JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING is broken doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed—especially if that something is a nice pair of headphones you’ve invested in. Headphones break relatively easily because we use them so frequently and treat them harshly. They’re subjected to rain, sun, airplane seat-backs, and the bottom of your backpack.
So don’t ditch your favorite pair just because they break. See if you can fix them first.
The most common problem with headphones is with the plug. That’s the part that goes into your phone, computer, or sound system. It’s also the part that’s tugged the hardest and where a lot of connections are made, so think of it as an Achilles heel of sorts—the plug is the weakest link.
Ever had an issue where you hear sound only in one ear, and then you twist the plug and can only hear it in the other ear? Sometimes you might have sound in both ears, but no bass with a tin-like sound. These problems indicate that you might need to repair the plug.
So the first step is determining if your headphone plug is the problem. Try a different set of headphones in the same audio jack. If you still hear a problem, then the issue is likely with the jack on your device and not your headphones. But if you don’t hear the problem anymore, process of elimination tell us that the headphones are the likely culprit.
Note: We only recommend trying this if you have toyed with these tools before. Otherwise, maybe ask a friend with a little experience to look over your shoulder. There’s also no guarantee that fixing your plug will fix your headphone woes. Still, it could be fun to try, and it’s more proactive than tossing them.
- A ⅛ inch (3.5mm) stereo plug
- A soldering iron
- A small damp sponge or cloth
- A pair of snips or scissors
- A pair of “helping hands” (optional)
Step 1: Cut the cable and prepare the wires
You might cringe a bit, especially if your headphones are fancy, but it’s really not that big of a deal. Cut the cable about an inch from the connection to the plug. That way you’ll be sure to catch where there might be a problem. Then use something sharp to carefully remove an inch or so of the outer jacket of the wire.
Once you’ve removed the outer jacket, you’ll likely see three internal wires; one for the right ear, one for the left ear, and a ground. You may see two ground wires. If this is the case, we will join the two ground wires while we are soldering them later on. The wires might be wrapped around each other. Just make sure at this point to separate everything by color.
Step 2: Tin the wires
Now turn on your soldering iron. Once it’s fully hot, take a piece of solder and (assuming you know how to use a soldering iron or you’re with someone who does), apply solder to the ends of the wires. This is a process called “tinning” the wires. The damp sponge is for cleaning off solder that builds up periodically on the tip of the iron.
Most headphone cords use enamel coated wires instead of wires with rubber insulation. This means you will have to burn the enamel off the end of the wire with hot solder in order to get solder to stick to the copper inside. The “helping hands” clips may be useful for holding the wires as you apply the iron and solder to the ends with both hands.
If the wires are covered with rubber insulation, use something sharp to carefully strip off a quarter inch or less of the insulation. Be prepared to lose a couple of inches in the process while trying to remove the insulation from your wires without cutting anything important. Even experienced tinkerers have to try a few times to get a clean cut.
Note: Solder is applied to the ends of the wires whether they are coated in enamel or covered with rubber insulation. It just takes a drop of solder to tin the ends of the raw wires. If you have two ground wires, simply twist them together before tinning them together at the end too.
Step 3: Solder the wires to the plug
Unscrew the casing from the plug and slip the casing on the wire. Just let it hang there. Make sure the casing faces the right way for when you’re done and ready to screw the plug back together.
Use your “helping hands” clips for this because you will need both hands. Put the end of the input plug in one of the clips so it’s easier to work.
You’ll see two contacts that are shorter, and a longer one for the ground. If your wires are enamel coated, the left signal wire is likely green and and right signal wire is likely red. The ground wire will probably be copper-colored. If your wires are insulated with rubber, then your left signal wire is likely white and your right signal wire will be red, and ground will either be black or bare metal. And if there are two ground wires, they will both go to the same place. That’s why you twisted them before you tinned them with solder in the previous step.
Slip the tinned ends of the wires into the holes on the contacts of the plug and solder them in place. If the wires don’t fit through the little holes, you will have to hold them in position while the solder cools, which only takes about 10 seconds.
There is a chance you’ll mix up the right and left wires. If that’s the case, it’s really no big deal to switch them around.
Step 4: Test it
Once the solder is cooled and you’ve connected all three contacts, screw the casing onto the jack and test them out. Simply plug them into your audio source and try to listen to something. If they don’t work, you likely just mixed up the right and left signal wires.
Sometimes the casing can fit a bit tight and push the wires together. None of the wires should touch each other or a contact that it’s not soldered to. (One tip: Put bits of paper between the connections to keep them separated.)
To desolder, touch the iron to the connection, and it should come apart easily. Resolder the signal wires correctly and try again.
That’s a wrap! You fixed your headphones, just like a real audiophile would. Now you can go back to blasting your favorite Bowie album. R.I.P.