How Do Headphones Work?

by Alex.   Last Updated On July 12th, 2022.
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Being able to listen to our favorite music while working out, commuting to work, or relaxing at home is a great experience, especially when you don’t have to rely on large wall mounted speakers.

When compared to proper speakers, the components are almost identical when it comes to headphones as well as the much smaller earbuds. These components are simply scaled down to a very small scale.

Headphones, both over-the-ear and earbud style, are a unique advance of technology which makes use of both mechanical and electronic internal components in the same way as large concert speakers do. But how exactly do these much smaller headphones allow you to enjoy your favorite music or podcasts wherever you may be?

This article will take a closer look at how headphones work, what internal components are used, and how those components must work together in order for the whole thing to create high quality and expressive sound.

Table of Contents

The Parts of a Headphone

External Case

Normally made from plastic, an external case can be found on all types of headphones regardless of their quality and price. In lower end headphones, the case may be cheap plastic, while in more expensive headphones or earbuds, the material can be higher quality plastics, composites, or metals.

The purpose of an external case is to hold the internal components and keep them safe from moisture, dirt, dust (which can cause the headphones to disconnect), and other elements that can disrupt how they work together.

Sound Isolation Seal

Found on some headphones, but not all, the sound isolation seal can be made from a variety of different materials depending on the headphones. For over-the-ear headphones or earbuds that use a passive noise cancellation system, the seal may be an abundance of excess foam or rubber padding along the ear cups or plug.

The purpose of a sound isolation seal is to keep your music or other audio near your ears, while background sound and ambient noise doesn’t leak in and distract you from your favorite songs, podcasts, or GPS coordinates.


Headphones, no matter how large or small they may be, will have some form of wires. For wireless headphones, wires will still be used inside the headphones to connect different internal components together. For wired headphones, the wire will do the same, but will also be used to connect the headphones to your audio device.

Headphones have a variety of different wires, usually made from copper or another highly conductive metal, that can provide proper sound balancing for the left and right side speakers.

Additionally, on wired headphones, higher quality wires can help produce better sound and less line distortion. If you’re specifically looking for a pair of wired headphones, always try to look for one that has a high quality copper or gold plated wire and jack connections.

Headphones over laptop


Also called the diaphragm, the cone is made from highly flexible thin membrane that can handle a wide range of almost constant vibrations. The speaker cone is one of the more delicate internal components in headphones, and can be made of paper, foam, injection molded plastic, or vacuform plastic.

Depending on the brand of headphones you are considering, the cone may be made of a very specific material. Most manufacturers will stick with a cone made from one trademarked material or combination of materials that produces the quality of sound they are specifically wanting to offer their customers.

Voice Coil

Connected directly to the cone, the voice coil makes use of the electromagnet when powered by batteries or electrical signals to make frequencies vibrate that are then translated into sound. No matter how large or small, all speakers and headphones will have a voice coil present to turn electrical energy into sound.

A voice coil can be made from a wide variety of metals, but the most common is insulated copper. This material is a common component in a wide range of electrical devices, but is almost always present in the voice coil of speakers of all shapes and sizes.

Permanent Magnet

Working directly with the cone and the coil, the magnet is the heaviest internal component of your headphones. Even the smallest earbuds will have some form of permanent magnet present in their internal components list.

The magnet inside over-the-ear headphones and earbuds is normally neodymium, though ferrite and alnico magnets can also be used. Neodymium is almost exclusively used due to its excellent strength to weight ratio, as well as the high quality of frequency range it can offer.

Different Styles of Headphones

There are two styles of headphones most commonly found on the market today; over-the-ear headphones, and in-ear headphones or earbuds. Both of these styles can also be broken down further into sub categories.

Depending on which style of headphones you use, the components used may be slightly different or more advanced – but the way they work together will be the same across large speakers as well as small headphones.

Over-the-ear Headphones

Commonly referred to as cans by DJs and those in the radio business, over-the-ear headphones are extremely common with online gamers as they commonly have a built-in microphone as well.

The sound waves created by over-the-ear headphones normally has an excellent balance of highs and lows, and can provide extremely precise directional sound waves which is great for gaming when you need to know the location of an enemy walking nearby.

For professional musicians or anyone in the music business, having high quality headphones that can create a vast and diverse soundscape is extremely important. You want to feel the deep booms of the base without hearing any distortion or ambient noise disruption, and you want your high notes to be clear and smooth when listening to the playback.

Over-the-ear Headphones come in both open back and closed back styles. Depending on the one you get, the sound quality may differ. For studio professionals and musicians, closed back headphones will provide better sound isolation and will allow you to hear every note without having ambient noise in the room leak in.

Open back headphones look almost identical to closed back headphones, but will not have the same level of sound isolation. You will be able to hear ambient noise from the room such as a dog barking, baby crying, or a door closing.

