Why Earphones/Earbuds Stop Working (And 5 Tips To Avoid It)


A well-known and frustrating problem with earphones and earbuds is that they have the propensity to suddenly stop working without giving any outward sign as to why. This is especially annoying when only one earpiece has ceased producing sound, leaving us wondering why earphones stop working and why they stop, seemingly, so abruptly.

Why do earphones/earbuds stop working? Earphones/earbuds typically stop working due to wire strain, faulty wiring from the manufacturer, moisture damage, or damage to the drivers that produce the sound. These occurrences may cause shorts in the electrical flow of audio or complete disconnection between the drivers and the audio source.

Luckily, there are only a few reasons why earphones stop working, and when you understand how they work (and stop working), you’ll be able to recognize the reason for the damage and how to prevent this in the future.

In this article, we’ll discuss the most frequent reasons why earbuds stop working, as well as five simple tips to avoid damaging your earphones.


Typical Reasons Why Earphones Stop Working

Let’s begin by going over the top 4 reasons why earphones stop working. These typical reasons are as follows:

Moisture Damage

Water and moisture damage are common reasons why in-ear earbuds get damaged. It does not take dropping them in your coffee to get your earphones so wet that they stop working. An excess of moisture might also result from wearing your earphones when exercising or walking in the rain.

Exposure to moisture of any kind can damage an earbud’s internal electronic components. Excess moisture within the earpieces can cause shorting in the wires of the earbuds and damage to the signal path.

To prevent this, avoid wearing earbuds directly after taking a shower or washing your hair and remove them when you have to walk through heavy rain. Even if you think your earphones will easily survive a quick sprint to the bus stop in a rain shower, you never know when you might get unlucky and too much moisture enters the earbuds.

As motivating as listening to music while exercising might be, a sweaty workout session can harm your earbuds as well.

To learn more about what to do with moisture damage to earphones, check out my article What To Do If Your Headphones/Earphones Get Wet.

Fortunately, this issue can be transcended by investing in a pair of sweat-proof or waterproof earphones. In the case that you exercise regularly, it might be worth it to invest in water-proof earphones made for exercising. There even are headphones and earbuds that have been developed for swimming.

Beyond marketing terms, look for the IP rating (Ingress Protection) of the headphones. This specification tells us how resistant the earphones will be to dust (the first number) and liquid (the second number).

For example, the Poly/Plantronics BackBeat Fit 2100 (link to check the price on Amazon) has an IP rating of IP57. The 5 means that ingress of dust is not entirely prevented, but it must not enter in sufficient quantity to interfere with the satisfactory operation of the equipment. The 7 tells us the earphones can withstand immersion in water up to 1 meter (3 ft 3 in) depth.

Poly/Plantronics BackBeat Fit 2100

Here is a chart explaining what the second digit (Liquid Ingress Protection) means in IP ratings:

IP Code Second Digit
(Liquid Ingress Protection)
Protection AgainstEffective AgainstDetails
X

No data available.
0No protection.

No protection against liquid ingress.
1Dripping water.Dripping water (vertically falling drops) shall have no harmful effect on the specimen when mounted in an upright position onto a turntable and rotated at 1 RPM.Test duration: 10 minutes.

Water equivalent to 1 mm (0.039 in) rainfall per minute
2Dripping water when tilted at 15°.Vertically dripping water shall have no harmful effect when the enclosure is tilted at an angle of 15° from its normal position. A total of four positions are tested within two axes.Test duration: 2.5 minutes for every direction of tilt (10 minutes total).

Water equivalent to 3 mm (0.12 in) rainfall per minute
3Spraying water.Water falling as a spray at any angle up to 60° from the vertical shall have no harmful effect, utilizing either: a) an oscillating fixture, or b) A spray nozzle with a counterbalanced shield.

