Is there really any difference which way you wear L/R headphones?
March 30, 2004 7:58 AM   Subscribe

After cleaning my ears, adjusting the left/right panning controls and developing the paranoid belief that I was starting to lose my hearing in one ear... I switched the earphones around, and everything sounds fantabulous! What is that? More...

I realize that headphones come with a Left/Right marking. I've always thought it was just the easiest way of knowing which headphone (or speaker) would be affected, should you decide to start fiddling with channel settings.

However, I have my channel panning (forgive me if I'm using the wrong syntax) set to "center", and there's a huge difference in sound, just by switching the headphones around. The sound is muffled, as if I'm hearing it beneath water.

Am I just imagining it, or is there something that can be scientificically explained behind this?
posted by precocious to Technology (16 answers total)
Your pan control is dirty. Clean it and everything will be fresh again.
posted by shepd at 8:33 AM on March 30, 2004

Funny, shepd.

What kind of headphones do you have? If they're the big bulky kind with a big, more or less round, seal around your ears, you shouldn't notice a qualitative difference in the sound/mix. If they're the kind that are molded to fit your ear, then THAT'S what the R/L markings are for: they don't fit right when they're not on your head correctly. That might explain the muddiness.

My theory, anyway.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 9:50 AM on March 30, 2004

I had always been under the assumption that each ear piece actually had a preference towards high/lows- or at least my cheapass headphones always have. Sometime, try playing a piece on your headphones with a wide range of pitches and instruments. Switch off listening to ony the left headphone and then just the right headphone and see if you do notice a difference.
posted by jmd82 at 11:17 AM on March 30, 2004

Response by poster: har, har shep.

ssF - they are indeed of the cheapass variety. However, when I am listening to them "correctly," (left earphone, left ear, right earphone, right) the audio is clear. The other way around, muddy. These aren't the molded kind you mention, they're pretty ambiguously shaped (hard to describe.) There's a tube that you put a squishy padding type thing on, so they fit the ears.

Also, I've tried it on my brother's headphones (the non-bud variety) and it's the same. He himself doesn't seem to notice a difference, on his computer or mine, but then god love him, he's kind of thick so he's not a good gauge.

I'm leaning more toward jmd's idea. Are there an audiophiles or engineering students or something with a working knowledge of sound/frequencies/etcetera that might apply here? Very curious.
posted by precocious at 11:36 AM on March 30, 2004

Interesting, maybe a good idea would be to purchase midrange quality heaphones ($50 to $100) and see how they sound to you. Not only will this highly enhance your audio experience to those cheap cans you already have, we will be able to continue this scientific study to other headphones.
posted by Keyser Soze at 11:40 AM on March 30, 2004

Oh, your hearing it under water? Is your audio panning software, like in Windows, or physical, like a knob? If it is a knob, Shepd wasn't joking after all. Sometimes a weak or worn connection will make the audio sound garbled, although I do not know exactly why. It could be caused by the sound modulation not being conceived properly because the electricity is getting poor flow, or intermittent flow.

Wires at some point could very well not be sending the audio right. You can test this using an old used sound blaster 16, and plugging headphones in over and over. Once you get lucky you hear a really murky, under water effect.

Of course, consider buying new ones. Consider it an investment in your music purchases.
posted by Keyser Soze at 11:45 AM on March 30, 2004

My ear doctor, and several others, have told me not to use Q-Tips to clean the inside of the ear canal. It removes some wax, but also packs a lot of wax toward the back of the eardrum.

This could conceivably affect your hearing. Is that how you went about cleaning them?
posted by TreeHugger at 11:53 AM on March 30, 2004

I've always found the left headphone seems to have more bass in it, and the right headphone more treble, but I could be imagining this.
posted by Orange Goblin at 12:10 PM on March 30, 2004

I'm curious to know what source material you're listening to.

Some source audio has aural cues in it which "make sense" to the brain only if they come into the correct ear. These cues are called spatialization cues, and they help position sounds within the stereo field. The reason this works is because most ears are shaped a certain way, which blocks certain frequencies from certain directions and amplifies other frequencies from other directions.

