Why do headphones have R & L sides designated?

Why do headphones have right and left sides designated? Does it matter to the listener?

One theory from CK Dexter Haven of the Straight Dope Staff:
My guess: it depends. If you’re just listening to music, it probably doesn’t matter if the sound is left/right reversed. However, if you’re watching a movie and the train is coming from the left, but the sound is coming from the right, it’d be a li’l disconcerting.

Does anyone else have any thoughts? Thank you!

My guess is that it is meant to reflect the relative positions of the musicians. If you are used to a certain passage coming from your left, the mix should reflect that.

It only matters if you want to hear what the artist intended. If you can look a Picasso in a mirror and it doesn’t matter, then I guess it doesn’t matter if you have your headphones on backwards.

As mentioned, if it’s a video soundtrack then it matters in a practical sense.

I have a pair of ear insert headphones (Skull Candy) and they are not marked for L/R. I use them with my iPod and can never tell if I have them in the right way. And it doesn’t really matter.

Stereo sound has always had left and right labels for the channels. While at some points in the system it may be considered arbitrary, there’s a practical value in knowing that if you adjust the balance to the left that the speaker on the left side will be then be the louder one. And of course if there are left and right speakers in your living room and your car, there’s no reason not to have left and right speakers in your headset.

Now, as to whether it matters which channel is left and which is right, usually not. But sometimes it does, one example being if there is video with the sound, as mentioned. Another might be when listening to an orchestra where the strings are traditionally on one side and the winds on another - some folks might find it odd to have that reversed.

Regarding CookingWithGas’s response comparing music to painting:

In visual art , motion from left to right is considered normal, and when objects enter from the right side (of the canvas or movie screen) and move to the left, that’s regarded as more visually disruptive.

So a calm painting would have a lot of horizontal lines that gently move the eye to the right (and then there is usually something that stops the eye from moving right off the canvas.)

It corresponds to the direction we read in Western society. I don’t know if other cultures have a different idea of “natural” motion.

And all that is just leading into saying I don’t know if there’s a similar directional phenomenon in Western music, but it’s my perception that there is. When I listen to flowing music it seems to go from left to right. (Kind of like a written score.) If there is a call and response from one direction to another (either with voices or instruments) the direction the sound moves might create a different emotional sensation.


(Some hard rock races along, and other just seems to jump up down–in head banging fashion.)

Nitpick: strings at the front with violins stage left and lower strings stage right, with wind behind, horns stage left and other brass stage right, and percussion at the back. (Not a universally-followed layout, mind, but by far the most common.)

It would definitely matter with binaural recordings.

If you ever want to find out, download a podcast of Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, especially one with another pianist as the guest. IIRC, she’ll almost always say, “if you’re listening to us in stereo, you’ll hear me on the [left/right] and my guest on the [right/left].”

For many headphone designs, the phones will probably also be more comfortable on your head one way than the other.

Thank you!

In addition to movies, sound orientation matters if you are using a headset with a computer game. Gotta know if the attack is coming from the right or the left.

And this. I’ve got headsets where the shape of the cups make it uncomfortable to wear them reversed. Kind of like wearing mittens on the wrong hands. Yes, you can get your thumbs into the thumb holes, but it just rubs wrong.

Besides comfort, some bud types have layouts that channel the sound forward toward the ear canal. If yo switch sides, the sound will be fainter.


It matters quite a lot playing some computer games, especially 1st-person shooters.