IEM vs. Earbuds – Differences Explained

Technology has triggered the innovation of various personal audio listening devices. You might have heard of earphones, earbuds, or in-ear monitors or even used any of them and failed to get the difference between them. This is because their appearances are mostly the same.

Nevertheless, there is a significant difference between these audio devices. They vary technologically in style, features, and design and therefore knowing what distinguishes an in-ear monitor from an earbud is helpful to know. This article will take you through the differences between in-ear monitors (IEMS) and earbuds.

This will help you understand each of them and pick the best between the two for tangible reasons. Keep on reading to get more knowledge.

In-Ear Monitors (IEMS)

These are devices that are often found in the category of ‘in-ear headphones’ and are used heavily in personal audio, stage musicianship and studios. Unlike traditional headphones, in-ear monitors use tiny drivers with careful implementation to deliver sound.

These pieces sit inside the ear canal allowing more effective sound isolation and efficiently deliver of sound to the ear drum. You can therefore trust them for an incredible and engaging listening moment. The device is comfortable thanks to its silicone or foam-fitting ear tips. The tips also help in noise reduction and ensuring the in-ear monitors remain in place.

Benefits Of In-Ear Monitors

In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) are very convenient are used in situations where one is commuting and is on the move out and about. Some have clever engineering with superb driver implementation allowing higher fidelity sound. Hence, they are appreciated by audiophiles across the world for their ability to convey audiophile-grade sound on the move.

You can also rely on in-ear monitors if you do recording or work in radio stations. Their size is small and significant in isolation, making them the best in live concerts. The monitors come in handy on stages where the traditional monitors are noisy, unreliable or distractive. They enable the musicians to hear the music and deliver the best during the live shows.

Additionally, these devices passively block outside noise, which means the applauding audience will not disrupt the one performing on stage. On the other hand, the engineer in charge of mixing will reposition the mics if the musician wants to respond to the audience.

The mics are placed towards the crowds and directly drawback the sound into the ear monitor’s bands. Generally, in-ear monitors are consistent, and dependable making them ideal for live performers. They also allow the artists to walk freely while on stage. Have a look at our most recommend IEMs currently available.

IEMs vs Earbuds
From ACS Custom


These listening devices have the same size as that of IEMS. However, they sit on the conchae of the ear rather than inside the ear canal. Some types of earbuds are designed with wings that offer support so that they don’t fall. Since they don’t cover the whole ear, earbuds are not the best for a profound listening experience because they allow external noise to pass through.

However, if you do not mind getting a hint of what’s happening, these listening devices are the best especially when jogging. See our choices of the best wireless workout earbuds and IEMs for exercise.

Benefits of Earbuds

Though they are poor in sound isolation, you will love earbuds for their convenience and portability. They are also low profile making them ideal for wearing in the crowds.  Another reason why the devices are suitable is that they offer you a high-quality sound and are designed to suit a person with an active life.

True Wireless Earbuds - UNISYNK
From Unisynk

Custom In–Ear Monitors (CIEMs)

This type of headphones is not new in the market, and they are designed to fit your ear’s specific shape. In order to get this perfect fit, a custom mold is made via ear impressions taken by audiologist. Due to their design, the custom in-ear monitors don’t require ear tips and will sit well in your ears, giving comfort, quality sound, and perfect noise cancellation.

The cost of CIEMs might be high which is why they are not as common as IEMs or earbuds.

Benefits of Custom In-Ear Monitors

The comfort that comes with CIEMs is unmatchable. They boast an excellent fit and sophisticated design. One of the main reasons you should have this type of audio listening device is because they give an outstanding fit and sound quality. This makes them perfect for stage musicians who require high noise isolation to allow them to listen to their singing.

From Ultimate Ears

In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) vs. Earbuds Vs. Custom In-Ear Monitors

Both the earbuds and in-ear monitors have their pros and cons. However, you can’t identify them by just looking at them. You need detailed information on each of them. Here are some factors that you should put into consideration before purchasing the device that will suit you. Understanding each of them will help you make an informed purchasing decision.

