Earbuds and IEMs are rather similar in that they’re both small, portable audio devices that are inserted directly into the ear. The biggest difference between the two is that IEMs are inserted into the ear canal, while earbuds rest on the outer ear.
This isn’t the only difference between these devices, but most of the other major differences stem from this one.
The difference between IEMs (in-ear monitors) and earbuds is blurred and rather confusing. It’s much more nebulous than the difference between headphones and headsets.
At first glance, it’s easy to mistake IEMs and earbuds for the same thing.
After all, both are compact and portable audio listening devices that are placed into the ear.
But herein lies the biggest difference – IEMs, as their name suggests, are placed directly into the ear canal whereas earbuds simply rest on the outer ear.
This difference may seem minute at first, but it carries a lot of implications, which we will list right now.
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Earbuds typically utilize an all-plastic construction. They are made with a one-size-(hopefully)-fits-all design. In a way, they function just like speakers that are positioned right next to your ears.
In terms of noise isolation, these two factors – all-plastic design and outer ear fit – don’t fare particularly well.
Conversely, because IEMs are fitted directly inside the ear canal, they can offer a much higher degree of noise isolation. IEMs also use detachable (and replacable) ear tips that come in all shapes and sizes. Some feature a two or three-pronged design to reach further inside the ear canal and offer even superior noise isolation.
Now there is some fine print involved here – namely, you can kiss the great noise isolation goodbye if you aren’t able to form a proper seal inside your ears. To do this, it is imperative that you find the right ear tip. If you need help figuring out which ear tips are the right for you, please refer to this article where we break down the pros and cons of several ear tip shapes and materials.
In any case, once you find the right fit, another benefit of IEMs will become apparent to you – the volume. IEMs can sound louder without necessarily exposing your ears to more decibels.
The closer the source of the sound (or the driver, in this case) is to your ear, the easier it is to damage your hearing.
This won’t happen if you don’t listen to music at excessively loud volumes, but the thing is, the reason we often raise the volume has nothing to do with the music itself. More often than not, we are forced to raise the volume to drown out the ambient noise.
IEMs basically function as earplugs once you form a proper seal, which immensely reduces ambient noise. Earbuds, as we’ve discussed, sit on the outer ear and don’t seal off the ear canal, therefore letting a lot of ambient noise in.
So if you’re listening to earbuds in a noisy environment, there’s no other option than to raise the volume. Even then, chances are you won’t be able to eliminate all the unwanted background noise.
On the other hand, you can listen to IEMs at a lower volume but hear the music better because the ambient noise doesn’t pose as high a hurdle for you to overcome. That’s why IEMs have become an indispensable part of every gym-goers toolkit. They stay in your ear and let you hear your music while blocking out whatever music is playing in the background.
This goes both ways. Sometimes you want to stay aware of your surroundings, like when you’re out jogging and you want to hear the traffic. In this case, earbuds often come out on top, although there are high-end IEMs out there that feature ambient modes which let you stay aware of your surroundings.
Another reason you might raise the volume is that you’re having a hard time hearing all the details in the music. Perhaps you simply need to crank the volume up to eleven in order to appreciate the bass line on a certain track. Once again, the problem here isn’t the volume – the problem is the sound quality of the device you’re using.
A device with a better sound quality will allow you to hear everything you want and need to hear at significantly lower volumes.
What does this have to do with the distinction between earbuds and IEMs?
Well, everything, as it turns out.
The reason why many people don’t know the difference between these two types of devices is because they assume that earbuds are just low-quality IEMs. And this assumption isn’t entirely unwarranted.
Earbuds, as defined in this article, are typically devices you get for free with portable electronics (smartphones, MP3/4 players, etc.). They can be bought separately, but even then, your options are limited to low-budget solutions. You may be able to find some exceptions to this rule, but be aware that they are just that – exceptions.
Consequently, earbuds simply don’t offer high audio quality. How can they, when most models cost less than $20? And because of this, listeners will often try to make up for the lack of sound quality by raising the volume, which can be quite dangerous.
