or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 11/30/14

   December 6th, 2014

stereoThis is a hard question to relay. What you're reading below isn't necessarily what the patron asked, it's just my understanding of what the patron asked - and I'm really not sure I ever understood correctly just what he was trying to do.

A patron came to the desk and said he had a pair of stereo earbuds, which were only playing sound on one side, and the guy at Radio Shack said he'd need to buy an adapter to make both sides play when he plugged into a mono jack (which he said our computers must have because he was only getting sound on one side). But instead of buying an adapter, the patron thought he could just go get another set of stereo earbuds and then plug one into the headphone jack on the front of our computers and the other into the jack on the back of our computers, and put whichever two of the four buds that worked into different ears and listen that way.

Most of this only marginally made sense to me. For one thing, the library headphones we offer for people to use all play sound out of both sides. I had no idea if our computer audio jacks were mono or stereo though, so we proceeded to do a little experimenting:

  • First I plugged library headphones into the front, and both sides played
  • Then I plugged them into the back, and again both sides played
  • Next I left them plugged into the back as he plugged his earbuds into the front - and he had sound on only one side and the headphones had no sound
  • Finally we plugged the earbuds in the back, and again he only had sound on one side

Since using the front jack shut off the back jack entirely, that shot down his idea of two simultaneous separate earbuds - which kind of deflated the whole situation. So after he sat down to work, I went back to the desk to try to figure out if our workstations had mono or stereo jacks. However, I poked all around inside the Control Panel and on the Dell website for our model PCs, and could not determine this one way or the other.

But what the internet did teach me is that you can tell from the plug if your headphones/earbuds are mono or stereo:



Huh - that seems so obvious, but I never knew this. I checked the library headphones, and sure enough all of them had stereo plugs, not mono plugs.

So knowing that, I decided to take a different tack - find a recording that was in stereo and see if the headphones play it correctly. A quick YouTube search found this:

Besides this being my new favorite YouTube video (the guy is so nice and polite!), it also told me that our computers definitely play in stereo. But, sadly, by this time the patron had left.

So now my working theory on what was happening is that the patron actually had mono earbuds, which apparently will only play one side when plugged into a stereo jack. Maybe this is what he was asking all along and I was just confused. He's one of our regulars though, so I'll watch for him and hopefully catch him before he buys some kind of adapter. It won't help with mono earbuds, but at least it'll save him some money. And I can also thank him for prompting me to learn all this stuff.

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10 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 11/30/14”

  1. Kel Says:

    It’s also possible that the earbuds were broken, and therefore only playing on one side. I know that when my earbuds broke to my ipod a few years ago, the way I knew was that when I listened to Beatles songs (which make notoriously good use of stereo) that I could only hear it in one ear bud and not the other where I previously had been able to hear it through both.

  2. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Kel: you know I had thought of that, but didn’t want to suggest to the patron his earbuds were broken until I ruled everything else out. I didn’t even want to suggest they were mono, because I think he said they were stereo, and it’s difficult to convince people of something they don’t want to believe until they’ve conclusively seen everything else can’t be true. Next time I’ll show him the trick about looking at the plug, which should answer it.

    Funny about the Beatles songs, but you’re right. The first thing I ever remember hearing in stereo was a McKenzie Brothers vinyl album my friend down the street had, but unfortunately I couldn’t find that skit on YouTube.

  3. Doug Cooper Says:

    Hmmm… maybe that’s why my Jetblue $1.00 earphones only worked on one side after I got off the plane.

    My absolute first thought (until now) would be that the earbuds owned by the patron were broken.

  4. Mary Jo Says:

    If his were earbuds for a mobile phone, the plug may have three lines, because they also have a microphone function.

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Doug: I wonder. Although I know from now on that I will be inspecting the plug of every set of headphones I encounter.

    @Mary Jo: What! Now I have three things to look for when inspecting headphone plugs.

  6. Andrew Sherman Says:

    His earbuds had gone bad. I run into this a lot.

  7. Jenne Says:

    Mono earbuds?! What would possibly be the purpose?

  8. J Says:

    My immediate thought was that the earbuds were broken/defective and the guy at Radio Shack was trying to turn a refund into an additional sale.

    My second thought was to ask the patron if they played on both sides anywhere else. Is the library the only place he’s ever used them for anything? If so, why not just check out the library’s headphones?

  9. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Jenne: I don’t know, but it sounded good at the time.

    I talked to the patron again today, and he had already decided his earbuds must just be broken – and he’d thrown them away and bought a new pair at a dollar store. He was upset because the broken pair cost $30, and the dollar store set sound better.

    So there you go – sometimes the most obvious answer is actually the right answer.

  10. Benjamin Kalish Says:

    I’ve found that if the audio jack and plug are both just slightly damaged it can lead to problems that would not occur if only one were. We have a computer, for example, that generally works fine with high quality headphones, but with cheaper headphones it will either give single channel output or act as if the headphones weren’t plugged in at all. It’s the same model as our other computers, which work fine with almost any headphones, so I think the jack must have been damaged at some point.