How Do Headphones Work? (Explained)

Read about how headphones work as well as the different types available today in the market. Discover how this device can help you in making music.

If you’re like most people, you probably use your headphones to listen to music, watch movies, or take phone calls. Headphones are one of the most popular pieces of technology in the world. They’re versatile, convenient, and perfect for a variety of activities.

But if you’re a beginner looking to start creating and recording your own music, it’s important to know how headphones work. Headphones are essential in music production, and there are different types out in the market. So if you’re looking to enjoy your music in peace or want to use it professionally, this post is for you!

How do headphones work? All headphones are transducers, meaning they change the electrical energy (the audio signal) into sound waves you can hear. An audio signal turns on a diaphragm in a pair of headphones using electromagnetic, electrostatic, or piezoelectric principles. This makes a sound.

Image of a black wired headphones connected to a mobile phone. Source: kaboompics com, pexels
Image of a black wired headphones connected to a mobile phone. Source: Kaboompics Com, Pexels

What are headphones?

Headphones are essentially a pair of tiny speakers used for listening to audio via a computer, music player, or another portable electronic device. The first headphones had separate speakers for each ear and were linked by a headband.

In contrast to loudspeakers, which broadcast sound for everyone around to hear, headphones are made just for the listener. Listening to audio on a computer, laptop, smartphone, MP3 player, or another device may be done in privacy without bothering others around you.

While this kind of headset is still popular, today’s headphones come in a much more compact design that fits within the ear and is generally referred to as an earbud. Earphones, or earbuds, depending on the design, are another name for headphones.

My favorite studio headphones:

Audio-Technica ATH-M50X Studio Monitor Headphones

How do headphones work? (explained) | 712j1vd+c8l. Ac sl1500 | audio apartment
My favorite studio headphones:

Audio-Technica ATH-M50X Studio Monitor Headphones

There is a good reason everyone has these headphones. (myself included, obviously) they are not very expensive, and they provide you unrivaled listening experience. You can pick up on the highest high and the lowest low.

How do headphones work?

Headphones use an electromagnet to vibrate air like a tiny speaker to make music. Various headphones include varying degrees of technology to isolate the listener from their surroundings. For instance, noise-canceling headphones utilize specialized hardware to eliminate outside sounds.

From the music player to the driver unit

In theory, headphones function similarly to speakers and reverse to microphones, converting electrical energy into sound via magnets to cause the surrounding air to vibrate and produce audible sound.

No physical CDs or tapes are involved when dealing with digital audio; the music is kept as a string of ones and zeros. When you press the play button, the digital-to-analog converter (DAC) takes the 1s and 0s. Then, it turns them into electrical impulses, representing a sample of the real sound captured using a microphone. That’s because the signal travels down the cables of your headphones and into the headphones themselves.

The driver unit

The term “driver unit” describes what happens after the electrical signal reaches your headphones through the connections. The dynamic driver, the planar magnetic driver, and the electrostatic driver are the three different kinds of driver units.

Most headphones employ a dynamic driver, so if you’re unsure which one yours has, you may safely assume it is. Read on to learn more about the features and functionality of each driver module.

Dynamic driver unit

A diaphragm, electromagnetic coils, and a permanent magnet make up the dynamic driving unit. Magnets are crucial to the operation of headphones. There are two in each earbud. One is a permanent magnet that doesn’t budge from its position, while the other is a movable electromagnet.

Your earpiece’s electromagnet responds to the electrical signal by quickly switching its polarity. This makes the original sound come back to your ear. In the same way, the electromagnet makes the permanent magnet oscillate by quickly pushing it away and pulling it toward it when the polarity of the electromagnet changes.

These electromagnets are fastened to a diaphragm, essentially a thin membrane. Sound is produced when an electromagnet causes a diaphragm to vibrate, which in turn causes the surrounding air to vibrate.

To create loud tones, the electromagnet must vibrate rapidly; to produce low tones, it must oscillate slowly. The intensity of the vibrations, and hence the resulting air vibrations, change when the volume is adjusted upwards or downwards.

Image of a black and white colored wireless headphones. Source: fox, pexels
Image of black and white colored wireless headphones. Source: Fox, Pexels

The planar magnetic driver unit

The planar magnetic driver unit works similarly to the dynamic driver unit. There are, nonetheless, some significant distinctions. Instead of magnets, thin magnetic conductors like small wires are spread over the diaphragm to move the electromagnetic coil.

