back to article Boffins out earbuds that sound right when inserted wrong

Researchers have devised a method of automatically adjusting a stereo signal to match whichever ears a pair of earphones are squeezed into. At last, the days of squinting to see the tiny Ls and Rs on your phones may finally be at an end. A group from the Igarashi Design Interfaces Project in Tokyo put a proximity sensor into …


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  1. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Really getting wired

    > a weak current, which runs between the buds, is broken.

    Now that could add an extra dimension to the music. I can just imagine some over zealous royalties enforcer requiring a chip in all new players that turns this current up to 11 if the requisite DRM checks don't pass.

    On the matter of detecting which orifice an earbud is inserted into, wouldn't it just be easier to colour-code them?

    1. MJI Silver badge

      Colour coding

      Either red = right, white = left, or red = left green = right

      1. Annihilator Silver badge


        Even though I haven't used them in at least 20 years, I still remember the colour coding on the Game Boy bundled buds - blue=left, red=right.

        Pretty much any bud I buy these days are either marked or are asymmetric in design so that left/right is ruddy obvious. Quite a cool idea for switching to mono automatically though.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Left = Blue : Right = Red

        Longstanding convention in audio and audiology. Many pro headphones are already coloured this way, also some of the cheaper ones... and hearing aids!

    2. Audrey S. Thackeray

      Combine this with the "we can make you hear sounds by zapping your brain" and you could do away with the player altogether.

    3. mccp

      You colour your ears red and green if you like, I'm happy with both of mine being pinkish.

  2. Fractured Cell

    Personally, mine are indestructible, given my propensity to massacre them after a few months usage, so these seem like they wouldn't las a week.

    Plus, mine have braille-type bumps on the left 'stem', which comes in handy -- I don't even look at them any longer.

  3. jai


    sometimes the best ideas really are quite simple.

    1. Tom Chiverton 1 Silver badge

      I've always added a spot of tip-ex to one. Easy to find by feel.

    2. heyrick Silver badge

      Best ideas?

      When I get new buds I tie a little knot in the left cable...

      1. Michael Hutchinson
        Thumb Down

        And I bet you end up needing to buy new buds a lot when the left one dies...

        1. heyrick Silver badge

          No, actually...

          Because I wear them while active, the wire where it joins into the plug is the place that gives up first. Damn those insanely flimsy wires!

  4. Powelly


    Given most in-ear earphone are shaped to the ear anyway then isn't this just an inovation looking for an application?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Because it is backwards?

      Sound is recorded and reproduced so you hear things the same way round they were recorded. This needs you to insert the phones in the correct ears. It is not about whether they will fit on your ear or not.

      If you insert your earphones in the wrong way round, all your music will play backwards from the end to the beginning, unless you walk round backwards of course. :-)

      1. Graham Marsden

        @Because it is backwards?

        Making it much easier to hear those messages from Satan...?

      2. Marvin the Martian

        backwards music?

        What happens if you switch earbuds? The music sounds as played behind you instead of in front of you -- so what? That happens anyways in many cases (see: car stereo).

        It's not as if the music will suddenly play backwards (revealing satanic messages, unavoidably).

  5. Martin Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    It irritates me...

    ...seeing teenagers sharing headphones, so that one of them can only hear one channel of the music. It would drive me MAD! so the trick of switching automatically to mono when you share is also excellent.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Even worse

      Are pubs wired in stereo, especially when the speakers are split between rooms. One place I used to go to used the balance control to adjust the volume between the bar and the lounge, if someone put on some music from when stereo was in its infancy then one room just got drums.

      1. DJ 2
        Thumb Up

        "2 fish and chips and 2 bitters, Where are you sitting love?"

        "In the drum room, near to the bass speaker".

  6. Nick Gisburne

    Simpler even than colour coding

    Pete 2 suggests colour coding, but that might add a penny or two to the unit cost (different materials/coating), so why not have a physical difference between the two sides which can be detected by touch (so the blind could also make use of it). Left bud has a groove/depression/bump, right one doesn't?

    Or if it's that important to have the things in the correct ears, just put another option on the MP3 player to switch the channels over, or to mono. That solution works whatever is attached to the player.

