Headphones vs Speakers Which is Best for What

One of the biggest battles in the audio industry is that of Headphones vs Speakers. Whilst some audiophiles prefer headphones as they can listen to music alone in their own confined area, other love sharing their favorite tunes with their environment. But the question arises, which one is better?

Both headphones and speakers have their own characteristics which make them better or worse than the other. When it comes to listening, audiophiles not only look for the audio performance but there is also a matter of comfort and ease of use. 

Whilst headphones have better resolution, with speakers you will get excellent stereo imaging and visceral impact. To know which one is better for what, keep reading to find out between Headphones vs Speakers.

The Basics of Headphones vs Speakers

To truly understand and come to conclusion in the debate between headphones and speakers, it is necessary to know the basics of these devices. What are the components? How do they work? What are the different types? All of these questions have to be answered to really pick a winner between the two.

All you need to know about headphones

A headphone is a device that can be plugged into the ears or worn over the ears to listen to audio. Headphones can generally be categorized into the following types: closed-back, open back, over-ear, on-ear, in-ear, and earbuds.

Closed back Headphones vs. Open back headphones

When looking for a headphone, the thing that always pops up is open back and closed back. But what do these terms really mean?

A closed back headphone is one that is designed in such a way that it is completely sealed in the back, only allowing the sound to reach into the ears and not escape into the environment.

An open back headphone, on the other hand, is a headphone that is designed to allow air to pass through the earcups. This ensures that pressure cannot build up and limits echoes from forming in the headphones. Compared to a closed back headphones, open back headphones produce a more natural sound.

Nevertheless, you can’t really use an open back headphone in a noisy environment- suppose on a train or an airplane flight. Open back headphones are more suitable for at-home listening whereas, with closed back headphones, you can casually listen to any of your favorite tracks whilst traveling down the busiest street.

The table below summarizes the basic differences between open back and closed back headphones.

Table: Open back vs. Closed Back Headphones

Feature
Open-back
Closed-back
Functioning mechanism
Allows external noise
Blocks out external noise
Weight
Lightweight
Heavier
Type of earcup
Permeated ear-cups
Sealed ear-cups
Bass response
More realistic
Less realistic
Stereo image
Wider stereo image
Narrower stereo image
Comfort
Tend to remain cool
Tend to be warmer
Noise cancellation property
Poor noise cancellation
Great noise cancellation
Feature
Open-back
Functioning mechanism
Allows external noise
Weight
Lightweight
Type of earcup
Permeated ear-cups
Bass response
More realistic
Stereo image
Wider stereo image
Comfort
Tend to remain cool
Noise cancellation property
Poor noise cancellation
Feature
Closed-back
Functioning mechanism
Blocks out external noise
Weight
Heavier
Type of earcup
Sealed ear-cups
Bass response
Less realistic
Stereo image
Narrower stereo image
Comfort
Tend to be warmer
Noise cancellation property
Great noise cancellation

Over-ear Headphones

Also known as circum-aural headphones, these headphones are the most common among the different categories. These are the most comfortable headphones because of the way they are designed. They include softly padded earcups which hug the ears and ensure that the sound does not escape into the surroundings. However, the downside is that they are a bit heavy and inconvenient for portable use.

On-ear Headphones

These types of headphones are also known as supra-aural headphones. On-ear headphones are lighter than over-ear headphones in general. These densely padded headphones have strong clamping pressure to ensure that the sound enters directly into the ear. The headphones have the advantage of allowing noise cancellation and portability for convenience. However, they might be a bit uncomfortable for long usage because of the strong clamping force.

In-ear Headphones 

In-ear headphones are those that are designed to be placed directly into the ear canal. These headphones include ear tips which are usually composed of silicone which creates a seal between the driver and the ear canal. These are the best in terms of noise cancellation.

5 Best In ear Headphones

Earbuds

Earbuds are similar to in-ear headphones but they can be placed on in the outer ear canal, that is they are not designed to seal the driver and the ear canal.

The table below shows the advantages and disadvantages that each type of headphone has got.

