What gives?

Sept. 1, 2001
Somewhere, beyond the mythical ruins of Atlantis, rising out of the mist, is a mountain of broken and discarded portable stereo headphones

Somewhere, beyond the mythical ruins of Atlantis, rising out of the mist, is a mountain of broken and discarded portable stereo headphones. I know it exists because I’ve been a major contributor over the years. I’ve tried them all, too — Aiwa, GE, GPX, Koss, Lennox, Phillips, Radio Shack, RCA, and Sony — and I’ve yet to find a brand that lasts.

The first thing to go on most headphones are the plastic spring clips on the extension slides, and with them, the ability to adjust the headset. Fortunately, if the mating pieces are still intact, you can often tape or epoxy them back together — and wait for the next thing to fail.

Statistically, the next thing to fall apart is the foam around the earpieces. I keep a collection of spare foam covers for this reason. If you’ve ever worn headphones without the cushions, you know where I’m coming from. Nothing is more irritating against the ear than those sharp-edged plastic grills that enclose the tiny speakers.

The most serious design flaw by far, however, is the wiring. The slender copper strands that pipe music from the plug to the speakers simply can’t take the flexing and strain of daily use. Of course, the sound doesn’t stop all at once, that being the end of it. No, as the wires pull apart, your favorite songs come and go for seconds at a time, multiplying the frustration and agony with each intermittent cycle. What’s worse is if you discover that you can temporarily re-make the connection by bending and twisting the wires. Don’t bother; it’s an endgame guaranteed to destroy what’s left of the conductors.

Really, the only solution is to cut the cable then solder it. But if the hair-like leads are coax, you can forget about that too. Then all you can do is buy a new pair of headphones, which is what I think the consumer electronics companies had in mind all along.

Headphones aren’t the only household products accumulating in landfills these days. Battery compartment covers, especially for remote controllers, are piling up as well. My experience is that either the hinge tails snap off or the latch breaks, then the cover disappears altogether. Once that happens, you can expect to go through three or four sets of batteries a month.

If you’re lucky enough to find the battery cover, say in your vacuum cleaner bag, you may be able to fasten it back in place with tape or a rubber band. I say “may” because, in many families, there’s often someone who enjoys the challenge of taking things apart. I have a son like that who, for months, kept opening the TV remote and dumping the batteries out. Finally, I upgraded from tape to a hose clamp, ending his game for good.

I’m beginning to think the people responsible for headphones and battery compartment lids also designed the drawer knobs I have throughout my house. They are constantly working loose, and if you try to snug them, you’ll strip the threads. Your choices therefore are to let the knobs spin (as the decorative face plates dig circular patterns into the wood), or you can ruin the threads and have no knobs at all. We have one drawer at home, minus knobs, we haven’t opened for years.

I shouldn’t complain, though, because having to deal with broken junk has taught me quite a bit, like how to repair stripped threads. Try this sometime. First, get some braided picture-frame wire and cut off a length that extends just beyond the threaded hole. Before you drop it in, however, separate the braid. The kinky wire sections will distribute themselves uniformly around the screw, producing a snug fit. I got the idea, believe it or not, from twist caps used to splice 110-V wiring.

Something else I’m thankful for, despite the personal inconvenience, is that the design flaws are isolated to a few relatively benign products. If all of a sudden, drawer handles, headphones, and plastic battery covers started working properly, I’d have to wonder where the bumbling designers went who couldn’t get it right. Hopefully to the “cheap swimming goggles” corporation, and not an aircraft company, medical equipment supplier, or food processing plant.

To be fair, nothing lasts forever. Cars, aircraft, manufacturing equipment, and yes, even consumer grade products can go only so far and cycle so many times without intervention. Eventually, something has to give. All the guarantees and extended service contracts in the world can’t change that. But you can. And I suggest you start over on page 47 with this month’s Design by Objective article covering lifetime and reliability.

– Larry Berardinis
[email protected]

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