I’m an earbud convert: here’s why I'll never go back to over-ears

Apple AirPods Pro in charging case in palm of reviewer's hand with pool in the background
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Music has the power to stir up emotions, remind you of fond memories or give you a reason to sing shout at the top of your lungs when driving in the car. It’s something I personally cannot live without (as I’m sure is the case for virtually everyone), and as such, I need to be listening to it constantly. But I will only ever listen to music through earbuds as opposed to over-ear headphones and nothing you can say will change my mind.

And, because I love music so much, owning a pair of the best wireless earbuds to listen to music when commuting to work, lounging around at home or lying on the beach, is something I deem to be incredibly important. In fact, I reckon I would sacrifice being able to eat properly for a week or so if it meant me being able to pay for a decent set. 

I’m fully aware there are myriad pairs of incredible over-ear headphones out there — many of which I’ve been fortunate to have tested throughout my career, and I’ve even owned some of the best noise-cancelling cans on the market — they can all go in the trash as far as I’m concerned (don’t even get me started on on-ear headphones). 

Let me tell you why. 

Comfort is key

Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless PR shot of man outside wearing headphones

(Image credit: Sennheiser)

Despite manufacturer claims that their headphones will remain comfortable for “long listening sessions,” due to them being lightweight or employing memory foam padding and natural leather on the earcups, I personally have never been able to withstand more than two or three hours. Once I reach this threshold, I find my ears begin to ache and no matter how much readjusting I try, my ears are basically devoid of any life. They are ex-ears. 

I don’t know if these aching feelings are exclusive to me, or if it’s an issue I share with others, but some of my colleagues at least agree that headphones can feel uncomfortable after a long listening session. 

But even before I reach my two- to three-hour quota, if I’m wearing headphones outside, on the train or even at home, I regularly find heat levels within the earcups can build up pretty quickly. This sensation, which I can only liken to my ears being placed inside a kiln, is also an uncomfortable one and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve taken my headphones off, only to find a shiny layer of sweat adorning the leather. 

I’ve heard good things about the AirPods Max, but have yet to give them a trial myself.

Earphones all day

Our reviewer running with AirPods Pro 2

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The solution to both of these problems? Earphones. With just a small, diminutive bud in each ear canal, air is able to pass over my ears far more freely, keeping me and my lug holes cool and comfortable. Indeed, based on my personal experience with the pairs I’ve personally owned, I’ve never once experienced an iota of pain or discomfort. If anything, I become oblivious to the fact I’m even wearing a pair at all. 

The only giveaway, of course, is that music is being delivered into my ears and, last time I checked, I wasn’t living in some sort of simulation. 

How am I sounding?

But that’s not all, dear reader. I have thought this argument through right down to the last detail. You could say to me, “But, Max, I wear headphones all the time and I don’t find any discomfort, you’ve clearly not found the right pair!” Yeah, no thank you. 

I will also always choose earphones over headphones because I prefer the way they sound and how they perform when it comes to noise cancellation. 

I’ll start this particular argument by saying that I appreciate headphones — especially quality pairs including the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, Sony WH-1000XM5 and Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless — can sound incredible. The larger space afforded by the earcups allows for larger drivers and more space for them to distribute sound, which results in a soundstage that is detailed and accurate. 

And while that’s great, it just doesn’t feed into my personal interests.

The Sony WF-1000XM4 displayed over a tropical backdrop

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Those personal interests being dance and house music, and generally any upbeat track that has either no lyrics at all or one phrase that is repeated over and over for three to four minutes. Call me uncultured.

And so, because my music tastes gravitate towards the ‘bass in your face’ style, I want something that is going to make my head vibrate. I don’t need headphones that are necessarily capable of separating guitar tracks from vocals and drums, for example. 

Although, having earphones that do have that ability (and they do exist, take the stupendous Sony WF-1000XM4, for example) for the odd occasion I might put on a track by Silversun Pickups, Bonobo or Slipknot (I have a lot of music for many moods) is still factored into my buying decision. 

On the whole, I’ve found the more airtight fit provided by earbuds not only helps to deliver the levels of bass I seek, but that it also helps to aid their ability to block out external sounds.

Noise-cancellation tech has improved massively

Noise-cancellation technology is amazing. I'm a huge fan of being able to truly sign off from the world around you, so it’s just you and your music in your own little bubble. So for me, it needs to be as effective as possible. 

Again, in my personal experience, I’ve found in-ear headphones have been able to outperform their over-ear counterparts. This is largely due to the combination of noise isolation achieved by the in-ear fit and the inclusion of ANC technology.

Close up image of reviewer wearing Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

I’ve owned both a pair of Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones and a set of Apple AirPods Pro (I very recently upgraded to the AirPods Pro 2, and I wholeheartedly agree they sound and perform even better than their predecessor) and have used both on long-haul flights between Australia and the UK. 

During every flight, I’ve found the AirPods Pro to be my go-to option for listening to music or watching movies, owing to their superior comfort and relatively good ability to drown out the constant hum of the aeroplane engine. Sure, they don't completely omit external sounds on a plane, but I found this was also the case with the Sony XM4s, too. You may disagree with me, and that’s perfectly OK, I’m not going to say you’re wrong. But I just don’t think you’re going to be right either. 

Since buying my AirPods Pro 2, I have been given the chance to listen to the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II and, upon first listen, I actually thought I’d bought the wrong pair. I love my AirPods Pro 2, but as soon as I heard the first few bass-heavy beats of my favourite house music tracks, a smile not dissimilar to a Cheshire cat fell upon my face. 

I am still completely content with my purchase, though.

Call me vain

Bose QuietComfort 45 review

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Finally, if the arguments I’ve already provided aren’t enough to prove earphones are the better choice, then my last – and perhaps most important – reason for not wanting to wear headphones, is simply that they ruin my hair and I think they can look a little goofy. 

Despite some of the more recent headphone releases becoming more aerodynamic and less cumbersome when it comes to design, you surely have to agree that earphones are far more streamlined. Plus, they can literally fit in your pocket. Can your headphones? No. 

Now, who has any questions?

Max Langridge
Senior Editor, Tom's Guide AU

Max is a digital content writer for Tom’s Guide in Australia, where he covers all things internet-related, including NBN and the emerging alternatives, along with audio and visual products such as headphones and TVs. Max started his career in his homeland of England, where he spent time working for What Hi-Fi? and Pocket-lint, before moving to Australia in 2018.