Sound Isolation

The seal that a headphone creates when it enters your ear is vital. This is because perfect seals enhance noise isolation and improve bass response. See our guide to improve the seal by selecting the perfect tips.

IEMs are great if you like moments of uninterrupted listening. The devices are designed to perfectly block any external noise, and therefore, you can only hear what’s coming through the headphones.

If you frequent noisy places like bus stations, bars, or airports, the IEMs are best to use in such areas. To ensure that they completely isolate external noise, choose a headphone that fits into your ear canal perfectly.

When it comes to the earbuds, the story is different because they are poor in noise cancellation. Nevertheless, if you wish to know about your surroundings – these devices will benefit you. However, if you want a serious listening moment, consider other options because earbuds won’t serve you well unless you are in a serene environment.

The customizations of CIEMs make them the best in terms of passive noise isolation. Since they are designed for a specific ear, they rarely let any surrounding sounds escape into the ears. The noise isolation feature also makes them the most preferred listening devices by artists while on stage. They offer an audible mix on stage since they fit into the ears well, thus blocking any external noise.

A – Earbuds, B & D – Single Tip IEM, C- Triple Flange IEM


Buying a pair of headphones goes beyond the functionality. This is more so if you are keen on fashion and would like to make a statement. If you are such a person, the CIEMs will suit you perfectly since you get to choose your design and some companies such as Ultimate Ears offer a whole range of customization features. Besides fitting on your ears well, they boast an aesthetic appeal. They are also anchored to the upper part of your ears. However, they are also quite expensive.

IEMS provides an excellent alternative, but you can’t choose your design. However, some companies that make IEMs incorporate unique styles and designs that you will be glad you bought yourself a pair of the device.

On the other hand, there have not been many changes done on the earbuds. However, they remain functional and reasonably priced, unlike the IEMs. Even though they don’t have a sophisticated look compared to IEMs, most wired earbuds are unique and boast a touch of style in their own rights.

From Ultimate Ears (Customization options)


Comfort is another feature that you must look into before committing to buy an earbud or IEMs. Your comfort comes first if you are to enjoy a great listening experience. Even though earbuds are not great at canceling noise, they are more comfortable compared to IEMs. This is because you place them over the ear so you won’t experience any irritation or pain.

On the other hand, you place IEMs and CIEMs inside the ears, and sometimes they go deeper, causing a feeling of discomfort and intrusion. This makes some people choose earbuds over IEMs. However, the earbuds might fall anytime since they don’t hold appropriately, unlike the IEMs.

If your choice is IEMs, you should do a good market search and get a unit that features a plastic piece that will hold onto the ears without causing any discomfort.

On the other hand, how well a CIEM fits depends on your audiologist. So, make sure you work with him or her to find the best fit. Once you find it, you can wear a CIEM all day, longer than you would with an earbud or a standard IEM.

Audio Quality

Most people who have used the IEMs and CIEMs say that the device is better when blocking noise. This is in comparison to earbuds, and therefore IEMs take the lead when it comes to quality sound. Besides sound isolation, IEMS and CIEMS can come with many drivers, each dedicated to its function. Earbuds can’t match the sound quality you get from that.

The inability of earbuds to completely block external noise is the reason the devices can have suboptimal sound quality. However, this factor doesn’t mean that all earbuds are poor in sound quality. You can get some brands that are better although you will have to pay more for them. Another factor determining the quality of the sound you get from either IEMs or earbuds is the device you are using them with and your music source.


The price factor is essential when it comes to buying an audio listening device. Naturally, you get what you can afford, and that’s not less when it comes to earbuds and IEMs. Earbuds are relatively cheaper than IEMs and CIEMs primarily because of their features. Nevertheless, you can still get high-quality earbuds, especially from some top brands.

The market also has earbuds that boast the same sound quality as the IEMs at almost the same price. You will need to do good market research based on the amount of money you are willing to spend on the device.


When buying anything from the market, it would be acceptable to ask yourself if the product will give you value for your money. Checking on durability is one of the things that will answer this question. IEMs are known to last longer than earbuds. However, you must take proper care of the two if you want to have them for long.

