Headphones vs earbuds - which is a better fit for your listening style?

Jabra Elite 75t and Anker Soundcore Life Q20 Hybrid.
PHOTO: Amazon

Headphones and earbuds offer great listening, but their features and characteristics make each one best for different uses.

Which to choose, headphones or earbuds? The short answer is, it all boils down to your personal preferences and listening styles. 

The longer answer is – well, audio technology has become so advanced that most music listeners will be as satisfied with headphones as they would be with earbuds. 

The advent of sophisticated active noise cancelling that happens automatically and without you noticing it means even tiny earbuds can compete with much larger headphones. 

The technology uses tiny microphones to detect ambient noise, and cancel it out with precision opposing sound waves generated by digital algorithms. The result is immersive, crisp sound for a fantastic listening session.

But beyond just sound quality, headphones and earbuds offer distinct experiences during use, due to their disparate features and capabilities. 

When should you choose earbuds?

Brand and model Features Price Why choose this?
Sony WF-1000XM3 ANC: Yes
Battery life: 6hr
Volume control: Yes
Microphone: Yes
Connections: Bluetooth
Comfort and fit: Ergonomic tri-hold structure
$217 on Amazon Lauded for amazing sound quality, noise control and fit.
Jabra Elite 75t Battery life: 5.5hr
Volume control: Yes
Microphone: Yes
Connections: Bluetooth
Comfort and fit: In-ear, oval silicon eargels (S, M, L) 
$198 on Amazon Premium-sounding, stylish-looking earbuds for on the go, at the gym or anywhere in-between.
Apple AirPods Pro ANC: Yes
Battery life: 4.5hr
Volume control: Yes
Microphone: Yes
Connections: Bluetooth
Comfort and fit: Soft silicon tips (S, M, L)
$379 on Apple.com Offers great sound and user experience at more budget-friendly prices.

When you want portable and discreet listening

Earbuds are perfect for those who like to listen to music on the go or on the down low (you know, so that Harold doesn’t come and interrupt your listening session with his annoying opinions on death metal again.)

Packed in charging cases no larger than a credit card, you can easily slip your earbuds into your pocket or handbag and bring them anywhere and everywhere you wish.

The best earbuds are also designed to be perfectly balanced and secure-fitting, sitting nicely in your ears without fuss during use. 

Sony WF-1000XM3

PHOTO: Amazon

Price: $217
Features: ANC: Yes | Battery life: 6hr | Volume control: Yes | Microphone: Yes | Connections: Bluetooth | Comfort and fit: Ergonomic tri-hold structure
Recommended for: Listeners who want a good balance between sound quality, fit and price.

The WF-1000XM3 cemented Sony’s chops as a serious contender in the wireless earbuds space, which isn’t terribly surprising given the company’s long history in consumer electronics.

What was surprising (at least when it was launched back in 2019) was the breakthrough noise cancelling and impeccable sound quality that nobody had thought possible – especially at this price point.

The XM3 also improved on earbud fit with an ergonomic 3-point design that seals the ear canal for superior fit and sound isolation. 

With the impending launch of the XM4, the XM3 is seeing price drops, strengthening the case for an already solid purchase. 

When you need to be active

When you’re out on a jog or jumping rope at Crossfit, having a pair of headphones clamped on your head is uncomfortable and impractical. Instead, where sweat and movement is present, you’ll want to go for earbuds for your personal listening needs. 

Designed to sit comfortably inside your ears, wireless earbuds allow you the freedom to move as you please, while delivering the pounding beats of your curated workout playlist right into your ears.

Packed with current-gen tech, today’s top-selling wireless earbuds can easily match their larger cousins in terms of sound quality, even if they’re scarcely larger than a tiny pebble. 

Jabra Elite 75t

PHOTO: Amazon

Price: $198
Features: Battery life: 5.5hr | Volume control: Yes | Microphone: Yes | Connections: Bluetooth | Comfort and fit: In-ear, oval silicon eargels (S, M, L) 
Recommended for: Those who want good-looking, great-sounding, moisture-resistant earbuds.

Showcasing just how far audio technology has come, the sleek and modern Jabra Elite 75t boasts 5.5 hours of playback time – plus a further 19.5 hours via the charging case.

That’s a feat you won’t believe, given how diminutive this pair of earbuds are. Another thing you won’t believe is the rich and punchy, bass-booming, earth-shaking sound that has won the Elite 75t much parise from reviewers and fans. 

The truly wireless design lends itself well to all manner of listening situations – whether during your commute, during your daily run, or when pumping iron with the boys down at the gym.

Furthermore, it’s easy to clean before you stow them away in the included charging case, ready for your next session. 

When you want a high-end experience at friendlier prices 

Another compelling reason to choose earbuds instead of headphones is their prices. To be specific, earbuds are usually bang for your buck. While high-end headphones carry price tags in the $500 range, premium earbuds capable of comparable performance can be found for under $400. 

Once you ignore the curious tendency to believe that larger objects should command higher prices, you’ll realise that earbuds offer better value for money, as they deliver superb listening and sound at a much lower price.

Hence, choosing earbuds over headphones gives you a high-end experience without having to foot the premium prices.

Apple AirPods Pro

PHOTO: Apple

Price: $379
Features: ANC: Yes | Battery life: 4.5hr | Volume control: Yes | Microphone: Yes | Connections: Bluetooth | Comfort and fit: Soft silicon tips (S, M, L) 
Recommended for: Best of iPhone design and experience, paired with serious audio technology

The Apple AirPods Pro is a standout example of how a pair of earbuds can pack more advanced technology than most models of headphones, and yet maintain a competitive price point. 

