IEM Vs Earbuds

ADVERTISING DISCLAIMER: This website contains ads and affiliate links. I may earn a commission if you click on an ad. I may also earn a commission if you click on an ad or affiliate link and make a purchase from the website that you were led to.

IEM Vs Earbuds – What Is The Difference?

IEMs and earbuds are commonly utilized interchangeably, however there are some distinct distinctions between them that should be considered prior to purchasing either.

IEM Vs Earbuds

Are you aware of the differences between IEMs and earbuds? This is the quick answer.


Earbuds or IEMs are remarkably similar in the sense that they’re small audio devices with a portable design which are directly inserted in the ear. The major difference between them is the fact that IEMs are placed inside the ear canal while Earbuds are placed on the outside of the ear.

There are many other differences between the two devices, however the majority of the other important distinctions are due to this.

The distinction between earbuds and IEMs can be obscure and quite confusing. It’s a lot more obscure than the distinction between headsets and headphones.

At first glance it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking IEMs and earbuds to be the similar things. For one thing, both are compact and portable audio listening devices that fit inside the ear.

However, here lies the most significant difference : like their name implies, IEMs (in-ear monitors) are inserted directly into the ear canal, whereas Earbuds rest simply on the outside of the ear.

The difference might seem minor initially however, it has numerous implications that we’ll be discussing right now.

There are a lot of differences between IEMs and earbuds

Noise Isolation

Best Noise Cancelling True Wireless Earbuds

Earbuds typically have an all-plastic construction. They are made with a one-size-(hopefully)-fits-all design. In this way they function as speakers that sit close to your ears. For isolation from noise both of these components – all-plastic design as well as outside ear fit do not fare very well.

In contrast, since IEMs are inserted directly into the ear, they are able to provide the user with a greater degree of noise-isolation. IEMs also feature removable (and swappable) ears tips available with every sizes and shapes. Some come with a two- or three-pronged design that can reach deeper into the ear canal, and provide more noise isolation.

There’s a little small print to consider which is that you should take the great noise-isolation goodbye if you’re not in a position to create an adequate sealinside your ear. For this to happen is essential to locate the perfect eartip.

Whatever the case, once you have found the perfect fit the additional advantage of IEMs will be obvious to you: the volume. IEMs have the ability to sound more powerful without exposing your ears to higher decibels.


Sennheiser IE80 S design back

The closer audio (or the driver in this instance) is close to your ear, the more likely it is to harm your ears.

It’s not a problem if you aren’t listening to music in excessively loud levels However, the fact is that the reason why we frequently increase the volume has nothing to do music itself. Most of the time we have to crank up the volume in order to drown out the background sound.

IEMs function as earsplugs after you’ve created an appropriate seal, which greatly reduces the noise from outside. Earbuds like we’ve talked about are placed on the outside of the ear , but they don’t completely seal the ear canal and thus let a lot of ambient noise through.

If you’re wearing earbuds in a noisy area then there’s no other choice other than increasing the volume. However, even then, you’ll not be able to block out all unwanted background noise.

Related: How To Prevent Hearing Damage for Ear Health

However, you can listen to IEMs at an lower volume, yet you will be able to hear music more clearly since the ambient noise won’t be an obstacle as big to the user to climb over. That’s the reason why IEMs have become a crucial element of every fitness enthusiast’s toolbox. They are affixed to your ear and allow you to listen to music as well as block out any music that plays behind you.

It’s both ways. There are times when you need to be alert to the surroundings around you, such as when you’re jogging, and want to be able to hear the noise. In this scenario it is common for earbuds to come out the best, but there are some premium IEMs on the market that come with Ambient modes that let you remain alert to the surroundings.

Sound Quality

Another reason to increase the volume is because you’re having difficulty understanding all the subtleties in the music. Maybe you just have to turn the volume to eleven to be able to hear the bass on a particular track. The issue isn’t volume, it’s what’s the audio quality from the equipment you’re using.

A device that is of higher quality sound will enable users to hear everything they require and want to hear at much smaller volumes.

What is this got to do with have to do with the difference between IEMs and earbuds?

Everything seems to be as it should.

The reason why a lot of people aren’t aware of the distinction between the two types of gadgets is because they think that earbuds are merely cheap IEMs. This assumption isn’t completely unreasonable.

Earbuds as described as in the article below, are usually gadgets that are free with your portable electronic devices (smartphones MP3/4 players, etc.). They can be purchased on their own, but even so the options are limited to low-cost options. There is a chance that you will get an exception to this rule however, be aware that they’re only an exception.

