Why does one side of my headphones keep dying?
February 22, 2010 9:06 AM   Subscribe

My headphones keep running into the same problem: after several months of use, one side stops working. Why does this happen, and how can I fix them?

I currently use a pair of US$30 headphones with my computer, the Plantronics .Audio 355. I got them about 3 months ago after the first pair I had failed and Plantronics replaced them (for free and quite painlessly) under warranty. Prior to this I've had at least three pairs of headphones (mostly Sennheisers, about US$30-40) with the same problem, i.e. one side of the headphones begins to cut in and out depending on how the wire is moved.

I'm guessing that there's a loose connection of some sort in the headphones. What puzzles me is why it happens with such annoying regularity. Also, is there a way I can fix it, and is it possible to prevent it from happening?

Another thing: will using more expensive headphones help alleviate the problem? I've been using cheaper ones primarily because the problem keeps cropping up, but if I can avoid it by using a model with better build quality, I'd be happy to upgrade.
posted by WalterMitty to Technology (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I've had issues with headphones where the cord only runs into one earpiece instead of forking with a line into each side. Could be related to that. If you adjust the cable at the point where it emerges from the headset, do you hear a change in the audio? The inline volume wheel is also a common failure point on headphones. Do you notice anything as you adjust that?

If the problem isn't in those two places, sounds like a crimp in the cord. Are you fidgety? I will absently play with my headphone cords as well, but this can damage them. Any place that gets twisted or pinched is prone to shorting out. Is the cord so long that you run over it with your office chair wheels?
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 9:16 AM on February 22, 2010

I've had similar problems with cheaper headphones, but I bought some Shure headphones back in 2005 that are still going strong. Sure they were $100, but that ultimately saves some money.

The problem is often frayed wires from rough handling. Wrap them carefully, and if some of the casing is missing use some electrical tape. My Shures have a thicker casing which probably helps the longevity.
posted by Outis at 9:18 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

No, using expensive headphones doesn't cure it in my experience. It is a loose wire, as you diagnose. The best advice I can give is to not wind your headphones up when you finish using them and try and prevent instances where the wire gets pulled, or where the wire gets bent back on itslef.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:18 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

My Shure E3Cs have lasted more than three years. When I snapped a tube in an earpiece, they replaced them for free; the same for when I mistakenly sent them back for another phantom problem (that wasn't a problem, it was user error). Their two year warranty is rock solid, if you're worried, but I have yet to have your problem with them and the sound quality alone is a reason to spend the cash.

They're the midrange ~$100 model, as they've been replaced at this point.
posted by kcm at 9:20 AM on February 22, 2010

Some Sennheisers have replaceable parts. I've been using the same pair of 414s since 1977 just by replacing the cable and ear pads.
posted by sageleaf at 9:21 AM on February 22, 2010

when you are not using your headsets, do you wind the cord tightly around the headsets and tuck the jack neatly under one line? get a new set of headsets and never do this again.

you can wind them loosely, but never fold or tuck, as this fatigues the metal wiring and makes it break.
posted by toodleydoodley at 9:29 AM on February 22, 2010

Response by poster: The Winsome Parker Lewis: It's happened both with my Sennheiser PX200 (forks into each ear) and the Plantronics .Audio 355 (the cable runs into the right side). Whether I can get the dead side to work depends largely on luck and not on where I fiddle with the cable.

As for winding/ folding the cable, I did do this with the Sennheisers (as they have a travel case which necessitates winding), but the Plantronics are never unplugged from the computer and the cable is never put under any sort of stress. However, the volume control unit keeps getting snagged on the edge of the table, and with a cheap pair like this I suppose even that minor stress will knock something loose eventually.
posted by WalterMitty at 9:43 AM on February 22, 2010

My previous askme addressed the same issue. Modifying the way you treat your headphones will prolong their life, but probably not indefinitely.

Mine were visibly wearing out at the jack end, with the audio cutting out in one ear first. I picked up some Bose headphones with an L-shaped jack, which seems to be working well but they still wore out. The warranty replacement was fast and easy though. Using an extension cable between my ipod and my headphones seems to be helping - wear ends up on the extender, not my headphone jack. Tape also helped a bit when the old pair was approaching final death.

Among the useful tips and tricks, here's a recent lifehacker post on keeping your earphones neatly packed up.
posted by lizbunny at 9:51 AM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Headphones use very very fine stranded wire coated in a thin layer of lacquer. The wire is soldered at either end to the headphone and the plug. When solder coats a wire that is not directly attached to an anchor, it tends to make the wire very brittle. What normally happens is that continuous flexing next to the solder joint will cause individual strands of wire to slowly break off over time. Eventually there will be only one or two strands still attached to the joint, and the impedance of that channel will become too high, causing the headphones to cut out. Since the wires are coated in lacquer as an isolation agent, the dangling strands will only complete the circuit if you flex the connector such that the very tips of the strands can make contact - thus the "twist and flex" method of listening to music as your headphones die.

As far as fixing them once they are broken, it is possible, but difficult. You can cut off the mini plug and solder on a new connector from radio shack, but you will need to strip the lacquer coating with fine sand paper, and then make sure the stripped strands of wire do not cross. It can be a very delicate procedure, and you run the risk of screwing up the impedance, which may cause a volume imbalance or degraded signal quality.

