Which are better, earphones or headphones?

As a phonetician, it’s part of my job to listen to sounds very closely. Plus, I like to listen to music while I work, enjoy listening to radio dramas and use a headset to chat with my guildies while I’m gaming.  As a result, I spend a lot of time with things on/in my ears. And, because of my background, I’m also fairly well informed about the acoustic properties of  earphones and headphones and how they interact with anatomy. All of which helps me answer the question: which is better? Or, more accurately, what are some of the pros and cons of each? There are a number of factors to consider, including frequency response, noise isolation, noise cancellation and comfort/fit. Before I get into specifics, however, I want to make sure we’re on the same page when we talk about “headphones” and “earphones”.

Earphones: For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use the term “earphone” to refer to devices that are meant to be worn inside the pinna (that’s the fancy term for the part of the ear you can actually see). These are also referred to as “earbuds”, “buds”, “in-ears”, “canalphones”, “in-ear moniters”, “IEM’s” and “in-ear headphones”. You can see an example of what I’m calling “earphones” below.

IPod Touch 2G Remote Mic
Ooo, so white and shiny and painful.

Headphones: I’m using this term to refer to devices that are not meant to rest in the pinna, whether they go around or on top of the ear. These are also called “earphones”, (apparently) “earspeakers” or, my favorites, “cans”. You can see somewhat antiquated examples of what I’m calling “headphones” below.

Club holds radio dance wearing earphones 1920
I mean, sure, it’s a wonder of modern technology and all, but the fidelity is just so low.

Alright, now that we’ve  cleared that up, let’s get down to brass tacks. (Or, you might say…. bass tacks.)

  1. Frequency response curve: How much distortion do they introduce? In an ideal world, ‘phones should responded equally well to all frequencies (or pitches), without transmitting one frequency rage more loudly than another. This desirable feature is commonly referred to as a “flat” frequency response. That means that the signal you’re getting out is pretty much the same one that was fed in, at all frequency ranges.
    1. Earphones: In general, earphones tend to have a worse frequency response.
    2. Headphones: In general, headphones tend to have better frequency response.
    3. WinnerHeadphones are probably the better choice if you’re really worried about distortion. You should read the specifications of the device you’re interested in, however, since there’s a large amount of variability.
  2. Frequency response: What is their pitch range? This term is sometimes used to refer to the frequency response curve I talked about above and sometimes used to refer to pitch range. I know, I know, it’s confusing. Pitch range is usually expressed as the lowest sound the ‘phones can transmit followed by the highest. Most devices on the market today can pretty much play anything between 20 and 20k Hz. (You can see what that sounds like here. Notice how it sounds loudest around 300Hz? That’s an artifact of your hearing, not the video. Humans are really good at hearing sounds around 300Hz which [not coincidentally] is about where the human voice hangs out.)
    1. Earphones: Earphones tend to have a smaller pitch range than headphones. Of course, there are always exceptions.
    2. Headphones: Headphones tend to have a better frequency range than earphones.
    3. Winner: In general, headphones have a better frequency range. That said, it’s not really that big of a deal. You can’t really hear very high or very low sounds that well because of the way your hearing system works regardless of how well your ‘phones are delivering the signal. Anything that plays sounds between 20Htz and 20,000Htz should do you just fine.
  3. Noise isolation: How well do they isolate you from sounds other than the ones you’re trying to listen to? More noise isolation is generally better, unless there’s some reason you need to be able to hear environmental sounds as well whatever you’re listening to. Better isolation also means you’re less likely to bother other people with your music.
    1. Earphones:  A properly fitted pair of in-ear earphones will give you the best noise isolation. It makes sense; if you’re wearing them properly they should actually form a complete seal with your ear canal. No sound in, no sound out, excellent isolation.
    2. Headphones: Even really good over-ear headphones won’t form a complete seal around your ear. (Well, ok, maybe if you’re completely bald and you make some creative use of adhesives, but you know what I mean.) As a result, you’re going to get some noise leakage .
    3. Winner: You’ll get the best noise isolation from well-fitting earphones that sit in the ear canal.
  4. Noise cancellation: How well can they correct for atmospheric sounds? So noise cancellation is actually completely different from noise isolation. Noise isolation is something that all ‘phones have. Noise-cancelling ‘phones, on the other hand, actually do some additional signal processing before you get the sound. They “listen” for atmospheric sounds, like an air-conditioner or a car engine. Then they take that waveform, reproduce it and invert it. When they play the inverted waveform along with your music, it exactly cancels out the sound. Which is awesome and space-agey, but isn’t perfect. They only really work with steady background noises. If someone drops a book, they won’t be able to cancel that sudden, sharp noise. They also tend not to work as well with really high-pitched noises.
    1. Earphones: Noise-cancelling earphones tend not be as effective as noise-cancelling headphones until you get to the high end of the market (think $200 plus).
    2. Headphones: Headphones tend to be slightly better at noise-cancellation than earphones of a similar quality, in my experience. This is partly due to the fact that there’s just more room for electronics in headphones.
    3. Winner: Headphones usually have a slight edge here. Of course, really expensive noise-cancelling devices, whether headphones or earphones, usually perform better than their bargain cousins.
  5. Comfort/fit: Is they comfy?
    1. Earphones: So this is where earphones tend to suffer. There is quite a bit of variation in the shape of the cavum conchæ, which is the little bowl shape just outside your ear canal. Earphone manufacturers have to have somewhere to put their magnets and drivers and driver support equipment and it usually ends up in the “head” of the earphone, nestled right in your concha cavum. Which is awesome if it’s a shape that fits your ear. If it’s not, though, it can quickly start to become irritating and eventually downright painful. Personally, this is the main reason I prefer over-ear headphones.
    2. Headphones: A nicely fitted pair of over-ear headphones that covers your whole ear is just incredibly comfortable. Plus, they keep your ears warm! I find on-ear headphones less comfortable in general, but a nice cushy pair can still feel awesome. There are other factors to take into account, though; wearing headphones and glasses with a thick frame can get really uncomfortable really fast.
    3. Winner: While this is clearly a matter of personal preference, I have a strong preference for headphones on this count.

