Make your headphones last forever

Today, I want to talk about headphones and cables. It’s nerdy, but useful.

Just about every audio system has some wires coming out of it. Whether you bought cheap cables or expensive ones, these are often the most neglected part of any set up.

As a general rule, it’s a good idea to try to keep the power cables away from the audio cables1. Mostly, though, once you’ve set up your stereo system, you’re not going to look at all these wires. They’ll hang out around the back, getting dusty, and doing their jobs.

Meanwhile, the poor wires on your headphones will be earning their living the hard way. Now, I’m rather fond of headphones. I use them a lot. I regularly use three pairs: a big set for the office, a folding big pair for traveling, and little ones for public transport.

These are all well-constructed and reliable, but the reason they’ve survived many years of extremely heavy use is because I take good care of the wires. In fact, after destroying many pairs of headphones in the past, this has become a little bit of an obsession for me.

The big pair and little pair both have long, straight cables. These easily get tangled up. Whether it’s a pair of headphones, a hair dryer or a computer power supply, the natural thing to do when we want to put it away is wrap the wire around it.

The trouble with this is it twists the cable, and twisted cables tangle really easily. Twisting also weakens the electrical conductors on the inside, and in time causes the thing to stop working.

If you coil the wire in a figure-8 instead, the twists cancel each other out, and the whole thing unrolls every time without any tangles. The way I see it, this will easily double the life of your headphones, which makes it okay to spend twice as much on them. I use a velcro cable tie to keep them in place, and I never have to untangle anything.

Figure-8

This figure-8 thing really is great. It works on just about any appliance.

For longer cables and extension leads, try folding instead of coiling. This also avoids introducing any twists, and it’s much easy to get them undone. Fold them in half, fold them in half again, do it a third time if you need to, and then tie the whole thing in a big loose knot. It won’t be twisted when you undo it.

My folding headphones have a coiled wire like a telephone handset3. This is nice and tidy when you’re using them, but a total liability the rest of the time, because coiled wires get so easily tangled when, for no apparent reason, a few of the coils decide they want to twist the other way now. The phone on my desk does this all the time.

You can fix this, both on your headphones and your telephone, in four steps:

1) Uplug the cable. Hold it up by one end to make sure it isn’t twisted.

2) Gently work any backwards-loops to the end of the wire. They’ll mostly disappear, but the places they used to be won’t quite look right.

3) Being careful to keep the ends of the wire dry, put the twisted sections into a cup of near-boiling water. This will soften the rubber coating, and let the coils return to their natural shape. Dry it and let it cool down before you plug it in.

4) Don’t try to wind up this cable. It’s already coiled. Instead, just drop the whole lot into a drawstring bag when you’ve finished with them, and they’ll reward you with years of service. Obviously this part won’t work for your phone.

If you have any other great cable-management tips to share, please use the comments. Have a great weekend!

1This is because any wire carrying a current creates a magnetic field around it. Any cable carrying AC creates a constantly changing magnetic field around it, and this will cause a current to flow in any wires passing through that magnetic field. This is called induction. When you turn this into sound, it becomes a 50 or 60Hz buzz or hum.

The hum is pretty quiet, so unless they run past a power station, you don’t need to worry too much about your speaker cables. Mains hum is mostly a problem on cables carrying very quiet signals – particularly those from turntables – into the amplifier.2 The problem can be exacerbated if either of the wires is coiled up, since this multiplies the effect of the magnetic field. You can avoid this by coiling any excess wire into a figure-8.

2 Most studio gear avoids this problem by using balanced cables, where the signal and its inverse are both sent along adjacent wires. At the other end, the sound is read as the difference between the two signals, which cancels out any current induced along the way. This is particularly important for microphone cables, which carry very quiet signals over very long distances before they’re amplified.

3 For anybody under the age of 18, a telephone handset is like a mobile phone, but it is fixed to the wall with a long twisty wire.

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