It’s time for some tough love. The answer to that question, 99% of the time (and as you probably already know), is a resounding: You. The headphones don’t break. You break the headphones. It’s OK—you obviously don’t mean to! Life is busy and overwhelming and who has time to lovingly coddle some earbuds that need to be stuffed into your bag or pocket ASAP as you scrambe to catch the train? Luckily, there are a number of ways to avoid the early demise of your headphones and get far more than a year’s worth of life out of them.
You rarely spend a lot of money on headphones or earphones because they always break and you have to buy new ones every year or so. Variations on this theme are frequently presented to me, often as an excuse for not purchasing a good pair of headphones, and sometimes accompanied by the question: Why do my headphones always break?
For these models, you have a couple methods worth trying. Most silicone eartips can be easily removed, and when not attached to the earpiece, can be run under water without issue. But you’ll have to thoroughly dry them before reconnecting them to the earpiece—use a dry microfiber cloth or something else soft and free of lint.
Now, some true wireless pairs are fully waterproof or highly water resistant, and can be quickly rinsed off under the faucet, problem solved. But anything with a rating of IPX5 or lower (we’ll discuss this in the next section) is a gamble to clean that way—and that includes many of the big names in the true wireless realm, like all of the AirPods, and top models from Bose, Jabra, and Sony.
There are also earwax cleaning tools. You need to be careful with them, as they are mostly made by third-party manufacturers and aren’t typically designed to work with any specific model of earphones. But they’re simple, affordable tools that can make a world of difference.
IP stands for Ingress Protection, and after the letters IP there should be two digits. The first digit refers to protection from solids, like dust. 0 means no protection, 6 means total protection, and X typically means that, while the manufacturer didn’t necessarily test for protection against solids, the assumption is that the product has some level of protection. In other words, X in an IP rating means something like “better than 0, but beyond that, we’re not sure so don’t sue us.”
The second digit in an IP rating refers to protection against liquids. 0 is, again, nothing, and 8 is excellent—that means the product can be submerged up to 1 meter (perhaps beyond) and withstand some fairly high-pressure water from, say, a faucet or a torrential downpour, and not suffer damage. So, IPX8 means you can assume the protection against solids is better than zero, and the protection against liquids is top-notch. IP68 means the product is as protected from ingress of the solid and liquid varieties as can be. Manufacturers sometimes say their products are water-resistant without listing an IP rating, and then when pressed for an IP rating, often produce an underwhelming rating of, say, IPX4. IPX4 essentially means that low-pressure water won’t harm the headphones—but we’re talking about light rain, sweat, or mist from a spray bottle. Rinsing the headphones under a faucet could certainly do some damage. And dunking them in the pool can, too.
So if you’re using your headphones for exercise at the gym, in the rain, near the pool, and rinsing them off after, they need an IP rating like IPX7 or IPX8. If your “waterproof” earphones are regularly dying after a few visits to the gym, it’s possible that in reality they’re only rocking an IPX4 rating. If you don’t know your product’s IP rating and it’s not in the manual or online, you can always try asking the manufacturer directly or posting a question on the product’s webpage. The manufacturer knows the rating—and if it’s IPX7 or IPX8, it’s probably already listed because they know it’s a selling point.
Now, keep in mind that when it comes to true wireless earphones, the IP rating applies only to the earpieces themselves. If you put damp earpieces into a charging case, there’s a good chance there will be problems in the near future. If you put clearly wet earpieces into a charging case, I give your earphones a day or two before one or both starts to fail. Earpiece failure can sound like distorted audio, or it can take the more likely form of the earpiece simply dying. So take extra care with true wireless earphones, which tend to be more expensive and delicate than other models.