Read: Best Centre Channel Speaker

Pros and cons of different types of headphones 

Type of Headphone: Over Ear

Pros
  • Excellent audio quality
  • Extremely comfortable padded earphones for long use
  • Has Bluetooth options
Cons
  • A bit bulky for use
  • Expensive

Type of Headphone: On-ear

Pros
  • More compact and not as bulky
  • More portable
Cons
  • Can be uncomfortable to wear for a long period of time

Type of Headphone: In-ear

Pros
  • Very small and portable
  • Offers full noise cancellation
  • More affordable headphones compared to others
  • Very stable- can be used during workouts
Cons
  • Sound quality may not be as good
  • Can be uncomfortable to wear for long time

Type of Headphone: Earbud

Pros
  • Portable
  • Easy to use
Cons
  • Can fall out of the ear
  • Poor noise cancellation ability

5 Best Closed Back Headphone

All you need to know about speakers

A speaker is a device that converts the electrical audio signal into sound. Speakers can be categorized in many different ways according to their use, placement, and connectivity. when it comes to Headphones vs Speakers, we have listed out a few common categories that you will meet when you plan to search for and buy speakers. We will discuss the different types of speakers on the basis of design, construction, and connectivity.

Speakers in terms of design and placement

There are four different types of speakers in terms of design and placement.

The standing speakers are the most common type of speakers. They are designed to include large cabinets so that a great number of drivers can be included inside these speakers. This big number of speakers ensures excellent bass response and overall great sound performance.

The in-wall speakers can be mounted in a frame and placed in the ceiling or the wall. They are designed in such a way that they can save space and they do not disturb the décor of the room. The best thing about these speakers is that they not only sound great but they are out of sight.

Soundbars are speakers that are smaller in size which offer dynamic sound performance. They have a sleek design and they can easily blend in with your home theatre. Hence you do not have to worry about mounting them, they complement your TV effortlessly. 

The wall or ceiling mounted speakers as the name suggests can be mounted on the wall surface. They can be used for home theatres in medium and small-sized rooms.

Read: Cheap Speaker With floor standing capacity

Speakers in terms of driver construction

When it comes to driver construction, there are four different types of speakers.

Dynamic speakers are those designed to include one or more woofer drivers and tweeter drivers which help it to produce both bass and treble sounds. 

In-horn speakers use an acoustic horn to increase the efficiency of the driver. These are the best kind of speakers for those who want to listen to audio in large spaces. The drivers used in these speakers are similar to that of dynamic speakers. The drivers function by producing sound waves with a metal diaphragm, which in turn is vibrated by an electromagnet.

Designed to produce low frequencies, subwoofer speakers are those that include a single woofer driver. They can also be used to improve or strengthen the bass of the loudspeakers.

The electrostatic speakers are diaphragm speakers that have one driver between two electrically conductive grips. These speakers produce sound when the membrane is suspended in an electrostatic field by force. 

Read: 2 Best Speaker from Polk

Speakers in terms of connectivity

Speakers can be categorized into three different types when it comes to connectivity.

Wired speakers, as the name suggests, are those that include a cable with them. Wireless speakers, on the other hand, save you from the trouble of tangled cables. Bluetooth speakers help audiophiles enjoy a wide range of connectivity, allowing devices to be connected with the speakers from a distance.

Read: Wifi or Bluetooth Speaker 

Active Speakers vs Passive Speakers 

Speakers are mainly identified into two categories: active and passive.

The active speaker includes a built-in amplifier in its design. These speakers just require a power source to operate.  These speakers are an all-in-one solution, meaning that you won’t require an extra amplifier with them. They are also easy to set up, they can be used to modify the sound and they can be battery powered for greater portability.

On the other hand, a passive speaker is one that requires an external amplifier. These speakers draw power from an external amplifier, which it is connected to through a wire. The great thing about passive speakers is that you can change your amplifier separately if you want to without changing the entire system.

