Why do Headphones Have Left and Right on Them?

If you regularly wear in-earphones or big headphones, you’ll have noticed the ‘L’ and ‘R’ symbols on each earbud and earcup.  You don’t need to be a sound engineer to work out that this means left and right and is an instruction for which one goes on or in each ear.

But is it important to get them the right way around and why do headphones have left and right on them?

If you’re listening to stereo sound, getting the ear cup on the correct ear can make a difference.  This is because the stereo sound is often recorded on two or more microphones with each providing a different slice of the audio.

You’ll already be familiar with this if you wear your headphones for gaming. Part of the reason why many gamers prefer open-back headphones is down to stereo imaging.

Stereo imaging allows you to hear the direction a sound is coming from through the headphones.  For example, you may hear footsteps behind you, gunfire to your left or an explosion on your right. The audio has been engineered this way to make the game more immersive but also so that you can react to the environment realistically.

If you’re wearing your headphones on the opposite ear, you may hear an enemy approach from the right but they’ll actually be on your left.  This wouldn’t be an ideal scenario for most gamers.

It’s a similar principle if you’re wearing headphones to watch a TV show or movie.  You’ll probably notice that some of the sounds don’t match the direction of the action. For example, in a car chase, the car might skid to the right but you’ll hear the sound to the left.  

It’s less noticeable for some in music but you’ll hear sounds coming in from the opposite side to what the sound engineer intended. Audiophiles and music fans will often prefer audio that replicates live performance and swapping the earcups over can mean irritation for anyone whose ears are trained to pick up the subtleties of performance and production.

If you’re listening to something in mono like talk radio, for example, you won’t notice a difference. 

In terms of comfort, putting the left or right speaker over the opposite ear doesn’t make much if any difference.


How do you know which earbud goes in which ear?


If you’re wearing in-earphones, there should be either an L or an R on each earbud. If the detailing has rubbed off your in-earphones, you can check which earbud is left and which is right by visiting the Audiocheck website where it’s super easy to test which side is which by playing a short audio clip.  Once you’ve found out it’s a good idea to mark each earbud so that you’ll know straight away next time you wear them.


Why are my headphones not working when I plug them in?


You can still listen to your headphones even if you put them in the “wrong” way around. If you’re having trouble getting sound from your right and left earbuds or cups, we wanted to cover some of the more obvious fixes that may help.

  • One of the first things to do is to find out if it's your headphones or the device you’re plugging them into that’s not working.  If you’ve got a spare pair of earphones or headphones, then try using them in the jack.  If it’s the jack that’s at fault, use a penlight to check for any dust or debris that’s inhibiting a connection. Android Authority website writes that you can use a cotton bud to remove any dust but that you should be very careful not to cause any additional damage.

  • If your headphones aren’t working, it can be because of sweat damage. Sweat can affect the cushions of the headphones making them flake and peel but it can also get inside and upset the drivers and internal components.  For future reference, you can add moisture-proof headphone covers to stop sweat killing your cans.

  • It sounds obvious but are your headphones turned on?  Some have to be activated before they’ll start playing audio.  Equally, double-check that they’re charged correctly. If you think they should be, then check the charger itself to see that it’s working.

  • One thing we often do is pair the device again with the headphones. Sometimes one seems to forget the other and you may need to re-add your headphones so that they’ll be recognised.

  • Lifewire has a really good piece of advice – they write that you should remove the wired connection if you’re trying to use Bluetooth as it often overrides wireless.  We’ve experienced this before when charging via a computer and now we always check before panicking.

  • Have you tried updating the firmware?

  • If you’re using a wired headphone and sound is only coming from one side, then it could be a problem with the wire. It sometimes shorts out or it may have been twisted. This is a particular problem with in-earphones where the wiring is very delicate. We’ve certainly killed a lot of cheaper in-earphones this way. There’s a useful tutorial on the Remove and Replace website for fixing this problem.  It’s worth a try if you have more expensive earphones that you’re not keen on replacing.

Don’t forget that we’ve just dropped some fantastic new designs in the GymHugz store. Grab your sweat-proof headphone covers before they disappear.


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