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Earphone or Headset - The Guide to Portable Audio

There are a whole myriad of reasons why one might want audio on the go, From listening to audiobooks on a commute to some classic Lo-Fi Beats to Study / Relax to, there’s always a way to enrich a moment with audio. Busy schedules, long commutes and ease-of-use have all spurred engineers to create compact, reliable, high-fidelity audio solutions for use at home and elsewhere.

Out of this innovation have come earphones, headphones, headsets, earbuds…but aren’t earbuds earphones? And what makes a headset different from headphones? August designs and delivers products from the entire range of audio devices and so can easily dispel any confusion over which is which, and which is best for you!

When thinking of audio devices there are some key questions to answer:

  • What are Audio Devices overall?
  • What are Headphones / Headsets?
  • What are Earphones / Earpods / Earbuds?
  • What is On-Ear vs Over-Ear vs In-Ear?
  • Which are right for you?


Audio Devices, Which Aren’t Speakers

First of all, this article concerns wearable audio devices. When talking about headphones and wearable audio devices the term "speakers" is used only to talk about the specific driver and technology inside the device, not the device itself. It would be nice to simply say that Headphones, Earphones, Headsets etc are just “Wearable Speakers” but there’s a lot more to it than that!

Now that’s out the way, what umbrella term can we use, if not Speakers? This is where the fun begins…

What is the Umbrella Term for Portable / Wearable Audio Devices?

Most commonly, across public use and business sites selling/manufacturing products, the term that encompasses any wearable audio device is “Earphones”. While this implies some sort of specific in-ear device (As we will discover later) it is also commonly used as the umbrella term.

For clarity, always add a descriptor. For example, “Over-Ear Earphones” creates the image of what is actually a pair of Headphones or a Headset.

Are all Headphones also Headsets?

Since we have mentioned Headphones and Headsets in that example, let’s look into those first. A Pair of Headphones is an audio device that connects either via Bluetooth or by 3.5mm jack to an audio source, and generally has either no power requirement or a rechargeable battery with up to 30 hours of playback battery life.

Headphones have two speaker units (Or “drivers”) that rest one per ear. They are connected by a spine that runs along the top of your head (And is hopefully padded!). The speakers are connected by this bar as one single unit. Some versions fold for easier storage and some have dedicated carry cases, but they all stay together as one single pair of speakers.

Various angles of an EP650 wireless headphones. The spine that rests on your head, an earpiece with button controls, padded earpeices.

An example are the top-selling August EP650s, which feature cushioned earpieces connected by an adjustable spine to ensure they fit snugly and insulate your ears. This provides passive noise reduction (Although the EP650s also have engineered DSP Noise Reduction too) which is a staple of Over-Ear Headphones.

Important Note: Headphones can be wired via the 3.5mm standard audio jack, or can be made as wireless headphones via Bluetooth! Check your usage and requirements as not all headphones are wireless.

What is a headset?

In a nutshell, a headset it the common term for a pair of headphones that have an external microphone. You can flip down the mic to immediately begin talking while gaming, working, or on the move. The term is also used for dedicated professional equipment, things like Traffic Control and VR for example. These are called “Headsets” as the term basically just implies additional technology/functionality than headphones.

It’s easy to remember as headphones are purely “phonic” whereas a headset has a “set” of features. A pair of Headphones can have an integrated microphone, of course, but it is the visual and mechanical nature of the accessory that turn a headphone into a headset.

A black headset with extended microphone from one ear and RGB lighting. The August EPG100L.

The most common headsets are ones that gamers use, and are easily the most accessible. August’s example is the EPG100L headset which features all the mentioned properties; a pair of 50mm drivers connected by a memory foam spine, an integrated mic that can be deployed and retracted, and finally RGB lighting.

What’s the difference between Earphones / Earpods / Earbuds?

Both wired or wireless earphones are small, light, and most importantly do not have two speakers connected by a spine.

Instead, earphones are two separate devices that sit in your ear, with only wires connecting them. Some don't even have the wires and are "True Wireless Earbuds". These devices even have a charging case for wireless charging, no cable required.

They can be subtle and small, but they can also include hooks and extra plastic to support them and keep them in place or house a control pad. So long as they only contact your ears and not your head, they’re probably earphones not headphones! Simple. 


