Earbud Types And Their Differences

A few decades ago, we walked around with wired headphones attached to our walkmans. At the time, it felt normal to be out in public looking like a telephone operator. Today, things are a little different. Discreet, wireless earbuds have become standard as Bluetooth technology has continued to advance. Nowadays, we are spoiled for choice, with hundreds of different brands to choose from and several unique styles of earbud types also available. In this article, we’ll look at the different types of earbud designs and which situations they excel at.

The Importance Of Choosing The Correct Earbud Type

The design type of an earbud affects more than just your aesthetic; it can have a marked influence on the comfort, practicality, and even lifespan of the earbuds. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just about the sound quality, as the design itself can create a subjective sound experience; this is particularly true for earbuds compared to other speakers, and some designs sacrifice performance in exchange for practicality. 

Types of Earbud Designs

The way earbuds are designed can be confusing at first. There are three main types of earbuds: in-ear, on-ear, and bone conduction. In-ear designs are made to sit in the ear canal and seal off ambient noise, while on-ear designs sit outside the ear canal and rest on your ear. On-ear designs will frequently promote transparency of ambient noise for better situational awareness. Bone conduction earbuds are unique and use vibrations to send sound directly to the inner ear.

Within these three main styles of earbuds, further distinctions are made regarding how the earbud fits around the ear. Some integrate elements of an open-ear design into an in-ear option by using technology that allows more sound to pass through the earbud.

Here are the main types of earbud designs:

In-Ear Earbuds

In-ear earbuds fit directly into the ear canal. These are some of the most popular types of earbuds. Their design inherently provides good passive noise isolation. They are also frequently available with ANC (active noise cancelation) for those looking to drown out environmental noise. In-ear earbuds usually come with earplugs of various sizes to support different ear shapes and sizes. Some in-ear designs will make use of an over-ear hook, but the sound is still delivered inside the ear using a bud attachment that goes into the ear canal.


The benefits of in-ear earbud designs lie primarily in their noise isolation and how the tight fit can improve sound quality. Bass is typically better than other in-ear designs and they usually sound louder because of the proximity to the eardrum.

While in-ear earbuds have marked benefits, they aren’t ideal for exercise and can often fall out during rigorous activity. That’s where a hook-style earbud excels. Instead, an in-ear design is best suited for traditional use around the home or when commuting.

Popular Models Using This Design

Apple AirPods Pro
Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro
Sony WF-1000XM4
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds

On-Ear Earbuds

On-ear designs differ from in-ear earbuds in how they fit on the ear. On-ear earbuds typically feature a hook design that rests the earbud on top of the ear, with the driver (speaker) resting just outside the ear canal. Not all on-ear earbuds look the same, and slight variations in design are common. 

Soundcore AeroFit Pro

While in-ear designs focus on audio quality, deep bass, and noise isolation, on-ear earbuds sacrifice some performance in sound to provide safety and stability. This style is best suited to athletes and is frequently marketed towards road runners who need to retain stability and awareness of their surroundings. Because these earbuds sit outside the ear canal, there is a significant reduction in bass compared to in-ear alternatives, and you shouldn’t expect the same full sound when using an on-ear earbud.

Soundcore’s AeroFit Pro is a great example of an on-ear earbud designed for runners. Using the app, you can even set the earbuds so that the ear you turn towards mutes gives you uninterrupted audio of your surroundings in that direction.

Popular Models Using This Design

Soundcore AeroFit Pro
Shokz Openfit
Cleer Arc II Sport
Bose Ultra Open

Bone Conduction

Unlike traditional earbuds, which use a speaker to push sound waves through the device and into the listener’s ear, bone conduction earbuds (also called bone conduction headphones) use its driver not to push sound waves but to create vibrations that bypass the majority of the ear, including the eardrum. These vibrations are felt by the hair cells inside of the cochlea. 

This design style is beneficial to athletes or those with hearing aids. The design holds some of the same benefits as an open-ear earbud, allowing for environmental sounds to still be heard by the user. They are also a popular choice for swimmers who may otherwise struggle to find earbuds that offer submergence protection. Because bone conduction earbuds don’t have exposed drivers, they can easily be waterproofed.

While this type of earbud is beneficial in many ways, it also comes with drawbacks. The most noticeable problem with bone conduction earbuds is the lower audio quality when compared to other designs, particularly in-ear designs. Similar to open-ear designs, there is less bass presence than with in-ear designs.

Popular Models Using This Design

Shokz OpenRun Pro
Philips Go A7607
Shokz OpenSwim
Panasonic RP-HGS10

What Are Open-Ear Earbuds?

An open-ear design reduces noise isolation to provide more awareness of surrounding sounds. While this may seem counter-intuitive to the average music listener, for runners and cyclists, this is a noteworthy safety feature that allows them to retain awareness of approaching cars. On-ear earbuds tend to have open-ear designs, and bone conduction earbuds are naturally open-ear. Some in-ear earbuds allow external sounds to pass through the earbud, but these are less common than on-ear variations.

Wired Earbuds

Wired vs Wireless Earbuds

The last two decades have seen a monumental shift from wired earbuds to wireless alternatives. IEMs are still readily available in a variety of wired options, but general consumer earbuds have trended wireless as Bluetooth connectivity continues to improve. With the low latency in modern Bluetooth, wireless earbuds no longer leave one’s audio lagging behind the visuals, making them great for watching YouTube.

Historically, there were noticeable sonic differences between wired and wireless earbuds, as the Bluetooth limitations resulted in what is now considered inefficient compression, resulting in lower sound quality and increased latency. The efficiency of modern Bluetooth has made it nearly impossible to distinguish the quality between wired and wireless earbuds.

The Future of Earbuds Designs

While the future is uncertain, we can extrapolate the current trends in earbuds and technology to forecast a likely evolution. ANC (active noise cancelation) has become prevalent in earbuds in recent years, and this will likely become a standard feature in the next year or two. AI has also already seen an introduction to Bluetooth speakers, which analyzes the room and adjusts the tonal qualities accordingly. It is likely that in the next five years, we’ll see similar technology being added to most high-end earbuds. It’s also likely that we’ll see more open-ear designs targeted towards athletes.

Overall, the earbud market is booming, and plenty of different styles are available. The type of lifestyle you live and the way you listen to music should influence your choice of design. For most people, an in-ear wireless earbud is a safe choice; it can provide great quality sound and is flexible. On the other hand, an open-ear design may be preferable if you’re a runner or cyclist.

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Written by
Bryn De Kocks

Bryn De Kocks is the lead editor for Audiostance, as well as one of our trusted reviewers. He has more than 15 years of experience in online publication and stands firm in being transparent with both the benefits and drawbacks of the products he reviews. Outside of editorial work, Bryn has been an avid online gamer and casual digital music producer since his teenage years, bringing his understanding of audio and especially headphones to the table. His daily driver is a humble pair of Fidelio X2HRs powered by a Fiio E10K. In his spare time he enjoys nature photography.

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