The most sensitive parts in these two devices are the control buttons and the areas around the earpieces and jack. Also, as you make your selection, consider the materials used to make the device you prefer since they determine the durability of either IEMs or earbuds.


If you like your music loud and blasting, the in-ear monitors are ideal for you. They boast higher volume production levels, unlike earbuds. The devices will serve you well, more so if you work as a DJ in a club, and you can customize them to the club’s specifications. However, not all can be customized; it depends on the manufacturers of the device.

If a loud volume isn’t what you’re looking for, IEMs and CIEMS are designed so that you can listen to music at low volumes, and it will still be high quality. That’s thanks to the sound isolation. But in cases where you want to know sounds of the surroundings, such as when jogging, earbuds would work just fine, or look for IEMS that allow you to listen to your surroundings.

Driver Count

When it comes to headphones, the driver count is an essential feature. They are responsible for converting electrical signals into sound, and therefore the more the driver counts, the higher the sound and the better the quality. IEMs and CIEMs tend to have a higher driver count compared to earbuds.

The driver count also enables them to produce deep bass and an incredible sound at a high frequency than earbuds. The size of the drivers is also big in IEMs, which is a plus when it comes to quality sound.

From Empire Ears


Your surrounding and the nature of work you do also determines the kind of headphones to buy. If you work in an environment that requires you to be alert to the happenings around you, you should pick earbuds. This is because they occupy the external parts of your ears, thus leaving some space for the external sound to come in.

On the other hand, the IEMs and CIEMs cover the ear entirely, and you will not hear what is happening around you, making them unsuitable for environments that demand you to be vigilant.


This chapter can’t be complete without discussing the maintenance factor. Cleaning your audio listening device is indisputable. This is more so if you choose the IEMs and CIEMs because they enter the ear and are susceptible to earwax.

Some devices can be challenging to clean, especially if they have a non-removable tip. This means there can be a buildup of earwax on some driver parts, resulting in poor-quality sound. This is why you should buy a device that is easy to clean.

Cleaning Supplies Kit - Alclair Audio
Cleaning Kit (From Alclair)

Who Needs IEMs and CIEMs

Depending on the definitions made above, these are the people who should choose IEMs:

1. People who want a fitting device that won’t fall no matter their activities.

2. People who want a critical listening experience without interruptions from external noise.

3. Artists or musicians who perform before a big audience should use the devices.

4. People who can withstand the discomfort on the ear canal due to IEMS.

5. Music lovers who wish to have an enhanced listening experience.

Who Needs Ear Buds

Here is a list of people who may wish to use earbuds:

1. Those who don’t mind even if the earbuds fall off

2. Anyone who doesn’t care about external noise

3. Anyone who wants to listen to audiobooks, movies, or music

4. People who are sensitive to the uncomfortable design of IEMs.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why Should you go for IEMs?

You should choose them because the devices offer excellent passive noise reduction and tends to have higher sound quality.

2. Between earbuds and IEMs, which is the cheapest?

Earbuds tend to be cheaper compared to IEMs. This is why they are common among many people. You can also get them as a free accessory after buying some electronics.

3. How should you take care of your listening device?

Keeping them away from moisture, cleaning the earwax on them, changing the earwax filter, and checking on the batteries often. Also, have routine cleaning for the devices and, most importantly, handle them with care.


There is no accurate answer when it comes to this question. Your preference as the user is what will determine your choice. If you are an artist and deal with a big audience or love working uninterrupted by external noises, then CIEMs and IEMS will serve you better. They will block any external noise and help you concentrate on your music.

The devices are also the best if you don’t want something that will keep falling or exert excess pressure on your ears. As we’ve established, CIEMs are actually customized to your ear.

On the other hand, earbuds are best if you want something to make your ears more comfortable and prefer no in-ear device. This article has generously discussed the different features of CIEMS, IEMs, and earbuds. Also, we have highlighted the critical factors that you should consider when buying any of the audio listening devices. The ball is now in your court to consider the pros and cons of each and pick an ideal device for you.

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