Headphones are a pair of small loudspeaker drivers worn on or around the head over a user's ears. They are electroacoustic transducers, which convert an electrical signal to a corresponding sound. Headphones let a single user listen to an audio source privately, in contrast to a loudspeaker, which emits sound into the open air for anyone nearby to hear. Headphones are also known as earspeakers, earphones or, colloquially, cans. Circumaural ('around the ear') and supra-aural ('over the ear') headphones use a band over the top of the head to hold the speakers in place. Another type, known as earbuds or earpieces consist of individual units that plug into the user's ear canal. A third type are bone conduction headphones, which typically wrap around the back of the head and rest in front of the ear canal, leaving the ear canal open. In the context of telecommunication, a headset is a combination of headphone and microphone.
Headphones connect to a signal source such as an audio amplifier, radio, CD player, portable media player, mobile phone, video game console, or electronic musical instrument, either directly using a cord, or using wireless technology such as Bluetooth, DECT or FM radio. The first headphones were developed in the late 19th century for use by telephone operators, to keep their hands free. Initially the audio quality was mediocre and a step forward was the invention of high fidelity headphones.
Headphones exhibit a range of different audio reproduction quality capabilities. Headsets designed for telephone use typically cannot reproduce sound with the high fidelity of expensive units designed for music listening by audiophiles. Headphones that use cables typically have either a 1/4 inch (6.35mm) or 1/8 inch (3.5mm) phone jack for plugging the headphones into the audio source. Some stereo earbuds are wireless, using Bluetooth connectivity to transmit the audio signal by radio waves from source devices like cellphones and digital players. As a result of the Walkman effect beginning in the 1980s, headphones started to be used in public places such as sidewalks, grocery stores, and public transit.Headphones are also used by people in various professional contexts, such as audio engineers mixing sound for live concerts or sound recordings and DJs, who use headphones to cue up the next song without the audience hearing, aircraft pilots and call center employees. The latter two types of employees use headphones with an integrated microphone.
Headphones grew out of the need to free up a person's hands when operating a telephone. There were several iterative products that were predecessors to the "hands-free" headphones. By the 1890s the first device that is unmistakably a headphone was made by a British company called Electrophone, which created a system allowing their customers to connect into live feeds of performances at theaters and opera houses across London. Subscribers to the service could listen to the performance through a pair of massive earphones that connected below the chin, held by a long rod.
French engineer Ernest Mercadier patented a set of in-ear headphones in 1891, Mercadier was awarded U.S. Patent No. 454,138 for “improvements in telephone-receivers…which shall be light enough to be carried while in use on the head of the operator.”
Nathaniel Baldwin of Utah in 1910 invented a prototype telephone headset due to his inability to hear sermons during Sunday service. He offered it for testing to the US Navy, which promptly ordered 100 from Baldwin. Wireless Specialty Apparatus Co., in partnership with Baldwin Radio Company, set up a manufacturing facility in Utah to fulfill orders. His innovations were the basis of “sound-powered” telephones or phones that required no electricity, which were used during World War II.
Brandes radio headphones, circa 1920
Headphones originated from the telephone receiver earpiece, and were the only way to listen to electrical audio signals before amplifiers were developed.
These early headphones used moving iron drivers, with either single-ended or balanced armatures. The common single-ended type used voice coils wound around the poles of a permanent magnet, which were positioned close to a flexible steel diaphragm. The audio current through the coils varied the magnetic field of the magnet, exerting a varying force on the diaphragm, causing it to vibrate, creating sound waves. The requirement for high sensitivity meant that no damping was used, so the frequency response of the diaphragm had large peaks due to resonance, resulting in poor sound quality. These early models lacked padding, and were often uncomfortable to wear for long periods. Their impedance varied; headphones used in telegraph and telephone work had an impedance of 75 ohms. Those used with early wireless radio had more turns of finer wire to increase sensitivity. Impedance of 1,000 to 2,000 ohms was common, which suited both crystal sets and triode receivers. Some very sensitive headphones, such as those manufactured by Brandes around 1919, were commonly used for early radio work.
In early powered radios, the headphone was part of the vacuum tube's plate circuit and carried dangerous voltages. It was normally connected directly to the positive high voltage battery terminal, and the other battery terminal was securely grounded. The use of bare electrical connections meant that users could be shocked if they touched the bare headphone connections while adjusting an uncomfortable headset.
In 1958, John C. Koss, an audiophile and jazz musician from Milwaukee, produced the first stereo headphones. Previously, headphones were used only by the US navy, telephone and radio operators, and individuals in similar industries.
Smaller earbud type earpieces, which plugged into the user's ear canal, were first developed for hearing aids. They became widely used with transistor radios, which commercially appeared in 1954 with the introduction of the Regency TR-1. The most popular audio device in history, the transistor radio changed listening habits, allowing people to listen to radio anywhere. The earbud uses either a moving iron driver or a piezoelectric crystal to produce sound. The 3.5 mm radio and phone connector, which is the most commonly used in portable application today, has been used at least since the Sony EFM-117J transistor radio, which was released in 1964. Its popularity was reinforced with its use on the Walkman portable tape player in 1979.
Headphones may be used with stationary CD and DVD players, home theater, personal computers, or portable devices (e.g., digital audio player/MP3 player, mobile phone), as long as these devices are equipped with a headphone jack. Cordless headphones are not connected to their source by a cable. Instead, they receive a radio or infrared signal encoded using a radio or infrared transmission link, such as FM, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. These are battery-powered receiver systems, of which the headphone is only a component. Cordless headphones are used with events such as a Silent disco or Silent Gig.