However, for many users this is not a concern. The sound quality from the headphones will still be exceptionally good, with precise directional sound waves still possible for gaming. You simply won’t have total sound isolation of whatever audio you are sampling.

In-Ear Headphones

In-ear headphones, also called earbuds, are very common for active individuals that still want to listen to their music. They are the most commonly used headphones for joggers, cyclists, and business professionals that make use of Bluetooth phone integration.

Earbuds are much more discreet when being worn, and when sized properly they can be just as comfortable as over-the-ear headphones. In fact, ear fatigue is often less common with earbuds as you won’t have pressure or weight applied to the outer cartilage of your ear. Instead, the earbuds will act as a foam plug and slide a short way into your ear canal.

Earbuds can be wired or wireless, though wireless earbuds are arguably the most commonly found. They can be used for enjoying music, listening to podcasts, receiving GPS coordinates, and hands-free talking on the phone.

Additionally, earbuds come in a wide range of qualities which gives users many choices on which earbuds will meet their needs. While a vast majority of earbuds are not high enough quality to be used for high end professional studio sampling, they can be a very useful tool for musicians and singers when used as an in-ear monitors.

When Were Headphones Invented?

In the grand scheme of things, headphones are a relatively new invention. While speakers and other equipment that produces sound waves has been around since the late 1800’s, modern headphones as we know them today have only come about in the late 20th century.

The inner workings of headphones are created in almost exactly the same way today as it was in 1876, although with every year that goes by, headphone components are made smaller and in higher qualities than their previous models.

This constant improvement and competitive nature between different manufacturing companies has led to earbuds being so small and lightweight that it may not even feel like you are wearing them at all.

Additionally, as more research is done and different headphone prototypes are made, less and less energy is being used to power these sound wave-producing devices, which leads to longer battery life and more freedom for the wearer to enjoy their music loud and clear even if miles away from the nearest electrical signals.

Difference in Noise Canceling and Normal Headphones

Passive Noise Canceling

This is the more common and budget-friendly option of the two and can be found in both over-the-ear and earbud-style headphones. This noise cancellation is normally done with excess padding on the plug of the earbud, or a thicker plastic case on over-the-ear headphones.

The point here is to simply reduce the amount of background sound that gets into your ear by using the headphone to block it. Foam or rubber padding on earbud plugs or over-the-ear cups can be an effective and cost effective way to reduce background noise from disturbing your audio experience.

Active Noise Canceling

A more high tech and somewhat costly way to reduce the amount of noise that gets into your ears while wearing earbuds or headphones, active noise reduction headphones are created by use of a small microphone that samples the ambient sound around you and adjusts the volume and peaks of your audio signal to help cover it up.

While active noise canceling can be extremely effective, this extra technology can put more strain on the battery or electrical signal. If you normally experience 12 hour battery life on non noise-canceling headphones, you may only get half that from active noise cancellation.

Half length profile portrait of young handsome caucasian blonde hair woman leaning against a wall, listening music with headphones, looking up - serene, enjoying, music concept

Does Build Quality Matter?

Generally speaking, yes. Build quality when it comes to over-the-ear headphones and earbuds can be a very important consideration for anyone purchasing a new set of headphones. The higher quality devices will cost more, but for audiophiles looking for an enjoyable listening experience, this high quality directly translates into better sounding audio signal.

Generic headphone design, or those made with lower quality internal components, will sound okay for the average listener, and may be fine in a pinch for a gamer, but you will notice distortion on high and low notes, as well as when the volume is cranked up.

Additionally, directional sound may not be as good, or even noticeable, when it comes to lower quality headphones. You will also almost definitely be limited to open back headphones with no noise canceling abilities. Being able to hear your favorite music while on a busy bus or in a crowded room may not be possible with lower quality and cheaper-priced headphones.

However, more expensive does not always mean better. All it takes is one low quality component, such as a faulty headphone driver units or low quality cable to create sound waves of lower quality through expensive headphones.

If you are in the market for a high quality set of over-the-ear headphones or earbuds, always compare a wide range of things including but not limited to:

  • Brand name
  • Company history
  • Headphone drivers
  • Cable quality
  • Features promised
  • Warranty information
  • Online reviews

Even an inexperienced audiophile looking for their first high-quality headphones can make a very educated guess on a worthwhile set of headphones when taking a bit of time to compare these aspects.


While headphone technology has come a long way since the first music speaker was created in 1876, the overall layout of the internal components is largely unchanged. Things may be much smaller and made with higher quality materials, but the puzzle is still laid out in almost the exact same configuration today as it was in the late 1800’s.

Finding the right headphones that offer the best sound outlet for your needs may take a bit of time and some trial and error. You want headphones that produce high tones without being painful in your ear canals when being worn for long periods of time.