The Science Behind Tangled Earbuds

The Science Behind Tangled Earbuds

Taryn Williford
Nov 10, 2011

When you're halfway through what could only be called "the worst day ever," it might seem like your impenetrably tangled earbuds are just another "screw you" from the Bad-Day Gods. But the truth is your knotted earbuds can be explained by science, thanks to a recent study out of UC San Diego. Now you know—and knowing is half the battle in the war against tangled cords.

As part of Wired's entertaining and surprisingly Muppet-studded better living feature, they tackle the forever confounding "Why?" of earbud-in-pocket tangles, citing some of the most riveting work to come out of scholarly experiementation:

Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith at UC San Diego unraveled the mystery in a paper titled "Spontaneous Knotting of an Agitated String" in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers stuck lengths of string in a box, rotated the box, then opened it to see if knots formed. After an eye-glazing 3,415 trials, they determined that string shorter than 1.5 feet never tangled, but as a string gets longer, the probability of knots shoots up sharply (which is why 10-foot-long Christmas tree lights can melt your soul).

It's interesting research, especially to those of us who consider "Smarter homes. Fewer wires." our mission statement. But since you don't usually want to shorten the length of your earbud cords (like you might with an ethernet cord), it's not totally helpful. Yet, we can use the study's findings as a jumping off point to figuring out the best ways to prvent earbud tangles.

There's a million and one solutions on the market for keeping headphone cords in check (we spotted at least 674 of those at the checkout counter of The Container Store), and even more when you consider the great DIY projects spotted here on Unplggd and all around the web.

But at the root of each of those uni-taskers, they all do one of these four things:

Make a loop.
You can't make the cord shorter, but you can bring the ends together in another way. Robert Matthews at Aston University in Birmingham, England, once had the brilliant idea to test if clipping earbud ends together with a binder clip could prevent tangled cords. When you grip the earbuds themselved to the miniplug, you're forming a huge loop—a small innovation that Matthews suspected would cut down on tangles. He was right. He repeated the string-in-a-box test for 12,000 trials, and reduced the risk of knots by tenfold.

Keep ends apart.
Instead of bringing ends together, keep them apart. Douglas Smith, the UC San Diego reseracher from earlier in this story, told Wired about a strategy used by rescue squads who have to meticulously pack up ropes every day: "They put one end of the rope into a bag, then feed the rest in, like you'd stuff a sleeping bag into its stuff sack," Smith says. This keeps the ends away from each other, preventing knots from forming.

Make it thicker.
If you can prevent a cord from curling up on itself, you can essentially stop knots before they start. It's why Apple has patented a strategy to stiffen tangle-magnet iPod headphone cords. You can also try coating or covering your wires to get the same effect, like in this DIY project that uses paracord and heat-shrink tubing to create tangle-proof earbuds.

Prevent movement.
In all these super scientific tests of earbud-tangleosity, the reserahcers employed fast, sharp movements as a means to tossle the earbud cords together. That's because, at the root of it all, it's movement that causes wires to knot up. It's why your earbuds only tangle in your pocket and not sitting on your desk. To prevent knots, just keep your cords from moving around. The easiest way to do this? Wrap them carefully around anything from a credit card to a Cable Turtle, and secure them completely.

[via Wired]

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