Test a) is conducted for 5 minutes, then repeated with the specimen rotated horizontally by 90° for the second 5-minute test. Test b) is conducted (with shield in place) for 5 minutes minimum.
For a spray nozzle:
Test duration: 1 minute per square meter for at least 5 minutes Water volume: 10 litres per minute (0.037 imperial gal/s) Pressure: 50–150 kPa (7.3–21.8 psi).

For an oscillating tube:
Test duration: 10 minutes Water volume: 0.07 litres per minute (0.00026 imperial gal/s) per hole.
4Splashing of water.Water splashing against the enclosure from any direction shall have no harmful effect, utilizing either:

a) an oscillating fixture, or b) A spray nozzle with no shield. Test a) is conducted for 10 minutes. b) is conducted (without shield) for 5 minutes minimum.
Oscillating tube: Test duration: 10 minutes, or spray nozzle (same as IPX3 spray nozzle with the shield removed)
5Water jets.Water projected by a nozzle (6.3 mm (0.25 in)) against enclosure from any direction shall have no harmful effects.Test duration: 1 minute per square meter for at least 3 minutes.

Water volume: 12.5 litres per minute Pressure: 30 kPa (4.4 psi) at a distance of 3 meters (9.8 ft)
6Powerful water jets.Water projected in powerful jets (12.5 mm (0.49 in)) against the enclosure from any direction shall have no harmful effects.Test duration: 1 minute per square meter for at least 3 minutes.

Water volume: 100 liters per minute (0.37 imperial gal/s) Pressure: 100 kPa (15 psi) at distance of 3 meters (9.8 ft).
6KPowerful water jets with increased pressure.Water projected in powerful jets (6.3 mm [0.25 in] nozzle) against the enclosure from any direction, under elevated pressure, shall have no harmful effects. Found in DIN 40050, and not IEC 60529. Test duration: at least 3 minutes.

Water volume: 75 liters per minute (0.27 impgal/s) Pressure: 1,000 kPa (150 psi) at distance of 3 meters (9.8 ft).
7Immersion, up to 1 meter (3 ft 3 in) depth.Ingress of water in harmful quantity shall not be possible when the enclosure is immersed in water under defined conditions of pressure and time (up to 1 meter (3 ft 3 in) of submersion).Test duration: 30 minutes.

Tested with the lowest point of the enclosure 1,000 mm (39 in) below the surface of the water, or the highest point 150 mm (5.9 in) below the surface, whichever is deeper.
8Immersion, 1 meter (3 ft 3 in) or more depth.The equipment is suitable for continuous immersion in water under conditions which shall be specified by the manufacturer. However, with certain types of equipment, it can mean that water can enter but only in such a manner that it produces no harmful effects. The test depth and duration is expected to be greater than the requirements for IPx7, and other environmental effects may be added, such as temperature cycling before immersion.Test duration: Agreement with manufacturer.

Depth specified by the manufacturer, generally up to 3 meters (9.8 ft)
9KPowerful high-temperature water jets.Protected against close-range high pressure, high-temperature spray downs.

Smaller specimens rotate slowly on a turntable, from 4 specific angles. Larger specimens are mounted in the intended position when being used, no turntable required, and are tested freehand for at least 3 minutes at a distance of 0.15–0.2 meters (5.9 in–7.9 in).

The specific requirements for the test nozzle are shown in figures 7, 8, & 9 of IEC (or EN) 60529.

This test is identified as IPx9 in IEC 60529.
Test duration: Fixture: 30 sec. in each of 4 angles (2 min. total), Freehand: 1 min/m2, 3 min. minimum.

Water volume: 14–16 litres per minute (0.051–0.059 imperial gal/s) Pressure: 8–10 MPa (80–100 bar) at a distance of 0.10–0.15 meters (3.9 in–5.9 in) Water temperature: 80 °C (176 °F).

