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Soundcheck Smackdown: Headphones versus Earbuds

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

We debate the pros and cons of being an “earbud person” (gym rats and rugrats) and a “headphone person” (DJs and wannabe DJs). Mark Katz, author of "Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music," explains the evolution of ear wear. And music writer Christopher Weingarten and Maura Johnston, writer for Popdust, defend their preferred mode of listening in a Soundcheck Smackdown.


Maura Johnston, Mark Katz and Christopher Weingarten

Comments [49]


headphone's better...for Earbud, be careful, there are chance of hearing loss

Mar. 11 2011 12:49 PM
Linda Griggs

When my step daughter was becoming a teen I realized how useful huge headphones could be. When she had them on, rude men wouldn't try to say lewd things to her. They'd lean toward her with a lear, open their mouths, and then seeing her head phones, pull back, realizing she couldn't hear them.

Ear buds are too visually discrete to offer that protection.

Jan. 26 2011 10:30 PM

Earbuds are used for taking your music with you it is used when one is focusing on something other than the music (shoveling snow, walking, jogging, studying...)
Headphones are for critical listening to music with the sole focus being listening to the music.

I own both

Jan. 26 2011 02:42 PM
Orton Redux from Lakeville CT

Someone please get Maura Johnston some Audio Technica CK100s.

Jan. 25 2011 07:30 PM
fuquan from nj/ny

There are different types of earbuds:
-expensive sound isolating earbuds
-medium range (they fit inside your ear canal and and have a little bit of sound isolation)
-the cheap crappy ones that come with your ipod that everyone can hear.

Also the same with headphones (sound isolating, open back, etc.). I prefer decent earbuds. They're convenient, and it has a bit of sound isolation so I DON"T have to make the music that loud over the environment.

Jan. 25 2011 02:40 PM
RichP from Baldwin LI

I grew up in the 70's with over the ear 'Muff' style open air headphones and can attest that they provided the most ethereal sonic experience. Having frequented dance clubs in the 80's and 90's I have since grown attached to in ear type phones that accentuated the sound intensity experienced in that environment.
I like them both..

Jan. 25 2011 02:37 PM
William from Manhattan

Neither. I like to hear what's going on around me. Random sound is beautiful and inspiring. Art has to come from somewhere - we can't become a civilization exclusively of art consumers.

Jan. 25 2011 02:36 PM
Lisa from Brooklyn

Re: History of public NYC music listening safety
Their relative ubiquity somewhat cancels this out nowadays, but I remember when iPods first came out and the distinctive white earbud cords were a sign that you were carrying a music device that cost significantly more than the average discman or walkman. It always seemed very foolish to me that people would advertise this to the world. No one seems to worry about this anymore.

Jan. 25 2011 02:36 PM
Ken from Little Neck

Two points that just occurred to me as part of this discussion: 1) sound level does matter. I never put my music up so loud that I can't hear the outside world - I value my hearing and want to maintain it as long as possible. 2) Why are people so concerned about the best possible sound quality if you're going to be listening in a less than acoustically favorable environment? If your out walking with street noise all around, sound quality isn't going to be great no matter how good your listening device is.

Jan. 25 2011 02:35 PM
Alden from Soho

I use two sets of earbuds.

- Subway earbuds, SHURE sound isolating, for music or sometimes off while I read, to protect my ears from the damaging noises of the subway. Because I'm not fighting other noises, I can keep the volume lower, thus also saving my ears.

Not bad while walking on the street, I can still hear that bus that's trying to run me over.

- Bicycle earbuds, $10 at target, one ear only, for listening to podcasts while riding to or from work on the West Side Greenway.

Jan. 25 2011 02:32 PM

If you can't hear the difference between a flac and an mp3 file on em then you probably shouldn't be listening to em.

Jan. 25 2011 02:32 PM
Leah from Brooklyn

I hated the buds - they irritated my ear canal endlessly and fell out repeatedly. A year ago I switched to Bose headphones (not the noise canceling ones, because I'm still a New Yorker and want to hear it when someone calls me a freak or nerd) and never looked back. Yes, I look like I'm landing planes, but they're comfortable and I don't have to crank the music way up to hear subtleties in the music.

