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How Do Headphone Jacks and Plugs Work? (Explained)

Do you ever get lost trying to figure out how to use a headphone jack or plug? You might be surprised to know that these connectors work a bit differently from one another. But how do headphone jacks and plugs work?

Unfortunately, not knowing how these devices work can lead to improper use. 

Image of a red and black headphone plug. Source: pixabay
Image of a red and black headphone plug. Source: Pixabay

This article covers the basics of headphone jacks and plugs and how these devices work. So if you’re a musician trying to get the best sound out of your gear or are just curious about what you can do to enjoy music better, this post is for you!

How do headphone jacks and plugs work? Audio signals are sent through electricity when a male headphone plug is put into a female headphone jack. There are a variety of jacks and plugs available. Although they all serve the same function, they are only sometimes compatible with one another in size, wiring, microphone inclusion, connection quality, or electrical conductivity.

What are a headphone jack and plug?

Headphones have a connector called a “headphone jack,” a port on your device. A phone jack, audio jack, or auxiliary input is another name for this connection type. The “plug” is the end of your headphones’ cord that goes into the jack. The Association of Electrical & Mechanical Trades has established gender designations for jacks and plugs. The jack represents the female end of the connection, while the plug represents the male end.

The audio industry still needs to agree on what differentiates a plug from a jack. Because of this, the terms “plug” and “jack” are often used incorrectly. For example, the “jack-knife switch” gave rise to the word “jack.” This patent was granted to C.E. Scribner in 1874, and it found usage in early telephone switchboards.

In technical terms, a headphone jack and plug are electrical connections. In tandem, they carry analog signals from your audio source to your headphones. As an aside, there are headphone ports that can carry both analog and digital signals. Google’s Chromecast, for instance, has a single 3.5mm connection that can send out either analog or digital information.

How do headphone jacks and plugs work?

A metal pin in the headphones’ jack carries the audio signals. These conductors have varying degrees of durability thanks to their gold, nickel, and brass platings. On the other hand, the jack is hardly more than a hollow barrel wrapped with wires. The signals sent by the plug and jack must match. Thus the conductors in each must be the same.

The number of wires in your headphones’ cable matches the number of conductors on the plug. This is because each wire has a certain number of conductors that corresponds to the total number of wires in that particular wire.

This is similar to the conductors in a jack. When an audio plug is inserted into its corresponding jack, all of its wires must contact for the connection to work correctly.

How do headphone jacks and plugs connect?

It should be noted right from the bat that not all jacks and plugs for headphones are interchangeable. The following compatibility is required for a high-quality connection between a headphone jack and plug:

  • Size equality
  • Share a similar wiring diagram

Be aware that there is some wiggle room regarding the wiring. Also, please remember that not all plugs and jacks are universally compatible, even if they physically fit together. These concerns will be addressed in this article devoted to the headphone jack and plug compatibility.

Connectors for headphones, such as jacks and plugs, often have anything from two to five wires, or “conductors, “running through them. The conductors of a headphone plug need to be positioned just the right way for it to fit into a headphone jack and successfully transmit the desired audio signal (s).

Because of their nature as transducers, headphones can only ever be analog devices. Alternating current (AC) voltages make up an analog audio stream. Wires that carry electricity are used to transmit these messages.

Internally matched wires in a headphone cable correspond to the isolated conductors in a plug. The jack on the audio source includes separate wires that are each connected to transmit a different signal. The goal is to establish electrical contact between the jack and plug conductors, allowing the analog audio signals to go from the source via the cable, and onto the proper headphone drivers, as per the wiring schemes.

Most of the time, disassembling a jack is required to observe the real connection between a plug and a jack for headphones. This is a simplified cross-sectional illustration of a jack-plug configuration:

That is the fundamental concept behind audio jacks and plugs for headphones. They facilitate the transfer of electricity from one location to another by serving as conductive links (from the audio source to the headphone drivers).

What’s the difference between headphone jacks and plugs?

To connect headphones, the female end goes into the jack, while the male end fits into the plug. There are various jack sizes for headphones, including 2.5mm, 3.5mm, and 6.35mm TRS audio connections. The standard size for the headphone jack is 3.5 millimeters. Both ends of the cable—the plug at the audio player and the jack at the headphones—need to be connected. That sums up the primary distinctions.

