In-Ear Monitors vs Earbuds (4 Key Differences Explained)

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  • Learn what IEMs and earbuds are and how they work
  • Understand the core differences between in-ear vs. earbuds
  • Use our guide to find out which device is suitable for you
  • Also, check out our post on bone conduction headphones vs. earbuds 

In-ear monitors and earbuds look similar when worn, so it’s easy to think they are one and the same.

But as a potential buyer – consumer, audiophile, or musician – knowing the differences in design, audio quality, and uses ensures you buy the best type of audio accessory for you.

In-ear monitors, also called IEMs in the music community, are not the same as earbuds.

At the most basic level, both are audio accessories with miniaturized mechanics that convert electrical signals into sounds. But there are notable differences between the two if you dig deeper.

Earbuds have been around since the 1990s as an alternative to bulky over-the-ear headsets. They are lightweight, inexpensive, easy to pack, and cause less fatigue than over-ear headphones.

Until recent years, IEMs were reserved for pro musicians, audio engineers, and audiophiles with well-lined purses.

They hit the mainstream last decade when manufacturers reduced costs and consumers, particularly audiophiles, started using them as daily audio-listening devices.

The table below highlights the core differences between in-ear monitors and earbuds:

Earbuds In-Ear Monitors
Earbuds are designed for consumer use IEMs are intended for listening to a personal mix while performing or recording music.
Earbuds generally have one dynamic audio driver IEMs may have one or more dynamic drivers, balanced armatures, or a combination of both (hybrid).
Earbuds cost less but have comparatively inferior sound quality IEMs are expensive and tuned to reproduce clean, clear, high-quality audio, even at low volume levels.
Earbuds are not as good at blocking outside sounds. IEMs are designed to protect your ears and block unwanted ambient noise.

As you can see, earbuds and in-ear monitors are designed for different jobs and sold at differing price points. You may need one or the other, and in some cases, both.

So, let’s get into how they work before we discuss IEM vs earbuds in more detail.

What Are Earbuds?

“Earbuds” is a generic term for lightweight stereo earphones without a headband.

Earbuds have four main components – housing, a dynamic audio driver, an ear tip, and a cable (if wired). Their wings/wires nestle into the ear contours, and ear tips rest in the outer ear structure.

Earbuds have only one dynamic audio driver – a mechanism that converts audio signals into sound waves. Additionally, they have foam or silicone ear tips available in a few different shapes and sizes.

There are three types of earbuds in the current market – wired, wireless, and true wireless. The wired versions have a cord or cable attached to them, with the other end having a 3.5mm headphone jack that needs to be plugged into the audio source.

Standard earbuds are “colored,” meaning they do not reproduce a transparent and neutral sound.

They have an inherent EQ (sound signature) that makes the audio sound more bass-heavy or energetic.

This is done to enhance a consumer’s listening experience. So, understandably, they are ideal for listening to music or taking calls on the go.

Related: 5 Best Invisible Earbuds (Ranked & Reviewed)

What Are In-Ear Monitors (IEMs)?

In-ear monitors are high-performance earphones designed for critical listening (read: high-resolution audio), improved comfort, and high levels of sound isolation.

They have a flat response and are more capable and customizable when compared to consumer earbuds.

The four components of in-ear monitors include a driver module, ear tips (universal or custom molded), a magnetic faceplate (optional, customizable, removable), and a cable.

IEMs can have 1-4 dynamic drivers and/or balanced armatures and hybrids that combine the two.

Quick Recap: A dynamic driver is a miniaturized version of the headphone cone, and a balanced armature is a mechanism invented for hearing aids.

The form delivers a big sound with a tight bass response because it physically pushes more air. The latter is famed for reproducing precise frequencies but airier sounds. In-ear monitor earbuds combine the two to great effect.

IEMs are wired and may have 51” or 72” mono or stereo cables that are detachable or swappable. Custom or high-end models can also have Bluetooth wireless adapter cables.

Besides that, there are two types of IEMs – a) Universal IEMs and b) Custom molded IEMs.

Related: 5 Best In-Ear Monitors for Bass Players (All Budgets)

Universal and Custom-molded IEMs

Universal IEMs are in-stock, ready-to-ship models from consumer and boutique brands. They come with generic silicone or foam ear tips with a few size options.

Imaginably, universal tips need an exacting fit, but you don’t pump goo in your ears and have better resale value.

You can get a cast of your ear canal from an audiologist and send it to a company that makes custom-molded IEMs. They will make ear tips that sit perfectly in your ear canal.

However, this process demands a lot of effort, time, and money. Custom molds are VERY expensive.