Expensive headphones generally have better quality control and designs which attempt to reduce the stress on the solder joints, but it usually only slows the process in my opinion. My best advice is to buy a set of phones you like that have a lifetime warranty. Sennheiser products have such a warranty, I would give the PX-100 a try - they are great sounding, pretty tough and very light and portable.
posted by I_am_jesus at 10:42 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: lizbunny: Yes, I saw your AskMe, thanks. Some of the advice does apply, but seeing as the headphones I currently use don't see any stress on the cable outside normal usage (I haven't unplugged them or wound the cable for several months), I was wondering if there was any other reason why they might die so easily. (Unlike, say, your Skullcandy 'phones, which would've seen the inside of a bag/ pocket on a regular basis).

I_am_jesus: Thanks, your explanation is pretty clear and makes complete sense to me.
posted by WalterMitty at 10:59 AM on February 22, 2010

I have a pair of Apple in-ear headphones. I put them in the other day and couldn't hear anything through one ear. Figured it was a wire problem, but decided to clean the problematic earbud out and that seemed to fix it. It's possible that it could have actually been a wire problem that happened to temporarily fix itself, but I don't think so, so I thought I'd point it out.
posted by BaxterG4 at 10:59 AM on February 22, 2010

Locate the source of the break: Figure out what part you have to move to get it to work.

If it's inside the earpiece, pop that open, use a tiny soldering iron to re-solder the connection (it will be obvious, if it's not open the other one and then it will be obvious).

If the break is in the cable, you can cut out a tiny section around the break and splice the rest back together.

Just in my experience, fancy headphones don't fix anything, I get cheap ones so I can keep several pairs around, when I have too many broken pairs I then I give in and fix them. The wires are tiny regardless so it only takes a little wear to break them.
posted by anaelith at 11:32 AM on February 22, 2010

Do you usually pull the earphones out by the cord? That seems to do it for a lot of people (like me). I just had this happen to a pair of etymotic er6i's which cost about $90 USD.
posted by majikstreet at 12:42 PM on February 22, 2010

I've had this happen, and it's usually do to wear. Headphone cables, like "I_am_jesus" said, is incredibly fragile. It's hard to work with the individual wires, as they easily break when handling carefully by hand. In the protective rubber wire they're a little better, but you can still easily break them by grabbing the wire and pulling apart.

In this case, it's probably the volume box snagging on the table that's done it. This essentially does the same "pull the wire apart with two hands" motion, and it only takes a tiny bit of damage to stop the sound. If even one of the very fine strands within a single wire touches another, it can cut out that side (or cause static, or cause mono sound, etc). Very fragile.

So make sure that doesn't happen anymore. Some more expensive headphones will fare better - I have Sennheiser HD-497's that have a nice thick cord, very long, and it plugs into each side using a mini-jack plug (about the size of the cell phone headset plugs). You can unplug the entire cable and replace it, though that's not super cheap ($25?). But I've snagged it plenty, and it's still going. Better construction, thicker wires, better mounts inside the plugs/headphones. You can get cheap headphones that will also fare better, just have to find better quality wires.

Volume boxes are evil - they're bulky (even when they're small), weigh too much (compared to the wire), are never in a convenient place (too close, too far), and they get snagged all the time. I'd rather splice it out and get a big long cord, and use the volume on the PC instead. A mic mute button is useful, but still not worth the hassle of a box on the wire. I'd get a headset w/o the box, as that seems to be the problem in this case.

And then make sure you're not doing anything else wear-ing (wrapping up cord too tight, pressing cord at right angles, jiggling too much where it plugs in, resting things against the plug on the PC side, etc). Just find what you're doing to wear it down and fix it. Could mean repositioning a few things, or changing habits.
posted by jumpfroggy at 12:43 PM on February 22, 2010

The Ultimate Ears TripleFi 10s have a replaceable cord, as do some other professional-grade headphones. Most high end full-size cans have thicker cables and better strain relief, but pretty much any earbuds or in-ear-monitors are going to have thin, fragile cables due to their small size.
posted by kenliu at 5:28 PM on February 22, 2010

In my experience, with cheap to mid-range headphones, the loss of sound in one ear almost always is the result of bad connection where the cable is joined to the plug. This is especially the case with headphones that stick straight out from the jack as opposed the ones that make a right angle.

There are a number of little things you can do to prevent this. First, don't put your iphone in a tight pants pocket. Use a breast or coat pocket where there's no pressure being exerted on the area where the wire meats the plug.

Also, consider adding extra support to that area using rubber shrink-tubing. You can get some at radioshack. It'll keep that joint from bending too much.

Finally, try investing in a few of these. All they are is 3 inch extension cords for headphones, mad for when the original iPhone wasn't compatible with many headphones.

Once Apple ditched the recessed jack, they became obsolete, and can be bought for pennies, but they serve a great purpose -- they take the daily wear on the joint where the wire meets the plug in the place of your headphones, so when they start to lose sound in one ear, you just replace the extension do-hickey.
posted by patnasty at 1:54 AM on February 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

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