The Portable Rig

Today’s fast-paced lifestyle requires headphones that can keep up with the busy man and woman of the world; headphones that work as hard as they play.

Wow, that sounded so dumb. Let’s try again.

A conscientious music lover would be wise to take note of the different factors unique to the application of their headphones. Arguably, one of the toughest markets to satisfy is what we headphone enthusiasts call the “portable rig,” or “portable rig” for short. It’s where headphones see the most abuse and the most use. You’re on the bus, you’re at work, you’re in the library redditing, watching awesome YouTube cat videos, and smugly judging people who still haven’t seen McBain: The Movie. You quickly change venues and stuff your earphones in your pocket. You rip them out while you’re on the move, and you wrap them around your audio player when you pack up again. You’re a regular Freddie Wilson, you are.

I don’t get that reference

Let me break down the three areas of weakness your headphones are going to see. Once you learn what they are, you’ll realize you already knew this and that you’ve been doing this all along. Then you’ll argue whether you did or not. Then you’ll shrug it off and continue off in your merry little way, cursing my blog for being so meta.

The principle of portable rig care is twofold: investing in quality headphones with quality materials, and ensuring an acceptable bending radius on your wires.

1) The Plug

If you’re a former iPod user, you’ll remember how annoying it was to slip your iPod into your pocket with the headphone plug facing out of your pocket. You did it to protect the cable, but sometimes you just said “Eff it” and slid it down headphone plug first. *gasp* iPod touch users don’t face this problem because the headphone cable enters from the south more gracefully than an American blockbuster movie maker to an oilsands production site.

“My wind-powered helicopter tour didn’t cost blue people their entire planet.”

When you put your pocket player in your pocket, ensure the cable is facing out of your pocket. If it isn’t, make sure you dont kink it 180 degrees facing into your pocket and then directly out. U-turns are illegal in Alberta, so just don’t do it, yo.

2) The Y-splitter

Some headphone cables go directly into one ear, but the 99% have the dreaded Y-splitters.


For some, this is an aesthetic and practical issue, but for others, it’s maintenance. Lots of headphones break around this area because, well, it’s weak or something. Usually when earphones are stuffed into pockets, they get tangled, confusing the orientation of which ear goes to which piece. Be a pro and totally wrap your headphones gently around something with a good bending radius.

Exhibit A – Sumajin Smartwrap (unpaid advertisement)

3) The Ear Area

This weakness applies to both headphones and earphones. With headphones, the cables generally have more strain relief, but since they’re more stationary, little quick pulls and tugs could do them in. The strain relief inside the earpiece of earphones is typically accomplished by tying the cable in a knot and shoving it inside the plastic housing. You aren’t going to have a big problem with surprise snags with earphones because they’ll just fall out of your ear. Pulling them out of your pocket and untangling them is where you’ll find the most danger, so again, just be careful.

The average audiophile owns a portable amp and/or DAC, but I’m here to proclaim that it was all too inconvenient for me. I used to carry a pouch around with my Electric Avenues PA2V2, ALO Audio silver-plated copper braided interconnect, and Creative Zen Vision:M, but it was just too much. Batteries, charging, lugging. Admittedly, most headphone audiophiles just carry that stuff in a messenger bag, but I didn’t have room in mine. Plus I was trying to make a fashion statement with the pouch. It was me against the world, and I lost. Hard.

Since then, I’ve switched to just carrying my iBuds with my aforelinked Sumajin SmartWrap. You could get away with a BIC lighter, a piece of cardboard, or even your music player if you keep a good bending radius. I have little fuzzies on my earpieces just so I can tell which is left and right. This reduces the trouble I was constantly having with my portable rig.

Here’s an easy rule to remember: red is right (except for communism)

I hope that helps someone out there. One of the reasons I started in audio was because I wanted a good quality headphone that wouldn’t break down on me when I was listening to it on the way to school to study. My iBuds came from my iPhone a year and a half ago, and they’re still going strong. They do have a significant coiling effect from wrapping them around the SmartWrap, but I don’t actually mind because the listening experience is so much smoother when I don’t have to untangle anything.

The other lesson is to get a solid pair of headphones.

tl;dr – Keep the bending radius large, and get a solid pair of headphones.


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