Usually, when a studio music recording is made, sounds on it are either miked directly or connected directly to a channel. Each mic or instrument goes to a separate channel on the mixing board, and then to tape or disk. Each of these channels can be placed somewhere in the stereo field. This placement can be as simple as panning, which puts an amount of the sound in each of the sides of the stereo pair, or as complex as described above - a process which involves very specific equalization processing, and a process which allows sounds on headphones to appear to be coming from behind you.

This second type of spatial panning equalization is the type I would expect to be affected by putting headphones on backwards.

All that said, I suspect your problem is simply caused by the physical characteristics of your headphones. I have several pair of professional headphones and several pair of consumer earbuds, and in every case, the left and right phones are shaped slightly differently to fire the transducer more directly into your ears. If you put them on backwards, they are actually firing the wrong direction, and are wasting precious high frequency sound, and becoming muffled.
posted by tomierna at 12:38 PM on March 30, 2004

My ear doctor, and several others, have told me not to use Q-Tips to clean the inside of the ear canal. It removes some wax, but also packs a lot of wax toward the back of the eardrum.

What are we supposed to use instead?
posted by swank6 at 1:24 PM on March 30, 2004

What are we supposed to use instead?

I can't vouch for its effectiveness, but I've seen hydrogen peroxide irrigation recommended as an alternative.
posted by Danelope at 2:25 PM on March 30, 2004

My ear doctor, and several others, have told me not to use Q-Tips to clean the inside of the ear canal.
My doctor has always told me that I should not insert anything smaller than my elbow in my ear. Earwax is natural and needed to keep your ears free from nasties - pushing it back into your ears not only clogs your ear canal with wax, it pushes said nasties back in there. You should only clean the outer part of your ear and leave nature to take care of the inside bits.
posted by dg at 2:50 PM on March 30, 2004

Response by poster: shepd> my apologies, bro. Thought you were being facetious.

tree/dan> it's a go on the q-tips. I've been told you shouldn't use anything else you'd imagine would get the wax out, like bobby pins or other such things. As for putting liquid in my ear, I think that's the stuff of nightmares. I'm really sqeekish about that!

tomierna> re: audio sources, just a motley assortment of mp3s. They've (almost) all been ripped from CDs that I don't think were in any way special, other than being miraculously found in the $.99-$3.00 bin. The earbuds don't seem to have a particular shape, and they -fit- the same way in either ear, thus making the idle mistake of putting them in backwards rather easy. I'm going to go with your explanation though, which is tons better than the "insanity" and "hearing loss" options.
posted by precocious at 3:20 PM on March 30, 2004

tomierna's explanation is thorough and good, but i just wanted to add to it in response to what Orange Goblin said (that the left earphone seems to have more bass and the right more treble). as tomierna explains, this is a product of how most music is recorded and mixed. for instance, when recording a piano or other keyboard instruments, it is common to pan the lower notes to the left and the higher notes to the right (in a gradual spectrum). this is basically a reflection of the layout of a keyboard, where low notes are on the left and high notes on the right. interestingly, one could argue that it ought to be the other way around since other instruments are typically mixed the way an audience would see them rather than from the musician's point of view (so the singer's vocal is center-panned, while the guitarist may be panned to the right side, for instance).
posted by edlundart at 3:46 PM on March 30, 2004

Ear wax: don't stick things in. If you have, then you need to go with warm olive oil or ear wax softener, get the gunk out, and then keep the bloody qtips out of the canal. Ear wax is necessary to a healthy ear.

Earbud headphones: Koss ThePlug, word up. Or the more expensive Etymotics &c.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:44 PM on March 30, 2004

I can't vouch for its effectiveness, but I've seen hydrogen peroxide irrigation recommended as an alternative.

For the love of God, do NOT do this if you might even have the slightest hint at a hole in your drum. Otherwise, you will never forget the pain.
posted by jmd82 at 10:25 PM on March 30, 2004

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