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.
This page gives guidance on fixing headphones, based on the Guardian article written by Dave Lukes.
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
In some headphones the plug is moulded on. In other words, the lead and the plug are not separate: just one continuous piece of plastic. If the wires inside a moulded-on plug break, you’ll probably have to cut the plug off the lead using your wire cutters or scissors (simply cut off the lead where it meets the plug) buy a new plug of the same type as the old one fix the new plug on to the lead: this will involve stripping the insulation off the lead then soldering the wires on to the plug.
If the plug isn’t moulded on, you should be able to unscrew the back of the plug to get at the wires inside the lead: 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
Usually taking a pair of headphones apart is fairly simple: often the padding just pulls off but you may need a small screwdriver such as a size 0 crosshead to get the tiny screws out. You can get these from most DIY or hardware shops. 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.
Over time, the wires can break somewhere inside the lead. This kind of break 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 wire, then rejoin the broken 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. If it's not clear where the break is you may be able to save time simply by replacing the cable.
A soldering tip
Some headphones use a type of wire which has no visible plastic insulation around it, instead the metal is covered with a very thin layer of coloured varnish which provides the insulation. To solder this, you need to heat the end of the wire with the soldering iron until the coloured insulation is all burned off (avoiding inhaling the fumes) then solder the resulting bare metal wire as before.
- "How to mend broken headphones", The Guardian, 23 May 2014