Broken headphones are one of the commonest items we see at repair events. Very often the wire is damaged where it enters the jack plug, and sometimes elsewhere. This is not difficult to repair with a little patience.
Headphones can very often be fixed. Frequently, fitting a new plug will do the job. This requires soldering, and while it's not the easiest of soldering jobs, with patience and care it's absolutely doable.
Identifying the problem
If you have a pair of headphones that no longer work, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you know how they stopped working? Were they dropped? This can cause something to come loose in the earpiece.
- Did the cat chew the lead? This may mean you’ve got a break in the wires inside the lead at that point.
- The lead got yanked while it was plugged in? That may have pulled the wires out at the plug.
- Does one side work but not the other? That probably means that the wire connecting to one earpiece is broken or disconnected at either end.
- Are they crackly or very faint? This suggests that a connection somewhere is loose, but not completely broken. If you listen carefully, you should be able to tell which side is affected.
- Is the problem intermittent? That would mean that a connection is only just broken: the wires are touching occasionally.
- Are they completely non-functional? In other words, is there no sound at all, or can you get some sound out of them somehow? If they are completely “dead”, then both sides (left and right) need repairing.
- Can you make it better or worse by moving things around? If so, what and how? If the sound comes and goes when you wiggle the wire near one of the earpieces, there is probably a loose wire in the earpiece.
- Ditto the plug: sometimes pushing the lead gently back into the plug can cause the sound to magically reappear. If so then there is a loose lead in the plug which needs to be reconnected.
The most common problems involve one or more of the wires inside the lead becoming disconnected either in the plug, in the headphones or in the lead itself, as described in the next section.
Fixing the problem
Very many headphones have a moulded-on plug. In other words it's not possible to disassemble the plug and the only way to get at the connections inside would be to cut it open. If the wires inside a moulded-on plug break (or more likely, break where they go into the plug), you’ll probably have to cut off the plug using your wire cutters or scissors (simply cut off the lead a little short if where it meets the plug), buy a new plug of the same type as the old one and fix the new plug on to the lead: this will involve stripping the insulation from the lead then soldering the wires to the plug.
If the plug isn’t moulded on, you should be able to unscrew the cover to get at the wires inside: in this case, if one or more of the wires has become disconnected inside the plug then they will need to be soldered back on.
Disassembling the headphones
In the case of over-the-ear type headphones, taking them apart is usually fairly simple: often the padding just pulls off but you may need a small screwdriver such as a size 0 crosshead to remove the tiny screws. You can get suitable screwdrivers from most DIY or hardware shops. The screws may be hidden under glued-on paper or felt, in which case you can often locate them by running a fingernail over the surface to locate a slight depression which contains the screw head. You can peel off the covering or piece it with the screwdriver. Once you’ve disassembled the headphone part, you will be able to see the tiny wires going from the lead to the headphones. If you can see that one or more of these has become disconnected, then that’s your problem: you need to reattach it.
In-ear and ear canal headphones, being much smaller, are likely to be considerably harder to disassemble or repair and are normally glued together.
Over time, the wires can break somewhere inside the lead, or the insulation between individual wires can fail as they rub against each other. This kind of problem is more difficult to track down, but sometimes you can see the damage or feel a kink or break in the lead. In this case, you need to carefully cut open the lead insulation where the break has happened, find the broken or worn wire, then rejoin the wire ends by soldering.
Soldering uses a special molten metal alloy (“solder”) which is melted by a soldering iron to stick wires to connections or to join two pieces of wire together if they’re broken. You may need to carefully strip the insulation off the ends of the wires using wire cutters or scissors to reveal bare metal before soldering. (If you don’t have a soldering iron, you could try asking at an electronics repair shop, or better still, attend your local repair café if you know of one, or even a Restart party.) Once you’ve rejoined the broken wires you can wrap some insulating tape round the join, then finish off by wrapping some more insulating tape round the lead to neaten up the repair and avoid further damage.
Replacement cables are available for a few popular brands of headphone, and which can be adapted to many others. Alternatively, you might have a very cheap pair of in-ear headphones which you can sacrifice in order to reuse the cable. If it's not clear where the break is you may be able to save time simply by replacing the cable.
A soldering tip
Headphones generally use a type of wire comprising a number of strands of very fine wire with no visible insulation but just a coating of coloured insulating enamel. This enamel should melt if you apply a hot soldering iron or the flame from a lighter, allowing you to solder the exposed copper wires. Gently rubbing the wires with fine emery can help if the enamel resists your efforts.
- "How to mend broken headphones", The Guardian, 23 May 2014