So, for me at least, headphones are the clear winner overall. I find them more comfortable, and they tend to reproduce sound better than earphones. There are instances where I find earphones preferable, though. They’re great for travelling or if I really need an isolated signal. When I’m just sitting at my desk working, though, I reach for headphones 99% of the time.

One final caveat: the sound quality you get out of your ‘phones depends most on what files you’re playing. The best headphones in the world can’t do anything about quantization noise (that’s the noise introduced when you convert analog sound-waves to digital ones) or a background hum in the recording.

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Feeling Sound

We’re all familiar with the sensation of sound so loud we can actually feel it: the roar of a jet engine, the palpable vibrations of a loud concert, a thunderclap so close it shakes the windows. It may surprise you to learn, however, that that’s not the only way in which we “feel” sounds. In fact, recent research suggests that tactile information might be just as important as sound in some cases!

Touch Gently (3022697095)
What was that? I couldn’t hear you, you were touching too gently.
I’ve already talked about how we can see sounds, and the role that sound plays in speech perception before. But just how much overlap is there between our sense of touch and hearing? There is actually pretty strong evidence that what we feel can actually override what we’re hearing. Yau et. al. (2009), for example, found that tactile expressions of frequency could override auditory cues. In other words, you might hear two identical tones as different if you’re holding something that is vibrating faster or slower. If our vision system had a similar interplay, we might think that a person was heavier if we looked at them while holding a bowling ball, and lighter if we looked at them while holding a volleyball.

And your sense of touch can override your ears (not that they were that reliable to begin with…) when it comes to speech as well. Gick and Derrick (2013) have found that tactile information can override auditory input for speech sounds. You can be tricked into thinking that you heard a “peach” rather than “beach”, for example, if you’re played the word “beach” and a puff of air is blown over your skin just as you hear the “b” sound. This is because when an English speaker says “peach”, they aspirate the “p”, or say it with a little puff of air. That isn’t there when they say the “b” in “beach”, so you hear the wrong word.

Which is all very cool, but why might this be useful to us as language-users? Well, it suggests that we use a variety of cues when we’re listening to speech. Cues act as little road-signs that point us towards the right interpretation. By having access to a lots of different cues, we ensure that our perception is more robust. Even when we lose some cues–say, a bear is roaring in the distance and masking some of the auditory information–you can use the others to figure out that your friend is telling you that there’s a bear. In other words, even if some of the road-signs are removed, you can still get where you’re going. Language is about communication, after all, and it really shouldn’t be surprising that we use every means at our disposal to make sure that communication happens.