Your computer has a speaker port (perhaps even multiple ones) and a headphone port. You can plug your headphones into both of them and tunes come out, so what’s the real difference between the two?

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader C-dizzle wants to know what (if any) difference there is between speaker and headphone ports:

I have a 2.1 speaker setup going into my computer, but primarily plug them into the headphone jack as it is easier to access. I do this because I switch between a couple different devices with these speakers. At one point I plugged them into the speaker port and noticed a very slight difference in the volume. Now both volumes in the properties are at the same level, but the noise coming out was slightly different.

So do the 2 ports have different “levels” of output? Volume, bass, treble…?

So what is the difference and does it really matter which one you use?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor Breakthrough offers some insight:

It depends on what hardware you have in the computer, but there usually is a difference between speaker and headphone ports – specifically, relating to the max/min speaker/headphone impedance values you can use with either port.

Certain sound cards, for example the Auzentech X-Fi-Forte, include a built-in headphone amplifier on the headphone port. Taking a look at the actual output port specifications, we can also see different loading levels for the headphone and other line-out ports:

Headphone load impedance 16Ω ~ 600Ω
Line output impedance 330Ω
Line/Aux input impedance 10KΩ

This is also why many sound cards specify to not use a passive (i.e. unamplified) speaker with certain ports, as the lower impedance may cause too much current draw, and possibly damage the particular port.

The general thing to note here, though, is impedance matching your speakers/headphones to the appropriate port, and in general, your speakers go to the speaker port, and your (unpowered) headphones go to the headphone port, precisely for the reasons outlined above. This also explains why you might notice a slight difference in the volume levels between the two ports.

While volume differences are negligible in the grand scheme of things, damaging your hardware is a horrible outcome; it’s best to err on the side of caution and use the appropriate port.

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.


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Jason Fitzpatrick is the Senior Smart Home Editor at How-To Geek. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at How-To Geek, Review Geek, LifeSavvy, and Lifehacker. Jason served as Lifehacker's Weekend Editor before he joined How-To Geek.
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