And as to the aware-of-your-surroundings bit, do we really believe that someone who's playing their music so loud the whole subway car can hear it from their earbuds IS aware of what's going on around them? It's clear that loud music, regardless of the delivery device, is both bad for your acuity and contributes to hearing loss.

Jan. 25 2011 02:32 PM
landless from Brooklyn

I don't understand how people can move in public listening to headphones or ear buds. I'm with John, street awareness is essential. Also, if someone snatches the device off the person, well, that is life. I don't understand how people expect safety in public spaces. Now, I have had wonderful moments walking down the street, hearing music from a car radio stopped at the light, and pedestrians joining. Now that is magical.
Plus, I hate how the audio listeners blast their music on the train. So inconsiderate.

Jan. 25 2011 02:31 PM
Carey from Illinois formerly from NYC

Earbuds blasting MP3 quality music, will cause ear damage plan and simple. Plus you must compensate for the outside noise. Just wait another couple years and we will all see a rise in ear damage cases. Apple doesn't want you to know this.

...a song now costs exactly the same as a pack of gum and lasts exactly the same amount of time before it loses its flavor and have to spend another buck. - Jonathan Franzen

Jan. 25 2011 02:31 PM

I see in your picture you have several sets of Grado headphones.
Excellent choice dear sirs.......especially since they are still made right down the road from you in NJ.

Jan. 25 2011 02:30 PM
anthony Masiello from LES

I may be in a special minority though EarBuds don't fit my ears. They fall out all the time. I wear headphones and have never felt antisocial or wired or outcast. I mean really I think we NYkr's have more to consider in a day than whether our subway mate is antisocial.

Jan. 25 2011 02:29 PM
judy from nyc

I'm an audiophile. I confess. I wear ugly Audio Technica noise canceling headphones which deliver great sound. They DO NOT cancel out all external sound. I can hear everything , especially warning sounds.

Jan. 25 2011 02:29 PM
Laura Rime from New City, NY

What about people like me who have small ears that the ear buds don't fit in? I have had this problem for years with phone headsets, etc. I can't fit those things in my ears. I have always, for this reason, preferred headphones. And I have a pair of the noise cancelling ones, and they are really great for airplanes and also for a crowded work environment.

Jan. 25 2011 02:29 PM
Joseph from Paterson, NJ

I was told by a professor of music @ william paterson university that ear buds will kill my hearing. I believe him! plus big head phones are harder to lose/steal.

Jan. 25 2011 02:28 PM
David Ranada from SoHo, NYC

Distance of the transducer from the ear is IRRELEVANT for hearing damage. Sound-pressure level IS. After all, loudspeakers in a overloud dance club can be meters away and still damage your hearing.

All wearers of headphones should be as aware of their surroundings when wearing them in public as are deaf people. And they don't get hit by cars any more than others.

Jan. 25 2011 02:27 PM
Dale from Brooklyn

I am, unfortunately, cartilaginously challenged! I cannot wear ear buds because I don't have an anti-tragus. So phones win!

Jan. 25 2011 02:26 PM
Christina Kelly from Montclair

Headphones! Earbuds are uncomfortable. The aural equivalent of thong underwear. I blogged about this.

Jan. 25 2011 02:26 PM
john Powers from Brooklyn

I use Bose buds, but I covet my brothers hearing aids. They are custom fit to his ear, equipped not only to elevate the sound around him in surprisingly sophisticated ways, they also filter damaging noise automatically and are now bluetooth enabled. I think it is a mater of time until most adults are wearing custom fit inner ear devices to interface with their phones, ipods, etc, but also the damagingly noisy soundscape of modern cities.

Jan. 25 2011 02:25 PM

This is a very simple issue...

Earbuds for portability.
Headphones for noise cancellation and the best audio quality.

If you are talking cheap earbuds and headphones simply comes down to portability

If you want greater sound quality then you are going to pay much more headphones and they aren't portable.

Jan. 25 2011 02:24 PM
Jonathan from NYC

Grados for indoor listening. Closed ear headphones for winter listening. Earbuds for summer listening.

Also what was that theme that played at the beginning of this segment? The 80's fight theme?

