How to repair earbud headphones: a step-by-step guide
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by Chris Woodford. Last updated: January 19, 2022.
Earbuds don't last long—in fact, hardly any of the headphones I've ever bought have survived more than a couple of years. Why? Because the cables almost invariably weaken and break through constant movement. Some headphone manufacturers use more durable cables and reinforce the places where the cables join the jack plug and the phones themselves but, even with reinforcement, cables can still break sooner or later. When this happens, most people furiously throw their headphones in the trash and reluctantly buy another pair. But if you can use a soldering iron, it's actually quite easy to repair them. Step-by-step, here's how...
Photo: An inexpensive pair of earbuds will usually fail sooner or later, either where the cable meets the phones or where it joins onto the jack plug.
You'll need to use a knife or scissors, a burning match, and a hot soldering iron. Please take appropriate safety precautions with these hot, sharp, dangerous things, solder only in a well-ventilated room, and so on. If you're a young person, ask an adult to help.
If your headphones are broken, you may not worry too much about taking a risk trying to repair them. But be warned: it is possible (though unlikely) that you will damage delicate components in your headphones if you don't solder carefully. Use a heat sink or apply the soldering iron for short periods of time to reduce the chances of heat damage. It's also possible that if you don't repair your headphones correctly, you could damage any audio equipment you connect them to.
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You will need the following, so have them ready:
Photo: 1) A replacement jack plug like this is a fraction the cost of a new pair of headphones. 2) Unscrew the case and you'll see three terminals to which you'll reattach your cable. There are small holes in the terminals through which you push the wires before you solder them in place. In theory, you can reuse a plug like this over and over again just by removing old cables from it. In practice, it can be tricky to get all the old solder off and the terminals snap off if you bend them too many times—so I'd strongly suggest you buy a new plug instead.
Photo: The wires inside a stereo cable. Strip the cable back so you have about 2.5cm (1 inch) of wire. Join the two copper ground wires together so you have three wires instead of four.
Photo: If you don't have a vise, you can impro-vise! I tend to use one or more large bulldog clips to clamp what I'm soldering securely to an old worktop. The key things here are: 1) The item you're soldering needs to be clamped firmly so it doesn't move when you touch it; 2) You need to make sure you have enough clearance around the item to get your soldering iron in from below or the side. That's why I've used three clips here instead of just one; 3) You mustn't touch the metal clip holding the item you're soldering, because it too will absorb enough heat to burn you; 4) Solder may well drip down, and metal clips mark things, so don't do this on your best dining table.
If you happen to have two broken pairs of earbuds, you can often join them together to make a single working pair—and it's a lot easier to do this than to add a new jack plug. Suppose one pair has a broken jack and the other has broken earbuds. Simply cut the wires of both pairs in half (or wherever you like) and join the working earbud section from one pair to the working jack section from the other pair.
Photo: Prepare and tin the wires before you twist them together, then solder.
You'll need to cut, strip, and prepare the wires as I've described above, and you'll also need to match the wires from one pair of earbuds correctly to those in the other pair (which can be tricky if they're different colors) before you solder. You'll also need to cover the soldered joints with heat shrinks or insulation tape to stop the bare wires from touching and shorting. As an alternative repair (along very much the same lines), buy yourself a headphone extension cable and solder that to your broken earbuds instead.
Photo: Solder isn't glue. Before you solder two pairs of broken headphones together, make sure you clean the bare wires and twist them tightly together to make a firm mechanical joint (one that doesn't easily pull apart). When you solder a joint like this, heat it from below and apply the solder from above so it flows into the joint like water soaking down into a sponge. After you've applied some insulation, you can reinforce the joint further if you want to: wrap some sturdy wire around it (such as a bent paperclip) then add more insulation on top.
The joints you create are likely to be quite vulnerable as you tug on the cable, and your repair may not last that long unless you reinforce the joint really well.
This is much trickier than replacing just a jack plug, but it's essentially the same operation. Even if only one headphone or earbud is broken, you should really cut the cable off both headphones or earphones, shorten it by however much you need, and then repair both phones. If you don't do this, you'll have one of the stereo wires slightly shorter and carrying slightly more current than the other and that can damage both your headphones and whatever they're connected to. Exactly how you take the headphones or earbuds apart varies from brand to brand. Take a look at our main article on headphones for some reference photos that may help.
Three- and four- wire headphone cables are by far the most common, but you might open yours up and find even more wires inside; headphones with five or six cables are not unknown. If your headphones have more than three or four wires, there are usually two explanations:
If you have a pair of ordinary headphones or earbuds and a five- or six-wire cable, the most obvious explanation is that some of the wires are not being used: for some reason, the manufacturers have used a multi-wire cable but only connected up three or four of the wires. In this case, you'll need to use a multimeter (or trial-and-error) to find out which of the wires you need to connect. With luck, you might be able to open up the earbuds or headphones at the listening end to find out which wires are connected where and carrying the sound signals; you can then figure out what you need to do at the jack-plug end. If you can't do that, because your headphones are molded or impossible to open, your options are more limited. The job is made harder by the fact that different manufacturers use different (and entirely arbitrary) color-coding for their wires—so I can't, unfortunately, give any general advice. The best tip is to type "6 wire headphone cable" followed by the name of your headphones or earbuds into a search engine and hope someone has posted details on a forum.
Another situation where you might find more than three or four wires is if you're using a more complex headset with a built in microphone or something like noise-canceling headphones. Unfortunately, this is another case where you'll have to rely on a multimeter and/or trial and error.
Thanks so much to all the people who've sent feedback and suggestions to help me improve these instructions. I hope they work for you too!
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