Headphones and Headsets: What’s the Difference?

When choosing audio devices, you get to choose from a wide array of options including headphones, earphones, earbuds and gaming headsets. This multiple options can easily get confusing as you struggle to discover what fits in where and which of these you need. While all of these devices are similar in both form and function, their design, features, and usability leaves marked differences between headphones and headsets that you should consider before shopping for sound gear.

While the differences between headphones and headsets are not too substantial, these peculiarities can greatly influence your options and choice during audio shopping. For example, if you are building a gaming setup, standard earphones are not an option, as they are too underpowered to handle audio for such projects.

Understanding the classification of these devices can quickly become a problem as most users, and stores, often use these terms interchangeably without a regard for which is which. To further compound this issue, there is little to no consensus as to the precise meaning of these names. To ease your understanding of these wearables, we have chosen what we considered to be the most widely accepted definition and delineating factors for each audio device type.

In this article, we will examine two of the most popular audio device types: Headphones and Headsets. These two are significant because they rank as the top choices for audiophiles and power users while gaming, consuming media, and in office settings. Aside from introducing both devices, we will visit the never ending “headphones vs. headsets” battle to give you the pros and cons of getting either device as well as the advantages each over the other.  Furthermore, we will aid you in the selection process by recommending the best setup for using each device.


Gaming headsets

While physically similar to headphones, headsets are easily differentiated by their standout feature: the microphone. You can vaguely think of a headset as a pair of regular headphones that sports a microphone. Furthermore, the sound delivery setup for both devices is quite different as they are targeted at differing markets; therefore, each is fine-tuned to match the needs of its own market base.

Microphones design varies from headset to headset as they come in different shapes, sizes, and using different technologies. The most common microphone type is the boom microphone. This receiver type is attached to the end of a movable and often bendable microphone arm that is connected to one of the ear cups of the headset. The microphone itself can either be the bi-directional noise-cancelling type or the omnidirectional 360-degree type.

Alternatively, some headsets feature internal microphones that are placed near the speaker cups and are connected to a pipe that looks similar to the arm of the boom microphone, which carries sound from the speaker up to the microphone itself. A third option is known as the in-line microphone. Here, the microphone is attached directly to the cord which connects the headset to the sound-producing device.

Most high-end headsets feature some noise canceling features to accentuate the audio experience. Both the microphone and the speakers can be equipped with a noise canceling design.

Due to their design, headsets are ideal for services that require voice communication such as voice over IP communication services like Skype and Facetime, traditional phone calls, intercoms, and call-based customer service centers. By extension, they also work excellently and are the number one recommendation for playing online multi-player games, where conversing with teammates and other players immediately improves your gameplay.

It is important to note that for marketing purposes and in general speech the term “headsets” is often used as a blanket term for both headphones and headsets. Keep this information in mind when making a purchase to avoid buying either of the two types by mistake.



Headphones are almost direct ancestors of more modern forms such as headsets and earphones. In its traditional form, a pair of headphones features two simple speakers that are attached to either end of a band that goes across the top of the user’s head. This setup positions the speakers over each of the user’s ears, allowing sound to be delivered directly to the ears. In its ideal state, this structure should create an immersive listening experience for the user.

Originally, headphones were designed to improve the efficiency of traditional speakers, which use immense power to vibrate large segments of air within a room to properly recreate the sound. On the other hand, headphones only displace a relatively tiny amount of air to create sounds as the entire delivery scope is around the user’s ear. Consequently, headphones use far less power and deliver sound more efficiently than traditional speakers.

In the broad view, headphones are designed with an emphasis on stereo sound quality for listening to music and consuming media from computers, phones, consoles, and other devices. Another typical application for headphones is in media production (music and video.) To ensure optimal media-based sound delivery headphones are optimized with fine-tuned highs, mids, and lows.

Headphones also frequently feature noise cancellation features that act as a buffer, keeping intrusive noises out from the audio stream and keeping the delivered sound within the ear muffs.


Earphones are an improvement on the portability of headphones. These wearables are speakers that fit directly into the ear canal.

