give these a try yourself.

Bottom Line

The subject of in-ear monitors vs. earbuds is a diverse one, and requires people to tap into their personal preference. At the end of the day, your budget and musical requirements play the main role in finding the right device for you.

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