When you hear the words “headset” and “headphones,” is there a distinction between the two? If not, it’s understandable; they’re both pieces of technology used for an isolated listening experience, they both come in corded and wireless versions, and, well, the names are pretty darn similar.
Despite the evident similarities, we’re here to explain what makes these devices unique and what other technologies exist in this space.
Thanks to modern technology, the line between headphones and headsets has blurred. Previously, the distinction was clear: headsets had a microphone, and headphones didn’t. Now, products such as AirPods have made things a bit trickier.
According to the definitions, earbuds with microphones would be a headset - they’ve got a microphone to speak into even though it’s not visible. However, odds are that you’d be more likely to refer to your earbuds as “headphones” than as “a headset.” This in-between category can be cause for debate. We’ll give you the facts and leave the ultimate decision of whether they are headphones or headsets up to you.
What's a headset?
There are two main characteristics of a headset: speakers and microphones. Ain’t much to it.
These key features can be configured into a variety of different shapes and sizes. When you’re looking for a headset, you’ll find options that vary in multiple areas, including the following:
Speaker type: The speaker(s) can either go in or on your ear.
Speaker quantity: Some headsets have speakers for both ears, and some only have one.
Wire(less): Headsets can either be corded or wireless.
These differences can lead to confusion; one configuration may look drastically different from the next. Don’t be fooled! If it’s got a microphone, and it’s got a speaker, you’re dealing with a headset.
What are headphones?
It’s common to assume that if a device does not have a microphone that wraps around the side of your face, it’s a pair of headphones. This is true but not comprehensive. Headphones, by definition, don’t have any microphone at all. They’re just wearable speakers.
Headphones that fit this definition are not as common as they used to be, but new ones are still produced, and old ones can make pretty cool vintage collectors' items. Examples include:
The device you plugged into your Sony Walkman
Those $8 headphones you get at the airport convenience store
However, mic-less devices are still produced, and they can be great for people whose sole goal is listening. If you're an audiophile, and your mission is to find a device with the highest possible sound quality, headphones are for you.
What's the grey area?
Here is where the “headsets vs. headphones” line blurs. The grey area accounts mainly for devices that have a microphone that is either incorporated into the cord or integrated into the earpiece itself. They’re headsets by definition, but the lack of a distinct microphone causes confusion. Examples include:
The blurred line exists because some sources - companies, blogs, individual consumers - have changed their definitions of headphones and headsets to better account for current technology.
A common redefinition of the headset vs. headphones distinction states that both devices have microphones, but headphones’ microphone is integrated rather than external. Other sources stick to the original definition. They like their headsets mic’d and their headphones mic-less. Thus, the grey area is born.
Which device should I get?
So you're ready to settle your own headphones vs. headsets debate. When you're deciding which of these three options is the best for you, consider exactly what you're trying to get out of your device.
If your goal is to find something with the best sound, comfort, and quality, and you need a microphone to talk into, go for a headset. If you're an audiophile who wants to get the best listening experience and doesn't need to communicate with your device, then headphones it is. And if you're looking for a smartphone accessory or are seeking portability, check out something from the grey area. Approach the buying process with your needs clearly defined, and make your decision based on the functionality that fits those needs.
The headset vs. headphones question is a common one, and it’s difficult to give a definitive answer. Going by basic definitions, anything that allows you to speak and listen is a headset. Going by devices’ specific configurations, there’s room for debate.
While some products are easy to categorize as one or the other, others are more open to interpretation. A Leitner is a headset. That device you use to listen to your Walkman is a pair of headphones. AirPods? We’ll leave that one up to you.
We're here when you need us.
If you need some more clarification on headsets vs. headphones or what device is best for you, our Headset Advisors are always happy to talk shop. Just call 1-800-HEADSETS (432-3738) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.