How to look after your headphones (and IEMs)

Have you just bought yourself a nice new pair of headphones? Or, perhaps you’re currently in the middle of deciding what your next headphone or IEM (in-ear monitor) might be? Either way, you’re going to want to make sure that your personal audio investment is going to be a long-term one that will give you many years of listening pleasure. To help you keep your headphones in a nice, minty showroom-like condition, here are a few pointers that I’ve learned over the years during my time in the personal audio hobby that you might find useful. 

Step #1 - unboxing 

So you’ve just arrived home and you’re ready and rearing to pull out your new headphones and start listening right away. Slow down! It’s tempting to rip open the packaging to get your new shiny toy out, but the box your headphone came in is, generally speaking, the safest place to keep them. Plus, if you do ever decide to part ways with them (many years into the future) and replace them with a new pair, then keeping their retail packaging is going to be a good idea as it will help their resale value. 

Hanging onto the payment invoice is also a smart idea should you run into any warranty-related troubles or need to prove proof-of-purchase down the line. I normally keep a physical sales receipt inside the actual headphone box itself, otherwise, it’s likely to end up in a black hole of administrative flotsam and jetsam somewhere in my house. The more digitally-minded of you might be more adept at saving these somewhere in the cloud. Each to their own. I also make a habit of taking photos of all my gear alongside their sales invoice so that in the unlikely event that I lose them or have them stolen, it will make for a much easier conversation with an insurer/police officer/good samaritan. 

Know your enemy 

While headphones can be exceptionally well-made devices, naturally they’re not indestructible. Cords can be severed, drivers can be damaged, their fabric can wear and tear, and sunlight can fade that nice colour scheme. And, no matter how coordinated you think you might be, accidents can happen. It might sound a bit like redundant advice, but avoiding physical mishaps is the simplest way to ensure the longevity of your headphones. 

There are a few other ways you can prevent yourself from needing to replace your headphones prematurely - here are some of the main (avoidable) culprits when it comes to damaging the looks and performance of your headphones. 

Enemy #1: Animals and children

Kids, cats and dogs love to play with things left around on tables or that have cords hanging out of them. (both are also known to chew on things left unattended).

(note: this is bad)

Whilst tiny humans and pets can be adorable, if your headphones can be left within arms’/paws’ reach, they’re liable to be swiped. So, keeping them elevated or securely packed inside their box, inside a drawer, or behind a closed door is an obvious solution here. 

Enemy #2: Travel

Taking your headphones and IEMs outside the house exponentially increases the number of potential dramas that can shorten your relationship with them. Losing them or having them swiped is the most obvious dilemma. Keeping your contact details either on or inside their case (I pop a business card inside my headphone cases) can help them to find their way back to you in the event that you leave them in the seat-back pocket of a plane or on a desk at your school’s library. 

If you’ve ever seen those horror videos of how suitcases get treated by airport baggage handlers, or if you’re prone to throwing all kinds of things into your backpack on your daily commute or school run, then you’re going to want to make sure your headphones are ready to withstand the bumps that are an unavoidable part of life on-the-go. I like to pack a pair of headphones or IEMs (usually both!) with me when I’m travelling, and so a protective case is an absolute must-have part of my “everyday carry”. Many higher-end headphones come with excellent portable cases, and in the case (get it?) of the Audeze LCD-5 Reference Planar Magnetic Open Back Headphones you’re getting yourself a near bomb-proof style case with your nice new planar magnetic headphones. If your new headphones come with a more modest carrying bag or lightweight case, then an investment in an aftermarket product like the Dekoni Audio x SKB Headphone Hero Heavy Duty Travel Case can be a potentially “cans-saving” solution. I tend to travel fairly lightly, but also like to take my Sennheiser HD800s with me when I’m away for more than a few days at a time (travel is no excuse to skimp on good audio!). I’ve been using the Dekoni Audio Headphone Savior - Universal Headphone Transport Bag for a few months now, and it’s more than up to the task of keeping even large headphones snug and secure in a backpack. 

IEMs are even more fragile than their full-sized headphone counterparts and can be prone to getting tangled, squashed if not kept secure (they tend to have a habit of simply falling to the floor and rolling under a desk to be lost for the rest of recorded history). A clamshell-style carrying case like the Ultimate Ears Large Road Case is a neat solution for keeping them safe and has the added bonus of being able to store things like your adapters, cables, ear tips and the like. 