Related articles:
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $50
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $100
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $200
Top 3 Best Earphones For Swimming Under $200
Top 10 Best Headphones/Earphones For Hiking (link to Hikers’ Movement)

Strain To The Cord And Micro-Fractures

The way we handle our earphones on a daily basis can potentially lead to earphone damage, particularly within the cord. Yanking at the cable a bit too hard, having prolonged stress at the plug when it’s connected, or turning it too tightly during storage can result in micro-fractures that may, at first, lead to bad audio quality and then to broken earphones.

Another typical reason why strain to the wire is such a common problem is that many people sleep with their earphones in. There are a lot of people who can only fall asleep when listening to music or a podcast. Unfortunately, when you fall asleep with your earbuds in, the wires will get twisted as you toss and turn in bed at night, which exposes them to a great deal of strain.

For more information on earphones cables, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
How To Store Earphones Tangle-Free/Damage-Free (7 Methods)
An In-Depth Look Into How Headphone Cables Carry Audio

Luckily, there’s a solution to this issue as well: wireless earphones. It makes sense only to use wireless earbuds when you plan to fall asleep while wearing them, which is usually more comfortable, anyway. They’re also easier to store, and the lack of cable improves user comfort during most activities.

Related articles:
How Do Wireless Headphones Work? + Bluetooth & True Wireless
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $50
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $100
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones For Running Under $200
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones/Earbuds Under $100
Top 5 Best Wireless Earphones/Earbuds Under $200
Top 5 Best Earphones For Sleeping Under $250

A Short In The Wiring

There is a lot of wear and tear exerted on the wires of your earphones, especially near the audio jack, the little socket that you insert into the device of your choice to connect it with your headphones.

If the cable is continually bent back and forth, it will cause more than the aforementioned micro-fractures. The wires carrying the audio signals can actually split or even short. When you can still hear your music when holding the earphones’ wire in a specific position, this is a sure sign that you are dealing with a split or short in the wiring.

Via trial and error, by bending, twisting, and straightening the wire carefully, find and hold the position in which your headphones still work. Then apply electrical tape to fix the cord in this position. While this is only a temporary fix because the electrical tape will likely not hold forever, it still solves your problem pretty quickly and, most importantly, inexpensively.

Damage Inside The Earbud

Sometimes, the problem in the wiring is not found along the cord but inside the earpiece.

This is sometimes when only one earpiece is working. Fixing this is a bit more difficult since you have to open the earbud casing. Often, it helps to push the wire upwards a bit, but in case of doubt, it is always better to ask someone who has experience repairing technological devices.

Damage could be caused by faulty wiring during manufacturing, moisture damage, overloading and burning out the earphones’ voice coils, or physical damage to the earphone diaphragms.

To learn more about how earphones work, consider reading my article How Do Speakers & Headphones Work As Transducers?

Issues With The Audio Device & Headphone Jack

Before repairing your earphones yourself, or even buying new ones, make sure that the problem lies in your earbuds and not in the device. Try out the same set of earbuds with different devices, and if they never work, you can be sure that they are broken. Similarly, if you try out several sets of earphones on the same device and none of them work, the chances are good that the problem has to do with the device rather than your headphones.

Sometimes the solution is almost too easy to be true: if you are lucky, the earphone jack of your device is dirty. Dust and lint that accumulate over time can block the connection between the jack and the earphone plugs. Take a look into the jack to see how dirty it is; you might want to use a flashlight for this. If it is full of dust and debris, clean it out.

Sometimes, this is as easy as blowing into the jack. If the dirt inside the jack is too much to be removed by air, you can use a cotton swab. Carefully push it into the audio jack and swirl it around while making sure not to cause any damage. Putting a bit of rubbing alcohol on the swab can help, too, but keep in mind not to use too much.

For more information on headphone jacks, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
How Do Headphone Jacks And Plugs Work? (+ Wiring Diagrams)
Differences Between 2.5mm, 3.5mm & 6.35mm Headphone Jacks
Are AUX (Auxiliary) Connectors & Headphone Jacks The Same?
Are Headphone Jacks The Same As Microphone Jacks?


