How to keep your budget headphones in perfect condition

How to look after your budget headphones
(Image credit: goc - Getty)

So you’ve taken delivery of your new headphones and they’re looking as bright and brilliant as they ever will. Naturally, you want to keep them that way and keep your budget headphones in perfect condition. Well kept headphones will serve you longer and they’re more hygienic too. 

Whether you own inexpensive in-ear buds, affordable over-ears (or even the best no-compromise audiophile headphones), a little bit of TLC will go a long way to keeping your streams crystal clear.

We’ve put together a collection of simple tips that will keep your head-fi in tip-top condition, sourced from experts in the field. Our headline advice is listed below, followed by more in-depth guidance. Read on for ear-friendly enlightenment.

At a glance 

  • Keep your cans squeaky clean - but don’t use antibacterial wipes
  • Always unplug wired headphones when not in use
  • Keep the firmware updated
  • Never wrap cables around your headphones, coil them like a pro
  • Don’t crank up the volume too high
  • Always store wireless earbuds in their charging case

How can I keep my headphones clean?

This may sound like obvious advice, but I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts most headphone wearers rarely bother to clean their headphones. Obviously it depends on whether you’re a heavy user, but setting aside 10 minutes every so often for a little preventive maintenance will significantly add to the longevity of your headphones.

Audio Technica knows a thing or two about this kind of stuff. The Japanese brand’s audiophile headphones have a well-deserved reputation for amazing performance (their £1300 wired ATH-AWAS closed-back wooden Hi-Fi headphones may be pricey but they’ll last a lifetime if well cared for), but it’s a major player in the budget headphones arena too, with the likes of the £60 Bluetooth ATH-S220BT.

Ian Cookson, Audio Technica’s technical content specialist and Thomas Griffiths, the company's training manager suggest wiping down ear pads and headbands with a dry lint-free cloth on a regular basis. However, they advise against cleaning with regular household cleaning products, particularly anti-bacterial wipes as "these can degrade some components over time.” Instead, they suggest using a wipe with soapy water.

The experts at Austrian Audio agree, saying: “Sweaty over-ear headphones are part of life, but once you’re done perspiring, give your headphones a wipe down. Please don’t just let them cool into a stone-cold sweat – nobody wants that!”

In-ear headphones and earbuds are more prone to picking up gunge than their larger stablemates, for obvious reasons.  

Silicone-based ear tips can be soaked in slightly soapy warm water, but memory foam tips are best wiped down with a damp cloth. In either case, it’s best to remove the tips from the rest of the earbud first to avoid getting the insides wet! That may seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget and dunk the whole bud.

How to look after your budget headphones: Headphones in carry case

(Image credit: Muralinath - Getty)

Make use of your carry case

If you want to protect your headphones, keep them stored safely when not in use.

As the Austrian Audio artisans so rightly point out, headphone cases and bags are supplied for a reason. So when your headphones are not in use, pack them up. This reduces the risk of dings and scrapes, and protects your headphones from the likes of invasive dust and lint. If you didn’t get a case with your headphones, get creative – toiletries bags can work wonders as a substitute.

Cambridge Audio produces one of our current favourite budget earbuds, the Melomania 1 +, a brilliant True Wireless performer that’s now widely available for a great price. Tom Castle, the brand’s Customer Support Manager, says it makes sense to keep your earbuds in their supplied case, rather than in your pockets between uses, as this stops them picking up lint and other icky detritus. If the case doubles as a charger, it’ll ensure your headphones are fully juiced when you hit the road.

When it comes to storage, the Audio Technica team suggest keeping your headphones somewhere cool and well ventilated.

Can I keep moisture at bay?

American audio outfit Grado Labs specialise in wired open-back headphones for all budgets. It has a range that runs from the £2195 GS3000E open-back audiophile headphones through to the £110 SR80x. Brand director Alex Munro suggests keeping a sachet of desiccant silica gel as this will effectively absorb errant moisture.

Many of of us will have encountered sachets of silica gel in packages of electric items and could well have some hanging around in drawers. If not, they’re readily available online for low prices.

How to look after your budget headphones: Man holding smartphone

(Image credit: Anita Kot - Getty)

Should I keep my firmware updated?

Thinking about firmware updates may not seem particularly intuitive when you just want to catch up on some Viking metal, but it’s key to keeping smarter connected earbuds and budget wireless headphones in rude health.

A firmware update could bring multiple benefits and performance upgrades, such as optimising battery charging or making subtle tweaks to EQ presets based on customer feedback, says Cambridge Audio. 

It’s not unusual for a manufacturer to eek greater power efficiency from their portable earbuds, which could in turn lead to a much longer usable shelf life.

How can I care for my cable?

Some of the loudest headphones available are wired are therefore prone to cable damage, particularly inexpensive wired buds. They’re fragile at the best of times, so never dangle headphones on the connection cable, and anything resembling the Newport Helicopter is definitely a bad idea.

It’s also a good idea to unplug wired headphones when they’re not in use. Remember to disconnect them from your source component by holding the plug, not the cable, to avoid stressing the wiring.

Wired headphones may be loved by Hi-Fi enthusiasts, but they can be a handful. The recording experts at pro audio brand Focusrite, who make studio gear such as USB interfaces for guitarists and podcasters, suggest owners avoid wrapping cables around their headphones, as this can also weaken the wiring. Instead, learn the over-under cable coiling technique used by studio professionals.

In some cases, the cable can be detached from the headphones. If this applies to you, store them away safely in the carry case to keep them well protected.

Should I worry about noise levels?

The one common piece of advice we heard time and again from all the brands we consulted concerned volume control.

We might well like things Louder in these parts, but don’t run your headphones at too high a volume. There are two good reasons for that. Excessive volume isn’t great for your ears or your headphones. You risk hearing damage and headphone driver damage - and bear in mind that #1 will very likely happen before #2. But neither can be considered a good thing.

The Pro Audio bods at Focusrite also point out that anything over 85db can cause hearing loss over time. “Some of the best mix engineers keep their headphones super quiet to avoid ear fatigue,” we’re told.

Earlier this year, we spoke with Help Musicians about the rising issue of hearing loss and if you're going to gigs, make sure you take the best earplugs for concerts with you.

Steve May

Steve is a home entertainment technology specialist who contributes to a variety of UK websites and mags, including Louder Sound, Yahoo UK, Trusted Reviews, T3, The Luxe Review and Home Cinema Choice. Steve began his career as a music journo, writing for legendary rock weekly Sounds, under the nom de plume Steve Keaton. His coverage of post punk music was cited in the 2015 British Library exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, as a seminal influence on the Goth music scene.