Enemy #3: Gravity

Remember that part earlier where I mentioned avoiding simple accidents? Well, leaving your headphones lying around on your desk is an easy way to accidentally have them fall to the floor if you happen to tug on their cable, and their surface might also get scratched depending on what you leave lying around on your desk or listening station. It’s not always convenient taking your headphones in and out of their storage box, especially if you use them on a daily basis. A dedicated headphone stand can be a great solution for keeping them both at the ready for immediate action and keeping them off from lying around on hard surfaces. There are a couple of different styles of stands, each suitable for different types of headphones. The more common one, which you may have seen before is an “Omega” stand (named due to the front-on profile resembling the Greek character), such as the Sieveking Sound Omega Headphone Stand. These keep your headphones nice and secure by a combination of the headband resting against the top of it, and by the “clamp” of the headphone’s pads hugging the concave sides of the stand. These are generally great for securely keeping your headphones handy, but do note that when it comes to headphones that have a higher-than-average clamping force, they can tend to crush the pads a little. 

If your headphone has the type of pads that do require changing from time to time, then you may look to use a “hanging” type stand instead, such as the Woo Audio HPS-R Aluminum Headphone Stand for Single Headphone. These allow your headphones to freely hand by their headband or suspension strap, and 

Enemy #4: Dust

Dust is the absolute bane of my existence. If you leave anything, let alone headphones lying around, dust is bound to start collecting on it. It’s annoying, it’s unsightly, and it can also degrade your headphone’s performance after a while if not kept on top of. If dust (or cat hair, another problem I have to deal with!) settles on the thin membrane that your headphones driver is made up of, then you might experience a slight buzz or rattle. Keeping your headphone in a drawer, cabinet or inside a case will take care of this, but if you leave them on your desktop for regular usage, then you should keep an eye on things. I used to go through several cans of compressed air a year to keep dust at bay from my headphones, keyboard and other electronic equipment, but I recently bought myself a small battery-powered vacuum/blower device for a more permanent dust-ridding solution.

It’s particularly important to look after the drivers of electrostatic headphones, which can be very sensitive to dust and static build-up. A plastic bag is an effective, if inelegant solution to keep them cared-for, but electrostatic headphone maker Stax has a more aesthetically-pleasing solution in the STAX CPC-1 Protective cover for all Lambda models (hint: it’ll work equally well on pretty much anything you can fit under there). 

Enemy 4: “Wheely-bois”

We’ve all done this at some point - gotten a cable stuck in the wheel of an office chair. Whoever designed these must have had a thing against headphones (and IEMs in particular), because Murphy’s Law being Murphy’s Law and all, they’ll eat up and choke on your cable if you leave them dangling precariously near your desk. 

This is a good point to talk about cable management generally - you’re going to want to have a cable that’s either long enough for manageable stationary listening at home, or short enough for manageable on-the-go use. Use a cable that’s too short at home, and you’ll inevitably find yourself either yanked backwards off your feet, or have your headphones whipped off your head thanks to that anchor of a headphone amplifier or stereo receiver that they’re plugged into. This is how most connections and jacks are damaged. A decent extension cable such as the Grado 4.5m extension cable can make your life a whole lot easier for home headphone listening and can mean that you have a long enough tether to move around your room a bit to do other things while you’re listening. 

Enemy 5: You!

No matter what your Mum says, you’re never 100% clean no matter how much you shower. If you love your new headphones so much that you end up using them for hours a day, day after day, then they will start to show signs of wear. Sweat and oil can break down the finish in pads and headbands, so for a start, it’s good to keep yourself clean - especially your hair and face! While you’re at it, get a check from an Audiologist and see what state your ears are in - it’s good to know just how good/bad your hearing is, and how clean your earholes are. 