So that Earbuds aren’t able to provide high recording quality. How come, when they cost lower than 20 bucks? This is why listeners are often trying to compensate for the lower audio quality by increasing the volume, which could be extremely dangerous.

However, IEMs can go for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. We’re not saying that you can buy plenty of IEMs that aren’t more expensive or are more powerful than the typical pair of earbuds. However, IEMs are readily available at all prices and cater to every demographic ranging from the casual listener with a tight budget to audiophiles who have cash making holes within their wallets.

Composition of the Driver

In-ear monitors usually contains multiple drivers

Earbuds typically only have only one dynamic driver.

In the reverse, IEMs can have many drivers. A dynamic driver is generally used to control the bass, however the mids and highs usually have each their very own balanced driver, or multiple of them.

Related: Headphone Drivers – The Ultimate Guide

It’s not uncommon to find IEMs to boast up to five drivers. If you think about it this quality and accuracy the five drivers are able to achieve will surpass the single driver that is found in the majority of earbuds.

However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some IEMs with just one driver. We’ve already discussed that IEMs cover the entire spectrum of price points starting from the cheapest models to premium, audiophile-grade models and even professional models.

We don’t want to use driver’s composition or sound quality as the sole aspect that determines the quality of an earbud or IEM (as other sources do however, we’ll get into that in a moment).


This is the problem.

The general consensus is that earbuds are more generally comfortable of the two options because they adhere to the previously mentioned one-size-fits-all method. In the theory of things, this is true however, because earbuds are typically all-plastic, it’s something of a hit or miss.

The models that have rubberized ear wings as well as other kinds of fitting mechanisms will certainly help in this regard. However, the majority of Earbuds you can get for free in other products aren’t comfortable..

In addition, IEMs can be very comfortable but this, also, as with noise-isolation, will be dependent on the correct eating tip and creating an appropriate seal. Quality IEMs have a wide range of ear tips to select from. Additionally, you can always purchase aftermarket options or even have them custom-fitted.

Related Articles: Most Comfortable Earbuds With Mic

However, this brings us closer to “apples and oranges” zone in which we’re comparing premium IEMs with many options, but with cheap earbuds (because they’re basically the only type of earbuds) which isn’t appropriate.

We all have distinct and distinctive ears. Some individuals will dislike using IEMs regardless of their ear tips or the performance or the quality of the instrument. It is a reason to test these items for yourself.

Other Definitions

We’ve already mentioned at the start of this post, the distinction among IEMs and earbuds is difficult to define. So how do we know we’ve summarized the major differences in just one sentence?

Here’s the problem: Not everyone agrees with this definition.

Some believe that the difference lies in the sound quality or amount of drivers. Some say that IEMs are only high-end equipment that is used by musicians. A lot of professional grade IEMs come with replaceable cables, so that you do not have to dispose of your expensive device if the cable becomes damaged. For musicians IEMs that they wear are usually custom-fit to the shape of their ears , ensuring the most comfortable experience. These IEMs are often called custom IEMs , also known as CIEMs.

There is a fact that musicians and audio engineers do not use IEMs for their performances or working in the studio however it may be easier to classify them as CIEMs, since IEMs that are CIEMs only differ in quality of audio (and perhaps , the customized ear tips). It is difficult to determine the line between mid-range items end and high-end models start, it is also difficult to determine the point at which IEMs finish and CIEMs start.

As we’ve said the above definitions, they don’t are 100% accurate as they don’t take into account the existence of an array of cheap IEMs as well as the few premium earbuds available and the top-of-the-line IEMs that don’t come with detachable cables or other similar features.

We prefer sticking to the distinction we’ve made to serve a single purpose: It’s the most convenient distinction for users!

The way the device fits within your ear is the most crucial aspect that you must be aware of prior to buying a new device since this will determine the way in which the device will handle all other elements such as noise isolation and comfort, sound quality and so on.

Furthermore, be aware that manufacturers frequently use “earbuds” in a general sense, which covers IEMs too. In the end, if you find a product with replaceable ear tips is an IEM and earbuds don’t come with ear tips since they’re not inserted into the canal of your ear.

Samsung Galaxy Buds (left) and Apple Airpods Pro (right). Image credit: PhoneArena

However, Samsung offers their own Galaxy Buds (not the Galaxy IEMs). These Airpods Pro are highly desired genuine wireless headphones (no one else uses the term”true wireless IEMs”).

It is important to be aware that while it’s good to know what kinds of audio equipment are available, not everyone uses the identical label and, sometimes, manufacturers themselves don’t use such labels.


Like this article? Leave a comment

Recent Post