Unnecessary backstory that you can skip
I’m not an audiophile. Most times, I can barely tell the difference between headphone sound quality unless it's a side by side comparison. Most of those expensive headphones are wasted on me and I’m pretty sure I will be perfectly content with a $50 dollar pair (I do indeed own a cheap one for my piano and I have no qualms about it). Many years ago, my cousin was convinced that I was only using my cheap headphones because I had never heard the glory of a good pair of headphones before. He ended up buying me a decently expensive headset (it was about $300 if I remember correctly) to convince me that I needed a good pair of headphones. It did not work, and I still maintain that I am happy with the audio quality of a pair of $50 headphones. But there was one thing I really loved about the more expensive set; it was how comfortable it was. I could easily wear these for hours on end without feeling any fatigue.
If I were to be a headphone reviewer, most of my reviews would probably look like this:
Headphones are comfortable, it has stereo sound, and it works with my phone.
Many years of use eventually took its toll and my headphones started losing connection more and more often. It came to a point where it simply refused to work if I so much as breathed on it. I had just about resigned to throwing it away and getting a new one, when I realised that the tip of the 3.5mm jack was slightly bent.
It was not very noticeable but apparently that was enough to cause it to almost completely stop working. At that time, I had no idea if this was indeed the reason it wasn’t working, but a replacement head was not that expensive, so I figured I didn't have that much to lose by buying one.
Before this year, I would have resigned myself to buying a new pair of headphones. But after doing my Kickstarter, I felt a lot more equipped to be handling a simple repair and soldering job like this. It wasn’t so much the technical skill but the confidence that I wouldn’t be able to screw up as badly. Or at the very least, that I would have the ability to unscrew my screwups.
Now that I had the replacement jack, I needed to bite the bullet and cut the wire. Overcoming that mental barrier was the most difficult part of this entire procedure.
Side note: you can get one of these replacement heads for a dollar from Aliexpress or a similar site. Based on my experience, especially during this covid period, it would take more than a month to arrive and Amazon had it going at $10 for 2 pieces. I ended up succumbing to the consumerism thing and bought it on Amazon so I could get it in a week.
Side side note: If you have a pair of headphones using one of those USB C or Lightning jacks, I think it might be possible to convert it to a 3.5mm jack. No guarantees that it’ll work, but I’m sure you can google it. Though I’m not sure why you would do that since every new phone and device these days seem to have a vendetta against the 3.5mm jack.
Replacing a Broken 3.5mm Jack
Note: This guide will only work for those headphones with the standard 3.5mm jack. If you are unfortunate enough to have one of those who need to repair a pair of Lightning, USB C or Bluetooth headphones, you should probably just throw away your headphones and buy a new set. I'm not even sure how you managed to get to this page actually.
First of all, you have to strip the wire. A standard pair of headphones will have three wires inside. The main wire, left, right, and ground. Some headphones have 2 ground wires. The one I was using only had one ground.
Typically, the wires are typically colour coded as follows:
- Green / Blue = Left
- Red = Right
- Brown / Yellow = Ground
It’s always a good idea to test the wires using a multimeter to make sure you have the right colours. If you don’t have a multimeter or are too lazy to do so I’ll provide an alternative method to test it later on.
You might notice that the wires seemingly have no insulation from each other. The wires I’m used to seeing typically have another PVC or rubber insulation layer that I would have to strip. Headphone wires are too thin for these, so the coloured coating is itself the insulation. We would have to remove this coating if we want to solder it onto the new jack. Removing the coating was as simple as burning it off with a lighter.
Now that the wire is properly exposed, we will need to attach it to the replacement headphone jack.
Unscrew the headphone jack to expose the contact points inside.
This is very important, you will have to thread the wire through the casing and the plastic sleeve first. Once we solder the wire to the jack, there will be no way to get the sleeve and the casing onto the wire.
The next step would be to connect the wires to the contact points on the headphone jack. The longer pin is the right side. Thread the exposed bits of the wire through each of the pins. If at this point you still are not sure which wire is which, that’s fine.
Go to youtube and look for a stereo tester video. Plug the wire into your computer and play it. Ensure the wires are connected to the correct pins and aren’t touching each other. I just held my wires carefully while I was testing it. If there are no sounds or if the sound is coming from the wrong ear, swap the wires around. There aren’t that many combinations to try. The alternative is to get a multimeter and test which wires are which from the original jack, but that’s too much effort isn’t it?
Once you have confirmed that the wires are connected to the right pins, pull and tighten the exposed part of the wires. You want to make sure that the wires are not touching any other part, and that it is not loose enough to be able to accidentally touch the other of the pins if the wires are jostled around.
The next step is soldering it, applying a generous amount of solder to the wire. Then we test it once more to make sure everything is fine.
In theory we’re done and should be able to screw the case back on and call it a day, but now we have a problem. The weakest link is now the point where the wire is soldered to the jack. All you need is a few rough pulls and the wire would likely break again.
To solve this, all we have to do is to crimp the jack onto the rubber part of the wire. You will notice that the jack will typically come with a ring of metal that is typically the ground connection. The ring part isn’t just there for show, but it’s to allow you to crimp it to the wire itself.
Grab a pair of pliers and press that metal part as tightly around the wire as possible. This would mean that in the future, if you ever pull on the wire, you’ll be pulling on this metal brace instead of the delicate solder joints. (Though you should make it a habit not to be pulling the headphone jacks out by the wire in the first place.)
Finally, we can screw the case back onto the jack, and we’re done! Now all that’s left to do is to plug it in and test it one last time.
And we’re done. I just saved myself a couple of hundred bucks by not buying a new pair of headphones.