While we can’t all shower before every single listening session, you can look after your headphones and make them last far longer with careful maintenance. It’s good to wipe down your earpads and other surfaces from time to time with a non-alcohol based cleaning solution - it’s best to check what each manufacturer recommends, but there are some great all-purpose headphone cleaning products available such as Dekoni Audio Headphone Spray and Dekoni Audio Heapdhone Wipes

While I’m sure you’re not planning on roughly manhandling your headphones, being as gentle as you can with them will pay dividends. Pay particular caution when taking them in and out of the box, and be careful not to overdo it when trying to disconnect cables from connectors (if your headphone/IEM has detachable cables). It might sound a little funny, but it also pays to be careful when taking them off your head - it’s best to do it slowly, with two hands. You might notice with some planar magnetic headphones, in particular, that you hear a small “crinkling” noise when moving your headphones around on your ears. The driver membrane is often thinner than a human hair, and taking your headphones on and off creates a pressure imbalance that sucks air in and out of the cups - do it too violently and you might damage things. Take it nice and sloooowly

And lastly, if you do smoke while you listen to music (no judgements here), be prepared for the fact that no one will ever want to wear your headphones. Smell builds up on fabric in particular (ever smelled the carpet in a pub before smoking was banned indoors?), and selling them down the line may become nigh-impossible if they reek.   

Enemy #6: Power (or, too much of it)

Unlike speakers which are rated to receive power in the “Watts” category, headphones and IEMs only require mere milliwatts of power to get rather loud. Yes, a dedicated headphone amplifier can yield significant benefits in terms of clean, lower-distortion power that’s ample for what your headphones require (and some insensitive headphones like the HIFIMAN HE-6se Planar Magnetic Headphones need lots of it), but add too much power to any transducer and they’ll eventually “blow”. How can you avoid this? Firstly, it’s good to understand just how much power your headphones will need. Next, always, always turn the volume on your amplifier or portable device down to Zero before plugging them in, and gradually turn it up until you’re at a comfortable level. This is especially important if you use multiple headphones, and leave your amplifier at different levels while switching between them. This is also generally good practice to look after your hearing as well - it can only take a few second’s worth of music blaring at maximum volume to leave your ears ringing and potentially doing irreparable damage to them in the process. Be. Careful. 

Enemy #7: Not paying attention to your earpads

It’s commonly understood that after driving your car for a while, your tyres are eventually going to wear out, meaning your car isn’t able to perform as well as it is intended to do. It’s not dissimilar to the pads attached to your headphones - they’re an essential part of the way your headphones are tuned. If they start to compress over time, the driver is going to get closer to your ears. If velour-style pads get too dirty, eventually they won’t be able to let as much air in and out as they were designed to. Keep an eye on the pads on your headphones to check that they’re not out of shape and that they’re not affecting the sound of them in an unwanted kind of way. From my experience, fresh pads on the Sennheiser HD600 Open Back Headphones (and its HD650/HD660s stablemates) are absolutely essential for them to properly perform. The velour-style pads on these Sennheisers are critical to their voicing, and as they crush over time (either through long-term use or placing them on an Omega-style stand) their mechanical impedance changes, which affects how sound waves are absorbed and reflected. Your ears and your eyes will be the best judge of this, but if you use them daily, then once a year (or thereabouts) is a sensible guide for swapping their pads over with fresh ones. 

Enemy #8: time

With care, your headphones can genuinely be a “buy it for life” proposition. There are certainly some headphones in my collection that I plan on keeping until I can no longer hear, and when that happens I’ll probably hang onto them for the memories (and because some of them look so good). But like all things, no matter how much you look after them they can degrade after a while. Wood warps. Paint fades. Little bumps and scratches add up. Only you can tell when your headphones are simply getting long in the tooth, and when it’s time to either retire them or bring a new pair of headphones or IEMs into your life. The most important tool you have to test a pair of headphones is the pair of ears attached to either side of your head - if they’re still sounding great, and they’re still comfortable, then there’s no reason why you can’t keep on enjoying them long into the future. After all, you can’t see what your headphones look like while you’re wearing them…right? 

The very first “Audiophile” headphones I bought was a pair of the limited edition Grado GH1, the first of their “Heritage Series”. I knew from the moment I opened the box that they’d be the only pair of headphones that I would never sell - I have the same kind of connection to them as I do to my favourite guitar. And like my favourite guitar, my GH1 needs looking after. Being made from maple wood, I condition it once or twice a year with Lemon Oil - while it’s designed to treat the wood on guitars to avoid it drying out and cracking, it’s basically the same principle here. Plus it smells nice. 

In summary

Well there you have it - it’s by no means an exhaustive list of everything you need to know to keep your new headphones in A1 condition, but hopefully there are a few good pointers that will steer you in the right direction. Like most things in life, common sense is key - if you look after your headphones, they’ll look after you with many long years of listening enjoyment. 

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