How Do Headphones Work?

by Mike Whitley | Last Updated: March 20, 2017

headphone pileCompared to smartphones, laptops, and other electronics, headphones may seem like a pretty basic technology – but in reality, a lot of advanced engineering and physics goes on behind your “cans” when playing your favorite beats.

Understanding how headphones work is essential for music professionals, but even if you’re just a headphone fan, knowing how they work is a cool bit of information to have on file.

However, because of all the science-y stuff involved, it can be difficult to find accurate information on the web, let alone information that is possible to understand.

To give you a better grasp of the ins and outs of your essential music accessory, we’ve got you covered with a breakdown of how these gadgets actually operate.

Headphone Parts

For starters, you first should know their major components. While different manufacturers may have additional parts inside your headphones, the following three components are standard in all models, as they make up the bare bones:

  • Magnet
  • Voice coil
  • Diaphragm

These three components are all housed inside what is called the driver assembly and they are the main parts responsible for creating sound. For more information on other parts of your headphones, you can check out Forbes Glossary of Headphone Terms.

The Science-y Stuff Simplified: Turning Electricity into Sound

If you’re looking to get a deep understanding how headphones function, you’ll need to think back to your high school physics class and what they said about sound waves and magnetism.

While sound is generally invisible, if you’ve ever turned the bass way up high on your car speaker, or stood next to the loudspeaker at a rock concert, you know that sound is actually made up of vibrations called sound waves. Creating sound waves is the major task that your headphones are responsible for, and each component of your headphone works together to accomplish this mission.

At the heart of your headphones is a magnet, which houses a thin piece of copper called a voice coil. When you plug your headphones into an electrical source, like your iPhone or computer, a current is pumped into the voice coil, creating an electromagnetic field.

Every song/video/etc. that you play through your headphones has its own audio signal that emits a varying electrical current. This current then pumps into the coil and moves it up and down inside the magnetic housing.

As a result, vibrations are created on the diaphragm, a large plastic disc that is connected to the coil, causing it to move up and down and fracture the air to create the sound waves and frequencies that correspond to your audio file.

Amplification and Sound Quality

Amplification is another part of how headphones work, and whether they are opened-back or closed-back makes a big difference.

Opened-back headphones allow for more air to enter the diaphragm and create a high quality and crisp sound. These headphones are often used in recording studios, but their downside is that the open casing allows sound to escape and ambient noise to penetrate.

Closed-back headphones, on the other hand, are often paired with noise canceling ear pads, to completely prevent sound from leaking out of your headphones, or ambient noise from muffling out your audio. The tradeoff here is less amplification, but a more immersive sound experience.

Headphones Vs. Earphones and Loudspeakers

Though size may vary, interestingly enough, the same components and technology are used to create sound in headphones, earphones, and speakers. In fact, each of these audio devices uses a magnet, coil, and diaphragm to turn electricity into vibrations and sound.

However, the size of these parts affects their quality and purpose. For example, a loudspeaker needs a much larger diaphragm in order to take in enough air to fill a room with sound, while earphones feature miniaturized components that are easy to store in your pocket, but have much less noise payoff than headphones or loudspeakers.

Now That You’re an Expert…

In essence, headphones work by converting varying electrical currents into vibrations that produce sound. But while many people use headphones on a daily basis, few actually understand how they work.

Comprehending the science behind headphones is not only cool, it also allows you to choose the pair that best meets your need. Whether that be headphones with a large diaphragm for added amplification and sound quality, or closed-backed, noise canceling headphones to reduce ambient sounds, knowing what to look for and how different parts work within your device allows you to hone in on your headphone expertise.