Boston FU: Retractable Earbud Hack

The first Boston Freehacker's Union meeting was tonight at Trident Cafe. FU rule #3 states,

Everyone who attends has to eventually show something they did. Not something someone else did. This is your time to give a performance, not to teach people how to use something so you get a book deal.

I didn't really have anything to show, but I wanted to show something. Tangled earbuds are one of the things that have been bugging me for, literally, years. (I prefer real headphones, but sometimes size matters.)

Every time I take the earbuds out of my bag, they're all tangled and I have to spend 30 seconds or so untangling them. I wanted something like the retractable cables in my Belkin 7-in-1 Retractable Cable Travel Pack, but for my Apple earbuds. Well, here's my 30 minute retractable earbud hack:

Retractable Earbud Hack

The most interesting part about this hack was what I learned about the locking mechanism. The recoil system was very simple; a twisted metal coil that increases tension as it is twisted. However, as you pull the wire out of the coil, something stops the device from retracting.

Retractable Earbud Hack - Ball Bearing Track

That something turned out to be a tiny metal ball bearing, sitting inside the funny looking track on top of the spinning center coil. The single straight track on the top stationary cover sandwiches the ball bearing inside the track and keeps the ball bearing in place. I actually lost the ball bearing twice and ended up taking apart all three of the retractable cables that came with the Belkin kit.

There's definitely lots of room for improvement. A removable retractable device would be much nicer and the size and weight is also an issue. The guys I met at the FU meeting seemed to like it and I'm definitely going to keep using it whenever I use the earbuds. I'll add any further observations to the bottom of this post.

Write a Comment


  1. Last night riding around town in a 1929 L-29 Cord Cabriolet, saw some guy walking he was holding on to a MP3 player and shaking it. He was dangling and shaking his earbuds. Poor guy, wonder how long it took him to get them undone. Yes, I was laughing and enjoying the ride 😀

  2. Hey Frederik,

    Thanks for the video! That solution is definitely more obtrusive than mine, in that you need to actually stick something onto your iPhone. Also, it took him a full 30 seconds to plug in the headphones, unwrap them, and then put them on.

    I can do the same thing in about 10 seconds. 🙂