Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • When using the headphone jack, the quality of the sound depends on the device’s sound card, so it’s important to have a good audio source to fully utilize the headphones’ potential.
  • Opting for the USB connection provides benefits such as independent sound quality, built-in amplifier, powered controls, longer cable length without loss of quality, and insulation from interference. It allows the headphones to operate as designed, offering the best audio experience.
  • Wireless headphones with a wired analog connection still provide access to good amplification, volume control, and features like noise cancelation.

If you have a set of wired headphones that let you connect to a computer with either a USB connection or a traditional headphone jack, you may be wondering what the actual difference is between using these two port options.

Using the Headphone Jack

If you connect your headphones to your computer (or any device with a headphone jack) using the traditional analog cable, then the headphones act like traditional analog headphones. In other words, an electrical signal travels up the wire into the headphones and moves the speaker cone using electromagnetism to reproduce sound.

This means that the sound card in your device is completely responsible for the quality of the signal going to the headphones. If you have a great sound card with the right level of amplification, your headphones will reach their full potential and sound as good as they can. On the other hand, if you plug them into a headphone jack of a device with poor audio quality, it doesn’t matter how good the headphones may be; they’ll sound as bad as the signal.

Headphone makers include analog headphone jacks with modern headphones because there are so many devices (both good and bad) out in the world that uses this connection standard. However, I’d argue that in almost all cases where you have a choice between using the headphone jack connection or USB, the USB connection should almost always be the option you go for. Let me explain why.

Using the USB Connection

If you use the USB connection on headphones that offer it, you’ll typically enjoy a few tangible benefits. First of all, you aren’t dependent on the sound hardware in your device. The headphones effectively contain a sound card, and so its an independent sound device. This means that you’ll hear exactly the sound quality the headphone manufacturers intended.

This also means that you’re using the built-in amplifier in the headphones, powered by the USB port. So your headphone speaker drivers are getting exactly the amount of power and amplification they were designed for.

In many cases, you’ll also get the benefit of powered controls for volume or skipping tracks on the headset when using it via USB. USB cables can also be quite long without any loss in quality, and unless you have a serious earthage problem, you’ll also be insulated from interference that might show up as hiss or crackle on an analog connection. Using the USB connection may also enable certain features that require power, such as active noise cancelation, microphone noise cancelation, or spatial audio.

In short, using the USB connection lets your headphones operate as the designers intended, and assuming that they’ve done a good job you’re getting the best that headset can offer.

What About Wireless Headphones?

Many wireless headphones offer a wired analog connection, and some may even offer a USB connection, though it may only offer charging functionality and not any sort of audio functionality. If yours happens to offer audio over USB, it’s likely still the best option, but if your Bluetooth headphones only offer a wired analog connection, it’s not as bad an option as purely wired headphones.

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The AirPods max come with all the spatial audio features you could want, and they feature a comfortable over-the-ear design.

That’s because these headphones carry their own power source onboard, so you likely still have access to good amplification, volume control, and feature such as active noise cancelation and pass-through. It also offers a latency advantage, so it’s generally a better option for movies or video games where the sound may be visibly out of sync when using Bluetooth. Of course, if you’re using a device that only supports connection with a headphone jack, then that’s what this fall-back feature on modern headphones is for!

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By John P.

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