An active speaker is suitable for studios and concerts whereas passive speakers are more suitable for home use. The following table shows the differences between passive and active speakers:

Read: 7.2 Surround System

Table: Differences between active and passive speakers 

Feature
Active speaker
Passive speaker
External amplifier
Not required
Required
Type of cross-over network
Active crossover network that work with line level audio signals
Passive crossover network that work with amplified speaker level audio signals
Weight
Heavier
Lighter in weight
Cost
Higher price
Lower price
Cabling
Less cabling required
Requires more cabling
Feature
Active speaker
External amplifier
Not required
Type of cross-over network
Active crossover network that work with line level audio signals
Weight
Heavier
Cost
Higher price
Cabling
Less cabling required
Feature
Passive speaker
External amplifier
Required
Type of cross-over network
Passive crossover network that work with amplified speaker level audio signals
Weight
Lighter in weight
Cost
Lower price
Cabling
Requires more cabling

The difference between Headphones vs Speakers

Now that we have seen the basics of headphones and speakers, we can look into the differences between them. 

Primary Difference

The primary difference between a headphone and a speaker is that whilst a headphone allows you to enjoy music in solitude, with speakers you are sharing the audio with the environment.

Design and construction

If we talk about the design of the two devices, there is a big difference in the drivers. The number of drivers in the headphones is less compared to that of speakers, which require many drivers. Since headphones have around one driver per ear, each driver needs to render a full human audible range of frequency.

On the other hand, speakers have around two to three drivers incorporated in their design for bass, mids, and treble. The driver diameter in headphones is also quite small compared to that of speakers.

Read: 5.1 or 7.1 Sound System?

Portability

This one is pretty obvious. Headphones are more portable than speakers, they are easy to carry around and very convenient for traveling. Speakers, on the other hand, require a bit of effort to be transported from one place to another.

Headphones, therefore, get the priority when it comes to portability.

Visceral Impact

Visceral impact in this sense can be defined as the ability to feel the audio rather than just hear it. An example can be bass that makes your heart beat faster and increases the number of times that you blink.

Usually, when you are in a concert or movie theatre, you feel the music and you get goosebumps because the speakers exhibit a visceral impact. This is not possible with headphones, even if they are the impact is not as great as that of speakers. With loud stereo speakers, you will get the body sense of being submerged in a room full of sound, a feeling that you might not get when you are listening to music using headphones.

Hence, speakers are at an advantage in terms of visceral impact.

Stereo Imaging

Stereo imaging is defined as t the manipulation of a signal within a 180-degree stereo field, for the purpose of creating a perception of locality within that field.

When it comes to speakers, they offer excellent stereo imaging. The speakers produce a sound that moves through space and reaches the head through the ears just the sound from an instrument would travel to your head.

On the other hand, headphones do not produce sound in the same way. They are, in fact, quite unnatural and they lack the soundstage that a speaker would otherwise have. Thus, you may not feel like the sound is entering into your head through space when you listen to music using headphones.

Now, why does this happen? Let’s dive into the technicalities a bit to fully understand the functioning of a headphone and a speaker.

When you listen to audio using speakers, the sound enters from each speaker to both your ears. That is, you will hear the sound from the left speaker using both your left and right ears. But since the right ear is at a slightly greater distance from the left speaker, the sound enters into the right ear slightly after it has already entered into the left ear. This phenomenon is known as interaural time difference or ITD. This time difference is very essential since it can be used to identify the position of the source of the sound.

Now let’s look at headphones. Any audio channel in the headphone is only head in one ear. That is, if the music is coming from the left earcup, the left ear will listen to it, it won’t be audible to the right ear. Hence, headphones do not allow the listener to hear sounds in both ears as he or she would have in natural space.

Resolution

Resolution basically is synonymous with quality. High-resolution audio means that it has good quality. Usually, headphones are better in terms of resolution.

First, let’s look at speakers. As we have mentioned before, speakers have multiple drivers and crossovers. They are further away from the listeners’ ears and they produce an acoustic sound all across the room.

Whereas headphones usually have a single driver, which is much closed to the ears. Headphones do not have cross-overs and room absorption. However, they can be used to cancel out external noise.

Since the drivers of headphones are closer to the ears, they produce higher-resolution audio. The audio has more details and sounds crystal clear.