Meanwhile, IEMs can go for hundreds upon hundreds of dollars. Don’t get us wrong, you can still buy plenty of IEMs that don’t cost more or sound better than your typical pair of earbuds, but IEMs are available for in all price ranges and can cater to all target demographics – from casual listeners on a budget to audiophiles with cash burning a hole in their pockets.
Earbuds often only feature a single dynamic driver.
IEMs, on the other hand, can have several drivers each. A dynamic driver is usually there to handle the bass, but the mids and highs often get their own balanced armature drivers, sometimes several of them.
It is not unheard of for IEMs to boast an upwards of 5 drivers. As you can imagine, the clarity and precision that these five drivers can achieve will always outshine the single driver found in most earbuds.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t IEMs out there that feature only a single driver. As we’ve already mentioned, IEMs cover the full breadth of the price range, from budget picks to high-end, audiophile-grade, and even professional models.
This is why we won’t like to use the driver composition or sound quality as the main factor that determines what constitutes an earbud or an IEM (as some other sources do, but more on that later).
Now here’s the tricky thing.
The common consensus is that earbuds are the more consistently comfortable option of the two because they follow the already mentioned one-size-fits-all approach. In theory, this can make sense, but since earbuds are often all-plastic it can be kind of hit or miss. The models that feature rubberized ear wings or other types of fitting mechanisms can certainly help with this. But most of the earbuds you get for free with other devices are anything but comfortable.
Alternatively, IEMs can be incredibly comfortable, but this too, like the noise isolation, will be predicated upon using the right eat tip and forming a proper seal. High-quality IEMs come with plenty of ear tips for you to choose from, and you can always order aftermarket solutions or have them custom fitted.
But this gets us close to the “apples and oranges” territory, where we’re comparing high-end IEMs that come with all these options with low-budget earbuds (because they’re effectively the only kind of earbuds) and that’s just not right.
Ultimately, we all have different have and unique ear canals. Some people will simply find IEMs unbearable to use, regardless of the ear tips or the quality of the device. That’s why it’s best to test these things yourself.
As we’ve said at the beginning of this article, the difference between IEMs and earbuds is hard to pinpoint. So how come we’ve basically summed up the main difference in a single sentence?
Well, here’s the thing: Not everyone agrees with this definition.
Some argue that the difference is in sound quality or the number of drivers. Others argue that IEMs are only professional-grade equipment used by musicians. Many professional-grade IEMs feature replaceable cables so that you don’t have to throw away your expensive device if only the cable gets damaged. And speaking of musicians, the IEMs they use are often custom-fitted to the contours of their ears to provide the best level of comfort. These IEMs are sometimes referred to as custom IEMs or CIEMs.
It is true that audio engineers and musicians only IEMs while performing or in the studio, but it might be simpler to classify those as CIEMs, as CIEMs and regular IEMs need only differ in terms of audio quality (and perhaps the custom-fitted ear tips). And just as it is rather subjective to draw the line where mid-range products end and high-end products begin, so too is it difficult to say, definitively, where IEMs end and CIEMs begin.
As we’ve explained, none of these definitions are foolproof as they don’t account for the existence of a bunch of low-quality IEMs and the few high-quality earbuds out there and high-end IEMs that simply don’t feature detachable cables or similar features.
We like to stick to the distinction we’ve outlined for one simple reason: It’s the most user-friendly distinction!
How the device sits in your ears is arguably the most important distinction you need to be aware of when making your purchase as this will dictate how the device handles all the other factors like noise isolation, sound quality, comfort, etc.
What’s more, you should be aware that manufacturers will often use “earbuds” as an umbrella term that covers IEMs as well. After all, if something has replaceable ear tips, it’s an IEM; earbuds do not have ear tips because they aren’t inserted into the ear canal.
So be aware that, while it is good to understand what types of audio devices there are, no everyone uses the same labels, and sometimes even the manufacturers themselves will not bother with such labels at all.