iPod mini static crackling noise [laboratories]
iPod mini’s static noise or crackling noise problems have been infamous. To the best of my knowledge, neither a closer understanding of the problem, nor a solution – or even a hint of it – have been found so far.
Our iPod mini had a constant, very disturbing crackling noise. The device was referred to me, so I could have a look at it, after she had given it up. Since I sometimes can’t take “no” for an answer, I am right now listening to entirely crackle-free music on that very iPod mini that was not useable any more. No parts were replaced and there were no parts to buy to replace; all I did was rearrange the iPod’s parts a bit.
First, I took the iPod mini apart. Secondly, I played with the opened device and discovered some things that I had not read anywhere else in a similar context. Thirdly, I thought up a fix. Fourthly, I put this fix in place, and packed all components back up again.
Now, this iPod mini fix is in the “testing phase”. It works rather well so far (see progress report, below). But for this to be a useful tip, more people may want to try whether this is helpful at all. In other words, this research result would have to be repeated in another research lab.
Attention – If you want to keep anything like Apple’s warranty, dealer’s warranty or an Applecare plan of your iPod mini, don’t read on. Maybe, for your iPod mini, you have a dealer warranty of some kind, or you bought it refurbished with some type of warranty. If you decide to reproduce on your iPod mini what I did with mine, you could end up injuring yourself (see below, usage of a saw) or you could permanently damage your iPod mini due to unforeseen reasons. You may cause unforeseen, possibly serious damage to your iPod mini for whatever reasons that are probably beyond my control. The author of this website does not take any responsibility whatsoever in case you feel motivated to try any of these suggestions. But let me assure you that, for me, these modificiations worked fine.
1. Taking iPod mini apart
First, I localized the top part of your iPod mini. That’s where the headphone plugs in. I slid a flat screwdriver between the metal case and the white plastic part that covers that area. Carefully, I lifted the white plastic part out, by slightly bending the metal case a bit. Underneath, on both sides, I found tiny screws that I removed with a very small Philips (Vierkant) screwdriver.
Then, I turned the iPod around. The bottom is the part, where the recharger, or Macintosh cable, plugs in. Similarly, I carefully a flat screwdriver between metal and white plastic, by slightly bending the metal a tad bit. Underneath, I found a metal bracket, that was fixed into place by four springs (see arrows in the following figure).
When I examined the bracket, I found that all four springs resided in small grooves in the metal case (see arrows in the following figure)
Then I slid the screwdriver consecutively between each spring and the adjacent groove and leveled the spring out, until all of the bracket was carefully removed. The following picture exposes the grooves for further illustration (see arrows).
After that, I set the iPod to “PLAY”. This is important, as I then would disconnect the iPod control wheel. The following picture shows the little plug that connects the wheel (that is on the front of the iPod underneath the display) with the main circuit board (see arrow). I would extremely cautiously wiggle the plug from the socket, by sliding a flat screwdriver between plug and socket (about where I put the arrow in the following figure).
Here is a view on the disconnected plug (see following figure).
After these, the content of the iPod case should slide out effortlessly (see the following pictures).
2. Playing with the opened device and tests
The opened iPod exposes some interesting parts that are not really hard to identify (see the following figure). There is a microdrive (that’s that white looking package with the barcode and the writing “Hitachi 4GB Microdrive” on it, to the left on the following figure). There is the battery pack (that’s the blue looking thing, that’s attached to the main board with a little 3-cord cable and a white plug). And then, there is this notorious headphone jack of which there are so many reports on the internet (see arrow).
Now, I did not get any particular crackling noise when playing with that connector (bending it a bit, pushing against it, et cetera), I have to admit. But just to make sure, I took the connector off (see arrows on the following picture), and afterwards put it back on.
So to my surprise, I was apparently not dealing with a loose contact of the headphones. So I figured it could be another loose contact somewhere else.
I spent about half an hour, fiddling with all the little parts, trying to nudge each single piece. There was no single item, that caused the crackling noise to “change” or “stop”, or if it was absent for a moment, to “increase” or “start”.
