Let me guess: you don’t spend a lot of money on headphones or earbuds because they always break and you have to replace them every year or two. Variations on this topic are frequently brought to me, usually as an excuse for not purchasing a nice pair of headphones, or sometimes in conjunction with the question: Why do my headphones always break?
It’s time to be brutally honest with yourself. The answer to that question is, 99.99 percent of the time (and as you presumably already know), you.
The headphones are not damaged. The headphones are broken by you. It’s all right—you didn’t mean to! Who has time to gently coddle some earbuds that need to be slipped into your bag or pocket ASAP as you race to catch the train when life is busy and overwhelming? Fortunately, there are several techniques to prolong the life of your headphones and ensure that they last far longer than a year.
Here’s what you’re doing incorrectly and how to correct it.
1. Failure to Clean
Earwax. A filthy word. You don’t want to read it, and I’m not interested in writing it. The sad reality of using in-ear headphones is seeing genuine earwax on the surface of—or worse, wedged inside—the eartips. Because charging cases have become so common, earwax on true wireless earbuds can cause serious damage if not cleaned properly—you don’t want it to migrate to the inside of the charging case and build up over time.
Some true wireless pairings are now entirely waterproof or highly water resistant, and may be rinsed off under the faucet, resolving the problem. However, anything with an IPX5 or lower certification (we’ll go over this in more detail in the following section) is a risk to clean in this manner, and this includes many of the big names in truly wireless, including as all of the AirPods and top models from Bose, Jabra, and Sony.
There are a handful of ways worth testing with these models. When not linked to the earpiece, most silicone eartips can be simply removed and submerged without trouble. However, before reconnecting them to the earpiece, completely dry them with a dry microfiber cloth or something similarly soft and lint-free.
Earwax removal tools are also available. You should use caution when using them because they are often created by third-party manufacturers and aren’t designed to function with any certain type of headphones. They are, nevertheless, basic and inexpensive tools that can make a significant difference.
2. IP Ratings Are Misunderstood
The terms “water-resistant” and “waterproof” are frequently interchanged, however they should not be. The IP rating of the device is required—and something that some manufacturers are reluctant to reveal.
IP stands for Ingress Protection, and there should be two digits after the letters IP. The first digit relates to solids protection, such as dust. 0 indicates no protection, 6 indicates complete protection, and X indicates that, while the manufacturer did not test for solids protection, the presumption is that the device provides some protection. In other words, an X in an IP rating signifies “better than 0 but we’re not sure beyond that, so don’t sue us.”
The second digit in an IP rating pertains to liquid protection. 0 implies nothing, and 8 means the device may be immersed up to 1 meter (perhaps beyond) and survive some reasonably high-pressure water from a faucet or a torrential downpour without being damaged. As a result, IPX8 indicates that the protection against solids is better than zero, and the protection against liquids is excellent. IP68 indicates that the product is as secure as possible against solid and liquid infiltration.
When asked for an IP rating, manufacturers frequently declare their items are water-resistant without providing an IP rating, and when pressed, they typically provide an inadequate grade of, say, IPX4. IPX4 signifies that low-pressure water, such as light rain, sweat, or mist from a spray bottle, will not harm the headphones. Rinsing the headphones under the tap may do some damage. Dunking them in the pool is another option.
If you’re going to the gym, exercising in the rain, or near a pool, your headphones should have an IP certification of at least IPX7 or IPX8. If your “waterproof” headphones die after a few gym trips, it’s conceivable that they merely have an IPX4 classification.
If you don’t know your product’s IP rating and it isn’t listed in the manual or online, you can always contact the manufacturer or ask a question on the product’s website. The maker is aware of the grade, and if it is IPX7 or IPX8, it is likely already listed because it is a selling point.
Keep in mind that the IP certification only applies to the earpieces when it comes to real wireless earphones. If you put damp earphones inside a charging case, there’s a considerable chance you’ll have troubles soon. I give your earbuds a day or two before one or both start to fail if you place plainly wet earpieces inside a charging case. Earpiece failure can manifest itself as distorted audio or, more commonly, as the earpiece simply dying. So be especially cautious with truly wireless earbuds, which are more expensive and sensitive than other versions.
3. Increase the Volume
Yes, drivers do fail, whether we’re talking about wireless in-ears or wired studio headphones.
This is unusual, and it could just suggest that the headphones have seen as much use as the drivers can handle, similar to an old automobile engine. It’s more likely that the headphones were blasted at excessively high volumes if the drivers suddenly sound damaged—distorting on all sorts of music, even genres lacking deep bass, and at volume levels that shouldn’t create distortion. You can blow out your headphones’ drivers in the same manner you can blow out a speaker.
When using mobile devices as sound sources, this is significantly less usual and widespread, although it is still feasible. Stereo gear or studio equipment outputs can push your headphones to dangerously high levels, causing driver damage. The good news is that you may avoid this by just keeping the volume low. You’ll also avoid harming your ears this way, which is a plus.