Image of a black and gold headphone jack. Source: pixabay
Image of a black and gold headphone jack. Source: Pixabay

Headphone jack/plug sizes

Let’s start by discussing the many different connector and jack sizes for headphones. You may list them as follows:

2.5mm (3/32 in)

Although the 2.5 mm jack/plug is not widely used, it is important to note it for completeness. Two-way radios (walkie-talkies) and certain video cameras commonly use this headphone plug/jack. Common 2.5 mm jacks for headphones are tip-sleeve (TS) or tip-ring-sleeve (TRS) unbalanced mono or stereo jacks.

3.5mm (1/8 in)

The most common jack or plug size for wired headphones is 3.5 millimeters. Aside from older mobile devices, this jack may be found on audio consoles and field recorders. Typical 3.5mm jacks for headphones are unbalanced stereo TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) or TRRS (tip-ring-sleeve) with a microphone.

4.4mm

The 4.4mm jack/plug is a modern standard for headphones. The Pentaconn, measuring in at a typical 4.4mm, may be found in several HiFi equipment, Sony’s included. Sony is one of the thirteen best headphone brands in the world, according to My New Microphone. Pentaconn uses a TRRRS (tip-ring-ring-sleeve) connection for its balanced audio wiring.

6.35mm (1/4 in)

Standard jacks and plugs for electronic instruments have a 6.35mm “quarter-inch” diameter. Most instrument plugs/jacks are unbalanced and connected in a TS configuration (tip-sleeve).

For headphones, however, the 6.35mm connector is generally connected as an unbalanced stereo TRS (tip-ring-sleeve). Numerous audio interfaces, headphone amplifiers, mixing consoles and recording gadgets accommodate the 6.35mm jack/plug.

If you want even more tips and insights, watch this video called “Audio Jack Detection” from the FairchildSemi YouTube channel.

A video called “Audio Jack Detection” from the FairchildSemi YouTube channel.
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Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Do you still have questions? Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about headphone jacks and plugs.

Are plug-in headphones better?

Everyone knows that the sound quality of wired headphones is better than that of wireless headphones. This is because they have such finely tuned hearing that they can pick up on the tiniest sonic differences. They both agree that this is why they prefer wired headphones.

How do you connect headphone jacks?

You may find the Mini Plug hole(s) on the computer’s sound card, front or side, or on the device itself. There should be a 3.5 mm jack, usually colored brass, on the side or front of your laptop to make the connection. The stereo connector on certain high-end headphones measures 1/4 inch (6.3 millimeters).

Why do headphones have two jacks?

You’ll find two jacks on a typical computer headset: one for the headphones and one for the mic. Although it may appear complicated at first to connect the headset to your computer using two connectors, doing so is rather straightforward.

Conclusion

And that’s all about the basic workings of headphone jacks and plugs. Now that you know how these devices work, it is time to explore them yourself. But before purchasing new headphones, consider all these factors carefully first!

This article covered what headphone jacks and plugs are, how they work, and the difference between them. Here are some key takeaways:

Key takeaways

  • Headphones have a connector called a “headphone jack,” a port on your device.
  • A metal pin in the headphones’ jack carries the audio signals.
  • To connect headphones, the female end goes into the jack, while the male end fits into the plug.
  • Manufacturers of smartphones have gradually phased out the traditional headphone port in favor of more compact designs.
  • The longer the cable, the more interference will be introduced into the transmission.
  • 3.5mm plugs are the most frequent size used with a TRS connector.
  • Wiring adapters allow for crisp audio even if the jack doesn’t support a TRS plug.
  • A ts connector, or 2-conductor plug, consists of merely the sleeve and the tip of a plug.

So, do these help you understand the function of both devices? And did I cover everything you wanted to know? Let me know in the comments section below (I read and reply to every comment). If you found this article helpful, share it with a friend, and check out my full blog for more tips and tricks on music production. Thanks for reading, and never stop making music.

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Audio Apartment Author
Written By Andrew Ash
Hey there! My name is Andrew, and I've been making music since I was a kid. I now run this blog all about home studios and music production. If you want to improve your home studio setup, this is the place for you!

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