Furthermore, a set of magnets is put behind the diaphragm instead of a single permanent magnet to aid in the diaphragm’s correct response to the electrical current flowing through the conductors. So, when an electrical current flows through the conductors and changes the polarity, the permanent magnets interact with the diaphragm. This causes the diaphragm to vibrate and make a sound.

Electrostatic driver unit

Electrostatic driver units are the third and final kind of driver unit, and they are responsible for some of the best headphones ever made.

The diaphragm, rather than magnets, moves in electrostatic headphones, which is a key distinction from other headphones. Electrostatic headphones have two conductive plates, one positively charged and the other negatively charged. A thin sheet of electrically charged material is used as the diaphragm.

When an electric current is sent between the plates, an oscillation of the charged film causes the surrounding air to vibrate and creates audible waves. People say the electrically charged film on electrostatic headphones is thinner and lighter than on dynamic or planar magnetic headphones.

This means that electrostatic headphones have a reduced range of color and sound. A pair of electrostatic headphones may indeed set you back a few grand.


What are the different types of headphones?

There are several different types of headphones available on the market today, including both earbuds and over-ear headphones. Some of the most common types of headphones include:

1. In-ear headphones

These are also known as earbuds, and they fit directly inside the ear canal. They are small and portable, making them a popular choice for people who are on the go.

…different headphone designs can affect sound quality and other factors, such as the size and shape of the speaker driver housing.

2. On-ear headphones

These are also known as supra-aural headphones, and they sit on top of the ear without completely covering it. They are lightweight and comfortable to wear, and they often provide good sound quality.

3. Over-ear headphones

These are also known as circumaural headphones, and they completely cover the ear. They are larger than on-ear headphones and often provide better sound quality, as well as noise isolation.

4. True wireless earbuds

These are earbuds that have no wires connecting them to each other or to a device. They come with a charging case that is portable and helps extend their battery life. The best ANC true wireless earbuds are from Bose, Apple, and Sony.

There are also specialized types of headphones, such as noise-canceling headphones and gaming headphones, that are designed for specific use cases. Additionally, different headphone designs can affect sound quality and other factors, such as the size and shape of the speaker driver housing.

It’s important to consider the different types of headphones and their features when choosing a pair that is right for your needs. Factors such as portability, sound quality, and noise isolation should all be taken into account. When purchasing headphones, it’s also a good idea to read reviews and compare prices to ensure that you are getting the best value for your money.

If you want even more tips and insights, watch this video called “How Do Headphones Work?” from the Tech Without Fear YouTube channel.

A video called “How Do Headphones Work?” from the Tech Without Fear YouTube channel.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Do you still have questions about how headphones work? Below are some of the most commonly asked questions.

How do headphones work as a mic?

Connect your headphones to the mixer’s mic input to utilize them as a microphone. Crank the microphone volume down, have someone speak into it, and then turn it back up if necessary. You can make your voice less boomy by using the EQ knobs on the mixer or controller to turn down the lows and highs.

Do headphones cause hearing loss?

Long-term use of headphones could damage the hair cells in the inner ear and the auditory nerve, which could cause permanent hearing loss. To prevent hearing damage, those wearing headphones should take frequent rest. They should also stay away from noise levels that are too high.

Can I speak in headphones without a mic?

Even if you can answer your phone’s call and hear the other person well via your headphones, you will only be able to communicate with them if a microphone is built in. The phone’s built-in microphone requires you to put your lips close to it and speak normally.


You can say that headphones are one of the most popular pieces of technology in the world for a reason. With their unique design, impressive features, and ease of use, you just can’t go wrong with them. In fact, some might argue that headphones are better than speakers because they guarantee an immersive experience thanks to their noise-canceling capabilities.

So, do you enjoy listening to music with headphones? 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.

Key takeaways

This article covered how headphones work. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Headphones are essentially a pair of tiny speakers used for listening to audio via a computer, music player, or another portable electronic device.
  • Headphones use an electromagnet to vibrate air like a tiny speaker to make music.
  • There is as much variation in headphones as in any other piece of technology.
  • Some of the different types of headphones include in-ear headphones, on-ear headphones, over-ear headphones, and true wireless earbuds.

Helpful resources

Image Andrew Ash
Written by Andrew Ash, Staff Writer

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!

Edited by Luke May, Staff Editor

Luke is a seasoned editor with over seven years of experience. His passion for writing and storytelling started when he was a teenager, spending countless hours reading books and creating his own stories.

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