Can You Use In-ear Monitors As Earphones?

(Last Updated On: December 5, 2020)
Singer wearing IEM earphone when singing on stage.

Sometimes the obvious advice you need to hear isn’t very obvious to you. Here’s an example of this that happened last month. A friend asked me which is better between earbuds and in-ear monitors. IEMs and earbuds, of course, are somewhat similar because both have small sizes. Both are portable likewise. Moreover, you can insert them into your ears. Yet, the difference between the two is quite obvious. 

In-ear Monitors VS Earbuds: Which is Better?

However, the most obvious difference between the two is in the way they are inserted into the ears. You insert the IEMs, for example, into your ear canal while the earbuds sit on the outer ear. For the uninitiated, of course, the distinction between IEMs and earbuds is somewhat blurry and confusing. So, let me delve deeper into this distinction for you to understand their difference further.

Understanding In-ear Monitors (IEMs)

The in-ear monitors are relatively new and have been around for several decades. They came to the scene only in the late 80s. Moreover, they became affordable only approximately 15 years ago. The IEMs evolved from the plastic earphones used in the 50s up to the 70s. As headphones, they are high-performance earphones that you insert into your ear canal. 

IEMs are more convenient to use because their tips come with soft materials, made of foam or silicon. This feature gives the IEMs greater comfort when used and better sound isolation property. They are also designed for isolating external sounds and for creating better and well-modulated frequency response. 

The IEMs have gone a long way since their introductions. Nowadays, IEMs come with many features that make them a favorite of many performing artists. The advantages of wearing IEMs include better monitoring, eliminating feedback, freedom of movement when performing, and better protection to ears. Professional artists usually have their IEMs customized for better fitting and convenience.

Understanding the Earbuds

You may think of the earbuds like the ones you would use for cleaning your ears. Well, that is not what earbuds mean here. Of course, the term earbuds is a vernacular for all types of stereo earphone designs that do not have a headband. They are small headphones that you fit into the outer ear. They face the ear canal, but they are not inserted into it. They are portable and convenient to use. Yet, many users consider earbuds uncomfortable.

The earbuds are lightweight, and they come with cords. When you accidentally pulled on the cable, the earbuds would pop out of your ears without injuring you or damaging the earbuds. However, the earbuds’ design does allow for air to move around them, which implies less sound isolation and inadequate bass response.

Most earbuds are intended for casual listening and come only with one driver. They are also less expensive than the IEMs and are cheaply manufactured. Nevertheless, you will find more expensive ones.

Detailed Discussion on the Differences between the IEMs and Earbuds

Despite the somewhat similarities between IEMs and earbuds, there are remarkable differences between the two. Here is a detailed discussion of the differences between these two types of headphones:

Sound Quality Difference

One essential difference between IEMs and earbuds lies in the sound they produce. As mentioned above, most earbuds are cheaply manufactured, and for this reason, you can never expect a sterling frequency response from the earbuds. Moreover, you usually get earbuds as freebies once you buy devices like MP3 and other portable electronics. 

You can also buy earbuds separately. But even if you buy earbuds individually, your options are still dictated by limited and cheap options. The point is that most earbuds are of low-quality audio. Besides, most of them cost less than a hundred dollars. You can buy many models for less than 30$.

The price of IEMs, on the other hand, can go up to several hundred dollars, though you can still buy in-ear monitors that are less expensive. Yet, when it comes to audio quality, IEMs provide a superior sound quality than earbuds. Artists, audio engineers, and audiophiles mostly use the IEMs, and IEMs come with better drivers that offer excellent audio quality. 

IEMs were first conceived for the hearing impaired. However, the designs of most present-day IEMs come with balanced armature drivers. Moreover, some top models come with as many as 18 balanced armature drivers. These provide the IEMs faster response, more detailed sound, and higher dynamic range.  

Noise Isolation Property Difference

Most earbuds have plastic constructions. Moreover, they come in one-size-fits-all design, so you can seldom buy earbuds that fit your ears. They are also like speakers that are near your ears. With their plastic design and one-size-fit-all design, you should never expect them to provide sterling noise isolation.

On the other hand, the IEMs are directly fitted inside your ear canal. Hence, in a way, they offer a better level of noise isolation. Moreover, IEMs come with detachable ear tips. These ear tips come in various sizes and shapes. Besides, some IEMs come with two or three-pronged designs for reaching farther into the ear canal. So, it is reasonable to say that they provide better noise isolation than earbuds. 

You can select the right ear tips that perfectly fit inside your ear canals, given the many ear tip options at hand. Once you’ve found the right ear tips, you can expect to have a high level of noise isolation with your IEMs. You will also notice that the IEMs sound louder even if you are not increasing their volume.

The Difference in Driver Compositions

As mentioned above, most earbuds come with only one driver, and they don’t cover the full range of sound you want to hear. On the other hand, IEMs come with several drivers. Some even come with up to eighteen balanced armature drivers that provide faster response, more detailed sound, and higher dynamic range. 

These dynamic drivers come with a diaphragm along with a voice coil that is attached to the diaphragm. Dynamic drivers, of course, provide a better bass response.

Although many IEMs feature several drivers, it doesn’t mean that you cannot find IEMs with a single driver. Moreover, IEMs come in a wide range of prices. Thus, you can buy some cheap IEMs with only one driver. Yet, with high-end IEMs, you should expect to pay more.

The Difference in Volume Level

Some factors prod us to increase the music we listen to. For example, if there is ambient noise that we would like to drown out, we increase the headphones’ volume. The earbuds, as we said earlier, do not perfectly isolate noise. So, you will tend to raise your earbuds’ volume to hear the music you listen to and drown out the ambient noise. 

IEMs, on the other hand, can isolate ambient noise, given their better design and the fact that you insert them right into your ear canals. So, in some ways, IEMs work like earplugs that seal the ears from ambient noise. 

You don’t need to crank up the volume of your IEMs to hear the music you want to listen to. Moreover, you don’t need to make extra effort to muffle the ambient noise. IEMs are also inserted well into the ear, lessening the chance of them dropping off your ear.

With IEMs, you can enjoy your favorite music without increasing its volume to hear the details and nuances of the audio signals. For this reason, IEMs have become an indispensable tool for most artists, audiophiles, and audio engineers. Moreover, many gym enthusiasts opt for the IEM because they do not fall off, and they provide more excellent sound isolation and audio output.

Conclusion

Headphones come in various audio reproduction quality and capabilities, But if you would ask me about the difference between IEMs and earbuds, my answer is: The difference is quite obvious! Of course, if you are only a casual user of headphones, you may mistake one over the other. Yet, upon closer scrutiny, you can readily spot IEMs over earbuds. 

The differences between the two are quite obvious, and the IEMs are more expensive and better options. So, if you want superior sound quality, noise isolation property, and driver composition, you should undoubtedly go for IEMs.

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