5 Tips To Avoid Earphone Damage

As promised by the title of this article, let’s consider 5 tips to avoid earphone damage to prolong the lifespan of your in-ears:

Take Care Of The Headphone Cord

A standard length for earphone cables is 1.2 metres, and some are even longer. That’s a considerable length of cable that could be damaged.

Take care of the cord by storing it properly, wrapped safely and in a secure place.

Avoid rolling over or stepping on any lengths of cable that happen to lay on the floor. Keep strain to a minimum when the earphones are connected to an audio device. Organize your workspace in a way that leaves enough space for your earphone cords can lie loosely on your desk, couch, or bed without either dangling to the ground or being stretched tightly.

No matter in which position or at what angle your cord is bent or stretched. Every position that exerts force onto the wire puts it under strain and can lead to damage.

Wrap The Wires Loosely

As you carry your earbuds around with you, it’s important to package them compactly. Therefore, it’s common to curl up the cord very tightly. Some people even put knots in the cord to keep the cable from unfolding and becoming tangled. This isn’t ideal for earphone longevity since tight loops will wear down the internal wires relatively quickly. Instead, only fold the cords in loose coils and never put knots in them.

To learn more about coiling and storing earphones, check out my article How To Store Earphones Tangle-Free/Damage-Free (7 Methods).

Use An Earphone Case

Carelessly tossing earphones into a travel bag isn’t a great idea for their longevity. It’s much better to carry them around in a proper case that keeps them protected and cushions them from external objects and stresses.

Even a carefully coiled pair of earphones can unwind, becoming entangled and even damaged when not stored properly.

When they are not adequately protected, delicate internal parts of your earbuds can loosen. If your earphones did not come with a dedicated case and you cannot buy one at the moment, store them in a dedicated compartment in your bag where you do not store anything else.

True wireless headphones often come with a charging case that doubles are a storage case. This is another reason to opt for wireless earphones over wired earphones if you’re so inclined.

Listen To Music At A Moderate Volume

Beyond the hearing damage that may ensue from listening to loud music, strong audio signals may also damage the earphone drivers. As the earphone drivers convert audio to sound, much of the energy is lost as heat. Stronger audio signals, which translate to louder perceived volume, produce more heat, which could damage the drivers’ voice coils. Once damaged, distortion, crackling and other unwanted auditory effects will occur.

This is similar to how loudspeaker drivers react to overload. For more information on the subject, I’ve assembled the following My New Microphone articles:
Is Playing Music Loud Bad For (Damaging To) Speakers?
Loudspeaker Blow-Out: Why It Happens & How To Avoid/Fix It
Complete Guide To Speaker Power Handling & Wattage Ratings
What Causes Speakers To Pop And Crackle, And How To Fix It

To prevent this, always make sure that your device’s volume is dialled down before you plug in your headphones. If you have to turn up the volume, do so gradually rather than abruptly.

Disconnect Your Earphones Correctly

It is perhaps surprising that most people are not aware that they keep unplugging their earphones in a way that can damage them in the long run. Without giving it much thought, most people disconnect their earbuds from devices by tugging at the cord. Sometimes, it also can happen that you forget that you are wearing earphones, and your earphones are ripped from the jack when you step away from your desktop computer or laptop.

Both of these occurrences put a lot of strain on the wire, especially when you often tug at the cord near connection points, which are the points near the earpieces and the plug. In the end, this will lead to stress fractures in the wire.

What, then, is the correct way to unplug your earphones? The difference is small but significant: to avoid damage to the connection points, disconnect your earphones by pulling the plug instead of the cord.


Conclusion

As you can see, most of the typical reasons why earphones stop working can be avoided by making simple changes to the way you handle them. Even when some of these tips sound like they will cost you time and effort – like taking the time to properly roll cords before storing them – in the long run, you will be rewarded with a longer life expectancy of your earphones.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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