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My Sennheiser HD580s: Why Failing Predictably Can Be a Good Thing

By Will Smith

Sometimes acknowledging where stuff will break is a good thing--case in point, Will's studio headphones. The parts that are likely to break are easily replaceable.

The other day, I was talking to a friend about old tech we still use, and I realized I’d be hard pressed to find anything I’m still using that’s older than my studio headphones. I bought a pair of Sennheiser HD580s about ten years ago. They still sound great, but they’ve outlasted most of the other electronics I’ve purchased since then simply because the designers knew how they’d fail.

Most other headphones and earbuds I’ve had failed in exactly the same way—a cable gets damaged and the connection either breaks entirely or (worse) is sporadically noisy. Sure, it’s relatively easy to fix a broken wire, but the cable is never quite the same after you’re done—it’s thicker and is less flexible than an undamaged wire.

The good news for me is that I’ve never had to fix the cable on my HD580s, because they’re user-replaceable. At $25, the replacement cable is a fairly expensive part, but it takes a few seconds to replace the wires. And yes, the default cables are probably less sturdy than they should have been, but I’m happy to spend $25 every few years to avoid having to replace the headphones entirely. Over the last ten years, I’ve replaced the cables on my HD580s two or three times. The HD580’s foam parts, which tend to wear down over time, are user-replaceable too. They lasted longer than the cables, but I’ve replaced both when they wore out. The end result is that the headphones are just as comfortable and sound just as good today as they did when they were new.

I’ve probably clocked a few thousand hours on my HD580s over the last decade (including a couple of 24-hour marathons), and during that time I’ve killed a half-dozen pairs of earbuds. Everything from $20 generics to $125 Shures suffered my wrath. The only difference is that on the HD580s, I was able to replace the broken component. Unfortunately, since I bought these headphones, Sennheiser seems to have backed away from user-replaceable parts, at least for headphones in the $100-150 price range. Sennheiser’s much-more-expensive studio headphones still have user replaceable parts, but the more affordable HD5xx series doesn’t. It seems like the rest of the industry has followed suit. While The Wirecutter’s favorite sub-$150 headphones feature user-replaceable cups, the cord is a permanent fixture. Most of the other headphones in their roundup featured permanent cords.

Because the designers who built the HD580s knew where they’d fail and where they’d wear out, they made those components easily replaceable. There's a fine balance between planning well for failure and a planned obsolescence that results in a forced upgrade cycle. However, if the end result is that I can easily fix things that break due to normal wear and tear without having to replace them, I'm happy to keep using my HD580s for the foreseeable future—until they either break beyond my ability to fix or I can no longer buy replacement parts for them.