Jan. 25 2011 02:24 PM
David Ranada from SoHo, NYC

A properly fitted earbud-type device (the kind that go into the car canal rather than rest outside of it) can sound better than any over- or on-the-ear headphone in all respects including smoothness of frequency response, bass reproduction and noise isolation. But the best of these cost more than $100 and require some adjustment due to the presence of a foreign object in the ear canal. And I reiterate that proper, almost airtight, fit is essential. My favorite of this type of earphone is the Etymotic Research ER-4P.

Jan. 25 2011 02:24 PM
Robots Need to Party from NYC

Let's all buy expensive high quality headphones or ear buds and listen to our compressed audio files on them. Wow!! Listen to how clear the artifacts sound and oh my, that bass is barely there. Sweet...

Shout out to Joel in the booth.

Jan. 25 2011 02:23 PM
Dale from Brooklyn

I am, unfortunately, cartilaginously challenged! Phones win because I am one of those people who do not have an anti-tragus in my ear, and therefore, ear buds keep falling out.

Jan. 25 2011 02:23 PM
Robert from Washington

99% of the time: Headphones.
Earbuds have their place. Lord knows I've spent a fortune on a dozen different models just to have them fall apart.
But despite how good they sound they can only sound like 2 pinpoints of sound entering the ears and have zero soundstage or depth.
I'll look like a dork and listen to my excellent sounding Sennheiser PX100's or Grado RS-1's whenever I can, especially driven by a tube or portable headphone amp.
Open ear headphones also have the great advantage of allowing you to hear your surroundings and blend the volume to drown out just enough of what you do not want to hear while still maintaining sonic quality.
Great for the sports bar and drowning out gadfly announcers and commercials.
Earbuds are either in or out, no in between.
They have their place: When you desire complete isolation and will sacrifice listening quality.
Those that don't understand the difference between good headphones and good earbuds I fear will just never allow themselves to "get it".
Who cares what they look like?
The earbud generation has little idea what they are missing since so few had the pleasure of hearing older (ie: tube) excellent pre-digital analog reproduced music from the late 60's onward.
Now, for supreme sound, B&W speakers on the home surround system all the way.
THAT is the best sound.......

Jan. 25 2011 02:20 PM
Joseph from Paterson, NJ

I was told by a professor of music @ william paterson university tha ear buds will kill my hearing. I believe him! plus big head phones are harder to lose/steal.

Jan. 25 2011 02:18 PM
Colin from New York

Grado headphones are epic! FTW!

Jan. 25 2011 02:16 PM
Ken from Little Neck

I prefer earbuds mainly for convenience. I think I'm right in guessing, though, that 90% of the opposition to earbuds is based on the absolute garbage that Apple packages with their iPods. A set of high quality, well fitted (this is incredibly important) earbuds can deliver wonderful sound.

Jan. 25 2011 02:13 PM
Sheldon from brooklyn

The actual sonic quality of various brands aside.

In my opinion, as I use both.

Headphones tend to deliver a more consistent sound - wonderful for indoors or 18 hour plane trips.

Ear buds are simply more convenient to carry and use outdoors, the only reason and time I use them.

Jan. 25 2011 02:09 PM

Earbuds all the way. One thing I'll never understand, though. Why is that Apple, with all its design geniuses, supplies ipod earbuds that are miniature torture devices?? Whose ears do those things fit into, anyway? I bought a new ipod recently and only lasted an hour with the Apple earbuds before I had to stop at Best Buy to buy a different set. I'm convinced that Apple is collecting kickbacks from 3rd party headphone manufacturers.

Jan. 25 2011 02:06 PM
Brett from Williamsburg


Ear buds are the worst. I don't want to listen to your crummy music while I'm on the subway!

Jan. 25 2011 02:02 PM
Patrick from Brooklyn

I love the vibrations on my lobes as the clear precise EQs enter the ear, gotta go with the large headphones around the ears.

Connoisseurs of fine sound are like connoisseurs of fine deli meat. The run of the mill can satiate but only the select can take you to the promise land.

Jan. 25 2011 01:48 PM
Siouxie from Bronx

Headphones (meaning the ones that cup the entire ear) may deliver great aural quality, but are truly the mark of the DORK. I worked for a boss who loved to tune out completely in his office by listening to music w/ huge headphones.

After 9/11, our office (which was across the street from the WTC) had a cleaning crew in. After we returned to work, this same boss complained to me that his CD player was stolen, but they didn't take his headphones. Without a beat I responded "Because nobody wanted them!"