    As for sharing your earbuds, this does seem like an awful lot of trouble to go to for the opportunity to give your ear wax to someone else.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It would be even better if they integrated the technology to tell when a car is approaching so it turns the music down from 11 to a volume that allows them to hear the screech of tyres as people try to avoid the "music lover" who steps carefree into the path of oncoming traffic whilst listening to their latest dub step download.

  8. Leon

    Anti-depressant Headphones?

    Very cool!

    "....This is detected when a weak current, which runs between the buds, is broken."

    Having a low level eletric current running though your brain when using these bad-boys will defo help fend off depression and cure bi-polar diseases!

    It's almost like these were designed by a higher power to cure mankinds ills.

  9. Dems

    Long Hair or Hat

    How does it work with long hair or a hat that covers your ears?

  10. Irongut Silver badge

    Sounds like a great idea to me. Now they just need to figure out how to get them to automatically increase the right volume slightly to compensate for my poor hearing on that side.

  11. Christoph

    What about the third one?

    For real Star Trek technology they also need to detect the Final Front Ear.

    1. Northern Fop

      Dearie me

      That one was old when god was a teenager :)

  12. King Jack

    Asymmetric Phones

    Asymmetric phones have one cord longer than the other. It goes behind the neck so when you remove them from your ears the phone hang round your neck. The side effect is you never get the Left and Right confused. Costs nothing uses no power. Simple.

  13. commonsense

    Left and right

    Does it matter which side you have left and right in? If they're wrong, just turn around.

  14. This Side Up

    Colour Coding

    It's red=right for audio, red=port for navigation lights. My HD414s just have coloured foam pads.

  15. Graham Bartlett

    Why bother?

    They're in-ear phones, so they sound shit. Always. And for many wearers, they're only giving you background music for your day anyway. Why pretend you care about whether you're getting instruments panned to the correct side?

    1. M Gale

      Tried a good (or even average) set of canalphones?

      They're anything but shit. Granted you can get noise from the lead moving, but you also don't look like you have two tin cans strapped to your head.

      Says me on the bus with the Sennheiser HD428s.

  16. Craig Foster


    Most sound engineers I know put a tab of tape (usually gaffer tape) around the cord for the left earphone, less than a hand width from the earpeice.

    Quick, cheap, and you know which one is which if you're sharing monitors during a gig.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Cord for left earphone?

      My Beyer DT150's (the best headphones in the world IMHO even if they are the most uncomfortable) only have a cord that goes to the left hand side and they also feel very wrong if you are still stupid enough to put them on the wrong way round.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up



    Imagine the possibilities for the next Tom Cruise Mission Impossible (to watch) movie

  18. K. Adams

    Dermatrodes and Black ICE...

    "... a weak current, which runs between the buds ..."

    Yup... Until the 'buds fail to detect a watermark in the music, and determine that you're listening to pirated content. Then the current gets cranked up to Black ICE ("Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics") level, and fries some neurons as a warning against your pilfering ways.

    The world of Neuromancer edges closer, one invention at a time... :-)

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    could the next design iteration

    detect if they were inserted anywhere other than an ear and provide the appropriate stimulation?

  20. Jason Bloomberg

    Left, right; confusing isn't it?

    My wife tells me that's why she only buys knickers labelled C&A.

  21. Neil Spellings

    Is there a right and wrong stereo?

    Despite always checking that I have my L and R earbuds in the correct ears, does it really matter?

    The only time it be apparent you had them in backwards would be watching movies where on-screen action is synced to the correct audio channel.

    For the majority of music listening shirley either way round would work no?

    1. Martin Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Classical music....

      ...the violins on the right seems a bit odd.

      In general, I actually agree with you. But still, the purist in me feels that if the musician wanted me to hear the music that way round, that's the way I ought to listen to it.

  22. Frumious Bandersnatch

    headphone phase--does it matter? (mostly OT)

    I had an old set of cans whose cable had broken off in one ear and I finally got around to soldering it back on. With no markings on the terminals, I downloaded some in-phase and out-of-phase samples to listen to after wiring it up both ways. From reading how out-of-phase wiring should sound, I *think* I wired it up right, but I still have doubts. I know this isn't a problem these cans are supposed to fix, but I'm curious whether anyone here can give a definitive answer as to whether headphones being out of phase really matters?

