Is it Stereo or Mono

6th in a series of articles about headphones and headsets.

The use of headphones in computer labs, in classroom or library-based listening centers is perhaps the most common of all school-based audio applications. But even in this simplest of uses, there can still be occasional questions. For instance, have you ever plugged in a headphone and not heard anything even though you know the media player or computer works? Or what if audio is coming out from only one of the earcups? How or why do these things happen? Don’t toss out any headphones just yet; the solution could be simply hidden in the nature of stereo and mono audio.

To begin answering these questions, let’s first step back and review what’s meant by the term “stereo” because this will lay the groundwork for the explanation and your answer. A “stereo” sound is simply a high-fidelity sound produced by (or through) two or more audio channels. A stereo sound creates the impression of hearing the sound from multiple directions. Audio from a stereo source through stereo headphones allows listeners to hear sounds from different channels through each earcup. For instance, students listening to a stereo-based literacy program through stereo headphones might hear spoken directions in one ear and background music in the other ear.

In contrast, a monaural or “mono” sound is audio from a single channel, often “centered” in the sound field. When students use mono headphones connected with mono sources, each earcup transmits identical sounds, so there is no “surround” effect.


The Switchable 3068AV can be used in stereo & monaural applications.

This is why stereo headphones should only be used with stereo sources and mono headphones should only be used with monaural media players. Mixing stereo and mono hardware in the same application will result in imperfect audio. Plugging in a mono headphone to a stereo media player will result in the listener hearing non-surrounding, one channel audio. Connecting a stereo headphone to a mono media player will produce audio in only one of the two earcups. Before setting up a listening center or connecting a headphone to a jackbox or a media player, it’s critical to verify that all of the components are compatible in order to get ideal audio.

So next time a students says a headphone doesn’t sound right, make sure it’s properly connected to a like jackbox or audio source.

Califone offers a variety of headphones, headsets, jackboxes, and media players in stereo and mono formats. To read more about other frequently asked questions, visit the FAQ section of our website or submit a question to Technical Support.

Read the previous article in this series about Headphone & Headset Plugs or return to the beginning of the series.



Helping teachers and students with educationally appropriate classroom AV equipment since 1947.