Earphones are significantly more portable devices as the lose most of the bulk of headsets. The also make a slight improvement on sound delivery as they displace even less air than headphones as they provide an even more straightforward connection to the sound source.

These relatively newer wearables owe their popularity to mobile devices and portable media player. Due to their portability and ease of use, they are a convenient choice for use on-the-go, such as during travel and exercise.

One pitfall of earphones is that they noise cancellation is almost impossible due to their design and size. Also, earphones can get quite uncomfortable for some people because it works by introducing a foreign body into the ear canal.


Earbuds feature an almost identical design to earphones with the only difference being that the rest on the ear rather that inside the ear canal. They solve the problem for those that love the mobile and convenient experience earphones provide but do not favor their in-ear design.

Headphones vs. headsets


Headphones vs headsets

Although there terms “headphones” and “headset” are often used interchangeably, they are different pieces of equipment. Know the difference between the two is going to help you determine which is the best product for you. Here are the details of our Headphones vs. Headsets teardown.


Their designs easily differentiate headphones and headsets. While both devices come in a large variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, most of them align towards particular design language that is common to their group.

One of the most prominent differences in form between headphones and headsets is the presence of a microphone. As we explained earlier, traditional headphones do not have needs for microphones as they are designed primarily for consuming media. On the other hand, headset often features some microphone to allow secure communication.

Also, good headsets, especially gaming headsets, usually feature larger speakers and higher-end driver components that are more durable and help deliver more powerful and dynamic sound quality than standard offerings.


Another core area that separates headphones from headsets is the sound production. The battle for sound quality is easily won by the headphones. A good $100 pair of headphones would easily surpass a $150 headset in quality. However, you should not interpret this to mean that have produced poor sound quality. However, owning to the fact that headphones are engineered solidly with sound quality in mind, they offer a relatively better sound experience.

On the other hand, headsets equally sport an advantage in sound production over headphones, albeit in another dimension. Headsets usually feature stereo surround sound, a feature that is rarely found on headphones. Stereo surround sound mimics depth, aiding you to hear the sound as if it’s coming from relative locations around you. This feature is particularly useful for gaming as well as when watching movies that have to surround sound.


For convenience sake, the headset is the better options for use with a mobile phone or PC because they integrated microphones. The included microphone makes a headset a life saver, especially when you need to use a connectivity app such as Skype. Also, microphones come in quite handy when making a phone call.

However, while considering the convenience factor, it is important to note that most headsets features colorful design and may be too much of a fashion choice for you outdoors. It all boils down to your tastes.


It can get quite hard comparing a pair of headphones and a headset when it comes to price vs. performance category. This is because headsets that can provide features you cannot get on a pair of headphones, while headphones easily provide a better return on sound quality for your money.

Decent headphones and headsets start at around the same price range of $60-$80.

Pros and cons for headphones and headsets

Headphones and earphones

Headphones Pros:

  • Relatively better price to sound quality ratio
  • Better sound quality
  • Optimized for media consumption, with clear and true–to-life sound

Headphones Cons:

  • No microphone

Headsets Pros:

  • Microphones are available for communication
  • Surround sound provides depth
  • Wider range of colors and aesthetics
  • Optimized to reproduce even tiny sounds
  • Noise cancellation

Headsets Cons:

  • Relatively more expensive
  • Not very “fashion-compliant.”

Headphones and Headsets concluded

When shopping for sound wearables, it is important that you consider a few factors before settling for a gaming headset or a pair of high-quality audiophile-worthy headphones. First, you should consider what your most frequent sound need is. Are you going to spend most of your audio time gaming, watching movies, or for light gaming and little music? Also, you should consider your budget and mobility.

Do you enjoy long multiplayer gaming sessions? Then a high-grade gaming headset is a no-brainer. A hardcore media consumer, on the other hand, should opt for a pair of headphones. For a compromise between the two, you should consider how often you indulge in either and what you value more. Surround sound or studio-level sound.

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Anthony Ikani

Intrigued by all things tech, Tony is an avid follower of new tech, and a self-proclaimed technology enthusiast. You should follow him for a fresh dose of tech guides and reviews.
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