    AFAICT, out of phase stereo signals sound different on speakers because the sound waves coming from each speaker interfere with each other, selectively destroying parts of the signal it shouldn't. Thinking about this in terms of headphones, it's not clear that there should be any interference pattern set up at all unless the brain is doing some analogous processing on the sounds. So my question, as per title--does stereo phase matter at all when wiring headphones?

    On topic: speaking of stereo, it seems that if each bud had two sensors (antennae placed at right angles to each other) you could do detection in much the same way that a theremin works. The articles mention only one sensor, and the reg article mentions breaking a circuit, but I wonder if there isn't some mini theremin gizmo at work here? Can you even miniaturise a it to that level? I have no idea.

    Off topic again... I've had theremins on my mind since the recent reg article on increasing screen resolutions on tablet computers. I mentioned the problem of accurately hitting a patch of screen with a finger as the resolution of the monitor goes up. Later it occurred to me that something like a theremin could detect an incoming finger and selectively zoom in on the target area (with the feature possibly keyed to a gesture, like circling the finger in as it approaches the screen). It might need two detectors for near/far range. Just throwing the idea out there, fwiw.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Yes it matters

      Easiest way to do it is feed a mono signal, ideally just someone speaking, to both phones. If you close your eyes you should be able to visualise (auralise?) that the person is speaking from a point somewhere directly in front of you. When they are out of phase you won't be able to do that as it will sound a bit weird and the point from which the sound appears to come is elusive to spot. Just try it and you will see what I mean.

      1. Frumious Bandersnatch

        @Yes it matters

        I did think I noticed some difference when I wired them up and picked the wiring that I thought sounded better. I'll do the mono test later and see what that sounds like. I'm not looking forward to resoldering them when I'm still not 100% sure that I can aurally tell the difference between the two polarities :(

        You wouldn't happen to have any links that explain exactly why phase matters for headphones, would you? My searches didn't turn up anything conclusive, and I still can't quite understand what makes out of phase headphones sound wrong. Thanks :)

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        "Easiest way to do it is feed a mono signal, ideally just someone speaking, to both phones. If you close your eyes you should be able to visualise (auralise?) that the person is speaking from a point somewhere directly in front of you"

        Utter utter bollox. It's a mono signal, the sound coming out of both 'phones is identical. Swap them around all you like, you can imagine the sound coming from in front of you, or behind you, or above you for that matter.

        We sense directionality of sounds through ear lobe reflections and echoes which a headphone can't take advantage of, primarily for high-pitched noises. We also sense it through actually moving our heads slightly to change the balance of the sounds, particularly for low-frequencies.

        1. The Infamous Grouse

          Phasing isn't L/R swapping

          Not 'bollox'. The guys above aren't talking about swapping audio channels, but about reversing the phase of one channel.

  23. Return To Sender


    Look, maybe I'm missing a point here, but surely you'd only tell the diffference between 'right' and 'wrong' way round on the 'phones when you're listening to something you're familiar with. I'd guess with music (non-orchestral at least) it actually doesn't make any odds.

    I'd always thought that the point of stereo was to give the impression of separation or whatever, but does anybody give a flying f**k whether the bassist's on the right and the lead on the left or vice-versa? I can see that for something with a formal layout - like an orchestra - left & right might make a difference, but otherwise? Just a case of OCD if you ask me (CDO if you really must have the letters in alphabetical order, of course).

    Feel free to enlighten me if there's more to it, of course; can always rely on Reg commentards :)

    1. david wilson


      I think it's fairly unimportant for music (to most people, at least), but can be pretty relevant to things like games and movies.

  24. Alan Edwards

    Bumps and stuff

    Having a bump on one of the buds is OK, so long as you know which one the bump is on.

    The Sennheiser MX-880 doesn't. It has a bump on (I think) the left, and no other markings. Would it have killed them to put a line in the user guide telling you which channel has the bump?

  25. This Side Up

    Re: Bollox

    No not bollox. Phasing matters even if it's a mono signal. The image should be centered in front of you or, more likely with cans, behind you. Of course phase information is a lot more important for stereo, but if you use compression algorithms like MP3 they do nasty things to it, because they encode/decode a sample on the left channel, then one on the right and so on. Then they mash it up if it's joint stereo. So you're left with worse than than pan-pot stereo at best. For some genres that hardly matters!

    If you get the speaker/headphone phasing reversed (on one side) then you lose the stereo image and just hear two sound sources.

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