It can be frustrating when your earbuds’ crisp and clear sound changes for the worse. It can be even harder to figure out what’s wrong with such a small item, especially if you don’t know to take them apart and troubleshoot them.
The good news is that cleaning out muffled earbuds doesn’t have to be an invasive process. You can get that crystal clear sound back with just some household items.
What Causes a Change in Earbud Sound Quality?
Many things could influence the sound quality of your headphones.
Damaged wires, frayed headphone wires, earwax in the speaker, and water damage could all affect how you hear sound through your headphones.
Frayed Headphone Wires
While wired headphones are quickly going out of style, there’s no harm in covering them for those who still have them. The part of your headphones in the rubber hosing is considered one of the weakest structures in headphones. Damaged wires in this hosing may not be visible, but damage to these wires is inevitable as cable pulling and any unnecessary tension can cause severe damage.
Wireless headphones still have wires that can be damaged. The cables are all internal, so it’s harder to damage them, but some sports headphones which feature a wire connecting the earbud to a controller can also be damaged by pulling.
Unfortunately, if the issue is a wire, the only real option is to replace the headset. Those with experience in electrical work might be able to replace the cables themselves, but those without the necessary knowledge would be better served by just buying new headphones.
The speakers inside your headphones have dedicated voice coils, but voice coils are not infallible. Listening to your headphones at loud volumes will gradually wear out and weaken the speakers, known as blowing them out.
Diagnosing blown speakers is easy to do with a multimeter. If you’re worried that your speakers have blown, connect your headphones to your multimeter. Speakers in good condition will read a one compared to the infinity reading given by blown speakers.
Blown speakers are also a “replace it” kind of issue. Unfortunately, you can’t fix a set of speakers once they blow out. You have no choice but to replace them.
Connection issues can occur with both wireless and wired headphones. Wired headphones might have a muffled sound if the connection to the audio source is damaged or loose. Check to see if the plug is loose, either externally or internally. If the headphone plug is loose, see if the issue occurs with a different set of headphones. If the headphone jack is loose, you’ll need to take your phone apart to repair the jack.
Wireless headphones can sound muffled if the audio codec of the source and the headphones is mismatched. Codecs are what we use to compress large amounts of data, in this case, media files. There are different types of Bluetooth codecs, but not every piece of hardware can support all the other codecs.
If the devices don’t support the same codecs, they switch to a lower-level codec that can impact the sound quality. Check to make sure your earbuds and audio device use the same codec. If necessary, some audio devices can be customized to use a different audio codec. However, this is usually remedied by prevention. In the future, you’ll want to ensure that you check that your headphones are compatible with your audio devices.
If your headphones aren’t receiving enough power, they won’t be able to perform their essential functions. Bluetooth headphones may start to sound muffled when their batteries run low, and damage to wired headsets can result in the headset not supplying ample power to its components.
These kinds of issues generally result in someone buying a new headset. Fixing these components can be difficult and run the risk of destroying both the headphones and the audio device. So, we advise that you take them to a professional or get new headphones.
Moisture damage is as devastating to headphones as to most other electronics. Even a tiny amount of water can damage a pair of headphones beyond repair. While water-resistant technology is becoming more and more popular as the default in consumer electronics, you still cannot exceed your device’s IP rating without causing damage to the components.
Moisture damage is usually irreparable, but there’s one thing you can do to try and save them before you give up. Take a cloth damp with 91% isopropyl alcohol and wipe any foreign substances or items away from the headphones. Then, submerge the headphones in an airtight rice or silica gel container. Leave the headphones in the airtight container for at least 12 hours. Remove the headphones from the container and do an audio test.
Unfortunately, if you don’t get a good signal after that, they’re bum.
We don’t often think to clean our headphones, but we should!
It can improve the sound by removing accumulated dirt and earwax from the speaker. Blow the buildup away using compressed air or wipe it with a cotton swab.
If you can see a buildup in the headphone speaker, turn off or unplug the headphones. Then, take a damp Q-tip with 91% isopropyl alcohol and gently wipe the buildup. Let sit for at least five minutes to dry before testing.
You can clean out your audio device headphone jack by taking an interdental brush and dampening it in isopropyl alcohol. Turn the device off and push the brush into the headphone jack. Scrub the inside thoroughly but gently. Allow this to dry for at least an hour before turning the audio device on,
Alternatively, you can take a straightened paper clip or sewing needle. Securely wrap the end of the needle with tape, sticky side out. With the phone off, gently push the needle into the headphone jack to remove any debris or dust.
Why Are Headphones So Hard to Fix (and So Breakable?!)
Headphones are made to expire. They’re the victim of a practice called “planned obsolescence,” “built-in obsolescence,” or “premature obsolescence.”
Planned obsolescence is a policy of designing a product with a limited life of usefulness or intentional frailty that cause it to expire after a pre-determined amount of time. Planned obsolescence is a way to generate long-term sales volume by “shortening the replacement cycle.”
Since headphones are one of the many products intended to expire after a time and be replaced, they’re not made with repairability in mind, even a little bit. Design choices on headphones are rarely made to aid repairability until you go over the $100 price point.
Planned obsolescence doesn’t just include causing intentional “breakage.” It also consists of a planned design intended to go out of style to prompt users to buy new gear to stay with the “in” crowd. This is one of the many less-than-kosher tactics industrial designers use to keep you spending money on their companies. There is no money in repairs; the money is in replacements.
While it’s unfortunate that so many issues people have with their headphones are functional death sentences, there are some diagnostic tools you can use to try and salvage your favorite pair. It’s such a shame when your favorite piece of tech gear goes out, but it happens to the best of us. Whether you’ve salvaged your favorite headphones or started the funeral planning, we hope you’ve found peace with your headphones’ mortality.