Solder on: A pictorial how-to guide for fixing your broken headphones

5 Sep 2016

Headphones are wonderful, until they break. But what if there was a way to fix your favourite pair, rather than spending money on a replacement?

Soldering isn’t something you do at the drop of a hat. It can be intimidating, complicated and beyond the realm of many people’s imaginations.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. A conversation with Will Knott, ‘Maker in Chief’ at Tyndall National Institute, coordinator for MakerDojo, and mentor at CoderDojo in Cork, showed us just how simple this fix can be.

Future Human

Rather than leaving you to deal with wiring, soldering and ‘making’ all by yourself, Knott decided to teach the process to one of his volunteer students, Sinéad, and share it with us.

How to solder

How to solder

Advising all to read the ‘Soldering is Easy’ comic to get started, Knott gave us six simple tips to remember when looking to solder:

  • Don’t be afraid. Soldering is easy to fix.
  • Don’t touch the hot end. The handle is insulated for a reason. There is no shame in using pliers to hold the solder.
  • Always solder in a well-ventilated room. You do not want to inhale solder fumes.
  • Always clean the tip before use. And after use too.
  • Heat the items to be soldered as well as the solder. It just sticks better.
  • If in doubt, ask someone to show you.

“That last one is a ‘Makers Mantra’,” said Knott. “You see, you can only be an expert in a few things, so you will always be learning.

“It’s always someone’s first time. Treat them kindly and it won’t be their last!”

The basics:

Knott went through a basic solder of wires – so we could learn some entry-level processes – before fixing some dodgy headphones, making them as good as new.

How to solder

“First, ensure that the bits of wire you want to solder are touching. Obvious, really,” said Knott. “It’s easier to handle a small bit of solder wire, rather than the entire reel of solder,” he said. “So cut a little off the reel for use.”

Heating the wires helps the solder “take” better, and then melting the solder onto the area you want to join is pretty much all you have to do. “And then the wires are soldered,” said Knott, who noted that having an open-window in the room you solder in is handy.

Fixing your headphones:

How to solder: Buy replacement

When your headphones break, it’s most often the plug connection acting up. So, for this, you need a replacement plug. “We picked up ours for €0.51 from in Ballincollig, Cork,” said Knott. This means you shouldn’t be priced out of fixing your headphones yourself.

“The replacement jack here unscrews from the housing,” said Knott, though he said this is not always the case. “As this is a simple stereo jack, there are only three connections: ground, centre and ring.” If you look through the replacement from behind, you should be able to see how each wire is connected.

How to solder broken headphones: Cutting the chord

“With the replacement part in hand, time for the scary bit – chopping off the existing connector,” said Knott. “Now, use a wire strippers to look at what you’re dealing with.” Cutting back a few inches from the original end of the connection should move you clear of the faulty part.

The wires are coated in an enamel to insulate them, and the colour of enamel corresponds to the purpose. Red is right, green or blue-green is left, and the golden or copper-coloured wire is the ground.

How to solder broken headphones: exposed wires

“There are a few ways to remove the enamel, but burning it off is the easiest,” said Knott. “Well ventilated rooms are useful here. And be careful with fire, as always.”

Work the housing for the headphone connection on now before you start soldering, as this isn’t possible afterwards (above).

Thread the needle

“The jack plug has holes for the wires to be attached, so use them and thread each one through,” said Knott.

How to solder broken headphones: Working the wires through

“With the wires secured, we were able to do a quick test of the audio,” said Knott. “It’s working but not secured – solder time.”

How to solder broken headphones: Final soldering

“With her newfound skills, Sinéad simply soldered each wire to the plate (and cut of any excess wire with a scissors),” said Knott.

Sinéad then pushed up and screwed on the housing, and had a working pair of headphones in just 15 minutes.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Updated at 11.55am on 6 September: Edited for clarity.

Main broken headphones image, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic