Earphones, Earbuds, Canalphones: What’s the Difference?

In a previous post, I examined the differences between headphones and headsets. Like many terms in the pro and consumer audio universe, headphones and headsets are rather nebulously defined, and rampant contradictions in usage can be found all over the web.

Likewise, people often use the terms earphones, earbuds, and canalphones interchangeably. But in fact, all three of these similar audio components have important differences.

What are earphones, earbuds, and canalphones, and how do they differ?

What Are Earphones?

Earphones hang on the outer ear but do not enter the ear canal. Here’s an example of an earphone.

Earphones are often used in conjunction with FM receivers as part of assistive listening systems to provide hearing assistance for the hearing impaired. Their over-the-ear design means that music reproduction may be a bit lacking because of their decreased bass response.

Although earphones can cover one or both ears, many listeners prefer single-ear models so they can remain aware of their surroundings.

What Are Earbuds?

Earbuds rest inside the outer ear, with their speakers aimed into the ear canal. Earbuds are a familiar sight for commuters, as they’re usually included with smartphones, media players, and similar devices.

Despite their improved fidelity over earphones, many listeners find that earbuds still allow too much background noise, even if they fit correctly (which is not always the case).

What Are Canalphones?


Canalphones fit snugly inside the ear canal. They use comfortable, form-fitting rubber tips that provide superior isolation from outside noise as well as increased bass response, without resorting to more costly active electronic noise-cancellation features.

Originally developed for use in stage monitoring for live performers, in-ear canalphones are gaining in popularity for private music listening in noisy environments.

Some listeners, however, are uneasy with a device that fits so deeply into the ear, however much it may cut off outside noise.

Do you find canalphones to be a sonic revelation, or an uncomfortable pain? What do you use to listen with: earphones, earbuds, or canalphones?