Related: 5 Best Custom In-Ear Monitors Actually Worth The Money

What’s The Difference Between In-Ear Monitors And Earbuds?

Now that we’ve given you a brass-tacks-overview of both audio accessories, it’s time to tackle the big question; in-ear monitors vs earbuds, what’s the difference?  

Purpose

Earbuds and IEMs are intended for different tasks, and they are chosen for the job they do.

Earbuds are a compact alternative to headphones. They are more travel and workout-friendly and also more affordable.

But they aren’t designed to protect your hearing, block outside noise, or reproduce accurate audio at low volumes. That falls under the purview of in-ear monitors. 

IEMs rest deeper inside the ear canal, which results in superior noise isolation and clear audio without any need to push the volume.

So, they are an excellent alternative to wedge monitors used during live performances or as a device for silently monitoring the mix in the studio.

Secondly, musicians are constantly exposed to high volumes, and it can damage their hearing over time.

Isolation from outside sounds allows musicians to hear everything clearly in the mix at lower volume levels. So, using IEMs can reduce and forestall that damage.

Sound Coloration

People use three terms to describe the sound of IEMs, earphones, and headphones – warm/bright, neutral, and V-shaped.

In-ear monitors deliver detailed sound across different frequency ranges. They are neutral, meaning they have a balanced sound and reproduce accurate audio.

Consumer earbuds are not neutral or balanced, which is one of the distinguishing factors in the in-ear vs earbuds discussion. Standard earbuds tend to be warm, bright, or V-shaped.

Warm earbuds boost the bass frequencies, which is why they are popular in the consumer market. Similarly, bright earbuds deliver superior high-pitched sounds.

A V-shaped sound signature implies the mid-range is recessed and/or the lows and highs are boosted.

Passive Noise Isolation

Earbuds have some degree of passive noise isolation but do not create a tight seal over the ear.

This results in three issues – a) too much air can go around them, b) outside sounds will leak through, and c) the bass response is relatively poor.

In-ear monitor earbuds are designed for studio and stage use, so they have a tighter seal and superior passive sound attenuation, often better than ANC headphones.

Simply put, they do a bang-up job of blocking outside noise – 25 dB to 40 dB, depending on the make/model.

Cost

In the current market, standard earbuds cost between USD 30 to 500, depending on the brand, features, and functionality.

High-quality consumer earbuds typically cost less than $100, and true wireless earbuds can go for high triple figures.

The average price of in-ear monitors is significantly higher than earbuds, somewhere in the mid-three figures.

If you have deep pockets, you can spend four figures on multi-driver or custom-fitted in-ear monitors by boutique brands like Ultimate Ears or JH Audio Layla.

IEMs can sub earbuds but not the other way around.

It’s not advised to use standard earbuds as in-ear monitors because – a) they elevate the bass and/or treble (not accurate), b) their ear tips rest in the outer structure of the ear, so they don’t block ambient noise effectively, and c) the quality of sound is not as good as IEMs.

On the other hand, audiophiles use in-ear monitors for critical listening.

They are also popular with people who spend a great deal of flying because you can enjoy music (or other audio entertainment) at lower levels, and they block out the airplane noise.

Some boutique earbuds can rival single-driver IEMs, but they are the exception, not the norm.

IEM vs. Earbuds: Which Is Better For You?

In-ear monitor earbuds are better suited for musicians and studio professionals as they deliver balanced audio with high levels of noise isolation.

They yield exceptional clarity, depth, and detail even at low volumes, which is ideal for audio monitoring.

Earbuds are a better choice for consumers and general-purpose listening. They rest on the outer ear and generally have a modified frequency response (V-shaped or warm).

They don’t drown out ambient noise unless you turn up the volume or buy earbuds with active noise cancellation.

Related: The 7 Loudest Wireless Earbuds (That Money Can Buy)

FAQs

Are IEMs More Comfortable Than Earbuds?

IEMs are slightly more comfortable than wired earbuds if you invest in the right ear tips. They also cause less fatigue as you can hear music at lower volumes.

However, wireless earbuds are more convenient if you listen to music on the subway.

Why Do Singers Wear In-Ear Monitors?

Singers wear in-ear monitor earbuds to hear the audio clearly and exactly the way they want. They can set volume levels for their voice and other instruments according to their preference.

In-ear monitors also block unwanted noise from the audience that can distract singers or make them go off-tune.  

Are IEMs noise canceling?

The ear tips of IEMs rest inside the ear canal, creating a tight seal and blocking external noise.

The seal results in superior passive noise isolation, but it’s not the same as active noise-cancellation technology found in ANC earbuds or headphones.

Before you go, check out our guide to the 7 Best In-Ear Monitors For Live Performers & Gigs!