How to Use Headphones With a USB Port

headphone plug to USB port connection guide

It’s easy to run into problems with headphone jacks, which are the female version of the connector that the male headphone “plug” connects to. Headphone jacks have a propensity to break, and when they do they’re not always easy to get into and fix. More and more companies and devices are forgoing the once standard 3.5mm jack as well. And yet most decent wired headphones still use a 3.5mm plug connection.

A broken or absent 3.5mm headphone jack can be incredibly annoying, but the the good news is that you can use a USB port instead, and it can be done with a simple and cheap workaround. Most devices have more than one USB slot, and USB isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

This article will go over the various ways you can connect a regular pair of headphones via a USB connection.

The Simple and Cheap Way: A USB to Headphone Jack Adapter

There are now a myriad of cheap adapters that effectively convert a USB wire to a 3.5mm headphone wire with minimal clutter and fuss. Like this one, for example:

USB to 3.5mm Audio Adapter,2-in-1 USB A/USB Type C to 3.5mm Female Jack Cable Stereo Sound Card for Headphone,Mac,PC,Laptop,Desktops Samsung Galaxy S24 S23,iPhone 15 Plus/15 Pro Max iPad Pro MacBook

works with both USB A and C ports (affiliate link)

How can a digital signal that comes out of a USB slot work with a standard pair of headphones or powered speakers, which require a line-level analog signal? The answer is that these small adapters actually have their own DAC (digital analog converter) built in. You might think that a DAC that fits on a thumb drive that’s less than $10 will bottleneck sound quality, but that’s actually very unlikely – simple onboard DACs are a pretty much solved technology at this point.

The More Expensive But Possibly Worthwhile Way: A USB DAC/Amp Combo

Yes, we did just suggest that expensive external DACs are mostly worthless and won’t do anything to improve sound. And it’s also true that headphone amps don’t actually do anything to improve sound quality either.

So why, then, would we ever recommend getting a headphone amp/DAC combo? The answer is that it still might be a nice thing to have, for a few reasons.

Fosi Audio Q4 Headphone Amplifier Mini Stereo DAC 24-Bit 192 KHz USB Optical Coaxial to RCA AUX Digital-to-Analog Audio Converter Adapter for Home Desktop Powered Active Speakers

Fosi amps are great and inexpensive (affiliate link)

First, you might eventually need one if you want to drive a nice HiFi pair of headphones that needs an unusually high amount of power. Second, DAC/amp combos have extra features like a volume knob or EQ controls, which can definitely improve sound quality. And finally, having a myriad of input options including but maybe not limited to USB and 3.5mm all in one place is a nice convenience.

Another Alternative Option: USB Headphones (Often Called a Headset)

There are an increasing number of headphones and headsets (which are basically a pair of headphones with a built-in mic and voice/call controls), that plug directly into a USB slot.

In fact, a lot of people ask if USB headphones are better than “regular” headphones with a 3.5mm plug. And the answer to that is no, because there isn’t any viable reason that they would or could be. If anything the sound quality of USB headphones will be worse simply because there’s less of them to choose from, but, there are many more headsets with good sound quality becoming available, one reason being that audio fidelity with gaming in particular is coming much more in to demand.