Case closed.

Jan. 25 2011 01:17 PM

The response "speakers" is totally against the rules. I'm looking at you @RickVines!

Jan. 25 2011 01:13 PM

Dara from Brooklyn/Queens brings up the fashion issue: Which do you think LOOKS better? What do you assume about people who wear earbuds vs. headphones?

Jan. 25 2011 01:11 PM
seldo from brooklyn

I had tried once to listen to my iPod with ear buds and cheap headphones while in the city and on the train and I found the ambient noise was just so unbelievably loud that I would have to turn it up to a damaging level. My sense is that to wear headphones is better than earbuds because it blocks out more ambient noise which is the main reason turn up the volume (i.e. so they can actually hear their music).

But in all honesty I wish people would just not be plugged in because of the countless times I have to get past people and ask "excuse me" several times while asking progressively louder because they can't hear me.

Jan. 25 2011 10:38 AM
a g from n j

i used to use headphones. i've never used earbuds. when walkman came around,[which i guess, was a cross between headphones and earbuds] i had lost interest in this mode of listening,to music,or spoken word. i would never have walked around with headphones. in fact, i have seen very very few people, ever, do that. it is not a look, you want to take to the streets, if you've got one iota, of an inkling of fashion sense. i guess it is, a self induced, double knockout for me, in this smackdown,since i like neither. btw-forgive me "earbuders", but i think that the wires, that run down the side of your head, just look a bit too sickly, and goofy to me. i understand people who want to tune out or be left alone,or tuned in, to a wonderful rich inner world, i respect that. but,it just looks too much like a medical monitoring device to me. i'll be smacked-out, for a couple of days now,since i'll have to pick "other" and chose speakers.

Jan. 25 2011 06:52 AM
rob from Bay Ridge

I've been in this "smackdown" already couple times with headphonophobes and especially with those who were against earbuds.Topic is a bit complex for this little text window, but i.e. if you need isolation from your surrounding the inside channel earbuds makes most sense and the least danger to damage the hearing from the long exposure to continuous sound. Well fitted headphones of this type, provide needed islolation from the environment, therefore you need lower sound level, meaning less air preasure inside your ear.
i've been using, among others, this type of headphones since i remember and that is when most of the music was still in mono. my hearing is still almost he same as it was when I was 18. not bad for a headbanger?
now i use shure SE530 when i'm mobile and bayerdynamic DT770 when i'm at home or at work.
but no headphones can replace good speakers, a large room and forgiving neighbors.

Jan. 25 2011 01:15 AM
Rick Vines from chicago

Umm. Speakers was not one of the choices!

For me, earbuds if I am active, headphones if I want good sound. (I'm afraid this may not actually be an answer in the spirit of a "Smackdown)

So, I will have to go speakers!

Jan. 24 2011 11:31 PM
Dara Lebwohl from Brooklyn/Queens Lady

Earbuds! They're way less solopsistic than giant headphones. Headphones lead to alienation which leads to confusion on subway and generally poor spacial awareness. Also not as nerdy looking. Plus, you can crank it louder without annoying your neighbors.

Jan. 24 2011 07:35 PM
Deanna Zandt from Brooklyn, NY

earbuds. Mostly because I can't wear funky hats with headphones.

Jan. 24 2011 07:20 PM
Christine from San Diego


1.) I seem to have two right ears so my left bud never stays put.

2.) Far more importantly, I need the noise reduction of headphones at the gym so no one else knows how pumped I get running to NKOTB.

Jan. 24 2011 05:36 PM
Jim McL

I still use the Sennheiser headphones I bought in the 1970's. I prefer them over any ear bud I've tried. (I also agree with Jacquie, speakers are the way to go.)

Jan. 24 2011 05:17 PM

I love my Sony Studio Monitor headphones. I hear things using them that I miss listening to the same music with earbuds or speakers. I can pick out instruments that sort of get blended in otherwise.

They even enhance the WNYC listening experience, too.

Jan. 24 2011 05:04 PM
jacquie from nj

Music should surround and envelope you....neither headphones nor buds can accomplish what great big speakers can! But, gun to head, headphones are the way to go! At least they surround and envelope the ears!

Jan. 24 2011 04:58 PM

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