Always reduce the level on your mobile device or stereo while turning it off or removing the headphones to avoid accidently blasting your drivers to smithereens. Once you’re plugged back in, adjust the volume, and you might even find yourself listening at lower levels in general, which is a fantastic method to preserve your hearing.
4. Wrapping Wires
Mistreating the cord is the most typical way to ruin wired headphones. The true shame is that the headphones’ drivers are probably fine—all they need is a cord to deliver the sounds. However, cable breakage is often fatal in models with hardwired cords. This isn’t always the case—Sennheiser, for example, makes a lot of headphones with what look to be hardwired wires that can be swapped with a little work, manual consultation, and patience (and, of course, if you or someone you know has soldering skills, then just about every cable can be replaced).
For individuals who lack patience, however, starting with a pair of headphones with a removable (read: unpluggable) wire is a better option. They are usually more expensive, but not always. Many Bluetooth models, in fact, include detachable connections that can be used passively in wired mode. But let’s imagine you don’t want to spend the rest of your life buying replacement cables…
Why do cables fail to begin with? The wiring getting cut at the connection points—either to the earcups/earpieces or at the 3.5mm plug—is a common problem. The cable may appear to be in good condition on the exterior, but internal ligaments have been cut. Managing strain is the key to avoiding breaking. Your cable should never turn a 90-degree angle directly where it is plugged in. Internal wires are struggling to stay connected to the plug, and you’re tugging them away, whether you mean cheval cheval or not. A wire should have no strain when connected in, but should hang loosely with no noticeable pull at either end.
It’s all about loops when it comes to storing the cable. Internally, cables have inherent coils, which they seek to follow by their own nature. A new cable should be reasonably simple to wind into neat, evenly sized loops that conform to the internal wiring’s natural coil. Even if you can’t feel where the cable’s coil naturally wants to go, keeping it in loose, evenly sized loops and fastening it all with a twist-knot or Velcro cable tie can help your cable live its best, longest life (but don’t use the cable’s plug end as its own tie, as this will only add tension).
5. Failure to Use a Case
Another option is to utilize the pouch that was most likely included with your earphones or headphones when you purchased them. Several of these enclosures are semi-hard and circular, and are intended to contain a properly looped cable. Even if you misplaced the case or the manufacturer didn’t include one, finding a small pouch that you don’t have to cram the headphones into will help protect the cabling, pad the earpieces and earcups, and hopefully keep them from being crushed when you drop your bag on the floor after a long day at work.
6. Being excessively pet-friendly
When I first received Willie, I made the mistake of leaving my studio headphones on the floor in my bedroom, which is a mistake everyone makes. Later that evening, Willie proudly presented me with a wireless version of those headphones, sawing the cable in half with his razor-sharp baby kitten teeth. That’s no way to treat decent headphones—it was a gift I deserved.
Keep your headphones and earphones away from your curious dogs, and, for that matter, keep them off the floor in general. That was the only time I ever destroyed a pair of headphones, aside from when my carry-on luggage was smashed. The carry-on occurrence might be chalked up to “poor luck,” but they were in the exterior pocket of a duffel bag, and I could have found them a more cushioned location in my luggage.
7. Disregarding the App
Many headphones these days are app-compatible. The finest apps usually feature options sections where you may modify the controls in addition to adjustable EQ. It’s difficult to overestimate the value of this. Do you, for example, never use your phone’s voice assistant? Instead of summoning Siri, one of the on-ear controllers can be programmed to modify the volume. And if a feature on your headphones consistently annoys you (such automatically playing music the moment you put them on), there’s a high chance you can stop it via the app.
You can usually alter some items via the Bluetooth Settings menu on your phone or computer if you use AirPods, which don’t have an app. Simply press the I button beside your AirPods in the Bluetooth device list on iOS.
8. Not Investing Enough
And now we get to the plain reality that we all know deep down: cheaper products are made with lower-quality materials and with less attention to detail and overall quality. This holds true for wired, wireless, and cordless headphones.
The good news is that, in recent years, affordable headphones have started to sound a lot better—one of the key reasons being that inexpensive drivers can replicate robust (or fairly intense) bass response. Although no one will mistake a $30 pair of headphones for a $300 pair, it is now possible to purchase significantly better-sounding headphones on a budget than it was previously.
However, if I had to wager, I’d wager that the $300 pair will outlast the $30 pair. In fact, I’m willing to bet that many $100 pairs will outlast most $30 pairs. Electronics aren’t built to last forever, but when the materials and components have some value, and they’re produced with more quality control than we’d generally see in a budget product, there’s a good chance those headphones will outlast the competition. There’s also another aspect at work. You’re more likely to take better care of a pair of headphones if you spend more on them, perhaps out of fear of breaking them.
Finally, get what you can afford; just don’t go for the cheapest option unless you’re willing to buy it several times. Invest in good headphones with replaceable cords and take good care of them; you’ll save money in the long term and get better sound.