Earbuds and headphones are among the most personal devices you can buy. Chances are they’ll sit in or around your ears for a good chunk of the day as you jam to some music at home, pump yourself up at the gym and, more than ever lately, take endless conference calls from home. As such, choosing which type of audio gadget is for you is incredibly important.
Headphones and earbuds each have their pros and cons, and picking between the two largely comes down to your personal preferences and how you plan on using them. Want something compact and portable that will stay in your ears in the middle of a sweaty workout? You’ll probably want a solid pair of true wireless earbuds. Looking for the highest-quality sound, or simply want to block out the entire outside world as efficiently as possible? You might be better off investing in over-ear headphones.
Fortunately, there’s no wrong answer when it comes to this decision, and thanks to great releases from the likes of Apple, Sony and Bose, there has never been a better selection of high-quality earbuds and headphones to choose from. Having tested the top earbuds and headphones on the market extensively, we’ve broken down these two popular product types to help you decide which one you should spend your money on.
You should get earbuds if…
You want something as portable and subtle as possible
This might be obvious, but if you want something as portable and lightweight as possible, go with a pair of wireless earbuds. Earbuds typically come in pocket-friendly charging cases that are no bigger than a box of mints, whereas you’ll likely need to store your headphones in a bag (or let them rest on your neck when you’re not wearing them).
This difference in size also extends to how you’ll use these devices every day. Earbuds are more lightweight and generally have a more unassuming profile than over-ear headphones do (this is subjective, of course — some people find the long stems on Apple’s AirPods unsightly). But if you want to listen to music and podcasts for long stretches of time without a big set of cans weighing down your head, you can’t go wrong with a pair of wireless earbuds.
You work out often
Speaking of size and subtlety, wireless earbuds make great workout companions. They’re less likely to get in your way while you’re running or lifting weights, and models such as the Powerbeats Pro and Bose Sport Earbuds are built specifically for those staying active with ergonomic designs that can withstand rain and sweat. Even more mainstream wireless buds, such as the AirPods Pro and Galaxy Buds Pro, are great for the gym, thanks to water resistance and multiple ear tips for finding a secure fit.
You want a good mix of affordability and performance
True wireless earbuds are generally less expensive than wireless headphones while still delivering great performance. Even the most expensive wireless earbuds — such as the $249 AirPods Pro and $279 Bose QuietComfort Earbuds — are still around $100 cheaper than some of the best over-ear headphones you can buy, including the $349 Sony WH-1000XM4s and the $379 Bose 700s. And don’t even get us started on the absurdly overpriced $549 AirPods Max, which make the AirPods Pro seem like a downright bargain.
Lower prices don’t mean that these earbuds skimp on features, either. The AirPods Pro, QuietComfort Earbuds and $199 Galaxy Buds Pro all offer strong active noise cancellation (ANC), and many of these buds feature lots of advanced software tricks. And if you’re looking to get quality buds for as little as possible, the standard AirPods (currently $119) and Galaxy Buds Live (currently $109) are frequently on sale.
The best earbuds you can buy
Our current pick for the best true wireless earbuds overall is the $249 AirPods Pro, thanks to their excellent sound and great noise cancellation. The $199 Powerbeats Pro are the best earbuds for working out that we’ve tested, while the $279 Bose QuietComfort Earbuds offer the strongest and most robust ANC.
You should get headphones if…
You want the best possible sound quality and noise cancellation
If you’re looking for the best, most immersive sound quality possible, your money is probably better spent on a good set of headphones. Wireless headphones (particularly over-ear models) generally have larger drivers and can better envelop your ears with full, wide sound that lets every element of your favorite tracks shine. Premium headphones also tend to go big on advanced features — Sony’s WH-1000XM4s, for example, support high-res audio files and can upscale your music tracks to make them sound as true to life as possible.
And while earbuds such as the AirPods Pro and Bose QuietComfort Earbuds offer great ANC, headphones such as the Sony WH-1000XM4s and Bose 700s are a bit better at blocking out the outside world, thanks to over-ear designs that can more fully shield your ears from unwanted noise.
You want longer overall battery life
When it comes to headphones, bigger usually means longer lasting. Most wireless earbuds will get you five to six hours of juice on a single charge, while many top headphones are rated to last well over an entire day. Take the Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds, for example, which lasted about six hours in our testing, while their over-ear counterparts in the WH-1000XM4s endured for a whopping 30 hours.
The gap in battery life gets a little closer when you consider the extra juice you’ll get from your earbuds’ charging case — usually around 10 to 20 hours. But when it comes to continuous music playback, headphones generally last much longer than their miniature cousins.
You don’t want anything inside of your ears
While I personally prefer the more compact, low-profile design of earbuds, there are plenty of people who find traditional headphones more comfortable and secure. Several colleagues and friends whom I polled for this story noted that they prefer headphones because earbuds frequently fall out of their ears. If you’d rather not have something sit directly inside your ears for hours on end while you jam out to music and devour podcasts, a pair of over-ear or on-ear headphones will quite literally be a better fit for you.
The best headphones you can buy
If you’re seeking over-ear headphones with quality active noise cancellation, superb sound and tons of features, it doesn’t get better than the $349 Sony WH-1000XM4. If the more compact, less engrossing design of on-ear headphones are more your thing, we recommend the $199 Beats Solo 3.
The choice between headphones and earbuds is an incredibly subjective one, but there are a few key factors worth considering before you pick a side.
Earbuds are generally more compact, more affordable and more workout-friendly than their canned counterparts. On the flip side, headphones often deliver the best possible audio quality and noise cancellation of the two, not to mention much better battery life — so long as you’re willing to pay the extra premium.
For a deeper dive on all things audio, be sure to check out our guides to the best true wireless earbuds, on-ear headphones and over-ear headphones you can buy.