Cat dragging earbuds across the floor. - how to repair headphone cable

While testing the Razer Kraken X gaming headset, my cat pawed at my feet. To roughly translate this behavior, it’s a request to drop everything and play. I only needed five more minutes to complete testing and thought my domesticated roommate could wait.

Wrong.

I turned away for a moment only to realize she chewed through the gaming headset’s cable to attract my attention. Rather than delaying the review, my boss walked me through a basic cable repair how-to which I’m now able to share with you.

Why you should learn to repair cables

For one, this is an impressive, yet easy skill to acquire. Anyone whose cables have torn, ripped, or frayed will benefit from learning how to do this.

No matter how careful you are, accidents happen. If your headset doesn’t have a removable cable, you can repair it in less than 30 minutes with just a few tools. What’s more, this doesn’t just apply to frayed cables — bent headphone jacks can also be remedied with the same method. If the headset’s cable hasn’t been chewed through by a pet, you’ll need to lop off the bent jack of your headphones. Then, find a spare pair of earbuds to cut the working, un-bent headphone jack from. The end result will be a Frankensteined masterpiece. Regardless of why you want to learn how to repair your cables, it’s a basic life-long skill that can financially benefit you and others.

What you’ll need

The goal is function over form, so it won’t look pretty… but it’ll work. While you can run out and buy actual tools, we’re going the DIY basics route. If you want to dress the repair up, invest in heat-shrink tubing. This is only necessary if you’re going to travel with the headphones instead of using them at a desk. Otherwise, you can do as I did and wrap the exposed wires in electrical tape. There are just two things you’ll need to Macgyver your headset back to its working state:

  • An army knife, either with a dedicated wire stripper or with a bottle opener opposite the blade
  • A lighter
  • Optional: heat-shrink tubing, which may also be picked up from your local Ace Hardware if you don’t want to wait on two-day shipping

How to repair the cable

There are only a few steps from start to finish. The worst part is how tedious it feels. Before you start, clear the space of flammable objects. While it’s unlikely anything dangerous will happen, let’s not tempt fate. The bathroom is a good controlled environment.

Step 1: Strip the cable

A cable locked into place by an army knife for repair.

Push down the bottle opener against the handle. Then, push the blade against the cable jacket.

Assuming the cable is completely separated, we’re going to strip the outer sheath away. If you’ve never done this before, as I hadn’t, practice on the longer piece. If you mess up, you can always chop off the mistake and try again.

Insert the ~two inches of the cable into the wire stripper or notch of your knife. If it’s an actual wire stripper, this piece may lock into place at a 90-degree angle. If it’s a bottle opener, lower the piece while keeping the cable in place. Continue lowering it until it’s wedged between the knife handle and bottle opener. Now, sink the knife until it’s just cutting through the sheath.

From here, hold the longer side of the cable steady as you rotate the knife in a complete circle. It helps to add a bit of pressure on the handle as you rotate. Make sure you’re not pushing too hard and damaging the internal wiring. If damage does occur, well, that’s why we started on the longer piece of cable.

Be sure to practice on the longer piece of separated cable in case of any mistakes.

Once you’ve rotated the blade around the jacket, pull the knife and excess cable in opposite directions. This will slide the sheath off, revealing three or four wires. In the case of the Razer Kraken X, there are four color-coded wires: red, blue, green, and copper. Set this section of the original cable aside and repeat this for the other part of damaged cable.

If you’re working with a flat or ribbon cable, an X-Acto knife is more effective than an army knife. This is a more delicate process. Make a two-inch lateral incision running down the cable. You can then lift the flaps to reveal the wires. From there, pluck each one out individually either by hand or with tweezers.

Step 2: Remove the wire coating

3.5mm cable with wires stripped and separated prepared for repairment

After stripping each end of the separated cable, the pieces should look like this. Then, individually burn the colored coating from each wire.

Once you’ve pulled each wire from the jacket, you’ll have to get rid of the outer coating. You’ll need to keep some of the coloring at the base of each wire to identify which is which. This way, you’re not guessing and checking when you attach red to red, green to green, and so on.

