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When I plug a new mouse or printer into my Mac, I need to install a new driver.

However, I recently plugged new head phones into my computer, and they just worked. Why don't I need to install a driver for my head phones?

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I really doubt a mouse requires new drivers –  UnbanRonMaimon Mar 20 '12 at 20:55
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This got 14 upvotes and three favorites in half a day? –  Michael Kjörling Mar 21 '12 at 8:21
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@MichaelKjörling And we still don't even know if they're USB or normal audio jacks :) (The trick with these kinds of questions is to phrase something pretty basic or self-explanatory as a "Why does XYZ …?". Leave the rest to the community) –  slhck Mar 21 '12 at 8:22
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You don’t need drivers to plug them into a Walkman either. Analog headphones are not peripherals (i.e., they are not computer devices). –  Synetech Mar 22 '12 at 1:50
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Cue electronic engineers saying that you do need (transitor) drivers ;) –  MSalters Mar 22 '12 at 12:46
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8 Answers

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Drivers are software interfaces between the operating system and the device. They allow indirect but standardised communication. Without it, developers would have to talk to the device directly and write code for every imaginable piece of hardware.

Headphones have no need for such an interface, because there is no communication with the operating system that would require 'translation'. The operating system does not control the voltages on the jack sockets, but instead sends digital audio commands and data to the sound card, which does require a driver. The sound card then performs its magic and transforms the bitstream into an analogue signal, regardless of what headphones, speakers, amplifier, recorder, spectrometer... is plugged in, although they often do check whether a jack plug is present at all.

USB headphones are an exception, as they do not plug into a sound card, but they work on the same principle. The mere difference is that those devices have an embedded sound card communicating with the OS, instead of using one that is already installed on the computer. They do require drivers, but since headphones are quite generic peripherals, chances are the embedded sound card is built for maximum compatibility and uses a standardised protocol for which pre-installed drivers suffice, as is common for mice, keyboards and flash drives.

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If your headphones were USB headphones, they may not require drivers as there is a standard manufacturers can follow so the devices they create do not need additional drivers. This is the same way most mice and keyboards "just work".

If your headphones just use a normal jack, the machine's sound card has a set of controllers that are doing the processing for you, the signal going out to the wire is just an analog voltage driving the speakers in the headphones.

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It's worth noting that USB keyboards and mice also follow a standard and the operating system should provide a generic driver that would work for all keyboards and mice that follow it (so far, I haven't seen any that don't). Manufacturer-specific drivers usually expose extra, proprietary functions (like controlling special function keys or LED controllers). I use Windows primarily, and I know that it provides generic drivers for practically all classes of devices. I would expect Mac OS X to do the same. –  Ben Richards Mar 21 '12 at 18:31
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Two possibilities:

  1. if it's a USB device you already had the drivers
  2. if it's an audio jack you would have a simple analog signal coming from the jack, so you don't need to steer this device as it's already done by the soundcard.
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Because they are just using the audio jacks like speakers or anything else. If they were USB headphones or something, that would be different. All your computer needs for sound is the plug, and it transmits the electrical pulses to the headphones, which in turn create sound.

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Asking vs Causing

A mouse sends a request to the computer, which the computer has to interpret, and a driver tells it how. It's like if I say "move the cursor left"; you have to understand English to do anything with that.

An analog headphone jack does not send a request, like "please play the following sound at volume 11". It sends out a current that does not need interpretation; that current physically makes the headphones' speakers vibrate in a particular way by means of an electromagnet.

The only interpretation happens in your brain - "hey, that James Earl Jones saying 'waffles!'"

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A TRS connector (tip, ring, sleeve) is a common family of connector typically used for analog signals including audio. So you don't need drivers for it. Simply.. :-) But be sure your device has a audio output supported... Or If you talking about USB head-phones then may be some required driver installation some not.

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As others said, you only need drivers if you connect USB headphones. In a normal 2.5 mm plug you don't need separate drivers for each headphone you connect to your system. But don't forget you need to install one driver for the audio device and this audio device uses the installed driver to output audio signals through the audio jack.

In simple words headphones are universal plug and play device.

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It is a plain analog output. There is no digital protocol, just the raw audio signal.

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