What’s the Difference Between Headphones and Headsets?

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What’s the Difference Between Headphones and Headsets?

Through more than two years of Zoom meetings, you may have noticed the variety of devices your colleagues use to listen to and participate in discussions. The people wearing these devices may refer to them generically as headphones when they’re headsets or earbuds (or, for Apple devices, Airbuds). So, what’s the difference between headphones and headsets? And how are they different from earbuds?


The distinguishing feature of headphones is that the speakers that go over or on your ears are attached by a headband that goes over the top of your head. Headphones are a pair of small speakers that you can listen to without disturbing those around you.

On-ear headphones have smaller padded speakers that sit on your ear, just covering the opening. Over-ear headphones are the larger type that covers your entire ear and traps the sound with their padding. Then there are versions called open-back headphones, which are over-ear headphones with holes or horizontal openings on the outside to let air circulate. These can allow a little sound escape.


Headsets do the same thing as headphones, with one significant difference: headsets have microphones. The microphones may be detachable or fixed and can be adjustable and bendable to position them in front of your mouth. Other headsets have integrated microphones you can’t see, but they still pick up the sound of your voice.

Adding a microphone may impact the sound quality of the speakers, which can be a problem for music lovers or gamers who want to focus on their game’s music and sounds.

Jobs that involve a lot of two-way communication commonly use lightweight headset designs with on-ear speakers and adjustable microphones that are more comfortable for all-day wear. Headsets are widely used in call centers.


Earbuds don’t have a headband that goes over the top of your head to hold them on your ears. Instead, they rest right inside your ears. Earbuds, like wireless headphones, connect to your device via Bluetooth. Some people prefer them because they don’t press against the ears. Others don’t like them because they can fall out unless they have a part that hangs over the outside of your ear, next to your head. Certain earbuds have integrated microphones, and wired earbuds can have tiny microphones on their cords.

Some professions require specialized types of headsets. Pilots have a choice of aviation headsets that come in over-ear or in-ear versions. But in-ear aviation headsets have earbuds still attached to a headband to ensure the pilot can always hear communications without fussing with earbuds.

Now that you know the difference between headphones and headsets, you can tell whether your colleagues are using headphones, headsets, or earbuds. Which you use is a matter of comfort and your preferences for sound quality.

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