Improved in every way from the lacklustre first-gen, the AirPods Pro utilises digital noise cancelling that automatically adjusts to your listening environment at a blistering 200 times per second.

Operation is a breeze, with the AirPods Pro pairing seamlessly with your iPhone, the native app offering intuitive user controls in the vein of Apple’s signature style.  

All in the name of crisper, richer music to rival the best personal audio devices out there.

When should you choose headphones?

Brand and model Features Price Why choose this?
Anker Soundcore Life Q20 Hybrid ANC: Yes
Battery life: 40hr
Volume control: YesMicrophone: Yes
Connections: Bluetooth
Comfort and fit: Memory foam ear cups, lightweight plastic
$106.22 on Amazon Well-made, budget-friendly headphones that provide impressive playback time.
Sony WH-1000XM4 ANC: Yes
Battery life: 30hrWeight: 254gm
Connections: Bluetooth
Volume control: YesMicrophone: Yes
Comfort and fit: Pressure-relieving foam earpads, swivel-foldable structure
$499 on Sony Premium and stylish headphones with top-line noise cancelling and isolation for crystal-clear listening.
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 ANC: Yes
Battery life: 20hr
Weight: 250gm
Connections: Bluetooth
Volume control: Yes
Microphone: Yes
Comfort and fit: Leather earcups, steel headband with silicone-covered foam
$499 on Amazon Great-sounding headphones that double up as a head-turning fashion accessory.

When you want longer battery life

An advantage that headphones have over earbuds is the battery life. Thanks to their larger physical structure, headphones have more space for a bigger battery. It is not uncommon to find headphones with playback time lasting over 30 hours on a single charge. 

This feature makes headphones a better choice for all-day listening without a power plug nearby, such as during long road trips. Having a large battery capacity also enables a single charge to last several days of intermittent music listening. 

Anker Soundcore Life Q20 Hybrid

PHOTO: Amazon

Price: $106.22
Features: ANC: Yes | Battery life: 40hr | Volume control: Yes | Microphone: Yes | Connections: Bluetooth | Comfort and fit: Memory foam ear cups, lightweight plastic
Recommended for: Long-lasting listening on a battery that just won’t quit.

The Q20 Hybrid by Anker is renowned for being among the longest-lasting headphones in its price range. A single charge can give you up to 40 hours of continuous playback, which you’ll appreciate if you’re a heavy user who dislikes having to plug in your devices every evening.

Other positives are the wallet-friendly price point, the inclusion of digital active noise cancelling, and the rich sound quality. If you don’t mind the somewhat dowdy look, this pair of headphones is worth checking out. 

When you want the best noise isolation 

Headphones come with ear cups which fit on or over your ears. Due to their larger sizes headphones are better than earbuds at blocking out more ambient noise and allowing them to provide a better degree of noise cancellation. They also tend to contain larger sound drivers which deliver a wider range of sound frequencies. 

For these reasons, you may perceive headphones to be slightly better than earbuds at delivering rich, dynamic sounds and a more immersive listening experience.

To be sure, audio technology has advanced far enough such that high-end earbuds are also capable of delivering a great listening experience. But headphones maintain a slight advantage, simply because of their shape and size. 

Sony WH-1000XM4

PHOTO: Sony

Price: $499
Features: ANC: Yes | Battery life: 30hr | Weight: 254gm | Connections: Bluetooth | Volume control: Yes | Microphone: Yes | Comfort and fit: Pressure-relieving foam earpads, swivel-foldable structure
Recommended for: Industry-leading noise cancelling and sound isolation from a long-time industry leader.

For the best possible noise isolation and purest music playback, you’ll want to combine the superior noise blocking form of headphones with industry-leading active noise cancelling technology. That’s where Sony’s renowned WH-1000XM4 comes in.

Despite its premium price-point, the WH-1000XM4 launched to great anticipation among audiophiles, and remains one of the most sought-after noise cancelling headphones among reviewers and users alike.

When you want to show off your style

Headphones are not only good for music listening and taking calls, they can also act as a fashion accessory. Whether perched on your head, around your neck or hanging off your bag strap, a pair of great-looking headphones can speak volumes about your personal style.

(Unfortunately, earbuds can’t quite accomplish the same effect, and repeatedly asking people to look into your ears will simply mark you as a weirdo.)

With their distinctive form and close association with music, headphones make a perfect accessory for completing your look, whether as a tasteful entrepreneur, grungy bandmember, or edgy artist.

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

PHOTO: Amazon

Price: $499
Features: ANC: Yes | Battery life: 20hr | Connections: Bluetooth | Volume control: Yes | Microphone: Yes | Comfort and fit: Leather earcups, steel headband with silicone-covered foam
Recommended for: Music afficandoes that also appreciate great design 

You won’t find another pair of headphones with as much character and style as the Bose 700. Just one look and you can tell this device was designed to deliver amazing sound while looking effortlessly stunning. 

Underneath the good looks, the Bose 700 packs award-winning sound control technology that spans 11 settings, earcups with internal and external microphones for effective noise cancellation and external vents for optimal acoustic space – among other groundbreaking features, proving that it’s not just a pretty face.

Regardless of your choice, getting a headphone or earbud can cost a pretty penny. So be sure to use the right cashback credit card to defray the cost.

If you need help finding one that has the best rewards, check out our simple comparison tool and you could get rewarded with cash or attractive prizes!*

*Rewards may change at any time. Terms and conditions apply.  

This article was first published in SingSaver.com.sg.