How to make iPhone headsets suck less

Crappy Buds
Crappy Buds

Say what you will, but iPhones are pretty awesome, and so are the headsets that come with them. At least up until you put them in your ears. The inline controls are awesome, but the speakers are uncomfortable, lacking in low end punch, and do nothing for sound isolation. Other, much better headphones exist, but for under a gajillion dollars, none come with the same kind of inline controls. Here’s how to have the best of both worlds.

The solution is pretty simple:

1. Find an iPhone headset and a set of earbuds that don’t suck.
2. Cut the earbuds off of each cord.
3. Splice the good buds onto the good (iPhone) cord.

Of course, it’s a little harder than that (but not much, don’t worry). Here’s what I did. I won’t tell you how to find good earbuds: it’s your call what you like. I selected a pair of Sennheiser CX150s. I bought them cheap (€20) in Germany, so I had them when I bought my iPhone, and they are solid quality – much much better than the iPhone headset, anyway. A good candidate for surgery. The next step is to make your cuts. This is tricky: you don’t want to cut the iPhone headset too close to the microphone, because if you mess up and have to move back on the wire, you’ll quickly run out of space. But then if you cut too close to the buds, you’ll have to do the same on your donor headphones in order to keep roughly the same length from finished earbud to mic. My strategy was to cut ~1.5″ from the iPhone buds, and around 2.5″ to 3″ from the Sennheisers. At best, you only increase the length by 1″ on both sides, and at worst, you have as much space to mess up. Once you’ve cut, you need to strip and tin. The outer insulation is a pain. Sometimes you can cut it with wire strippers without damaging the conductors (Sennheisers), sometimes it just squishes and stretches when you pull it (iPhone set). If the latter happens, try working the insulation gently with flush cutters. I can’t say much more besides “be careful” since it depends on what headphones you’re using how finicky the insulation is. Tinning is a different story. With a lower-temp iron, I find that burning the acrylic insulation off of the conductors is necessary. But sometimes this leaves soot that makes tinning the conductors a pain. If you can manage it, save trouble by using a really high temp iron and melt the insulation off with a blob of solder on your tip. This will tin them at the same time. IMPORTANT: PUT HEATSHRINK ON! I can’t count on both hands and feet how many times I’ve neatly soldered up a project only to remember that I never put heatshrink tubing on.Do it now. Tip: if you can, slide two pieces on for the outermost layer. Shrink one, then slide over the other and shrink that. It doesn’t insulate any better, but it adds structure to what will otherwise be a somewhat fragile joint. Solder up the connections. The trickiest thing here is to know which is which. The iPhone headset follows the scheme red: right+ green: left+ copper color: common ground red/green twist: mic/controls (right side only). The donor headset should share a similar wiring. In general, its safe to say that, if you see the same color on both sides, that’s ground. Shrink the tubing. I use my pencil torch from a judicious distance. It’s way too hot up close, but it  heats a nice plume of air and from a good 6″, it’ll shrink tubing right up. And there you have it. But if you’re bored, and want to kill 17 minutes, I have a video for you too. I promise future guides won’t be so long. I just don’t want to edit the video down anymore since I’ve spent enough time on it.

Headphone Build from Alex Whittemore on Vimeo.

Epilog: After using the headphones for a few minutes, I noticed that the audio image felt like it was pulling a hard right in my head: normally stereo sound feels centered in the middle of your head, but these headphones felt like they were centered on my right ear. The problem is that one of the channels has the incorrect polarity, that is the audio is inverted. Even though it’s only off by a few microseconds, this has the effect of offsetting balance drastically. The solution is to simply reverse the polarity of one channel, it doesn’t matter which. I reversed the left channel since it’s got far more wiggle room to mess up than the right, in this case.

This also gave me the opportunity to do somthing I didn’t previously: For added strength, slide TWO pieces of heatshrink on the headphone line before soldering. Shrink one over the joint, then slide the other over and shrink that too. The outer piece serves to tighten the inner piece on the wire (it previously didn’t hold the insulation well, and any tension in the headphones was supported by the solder joint) as well as to prevent flex in the joint.

6 Comments

  1. Jacob
    April 9, 2011

    Lol, you have the same wire cutters as me. Did you get yours from Doogies too?

  2. Kaycee
    August 24, 2011

    coool

  3. alex
    September 23, 2011

    Great read/video! A bit ramply (is that a word?) at times, but you got the point across. Keep it up!

  4. Kyle
    December 5, 2011

    Thanks dude, your tutorial helped convince me to give this a try. I ended up just using my fingers to separate the insulation from the copper before clipping it away. It seemed to work pretty well. They look okay… I’m going to love these for cycling. Weller Digital Soldering Stations 4 Life.

    Final product:
    http://imgur.com/g2yiT

  5. Kato
    February 2, 2012

    Im working on a project involving the new Iphone 4s. It involves modifying headphones with inline controls. I have tried different configurations to no avail. It seems you’ve got the intell to assist me. Can I pick your brain on the matter? If you wouldnt mind, respond via my email and I will fill you in on the details. Thanks in advance.

  6. Juan
    August 27, 2012

    I think this is a nice post for ones who are curious or who likes to do be their selves. But being more practice, there is a lot iPhone capable earphones of other brands. I just find a $50 USD sony iPhone headset, but today they have a discount, and I buy it just for $15.31 USD. I always love sony headset quality. There is a lot of other brands that make iPhone headset since 12 dollar to hundred of dollars, different qualities, but most of then much better than iPhone standard ones, even most of the cheaper ones.

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