Therefore, headphones get an advantage when it comes to resolution over speakers.

Pros and Cons of Headphones

The advantages of headphones are as follows:

  • The only environment that affects the sound of the headphones is the size of the ears. So when you are listening to music using headphones, you won’t have to worry about external noise.
  • Headphones are very portable and convenient to use. You can carry them around quite easily when you travel.
  • Headphones are usually less expensive than speakers.

The disadvantage of headphones are as follows:

  • Headphones can get very uncomfortable with long use.
  • Headphones do not have a visceral impact. There is no thumping feeling that comes with the bass.

Pros and Cons of Speakers

The advantages of speakers are as follows:

  • Speakers have the visceral impact that headphones are missing.
  • They have better stereo imaging.
  • Speakers are more powerful than headphones.

The disadvantage of speakers are as follows:

  • Speakers are difficult to carry around. They are not very portable.

5 Best Speaker

Headphones vs Speakers: Which is Better for What?

Now that we have laid out the differences between headphones and speakers, we can determine which is better for activities such as listening to music, gaming, and watching movies.

Listening to Music

When it comes to listening to music, either headphones or speakers can be better depending on the type of atmosphere you are in.

If you are listening to music with a lot of intricate details, you would need headphones for a better resolution. Suppose it’s a lazy afternoon and you just want to listen to some classical music, you would want to put on your headphones and be transformed into a whole different world.

Each driver from each earcup will produce the sound directly into your ears, meaning that you will get to enjoy the music more as the intricate details will unfold with every passing note. Even when you are traveling, if you want to listen to music to block out the external noise of the busy environment, headphones are very useful.

On the other hand, if you are at a party with your friends, speakers are the right way to go. In order to fully enjoy the loud beats of EDM, you will need speakers which have a better impact when it comes to visceral stimulation and stereo imaging. With speakers, you will get to experience a wider soundstage and space where the audio would travel through the room.

Gaming

A good pair of headphones with noise-canceling properties and a well-functioning microphone are a must for gamers.

When you are playing a game such as Call of Duty, Fortnite, or CSGO, you would need to communicate with other players. And it is very essential that you get to hear the commands and cues clearly as well as deliver your commands to other players effectively. For this, you will need a perfect noise-canceling headphone paired with a microphone.

Using speakers for gaming won’t be such a good choice if you are playing a game that requires communicating with other members. Even when you are playing other games, a headphone would help you fully enjoy the audio than the sound coming from speakers.

Hence, headphones are the way to go for gaming.

Watching Movies

Speakers obviously get the advantage here.

When you are watching an action movie in the cinema, you’d feel the thump of the bass in your body. With headphones, this is not possible. Headphones do not exhibit visceral impact as much as speakers do. With speakers, you will get to feel the sound in your body, not just hear it. Speakers have stereo imaging as well, making the audio seem like it is floating through space. This is very important for watching movies as you want to live the movie scenes, not just hear the sounds.

Speakers are better than headphones to fully have a realistic movie experience.

Concluding Remarks

All this being said, which device is better, speakers or headphones?

There is no specific answer to that. It depends on the environment and different people have different preferences.

Whilst headphones won’t have the visceral impact and stereo imaging of speakers, speakers will not have the resolution that headphones have to offer.

Because of their properties, headphones are better suited for gaming whilst speakers are better for watching movies. When it comes to audio listening, headphones are a better option for solo listening while traveling and speakers for parties.

Some might say that headphones deliver artificial sound whilst speakers produce sound in a more natural way. This may be because of the interaural time difference and stereo imaging. This is the reason why there are speakers in concerts- for the visceral impact of sound.

Nevertheless, with speakers, you won’t get to block out external noise. Moreover, you can listen to the intricate details of the song you like with headphones, which you otherwise might have missed if you listen to it using speakers.

At the end of the day, both Headphones vs Speakers have their own pros and cons. An audiophile chooses a headphone or speaker according to the setting. I guess it’s safe to say that any audio or music lover will prefer a mix of both headphones and speakers in their lives.

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