What stood out, was that in the moment when I had the microdrive and / or battery hang down on their little cables – away from the main circuit board – most crackling noise problems were simply gone.
Attempts to connect the harddrives metal casing to the metal casing of the iPod did not cause the crackling noise to disappear. I was not in the mood to try to connect other items.
I then found out, that sometimes, the crackling would almost stop the device from working, then it would gradually subside, and slowly disappear altogether. The situations when that happened were, when the main circuit board was lying on the table in front of me, and the microdrive, and the battery, were flipped away from the main circuit board onto the table.
3. Thinking up a fix
My assumptions are based on a fair degree of intuition. I have not measured any electrical charge values, nor have I spent any time deeply studying the matter of this noise. Documenting the fix on this web page actually used up more time than actually fixing the device.
Now, from what I had found out while playing with the “running iPod mini circuit board” and displacing various parts of it, I figured that this iPod mini would charge some parts similarly to a capacitor. In other words, I thought that all symptoms looked like the whole main circuit board accumulated some type of electric charge, that somehow could be caused by the proximity of the microdrive and the battery. I figured these may not be shielded well enough. That proximity to the iPod mini circuit board then would somehow cause the crackling noises.
So from what I had tested, it appeared to me that the proximity of both the battery and the microdrive to the main circuit board were the main cause of this problem.
I thus decided, to mount both components (battery, microdrive) in a “little more remote” fashion. So I decided to piggy back them a bit further out as I was in no mood to fiddle with adding some shielding and grounding in a very crowded and narrow device.
When I tried out several options, one seemed to be feasible easiest: to flip the harddrive up, so it would be over the position of the battery – and to place the battery on top. Then, I figured, the main circuit board components would be far enough away from the magnetic-field-generating and probably undershielded components (both battery and microdrive).
4. Attempt to fix
I removed a portion of the back of the iPod mini’s case, that I had roughly measured to leave enough place for me to put the flipped up microdrive, and on top of it, battery, in a distance of some 3-5 mm from the main circuit board. See the following picture that shows the modified iPod mini case and the saw that I used (I could have used some other tool, or aimed a bit better, but this is about mp3-playing, not winning an iPod beauty contest). I should add that I took care to blow the metal dust out after the sawing was complete. As the metal of the iPod’s case is very brittle, I only had to saw across, and on one side – and then the piece could be torn out along the remaining edge easily by hand.
Then, I played around with the arrangement of the battery and microdrive, until the crackle subsided. This seemingly optimal position was one, where the microdrive would sit on two cardboard stripes (arrows, following picture), that were resting on the edges of the iPod mini case (see following picture). The battery (in blue color, see following picture) was piggy-backed on top, so it was furthest away from the main circuit board.
For the beauty of it, here are some more views of the rearranged iPod mini components.
Ultimately, I taped the thing up using some more isolating tape. As I said, I wanted it to function – it wasn’t meant to win a beauty contest.
5. Testing phase
Reoccurence of the crackling stopped entirely once the components that were flipped out were firmly strapped to the case. During an initial test phase, where I had still some movement of the microdrive or battery against the main board, there was still very occasionally a minimal amount of noise that would subside automatically within about 4 seconds.
In addition to the presented strapping using black isolating tape, I additionally packed the re-located iPod-parts into some padded lining in order to prevent direct blunt force damage.
To my knowledge, this is the first user contribution that effectively removes the crackling noise that some other users had experienced and described for typical operating conditions (operation of iPod with headphones attached).
Testing of the fix so far covered several hours of usage of the iPod mini in my office (residing in shirt pocket / lying on table), as well as operating it in the car (mounted on car adapter / recharger). So far, I had no noise from static any more.
April 11th, 2006: When I listen to music using headphones on this fixed iPod, there is no crackling noise at all. The connector can be strained, and the device can be squeezed, but no noise occurs. What immediately causes lots of crackling noise is when the iPod mini is hooked up to a car recharger – which again points to the delicate construction of the iPod mini’s main board as far as build-up of a static electrical charge is concerned. It appears that the fix I implemented simply eliminated the static build-up for isolated “mobile usage” – but it may not be able to straighten out problems in relation to external influences. This problem is not present when running the iPod hooked up to a computer for recharging.