Sennheiser HD 555 headphones, used in audio production environments (2007)
In the professional audio sector, headphones are used in live situations by disc jockeys with a DJ mixer, and sound engineers for monitoring signal sources. In radio studios, DJs use a pair of headphones when talking to the microphone while the speakers are turned off to eliminate acoustic feedback while monitoring their own voice. In studio recordings, musicians and singers use headphones to play or sing along to a backing track or band. In military applications, audio signals of many varieties are monitored using headphones.
Wired headphones are attached to an audio source by a cable. The most common connectors are 6.35 mm (¼″) and 3.5 mm phone connectors. The larger 6.35 mm connector is more common on fixed location home or professional equipment. The 3.5 mm connector remains the most widely used connector for portable application today. Adapters are available for converting between 6.35 mm and 3.5 mm devices.
Headphone cord with integrated potentiometer for volume regulation
As active component, wireless headphones tend to be costlier due to the necessity for internal hardware such as a battery, a charging controller, a speaker driver, and a wireless transceiver, whereas wired headphones are a passive component, outsourcing speaker driving to the audio source.
Some headphone cords are equipped with a serial potentiometer for volume regulation.
Wired headphones may be equipped with a non-detachable cable or a detachable auxiliary male-to-male plug, as well as some with two ports to allow connecting another wired headphone in a parallel circuit, which splits the audio signal to share with another participant, but can also be used to hear audio from two inputs simultaneously. An external audio splitter can retrofit this ability.
Applications for audiometric testing
Various types of specially designed headphones or earphones are also used to evaluate the status of the auditory system in the field of audiology for establishing hearing thresholds, medically diagnosing hearing loss, identifying other hearing related disease, and monitoring hearing status in occupational hearing conservation programs. Specific models of headphones have been adopted as the standard due to the ease of calibration and ability to compare results between testing facilities.
Supra-aural style headphones are historically the most commonly used in audiology as they are the easiest to calibrate and were considered the standard for many years. Commonly used models are the Telephonics Dynamic Headphone (TDH) 39, TDH-49, and TDH-50. In-the-ear or insert style earphones are used more commonly today as they provide higher levels of interaural attenuation, introduce less variability when testing 6,000 and 8,000 Hz, and avoid testing issues resulting from collapsed ear canals. A commonly used model of insert earphone is the Etymotic Research ER-3A. Circum-aural earphones are also used to establish hearing thresholds in the extended high frequency range (8,000 Hz to 20,000 kHz). Along with Etymotic Research ER-2A insert earphones, the Sennheiser HDA300 and Koss HV/1A circum-aural earphones are the only models that have reference equivalent threshold sound pressure level values for the extended high frequency range as described by ANSI standards.
Audiometers and headphones must be calibrated together. During the calibration process, the output signal from the audiometer to the headphones is measured with a sound level meter to ensure that the signal is accurate to the reading on the audiometer for sound pressure level and frequency. Calibration is done with the earphones in an acoustic coupler that is intended to mimic the transfer function of the outer ear. Because specific headphones are used in the initial audiometer calibration process, they cannot be replaced with any other set of headphones, even from the same make and model.
Headphones are available with high or low impedance (typically measured at 1 kHz). Low-impedance headphones are in the range 16 to 32 ohms and high-impedance headphones are about 100-600 ohms. As the impedance of a pair of headphones increases, more voltage (at a given current) is required to drive it, and the loudness of the headphones for a given voltage decreases. In recent years, impedance of newer headphones has generally decreased to accommodate lower voltages available on battery powered CMOS-based portable electronics. This has resulted in headphones that can be more efficiently driven by battery-powered electronics. Consequently, newer amplifiers are based on designs with relatively low output impedance.
The impedance of headphones is of concern because of the output limitations of amplifiers. A modern pair of headphones is driven by an amplifier, with lower impedance headphones presenting a larger load. Amplifiers are not ideal; they also have some output impedance that limits the amount of power they can provide. To ensure an even frequency response, adequate damping factor, and undistorted sound, an amplifier should have an output impedance less than 1/8 that of the headphones it is driving (and ideally, as low as possible). If output impedance is large compared to the impedance of the headphones, significantly higher distortion is present. Therefore, lower impedance headphones tend to be louder and more efficient, but also demand a more capable amplifier. Higher impedance headphones are more tolerant of amplifier limitations, but produce less volume for a given output level.
Historically, many headphones had relatively high impedance, often over 500 ohms so they could operate well with high-impedance tube amplifiers. In contrast, modern transistor amplifiers can have very low output impedance, enabling lower-impedance headphones. Unfortunately, this means that older audio amplifiers or stereos often produce poor-quality output on some modern, low-impedance headphones. In this case, an external headphone amplifier may be beneficial.
Sensitivity is a measure of how effectively an earpiece converts an incoming electrical signal into an audible sound. It thus indicates how loud the headphones are for a given electrical drive level. It can be measured in decibels of sound pressure level per milliwatt (dB (SPL)/mW) or decibels of sound pressure level per volt (dB (SPL) / V). Unfortunately, both definitions are widely used, often interchangeably. As the output voltage (but not power) of a headphone amplifier is essentially constant for most common headphones, dB/mW is often more useful if converted into dB/V using Ohm's law: