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Why do my headphones keep breaking?

You buy a decent pair of earphones, you expect them to last for several years. But all too often they don't. Here are some tips to make sure you don't get burned if you're someone who's hard on your headphones.

The other day we got an e-mail from Jim, a reader in LA, who wrote:

"My question regards the care and feeding of headphones. From the coconut-halves sets of my youth to the in-ear sets of today, I've never failed to kill a set of 'phones within a few months. Even the two Shure sets I bought in the past year (E2C and SE110) and have tried to treat very carefully, have developed cracks and shorts where they loop over the ear."

Ah, Jim, I share your pain. A few weeks ago, my trusty Shure E4Cs developed some cracks in the plastic cord cover at the point where the cord meets the 'bud. I can't complain too much, because I've had the 'buds for four years, but it still hurts. (I put some electrical tape around the connection and the 'buds still work, but it's not a great look and the tape keeps sliding down the cord and making it sticky).

My boss has your kind of luck. Recently, he walked in and unceremoniously wrapped a set of Skull Candy earphones around the door handle in my office, announcing, "I killed another pair." He seems to destroy headphones as quickly as you do, Jim.

The problem with headphones is that they've become an integral part of many people's lives. While you can protect your iPod or iPhone (or whatever portable-media player you may own) with a case, the same is not true of a pair of headphones. They're left exposed to the elements; they get caught on objects; they get yanked; and then they fail you. Sometimes, the damage isn't visible; you just hear that crackle in one or both ears and you realize you're dealing with the dreaded "short" in either your headphone cord or the headphone jack on your device.

You vow never to buy an expensive pair of 'buds again. But, then, when you buy a cheap pair, you can't deal with the mediocre sound. It's a vicious circle.

So, what's the solution? Well, you can follow some of the care tips my colleague Jasmine France offers. But just as importantly, here are some other steps you can take:

1. Before you buy a set of headphones/earphones, really take a close look at the construction.

Ideally, you want a set that has an elbow-style plug and has a fairly thick cord. Some companies, such as Altec Lansing, are moving to a shoelace-style cord covering that may or may not be more durable, but is at least more tangle resistant.

Companies like Shure do put their headphones through durability tests. "Our cables are thicker than average cables, because they are required to pass exhaustive quality tests," a PR rep told me. Those tests involve "everything from extreme temperature fluctuations to constant winding/rewinding around portable devices." And while Shure says its earphones are designed to deal with low- and high-"operational" temperatures (0 to 135 degrees F), when you walk around in the extreme cold, most cables will harden. They're not supposed to crack, but it can certainly happen.

2. Whenever you buy a set of headphones, keep the sales receipt.

Some headphones have longer warranties (up to two years), but you'll need your proof of purchase to get them replaced. Shure offers a two-year warranty on its earphones, and Etymotic offers up to two years on certain models. However, in most cases, you're looking at one year.

3. If your headphones break within the warranty period, start with the retailer that sold you the headphones to get a replacement.

But if you have a problem, contact the manufacturer directly.

4. If your headphones do break, complain.

Companies tend to keep records of complaints, and if it turns out to be a trend, they'll generally do something about it. Often, people just toss out their damaged earphones and buy a new pair.

5. Don't try to fix your headphones yourself.

Unless you really know what you're doing, there's a good chance you'll make a bad situation worse.

6. While your broken headphones may be out of the warranty period, some companies may offer to replace your model at a discount.

Shure offers replacements at special rates (in some cases, at a third of the list price). Here's a link to its replacement fee information page.

Got any headphone horror stories, tips, or recommendations for well-built headphones/earphones? Feel free to post them to the comments section. And if you have any broken headphones lying around, take a picture and e-mail it to me (see link in bio below) and I'll add it to our graveyard slideshow.

Additional reading: How to get the best sound from in-ear headphones.