Outdoors can be a tough place for headphones

By Jayson Jacoby December 27, 2013 09:48 am

Somewhere along about the mid 80s headphones broke out of the home, and although they occasionally slink back inside they’ve never been quite the same since.

They’ve become disposable, for one thing.

Not by design, to be sure, in the manner of a diaper or a coffee filter.

If used as headphones traditionally were used — to listen to “Dark Side of the Moon” while you’re sprawled out on a waterbed, for instance — even the flimsiest set could last for years.

But modern headphones, which must be small and light because we expect them to deliver our music and our podcasts and our audiobooks while we jog and pedal and rappel off the north face of the Eiger, simply can’t withstand the rigors of the iPod, cross-training world for long.

Although you don’t even need to be especially energetic to destroy a set.

I once ruined a pair of headphones by severing the cord with grass clippers while I was tidying my lawn borders, a relatively placid activity in which nothing usually gets hurt except the grass.

Except the long cords that allow us to listen even if the mp3 player or cell phone is tucked into a backpack also are a sort of Achilles’ heel, because they hang in big loops if you kneel and lean over.

To clip the grass, let’s say.

And those cords, which are made up of wires that make a human hair seem corpulent, can fail even if you don’t catch them between a pair of blades.

I destroyed another pair of headphones during a hike when the cord got wrapped around a trailside whitebark pine, which wouldn’t let go.

I was lucky, I suppose, that the little plug that goes into the player didn’t whip back and take out an eye or something, like a winch cable that snaps when you’re trying to yank a rig out of a mud hole.

(Always drape a shirt or blanket or something over the cable. The winch cable, I mean. Draping a shirt over a headphone cable won’t help.)

I’ve had to trash several other headphones that didn’t meet such a sudden demise.

The culprit, in most cases, was those wimpy wires. I wear headphones while hiking and biking (and, occasionally, while clipping grass) and the cord jiggles about as objects are wont to do when they’re attached to a body in motion.

This near-constant jostling frays the wires, and after a while one or both of the speakers starts cutting out.

Usually I endure this for a few weeks. Sometimes the problem can be remedied, temporarily, if I sort of pinch the jack or wiggle the wires in a certain way which is difficult to repeat.

But this is annoying.

The damage, inevitably, is permanent and irreparable, and eventually the headphones are useless.

I have not kept a detailed accounting but I’m certain I’ve gone through at least a dozen pairs of headphones over a like number of years.

I had no occasion to ponder this — they’re relatively cheap, for one thing — until recently when I unearthed from a closet a pair of headphones that could be fairly described as antique.

These belonged originally to my dad. He doesn’t remember with precision when he bought them but the best he can figure it was sometime during the disco era.

(The timing, I feel compelled to note, was purely coincidental. My dad did not then own, nor to my knowledge has he ever purchased, any album by Gloria Gaynor or The Village People.)

These headphones are what people used to mean when they said headphones.

These things don’t wedge into the ear, like a hearing aid, but rather they envelop nearly the whole side of the head. They’re so thick that they block almost all ambient noise short of, say, a nearby chain saw, and the plastic cases are stout enough, I suspect, to deflect a fastball.

Clamping these headphones over my ears for the first time in many years was an audio revelation. Portable headphones reproduce music more faithfully than you’d expect given their Lilliputian speakers, but they simply can’t match the richness and fullness of larger headphones that literally envelop the ears and have diaphragms rather larger than a dime.

The old pair’s advantage is widest in bass tones. The tinny quality of most current headphones is absent, and the sheer brilliance of, say, Paul McCartney’s frenetic runs in the latter verses of “Taxman” comes to the fore.

I see no reason why these headphones won’t last another couple of decades, what with their rather sedentary life.

I could in theory start using them on hikes and walks in town; there are adapters to connect these to the tiny headphone jack in an mp3 player.

But I won’t.

It’s dangerous, for one thing — I wouldn’t be able to hear oncoming traffic.

And I suspect that before I’d gone a mile my neck, unaccustomed to bearing such a burden, would ache like an abscessed molar.

Besides which I would be mortified going out in public looking like nothing so much as Princess Leia.

Her hair style, anyway.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.