Wireless Earbuds vs IEMs
Casual listeners probably won’t even notice the small differences between in-ear monitors and wireless earbuds, mainly because these headphone types both look and perform in a very similar fashion. However, professionals who rely on accurate sound reception, reliability, and durability of their headphones should be aware of the many dissimilarities between them.
Overall, we can conclude that earbuds are better suited for casual listeners while IEMs would better sit in the ears of professionals in the music industry. Starting from the price tag, overall comfort, versatility and intended use, both of these headphone types have a lot to offer, but each has pros and cons.
But there are plenty of factors to consider. Below we take a dive deep into the most notable advantages and disadvantages of wireless earbuds and in-ear monitors, so without any further ado, let’s start from the top.
Pros and Cons of Wireless Earbuds and IEMs
Wireless earbuds and in-ear monitors feature very similar construction, although they’re supposed to be used in a different way.
In fact, the main difference between these two headphone types is that in-ear monitors are supposed to be inserted directly into the canals of the listener’s ears while wireless earbuds should be placed on the upper part of the helix.
Although this is the most impactful difference between wireless buds and in-ear monitors, this completely changes the way they perform in action, presenting a series of drastically different benefits and potential shortcomings.
Advantages of Wireless Earbuds
The ear helix (outer ring) is of universal shape while its size is different for most people, albeit it’s irrelevant when it comes to wireless earbuds. Earbuds can fit all people, whereas IEM-s require special tips as every person has a different shape and size of the inner ear canal.
The universal fit eliminates the guesswork, which means that you don’t need to pay a visit to the audiologist who will measure the dimensions of your ears, let alone craft the molds required for custom IEMs.
Lesser Air Pressure
Similar to open-back headphones, earbuds passively filtrate some of the frequencies, instead of taking the full-on collision of the bass and treble like IEMs do. This means that they’re much easier to wear for extended periods, as they generate lesser air pressure, affording your ears some ‘breathing room’ from marginal frequencies.
Perfect for Casual Listening
If you prefer your music to be in the background instead of focusing on every single detail in all of your songs, you’ll probably like wireless earbuds better. They’re generally a bit quieter and they automatically ‘discharge’ the lowest and the highest frequency tones into the air, which allows for a pleasurable, easy listening experience.
Due to the fact that they feature fewer drivers, no tips, and generally a lesser number of features (while relying on the same Bluetooth technology), earbuds are often drastically cheaper than in-ear monitors.
Disadvantages of Wireless Earbuds
Earbuds are meant to be light and easy to use for extended periods, which is the prime reason why they’re manufactured of plastic materials. Introducing any other kind of material would make them unsuitable for use comfort-wise, and sadly, plastic is all but durable.
Not Meant for Critical Listening
Wireless earbuds scatter the frequencies in an unpredictable, untamable manner, making them practically useless in any studio setting.
Minimal Sound Isolation
The only form of ambient noise reduction earbuds provide is the small audio field that the speakers generate, which is essentially a small bubble of sound locked in combat with all of the other noises in the environment. They are practically incomparable to IEMs in this field.
Advantages of IEMs
Perfect for Professionals
Whether you’re a touring musician, a sound engineer, or a mixer, you’ll want to use in-ear monitors instead of earbuds. Their performance is close to that of closed-back headphones, which means that you’ll be able to focus on every tiny aspect of their soundstage, allowing you to hear a significantly higher number of details in the mix.
Superior Ambient Noise Reduction
In-ear monitors go far into our ear canals, which forms a kind of a seal that prevents the frequencies from leaving so freely while at the same time not allowing any environmental noises to enter, all on a passive level.
Prevent Hearing Loss
In order to properly hear what’s going on with wireless earbuds, you need to crank up the volume high enough for it to cut through the ambient noises, which is arguably dangerous to human hearing levels.
In-ear monitors allow you the benefit to hear all the details even at the quietest of volumes. In fact, they’re capable of withstanding the full blast of hyped drummer blasting on the percussions merely a few meters away and still be audible and clear enough.
They’re the go-to headphones for guitarists and bass players who are standing as opposed to the wall of sound generated by ridiculously strong amps, which dramatically reduces the risk of hearing damage, especially Tinnitus.
Better Sound Quality
While some people may argue that wireless earbuds can sound better than entry-level IEMs, the fact that in-ear monitors are generally supplied with several drivers (while buds have only one) means that they’re at least more versatile in terms of sonic performance.
If we go with the presumption that each of these drivers governs a single aspect of the monitor’s soundstage, we’ll get a rich, detailed sonic spectrum fully available for us to enjoy.
Disadvantages of IEMs
In-ear monitors are pricey for a reason, but that still doesn’t change the fact that they aren’t exactly affordable for most people. The majority of casual music listeners would be gladder to pick up a pair of high-quality earbuds than a set of entry-level IEMs.
Minimal Situation Awareness
While the fact that in-ear monitors can block you off from the real world sonically is great in many respects, it hides a rather obvious flaw. You won’t be able to hear anything around you due to their superb ambient noise reduction, which can sometimes put you in danger, especially while commuting or running.
Senior editor for Ultimate-Guitar, passionate about good music and quality gear. Bassist. King Crimson fan. Travel enthusiast. Compulsive buyer of Bose headphones and old Fender amps.