The EPG500 earphones and their charging case. They slot into the case and charge wirelessly.

See, over time the earphone industry has done what headphones did and incorporated more technology. But these aren’t called “Earsets” (A la Headset), instead the features are normally just listed.

For example, the August EPG500s are Noise Cancellation Earphones with an Integrated Microphone. There’s not really a way to condense those features into the definition like there was with headset. Earphones have even excelled in audio quality, bringing the sound quality of the smallest devices on-par with some headsets!

Therefore, it is other qualities that determine the difference between Earphones, Earbuds and Earpods. Firstly, the Red Herring. Earpods isn’t, really, a common term. The usage is mainly because of the Apple product.

When talking about other products from other brands they are always Earphones or Earbuds, but using the term Earpod muddies the water and misconstrues what the device is. For that reason, Earpod was a bit of a fake answer.

That leaves us with Earphones and Earbuds. Both are valid terms, and many use them completely interchangeably. The only small difference is that earphones with extra hooks to anchor your ear, or with a good extension from your ear for controls, are often called earphones. Earphones that are focussed on being tiny, and are mostly made up of the silicone ear-tip, are called Earbuds.

This is a less clinical difference than with headphones and headsets, but still a useful guide when examining products. The EP800s are, for example, small enough (Some of the smallest actually available) to be Earbuds in most people’s definition, rather than earphones. Either term will sound good, however, and not be inaccurate or cause confusion.

Over-Ear, On-Ear, In-Ear…what’s going on here?

These clarifiers are used in conjunction with other definitions to create a greater picture of what the audio device really is. Headphones aren't just headphones, they are On-Ear or Over-Ear Headphones.

For example, those EP650s from earlier are Over-Ear Headphones. They are Headphones as they have no external properties other than the speakers and they are over-ear as the cushions around the drivers circle your ear, resting on your head. Your ears become completely covered by the speakers, hence “Over-Ear”. Listening to Music is authentic and immersive especially in noise cancelling headphones.

EP636 On-ear headphones rest on a woman's ears. There is no padding enclosing the earpieces around her ears.

Conversely, the EP636 Headphones are On-Ear. They are headphones as they are two speaker units connected by a spine with no external devices or attachments. They are on-ear because they do not feature cushioning surrounding the speakers. The earpieces each side of the spine simply contact onto your ears and leave the surrounding space free.

Finally, in-ear refers to devices that use silicone ear-tips to actually rest inside your ear. To our knowledge, there are no in-ear headphones. Instead, they are earbuds and earphones that can rest separately, one in each ear, without needless tugging and pressure from a spine (or from a cable if you use a Bluetooth pair like the previously mentioned EP800s).

The Exceptions to the Rule

Every rule needs exceptions, and these rules are no exception! Across the vast production and innovation of these devices there are bound to be some oddities. Here are some common ones:

  • Bone Conduction! These devices transmit sound through raw vibration using your bone as a conduit. They therefore don’t sit in or around your ear, or need a large spine across your head. They are light and certainly not in-ear, which makes them headphones as they do not enter the ear and are one single unit (See the EP400 for an example of this tech!)
  • Open-Back! Open Back headphones are over-ear devices that encompass your ear in cushioning…except for the rear. The back side of your ears are left more exposed, with just the headphone frame and no cushioning. This allows you a greater awareness of your surroundings even with over-ear headphone quality and privacy. The normal style are therefore called "Closed Back Headphones".
  • Bluetooth Beanies! In an amazingly inspired move, the August EPA30 is a warm, synthetic wool beanie that incorporates two driver units. Now, there is no spine connecting them so you could call them earphones, but I think the entire hat being the contact point with you head means they should be called headphones! Check them out here and judge for yourself.

Choosing your August Audio Device…

Do you need a portable device that still has high-fidelity and immersive audio? A pair of Over-Ear Headphones that fold and have a case might be perfect.

Do you want to use your device for sports, running, commuting and work all in one? A pair of quality in-ear earphones would be suited to that level of adaptability.

Maybe you need a work pair for zoom calls and office use, in which case an on-ear pair allows the freedom of hearing what’s around you while still being a sturdy pair of headphones.

Whatever your needs, find the best wearable audio device for you! Click here to view our full range!


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