What Is The Difference Between IEMs And Normal Earbuds?

Wonder if those earbuds you are eyeing are worth buying? Read on to find out more about the differences between IEMs and normal earbuds.

Ikko oh10 IEM earphones

So, you were browsing for earbuds online and come upon IEMs. You may have noticed that IEMs and earbuds are not the same devices. Although they look awfully similar there is a fundamental difference. We’ll be answering: What’s the difference between IEMs and normal earbuds?

IEM stands for an in-ear monitor. Professional grade earbuds that are placed near the ear canal. Normal earbuds are placed on the exterior of the ear. This is the main difference but they differ in performance too.

It’s hard to sum this up in a few words, but a thorough explanation follows.


There’s nothing wrong with calling IEMs earbuds or earphones. Essentially, IEMs are earphones. The design of IEMs is what sets them apart. I know most of you are familiar with them, nonetheless, an overview of IEMs is appropriate.

In-ear monitors are professional earphones that go all the way to the ear canal. This is possible by extended silicon or foam on the tip of the can. The IEMs seal off the ear canal and bring the sound closer to you.

IEMs are usually used by DJs. Sure, these are professional-grade earphones but they are also used by the average customer. Their main purpose is to shut off all ambient and outside noises. DJs don’t want to hear the audience and the speakers, so they wear IEMs.

Because in-ear monitors are placed in the ear canal they are not that comfortable. Also, their size is not universal. Everyone has a different ear structure, so finding the right IEMs takes a bit of an effort. Usually, it’s the silicone or foam tip that needs to be changed for sizing.

I think we can make most of this clear with a good example. Consider these IEMs, you can see from the design that they are different from normal earbuds.

Related article – 6 Reasons Why Do DJs Wear Headphones

IEM earphones

Sennheiser IE 40 PRO


Earbuds Vs. IEMs

Now, this is not a matter of which device is better. As you will see, earbuds are better for some users, for others, IEMs are better. I’ll go over the difference between IEMs and earbuds. I’ll also cover the situations where one is better than the other.

Sound Quality

When it comes to sound quality, IEMs are the definite winner. Things are not that simple though. Both IEMs and earbuds can provide great sound quality. It all depends on the model if you ask me.

I’ve found both IEMs and earbuds with sound quality that sucks. If the model is cheap or from an unknown brand, you can expect low sound quality. As for the high-end models, the sound quality will not disappoint you.

IEMs have superior sound quality because they usually have 2 drivers. This enables them to play clear sounds from any frequency. Also, because they are in the ear canal, the sound isn’t interrupted by ambient noises.


Again, here IEMs are the winner. It’s not even close when it comes to noise-canceling. You can already guess why IEMs are superior here.

It’s not that earbuds are bad at noise-canceling. There are some great earbuds models with good noise-canceling features. Because of their design, headphones are better at noise-canceling. Well, it’s the same with IEMs.

As I said, in-ear monitors are placed in the ear canal. This is crucial for noise-canceling. We’ve also said that IEMs are mainly used for blocking ambient noises. IEMs seal off the ear canal, it’s quite hard for ambient noises to make it through.

Earbuds can be good at noise-canceling but not as good as IEMs. As much as we want them to block out background noises, they still make it through. Earbuds are placed in the exterior of the ear, so it’s easy for noises to enter.

Related Article – How Do Noise Canceling Headphones Work

Black and red earbuds


I know that for most of you, the sensitivity of the earphones matters a lot. Well, IEMs and earbuds usually have the same number of decibels. But that doesn’t mean that they are equally loud.

The closeness to the ear canal wins it again for IEMs. Think of it like this, you want to raise the volume when you can still hear outside noises. Well, we’ve already explained that IEMs have superior noise-canceling. That also makes the IEMs “louder”.

Related Article – What Specs On Earbuds Actually Tell You How Loud They Are


Finally, we have a feature where earbuds are the winner. Those of you that have used IEMs before know that they can be quite uncomfortable. This is not the case with earbuds, they are usually quite comfortable.

I think that any earbuds model will fit you just right. It will also be comfortable for you. With IEMs you need to look for the right size. If they don’t fit you right, they will be a pain to wear. Even when you find the right size, earbuds will still be more comfortable.

Related Article: How To Keep Wireless Earbuds From Falling Out

Running & Exercise

We can’t consider this a good comparison without taking into account how people use the devices. As promised, we’ll cover that too.

Earbuds are better than IEMs for running or daily exercises. Especially, Bluetooth earbuds, they give you comfort and freedom of movement. IEMs will not fall off that easily but they are not appropriate for running. Also, earbuds make you more aware of your surroundings.

Studying & Working

When you’re studying or working you must be able to focus. That’s why many prefer to work with headphones or earbuds. So, noise-canceling is a must for this situation. You already know what’s better.

IEMs are superior at isolating ambient noises. They will help you focus a lot better than the normal earbuds. Especially if you’re studying in a library where people tend to make a lot of noise.

Woman studying with earphones

Listening To Music

Now, if listening to music is an experience for you, either choice can work well. In general, IEMs with good drivers provide the best experience. There are some great earbuds models as well.

In this case, it comes down to personal preference. IEMs tend to be more expensive than earbuds. So, for the average IEMs, you can get some high-quality earbuds.

Related article – Do Bluetooth Earbuds Use Data?

Related Questions And Other FAQs

Are IEMs Are Better Than Headphones?

Most people would say that IEMs are better than headphones. It’s a not fair comparison though. IEMs are professional grade earphones while headphones are for a broader audience. IEMs have superior noise-canceling.

Is IEMs Bad For You?

No, IEMs are not bad for you. They can be if you’re listening to loud volumes. Because they are close to the ear canal, it’s easier for the loud music to damage your hearing. Infections can occur too if you’re using them for long periods of time.

I don’t think there’s anything more to add without boring you. Hope I answered your questions.