Why do wires get tangled up?

We've all been there - you place your headphones delicately into your pocket, sometimes just for a minute while you pop into a shop, but when you go to retrieve them, they don't look like your headphones anymore. Or more specifically, the wire doesn't. What was once a streamlined cable providing a smooth and direct link from your ears to your MP3 player now looks like a ball of wool that's been set upon by several hyperactive cats. No matter how many times you unravel them, they emerge from your bag each time with more knots than a boy scout jamboree and that begs the question - why do wires get tangled up at all and is there anything we can do to prevent it? Pocket-lint decided to investigate.

A quick Google search proved to be relatively fruitless. Most of the chatroom-based theories on the information superhighway involved either electromagnetism or interference from gremlins, fairies or elves. We found a hell of a lot of people posing the question, but very few answers. Nevertheless, we struggled on to try and give you an insight into this baffling everyday annoyance.

It seems that the problem of tangled wires is so well-established across the globe, that it has even spawned a competitive sport known as Speedcabling. Each game consists of a race against an opponent to swiftly separate cables from a purpose-made bundle, with the first person to liberate all of the tangled cables being declared the winner. Check out footage from the first ever Cable Untangling Championships in the video below.

Why do wires get tangled up?

However much we'd like to believe that some creature leaps into your pockets to tamper with your wires when you're not looking, sadly, we know that's not really the case. It seems that round-bodied cables all suffer from the tangling problem thanks to their aerodynamics and friction control (or lack thereof) making the cords rotate and tangle. In theory, that means that flat cables should be less susceptible to getting knotted up.

Scientific research

Unsurprisingly, there's only a handful of scientific researchers that have taken the time to test this one out in a lab. Presumably, Stephen Hawking has bigger fish to fry. An article on LiveScience.com outlines research by two physicists where they dropped pieces of string of varying lengths into a box which they then rotated. They found that knots were more likely to form as the length of the string increased (although the likelihood leveled out once it reached 5 feet) and that knots were more likely to form in larger boxes. So, presumably one way to reduce the tangle factor is to buy headphones with shorter cable and carry them around within smaller sections of our bags or, of course, better still, a small pouch of their own. The best defence, according to the scientists, is that we should take a tip from sailors, cowboys and electricians who all keep cord, string or cable tied in a coil so that it can't move. More common sense, really.

What can you do about it?

 

Cases

If your headphones come in a case, or with some sort of cable dispenser, then use it. This may seem obvious, but we know only too well how tempting it can be to ditch the bulky pocket for your fancy new buds because it takes up precious room in your bag.

Headphone design

Many manufacturers have set about coming up with a solution themselves, so you could help yourself out by looking for products that have been specifically designed not to get knotted. Monster’s VP of marketing and product development, Kevin Lee, explains the anti-tangle technology found on the brand's Beats Pro headphones, commenting:

"First, they feature a long 6-foot cord, and unlike many professional headphone models, which utilize 9- or 12-inch coiled sections, the coiled section of the Beats Pro cable is just 3 inches long (expandable to 1-foot). This allows users just the right amount of coil for long reaches, but avoids the high tangle properties of longer coil cables."

No doubt a useful solution, but it probably won't help you much if your headphones are simply jammed into your manbag or handbag with little regard for the state they'll be in when you take them out.

The musicians' method

If you're concerned about a larger cable, such as a guitar lead or power cable, getting tangled then you should follow the example of the professionals. Musicians and roadies have a special method of winding cables, widely known as the under/over method. This involves twisting the cable in one direction to make the first coil and then un-twisting it for the next. It's also important that once you've finished winding, that you keep each end on the correct side of the roll and make sure that they don't pass through the loops in storage, or the cable won't unwind as intended. Confused? You can watch a demo on how to do it on the video below.



Cable tidies

Many headphones come with small plastic dispenser-style cases that let you wind your cable up and keep it safe from harm. If you haven't got one of those then you can invest in a cable tidy from brands such as Proporta. Alternatively, you can wrap your headphones up and secure them without the need for a cable tidy, as demonstrated in the video below.

 

Though it should stop your headphone wires from getting into a big tangley mess, wrapping them like this may well cause some damage in the long term, as the constant wrapping is likely to give them a natural curve that will also easily make the wire spring into a tangle, given half a chance.  However, we're guessing that if your headphones don't come with a case and you're willing play fast and loose with their wellbeing by shoving them in a bag or pocket, then they're probably cheap enough to be replaced every once in a while anyway.

The Verdict

If your wires have room to move, then they will. So, the bottom line is to stop them doing that. Tie them up or if you really can't be bothered, keep them in as small as a compartment in your bag as possible. If you want to impress your friends and save a little cash, the under and over method is where it's at. Otherwise you might want to pick up a cable tie. If none of this sounds viable, then it's probably time to invest in some wireless headphones.

Do you have any secret techniques for stopping the dreaded tangle? Let us know in the comments.



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