We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to audio equipment, with new sound technology coming out every year. The question is, do small details like audio jacks actually affect sound quality?
Headphone jacks affect sound quality significantly. If you’re using a damaged or mismatched jack, the sound will be of poor quality. For this reason, it’s crucial to research and buy the right jack for particular functions to ensure you get the best level of clarity possible.
Let’s explore the different kinds of headphone jacks and what their perks and limitations are. By the end of this article, you’ll have discovered that the headphone jack isn’t a minor detail at all.
Table of Contents
- Types of Headphone Jacks
- Which Headphone Jack Do I Need?
- How Headphone Jacks Filter Out Noise
- Should I Ditch the Wires Altogether?
Types of Headphone Jacks
Jacks typically consist of three parts:
- Tip (T)
- Ring/s (R)
- Sleeve (S)
The type of jack depends on these parts, specifically the number of rings the jack has. The types of jacks are as follows:
- TS – 0 rings
- TRS – 1 ring
- TRRS – 2 rings
- TRRRS – 3 rings
The more rings a jack has, the better the sound quality and the more high-end the equipment is considered to be.
These rings serve to pick up sound and block out any unwanted interference, noise, or distortion that may accompany the sound. The rings deliver mono, stereo, and ground. So, the more rings available, the clearer the sound.
The mono and stereo ensure that sound delivers effectively to both earbuds. The ground filters out any distortion and enhances clarity.
This clarity comes from utilizing positive and negative interference and making them cancel each other out through a process known as Common Mode Rejection (CMR).
We can tell from this description that the TRRRS jack is the most outstanding quality of the four, and it’s the one most commonly used for smartphone headphones or earphones.
On the other hand, TS has no rings and is commonly used for instruments and microphones, items that don’t require sound to be filtered through to different earbuds but instead project one sound.
You use TRS for speakers and microphones and TRRS for standard quality earphones with a ring for microphone capability.
Which Headphone Jack Do I Need?
We’ve looked at the different kinds of jacks in terms of “anatomy,” but now we’re going to discuss how jacks are distinguished in terms of their diameter.
The very tip of a jack is also referred to as a pin, and the size of a jack relies on the diameter of this pin.
There are five standard jack sizes, namely:
- The 2.5 mm (0.09 in)
- The 3.5 mm (0.13 in)
- The 4.4 mm (0.17 in)
- The 6.3 mm (0.24 in)
- The USB-C
It’s important to note that the Type C connector isn’t measured by its diameter and doesn’t have the same anatomy as other jacks. However, it’s used so frequently that it needs to be mentioned.
The 2.5 mm
The 2.5 mm (0.09 in) jack has similar functionality to the 3.5 mm (0.13 in), but it’s used much less frequently. The only situation you’ll see a 2.5 mm (0.09 in) being used nowadays is to connect a headset to a video camera, landline, radio, or even an Xbox console.
Though not as commonplace as the 3.5 mm (0.13 in), the 2.5 mm (0.09 in) isn’t lousy quality by any means. In fact, many of them are TRRS and deliver clear, uninterrupted audio.
The 3.5 mm
The 3.5 mm (0.13 in) is the most common in smartphone audio jacks and was hailed as the best way to listen to music until the USB format took over. 3.5 mm (0.13 in) jacks are the standard for unbalanced audio, along with 6.3 mm (0.24 in) jacks.
The best 3.5 mm (0.13 in) jack is the TRRRS because it can transfer mono, stereo, and microphone signals. However, it can only work with analog sound and cannot actually translate digital data to sound like a USB can.
4.4 mm (0.17 in) is the standard jack for balanced audio, in addition to 2.5 mm (0.09 in) jacks. Balanced audio refers to signals sent through both a positive and a negative terminal instead of just one signal and ground.
The 6.3 mm
The 6.3 mm (0.24 in) jack is still prominent. Though it’s sometimes used for headphones, you’re most likely to see it plugging instruments like electric guitars into amps. Although it’s uncommon, you may also see this jack used for older models of microphones.
A USB or Type C jack is the kind of jack that universal phone chargers and computer USB ports use. These don’t translate the signal into audio but are more commonly used as connectors.
For example, some phones are made without audio ports to plug a jack into, so you’ll need a Type C to 3.5 mm (0.13 in) adapter to plug your earphones into your phone.
This may sound like a disadvantage, but many say that the Type C adapter actually improves audio quality. This is because of DAC: digital to analog converter. This translates digital data to sound.
Your laptop, for example, can convert digital to analog, but the outcome is relatively poor quality. The Type C adapter allows you to bypass this built-in converter, producing a much higher-quality sound.
In fact, USB sound quality is superior to that of the 3.5 mm (0.13 in) jack. So, no matter what jack you’re using, you’ll benefit from including a USB-C adapter in the mix.
To read a more in-depth comparison of the 3.5 mm (0.13 in) jack vs. the USB, check out Soundgearlab’s analysis.
If you plan on recording audio with your headphones, I’ve covered everything you need to know in my ultimate guide on the topic. Read it before getting started: The Ultimate Guide to Recording Audio With Headphones.
How Headphone Jacks Filter Out Noise
Put simply, headphone jacks are a part of an electrical circuit; they process sound through electrical currents that make their way through the circuit. When this current is interrupted in some way, the interruption translates into sound distortion or noise.
This is why broken, damaged, or mismatched earphone jacks make it sound like you’re listening to static or hearing music from very far away.
This also explains why wired earphones or headphones ultimately have better sound quality than wireless ones, despite what tech companies have been pushing for the past few years.
An uninterrupted signal (jack plugged directly into a phone) with numerous dedicated conductors (rings) translates to more audio clarity. With more distance between devices (and the potential for more interruptions), wireless headphones often don’t measure up.
Should I Ditch the Wires Altogether?
Analog sound? Common Mode Rejection? This is getting more complicated than expected. Before you totally get rid of your wired devices, consider the advantages!
A surprising number of companies are phasing out wires and audio jacks for more hassle-free, Bluetooth earbuds. It’s true that wireless technology is improving rapidly and has made enormous progress since its humble beginnings.
However, wired audio is still irrefutably better than wireless audio. More than anything else, this is because wired audio is lossless, while wireless audio experiences loss as the signal is transmitted from the device to the earbuds.
So, despite the occasional cord tangle and hassle of figuring out which jack fits in what port, wired audio devices are less subject to external interference and far more reliable.
If you’re a music creator, don’t miss the article where I discuss the effect of Bluetooth headphones on recording music. You’ll see if it’s actually as bad as people say it is. Can (and Should) You Use Bluetooth Headphones To Record and Produce Music?
To the untrained eye, the only important detail of a headphone jack is its diameter. However, headphone jacks are vital to sound quality, and knowing what to look for in a jack will help you find the ideal one for your audio needs.
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