Companies enjoy interchanging the definitions of these two. They are similar in some ways, though vastly different in others. However, the main differences boil down to this – you insert earphones/in-ears into the ear canal, while ear buds rest outside the canal.
What are ear buds?
When you look at them simply, they are a more affordable choice compared to headphones, in addition to greater portability and pleasure in the listening experience. To put it into perspective, a studio level ear bud costs less than a studio level headphone.
They usually lack cushioning, though they still can have this feature. This is because they are to stay on the concha ridge of the outer ear, instead of staying inside the ear canal. In addition, they are one-size-fits-all, so they may be comfortable on some ears and uncomfortable in others. This is dependent on the shape of your ear ridge, so for some people they may not fit completely and makes it annoying to wear – particularly in situations like exercise and sports. Some manufacturers counter this by attaching loops or wings that you can tuck under the ear ridges and keep them in place.
Ear buds can permit ambient noise, and you can hear what is happening around you. This will give you some safety measure when you do outdoor exercise or walking in public places while wearing them.
The other problem ear buds have is the lack of similar performance to high-end headphones, mostly because they lack bass boosting. The good news however, they are affordable and you can buy them if you do not mind the damage they can possibly undergo.
There are different types, which are mid-tier, low-tier and upper-tier. What separates them is the drivers they have, as well as the price, and the more drivers the ear bud has the higher the tier will be.
These have various sizes and designs of ear cushioning that gives you the best fit possible in terms of comfort, unlike ear buds that may be hit-or-miss in that department. The materials that create the seals include rubber, silicone and memory foam. Some earphones have designs that lock into the concha ridge, while others have protrusions that extend into the ear canal further.
Similar to ear buds, they can fall out if the fitting is not comfortable or secure enough, and they can be uncomfortable if the fitting is too tight. Those that fit into the concha are secure, though you may end up sacrificing some comfort.
Their small sizes can trick you, but keep in mind that they can extend into the high-end spectrum of prices and performance. They have an extra advantage as well: you do not need to play music at high volume because they have noise isolation ability, so you avoid destroying your ear canal while at it. They come in different types, with the most popular varieties being canal phones, circumaural and supra-aural types.
In conclusion, the differences between earphones and ear buds are not many, but the choice you make is dependent on what you want in terms of comfort and listening ability. Ear buds are a more affordable option, while earphones tend to sound better overall and have higher comfort levels generally.