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Left vs Right Earphones: What Are The Differences?

When you slip on a pair of earphones, it is sometimes easy to switch them up, and you will likely notice an immediate problem with the sound.

You may be wondering why there would be a difference between the left and right earphones.

left and right earphones

Sound Travels Slowly

Before we get started on the differences between the left and right sides of earphones, you need to understand how sound travels.

Have you ever shouted into the distance and heard an echo come back? Did you notice how slowly the sound returned?

Most people think sound moves lightning fast, but this is not the case. In reality, sound moves quite slowly.

According to physicsclassroom.com, sound waves move at about 330m per second.

Sound moves so slowly that the human brain has time to differentiate whether the sound is arriving in the right or left ear.

The difference between the sounds in both ears is called the interaural time difference.

Amazingly, the human ear can detect interaural time differences as minute as 10 microseconds. You can test this by having someone speak in your left ear and then in your right.

Your brain tells you which ear the sound is entering.

The brain determines which ear the sound is coming in because the sound entering the left ear will take a fraction of a second longer to enter the right.

Because of this delay, stereo sound can use the interaural time difference to make it seem as if the sound is coming from various directions.

man wearing earphones with sound waves illustration

Why Are the Left and Right Sides of Earphones Different?

When listening to stereo sound, putting the right side on is critical. It is not your comfort level that will be impeded.

You will not be able to hear the way the music, television show, or movie is truly supposed to sound unless you have the right earphone on the right ear.

One of the best ways to understand this premise is by wearing earphones while gaming. Shooters are an especially easy way to tell how sound works.

man gaming with headphones on

With the way the sound has been engineered, you may hear footsteps to your left and shooting coming from your right. You may hear someone approaching from behind. Because of the design of sound and the time delay, your brain processes all three sounds within milliseconds of one another.

If you mix up your earphones, you could hear footsteps coming from the left, but they would actually be coming from the right. While this might not seem like a big deal while gaming, it could completely throw off your game and cause you to be taken out by other players.

You can also see this phenomenon happen while watching an action movie. You will notice the sounds simply do not line up correctly with the action on the screen.

For instance, a car may squeal to the right side of the screen, but your ears would hear it on the left. This makes for a confusing experience.

You may not notice the difference too much when listening to music, but you will not hear the music the way the engineer designed it to be heard.

By wearing earphones incorrectly, you are missing out on the subtle nuances that make musical pieces so special.

The only time you honestly will not notice any difference is if you listen to mono recordings. These are played back using only one audio channel.

For instance, if you are listening to a mono recording of talk radio or a book reading, you are likely not to notice any difference at all if you accidentally switch sides.

woman wearing left and right earphones

How Can You Tell Which Earphone Goes on Which Side?

If you look at a pair of earphones, most manufacturers have put an L on the left side and an R on the right. This is a reminder of how to put the earphones on correctly.

Unfortunately, not all manufacturers give us this helpful reminder.

If your earphones are not labeled, you can do a free sound check online that will help you determine which is the left and which is the right. Once you have determined the sides, mark them, so you will know which side goes on which ear.

How to Troubleshoot Earphones That Are Not Working

You are in the middle of a favorite movie, and one side of your earphones goes out. How can you troubleshoot the problem? Try these tips.

  • If only one side is working, there is likely wiring damage on the side that is not working. Unfortunately, you may need to replace your earphones unless they are still under warranty.
  • If neither side is working, try another pair. If the other earphones will not work either, try using canned air to clean the jack on your phone or electronic device. Often, dirt and debris can become embedded in the jack and prevent the transmission of signals.
  • Sometimes, sweat can cause earphones to stop working. Not only does excessive sweat cause the earpads to peel and flake, but it can also cause them to short-circuit. To prevent this problem in the future, cover the earphones with sweat-proof padding.
  • While it sounds obvious to most, check to make sure your earphones are on. Sometimes, the switch can be accidentally pushed to the off position.
  • This problem can sometimes be alleviated by updating the firmware, depending on the kind of earphones you are using.
man holding a troubleshooting card

Left and Right Earphones Have Differences

While many people do not think it matters what side you wear earphones on, it does. Most people these days listen to stereo sound and not mono.

Stereo allows you to hear different nuances of sound coming from various directions. Check your earphones before putting them on to ensure you wear them on the right side.

You will experience a much more immersive sound quality.

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