Keep your headphones working longer and improve the way they sound with these simple tricks.
By Tim Gideon
Just bought a pair of headphones you love and want to keep them looking and sounding as good as new? Or perhaps you own a pair that could use a boost in the bass or treble departments. Maybe you have excellent earphones, but aren’t taking the proper steps to clean them. Whatever the case, these basic tips will help you get the most out of your headphones, ensuring they sound their best and remain in tiptop shape for years to come.
1. Be Careful With Your Cable
Perhaps the most important rule of headphone maintenance is: Mind the cable. Or rather, wind the cable. Looping the cable around a few fingers so that it follows its natural coil (and then storing it this way) will help avoid internal cable damage.
For earphones, keeping the cable wound is as simple as using the storage pouch that comes with most pairs — they’re usually designed to hold a cable that’s been coiled. For large headphones, it can be a little trickier. When the cable is detachable — a huge plus— removing the cable and winding it up and then securing it with a twist tie or velcro wrap will go a long way toward prolonging its life. When you can’t remove the cable, winding it and tying it is still recommended, but leave some slack near the earcups, which will allow for better in-case storage and also help prevent tension at connection points.
Eventually, most cables will wither —so replaceable cables can extend the life of your purchase. But when you take care of the cable and resist the temptation to simply wad it up, it’ll likely function without fail for several years, and you’ll spend far fewer cumulative hours of your life detangling cords.
Note that this advice also applies to wireless and exercise-friendly headphones, though there’s a lot less cord to worry about. To avoid cord complications completely, consider a pair of wireless headphones.
2. Keep Them Clean
For headphones, whether they’re supra-aural (on-ear) or circumaural (over-the-ear), earwax buildup shouldn’t be an issue. But if the earpads get sweaty from exercise or just regular use, you might be able to rinse them off. But first it’s very important to make sure you know the IP rating. They should have a rating of at least IP5, or ideally closer to IP7 — information you can probably find on the manufacturer’s product page. Some headphones have removable and replaceable earpads that can be bought as accessories from the manufacturer — plenty of Sennheiser models offer this option, for instance.
Earphones are trickier. Particularly with in-canal models, you’ll want to clean them regularly due to the possibility of earwax buildup (gross, I know). Earwax can block treble, alter the stereo image, and look mighty unappealing. Unfortunately, only a handful of in-ear pairs ship with earwax cleaning tools. The good news is you can purchase tools online for less than $10. (To be clear, we’re talking about a tiny tool that scrapes earwax out of the inside of your earphones’ silicone eartips and off of the driver nozzles — these are not for cleaning earwax out of your actual ears!) Shure’s support site has a helpful guide and video on how to use these cleaning tools, especially with the company’s own earphones.
3. Use Apps for Better Sound
It’s very easy to quickly and radically alter the sound signature of your headphones with an app—and this is rarely a great idea. When you don’t care for the way they sound out of the box, using an app to tweak things is unlikely to make you suddenly love them. But subtle use of EQ apps can achieve all kinds of useful results. It’s a great way to tone down overly boosted bass (a common feature in today’s models) or to tame overly sibilant high-mids, for instance.
Plenty of multi-band EQ apps will send your mobile device’s audio output through several adjustable bands of EQ. Two that we like are EQ 10 and Equalizer+ HD. The trick to these is to use as little boosting or cutting as possible — if the only thing you really want to alter is the bass response, try boosting it a little, and don’t fiddle with the other bands.
When you want to decrease sibilance on vocals, start by boosting to make them sound more intense, then cut the band that increases the sibilance most dramatically — typically somewhere in the middle of the 4kHz-10kHz. Many of these EQ apps have presets for jazz, rock, and other various genres, but customizing your own and using subtle strokes will provide a more rewarding experience that’s better tailored to your headphones and your preferences.
If you’re listening on your computer, some software can take simple EQ apps to the next level. Sonarworks True-Fi, for instance, takes your headphone model, gender, and age into account and adjusts your sound signature according to a baseline the manufacturer claims is closer to what you’d hear in a mixing studio. From that sound signature, you can adjust certain aspects of the audio to taste, such as bass depth.
4. Get Serious With Preamps and DACs
Where EQ apps aim to reshape the sound signature of your headphones’ drivers, digital-to-analog converters (DACs) are about improving overall audio quality. The default DAC you rely on most days is the one hidden inside your smartphone. It converts the digital signal from the phone to an analog signal your headphones can output (assuming you’re using wired headphones or earphones). Typically, this piece of the manufacturing puzzle is a lower priority for phone manufacturers than, say, the processor, and is therefore a chance to cut costs.
Recent solutions offered by some manufacturers range from a portable headphone preamp/DAC that plugs into your phone (the RHA Dacamp L1) to a simple, small DAC for the home and computers (the Audioengine D1) that can be thrown in a bag for portable use.
When you plug your headphones into the preamp/DAC, the results are almost always obvious and positive. Most DACs offer higher signal-to-noise ratios, lower distortion, and the ability to play high-resolution files with high bitrate and sample rates without lowering their quality. You don’t even have to know what each of these features means — the point is, these devices handle a process that most mobile devices dumb down, and they increase the fidelity of your audio.
5. Start at the (Sound) Source
If you care about getting the best audio performance from your headphones, it’s time to come to terms with a simple fact: Most streaming audio services can’t compete with a local, high-quality file. Yes, some services are offering high-quality streams, but unless you’re in offline mode, streams are still reliant on internet signal strength, a factor that doesn’t come into play when listening to a locally stored file on wired headphones.
Of course, many streaming music services, such as Spotify, perform irreplaceable roles in your life by introducing you to new music. But once you know you really like that new music, it’s a good idea to download a high-quality version of the song or album you want. When you have the option, go for lossless file formats, such as FLAC, Apple Lossless, or pure, uncompressed 24-bit WAV (the largest file type, so be aware of storage).
If that isn’t an option, make sure you’re getting the most you can out of your streams. Go into your service’s settings and make sure both Stream Quality and Download Quality are set to the High or Extreme setting. They’ll use more bandwidth and storage, but the sound quality will be much higher. Spotify’s Extreme stream quality is 320kbps, which means it has twice as much audio information as a Normal 160kbps stream. Tidal is one of the best-known streaming services dedicated to lossless (1411Kbps FLAC) music.
Most people assume they can’t hear the difference between a high bitrate audio file and a low-to-medium quality stream of the same file. Some listeners will hear the difference immediately, and others might not really notice a difference at first, but that’s only because your ears need a little training. I promise that when you download the highest-quality version of a well-recorded, well-mastered track and listen to the 24-bit WAV version exclusively several times over the course of a week, you will notice differences when you listen to a lower bitrate stream of the exact same track through the exact same setup and headphones. Bass response might seem muddier or less powerful in the sub-bass realm. High-frequency clarity might take a dip, and vocals might sound less crisp. All of which is to say: Your source material matters.
Read more: “The Best Headphones of 2018”
Originally published at www.pcmag.com.