Burn each wire one at a time. It only takes one or two seconds for the exposed wire to reveal itself beneath the melted coating. If the flame begins traveling down the wire, just blow it out. Push each completed wire off to the side as you move onto the next. Once all the coatings have been burned, clean the ash off. I did this with my finger nail, but a paper towel will do just as well.

Just as with step one, set this piece of the original cable aside and repeat with the other piece.

Step 3: Rejoin the wires

We’re in the home stretch. Now, you have to reattach each wire. If you went the extra mile and picked up some heat shrink tubing, slide it onto each cable piece away from the exposed wires. We’ll use this later.

Heat shrink tubing will better protect the wiring and is less of an eyesore than electrical tape.

Remember when I mentioned you should leave a bit of coloring on each wire? Here’s why. You need to wrap the corresponding wires together. This is the most tedious step. It must be done gently so as not to fray the strands. At the same time, the wrapping should be tight, preventing the wires from coming apart.

While it doesn’t matter what order you go in, working in and moving out will save you a minor headache. In a short-sighted rush, I did the opposite, which made attaching the inner wires a pain.

If you’re not using heat shrinking tube:

Individually wrap each repaired wire with a thin piece of pre-cut electrical tape. Doing so will insulate and protect the wires. From there, wrap all three tape-covered wires in a single piece of electrical tape. Viola. That should hold up for home use.

If you are using heat shrinking tube:

You only need to wrap two of the wires in a thin, pre-cut piece of electrical tape. Then, slide the heat shrinking tubes back down over the covered wires. Hold a lighter below the tube; be careful to avoid touching the flame to the tubing. This will cause the tubing to contract and tighten around the wiring. Congrats, you’re ready to get back to listening.

Why self-repair matters on an individual and global scale

A cat staring at a headphone cable that needs to be repaired.

If your cable failed due to a pet’s impatience, chances are high that it’ll happen again. In that case, you could save yourself a lot of money by learning how to repair cables on your own.

Being a DIY-er is about more than having an overpopulated Pinterest board. It promotes consumer efficacy and benefits the environment. As we know from smartphones and laptops, our beloved gadgets are often made with an expiration date. The hot-button term for this is planned obsolescence. This extends beyond handsets, though, as the cables are often the first component to fail on headphones and earbuds.

Self-repair is a great skill for anyone opposed to shelling out lump sums of cash every time headphone cables break. Not only does it give you a better understanding of how the technology works, it also saves money.

Image of a stacked landfill.

Landfills aren’t the only place our trash ends up.

Additionally, manufacturing headphones doesn’t come cheap. It takes a major toll on the environment and ecosystems to produce them. When they break, many of us, myself included, habitually toss them into the trash. Waste management then transports this from the ends of our driveways to landfills. Oftentimes, this waste is outsourced to an underdeveloped country only to seep corrosive, toxic byproducts into the earth and water.

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By exporting our refuse to countries too poor to refuse it, our trash immediately affects the proximate population’s health. This outsourcing is just a way of brushing the problem under the rug. If rubbish isn’t sitting in standing bodies of water, then it’s burned. This releases dioxins which, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), are highly toxic and may cause developmental issues, cancer, and damage to the immune system when a human is overexposed to them.

It also has a socioeconomic impact on the region. Countries have to figure a way to handle the imported waste. However, in some cases, this dumping is done illegally. After a drawn out dispute, the Phillipines returned 1.5 tonnes of unsanctioned trash, which was falsely categorized as recyclable plastic in 2013 and 2014, to Canada.

Sure, you’re not going to change the world with a single cable repair, but macro change begins on the micro level. Repairing your own cables means you’re not left as a stranded and helpless consumer when something breaks. If we all perform at-home cable repairs, we can expand our knowledge to more expensive, environmentally damaging products like smartphone repair. Ultimately, though, the immediate impact is it saves you a quick buck and relinquishes the need to deal with an automated customer service agent: the real bane of product failure.

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