IEM vs Headphones: Which One Is Right for You?

young man listening to headphones

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When you love music, you want the best listening experience every time. Some people can get by with a $15 device, but you’re much more particular. You want your headphones to capture every sound the musicians are making and deliver them to you with the best possible quality. That’s probably why you’re looking into the differences between IEM vs headphones to decide which equipment is right for you.

The perfect listening setup varies from person to person. Perhaps you hate the way earbuds sit in your ears and rely on headphones for high-quality sound. Others may dislike the restrictiveness of headsets and love the lightness of in-ear devices. Each will provide pros and cons you can use to determine the best setup. Here’s a look at the differences between IEM vs headphones so you can choose with greater certainty.

Headphones with cord.

What Are IEMs?

In-ear monitors (IEMs) are earbuds with professional sound-producing capabilities that were initially intended for use by musicians to monitor other tracks while performing or recording. The quality allows them to hear every other performer with the necessary clarity to balance themselves with the music. Makes the name seem pretty fitting, right?

Beyond their quality, IEMs have a few more features that set them apart from other headsets. They have detachable cables that allow you to switch out the connection from long wires to braided ones, making switching from performing to relaxing easy. Manufacturers also shape the arm of the earbud so it fits to your ear canal. While IEMs don’t have noise-canceling features, the tight fit can help block most other sounds.

Another major difference between IEM vs headphones is the number of drivers. Regular headphones typically have one, which creates the sound you hear. IEMs have balanced armatures — which are smaller than standard drivers — so manufacturers can fit more into each bud. This greater number allows you to mix the balance so you can get the perfect personalized listening experience.

Performers often use IEMs vs headphones because of the freedom of movement and the depth of sound they offer.

Choosing Between IEMs vs Headphones

Thanks to modern innovation, headphones can achieve sound quality that reaches the IEM standard — it all depends on how you prefer the fit and how much you’re willing to spend.

High-quality over-ear headphones will often cost you $100 at the lower end. Of course, cheaper models are available for $50 or less, but the higher cost often constitutes a better build. As SoundGuys says, it’s cheaper to buy replacement headphone pads than it is to buy a new headset every time yours breaks. Additionally, if you’re a budding audiophile, you’ll likely want to make the investment. But IEMs will often cost you more.

Like over-ear headphones, IEMs start in the $50 range and increase in price with additional features. Writers at Make Use Of say $100–$200 is the best range for cost and value. They can even get as pricey as $2,000 — potentially even more — with features like miniature subwoofers and customization so the earbud arm fits to your exact ear canal.

If you’re a casual listener who likes better quality or just want to up your workout playlist game, you can probably get by with a decent set of headphones. Perhaps invest in lower-end IEMs if you really desire better sound. However, those looking for the most realistic listening experience devices can offer may want to jump for some pricier IEMs.

IEM vs Headphones Is All About Preference

While IEMs can give you more profound quality with the lightness of earbuds, those capabilities come at a steep price. Headphones are bulkier and won’t achieve the same sound as IEMs, but they often have a much more accessible price range. Deciding between IEM vs headphones comes down to what you’re willing to spend on for the optimum music experience.

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