Headphones area pair of small loudspeakers, or less commonly a single speaker, with a way of holding them close to a user's ears and a means of connecting them to a signal source such as an audio amplifier, radio or CD player. They are also known as stereo phones, headsets or, colloquially cans. The in-ear versions are known as earphones or ear buds. In the context of telecommunication, the term headset is used to describe a combination of headphone and microphone used for two-way communication, for example with a telephone.
The telephone earpiece was common around the beginning of the 20th century. Headphones developed from the earpiece. Sensitive headphones were the only way to listen to audio signals before amplifiers were developed. Very sensitive headphones such as those manufactured by Brandes around 1919 were commonly used for early radio work. These early headphones used moving iron drivers, either single ended or balanced armature. The requirement for high sensitivity meant no damping was used, thus the sound quality was crude. They also had very poor comfort compared to modern types, usually having no padding and too often having excessive clamping force to the head. Their impedance varied; headphones used in telegraph and telephone work had an impedance of 75 ohms. Those used with early wireless radio had to be more sensitive and were made with more turns of finer wire; impedance of 1,000 to 2,000 ohms was common, which suited both crystal sets and triode receivers.
In early powered radios, the headphone was part of the vacuum tube's plate circuit and had dangerous voltages on it. It was normally connected directly to the positive high voltage battery terminal, and the other battery terminal was securely earthed. The use of bare electrical connections meant that users could be shocked if they touched the bare headphone connections while adjusting an uncomfortable headset.
Headphones can be used both with fixed equipment such as CD or DVD players, home theater, personal computers and with portable devices (e.g. digital audio player/mp3 player, mobile phone, etc.). Cordless headphones are not connected via a wire, receiving a radio or infrared signal encoded using a radio or infrared transmission link, like FM, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. These are actually made of powered receiver systems of which the headphone is only a component, these types of cordless headphones are being used more frequently with events such as a silent disco or Silent Gig.
In the professional audio sector headphones are used in live situations by disc jockeys with a DJ mixer and sound engineers for monitoring signal sources. In radio studios, DJs use a pair of headphones when talking to the microphone while the speakers are turned off, to eliminate acoustic feedback and monitor their own voice. In studio recordings, musicians and singers use headphones to play along to a backing track. In the military, audio signals of many varieties are monitored using headphones.
Wired headphones are attached to an audio source. The most common connection standards are 6.35mm (¼″) and 3.5mm TRS connectors and sockets. The larger 6.35mm connector tending to be found on fixed location home or professional equipment. Sony introduced the smaller, and now widely used, 3.5mm "minijack" stereo connector in 1979, adapting the older monophonic 3.5mm connector for use with its Walkman portable stereo tape player and the 3.5mm connector remains the common connector for portable application today. Adapters are available for converting between 6.35mm and 3.5mm devices.