April 13th, 2006: Since two days, this iPod runs on my desk – either just with headphones connected to it, or with an additional connection to the computer for recharging – without problems. Not a single crackling noise. In addition, gentle compression or wiggling of any part including the headphone connector do not trigger the crackling noise to re-occur. So far, this fix has been a full success.
6. Final fixes and result
Under normal operating conditions (iPod playing back music, audio output connected to 3.5 mm stereo out jack, either speakers or headphones), any crackling noise not related to the digitized music itself is entirely gone. Under certain circumstances (running iPod while recharging on car battery plug), some static noise has been found to occur, but not consistently; typically, that noise would subside after having the iPod hooked up for a while.
I thus restricted usage of the iPod to normal operating conditions (see above) and wrapped it up so it would sustain daily usage.
The following pictures will show the iPod in it’s final state after implementing the fix explained so far.
I also put some padding around it (arrows, following pictures)
7. Disclaimer and warning
I described how I found an effective fix for my static crackling noise problems that resembled the problem some other users reported.
However, I am a conservative user in a range of ways; I transport my iPod in a little padded bag, I usually don’t walk, jog or move when I use the device (it typically sits in my breast pocket or would be next to me on the table); never do I operate that iPod in humid or wet conditions, et cetera. In other words: the way this fix is applied works for me.
Whether any of this is anything you should ever attempt or do, is an open question. Whether your iPod mini has the same problem, or an entirely different problem, is yet another question that is not answered by this documentation. One thing is if your iPod mini emits a crackling noise that is somewhat dependent on movement or squeezing it a bit – another thing is if your iPod mini is entirely dead and there is no way of telling what the reason for that could be. If you are unsure about any of this, you definitely should not manipulate your iPod in the way that I have documented it here on this page.
8. About old devices and why an “old iPod” is not “just outdated”
There are certain assumptions that exist and that pertain to iPods. One may assume that it is not worth fixing an old iPod mini. One may assume that one can just go “and get another iPod” in case the device stops working as part of a non-warranty covered incident or after the warranty period is over. One may also assume that the iPod is the only way to listen to music.
Why not buy a new iPod? – I use the iPod technology to listen to digitized music. The only relevant difference that I found between an iPod mini and an iPod nano was, that I could not turn up the volume on iPod nano as high as on the iPod mini. As far as my investigations concluded, the iPod mini is as good as any other of these mp3-players. This is why I see no need to purchase a new device which would likely do the same thing, i.e., play music.
Why fix the old iPod? – This iPod mini lasted for four years since 2004 until this problem occured. The problem – crackling noise – seemed to be a specific one, and one that could be actually fixed. See above description.
Is fixing an old device also some sort of sport? – A likely technical issue underlying the occurence of crackling noise in iPod minis wasn’t pinpointed so far – so it seemed like a worthwhile fix to test and come up with. The forums are full of the posts by frustrated users who tried to pull their iPod mini apart, localize a fault, or get it exchanged for a “better” iPod mini, mostly without avail. When it turns out that one can not undo the actual cause of the problem, because this particular iPod mini seems to be originally conceived to attract static electricity on its main circuit board by the way it is constructed – then one can’t expect it to ever function, at least in its original setup. That is why I felt that I could safely flip its guts out and run it as “heavily modded” item instead of simply throwing it into the trash bin. The underlying problem of this iPod mini’s noise in my view is likely what someone called a “genuine design problem”. As iPod minis still sell for considerable amounts of money on online auctions, there may be other people interested in the options to implement a possible fix in their iPods. As my repair is a rather drastic fix that substantially messes up the sleek design of the iPod mini, it may not be for everyone. Conversely, someone may come up with a better way of rearranging microdrive and battery for the iPod mini. Some people may read this and decide that they do not want to go that way and thus throw their device away; other people may want to get theirs repaired in this way.
What about “just getting” a new iPod? – One can not “just get” another iPod. In reality, iPods are so expensive that they warrant a detailed pre-purchase investigation into the purchase. As part of that investigation, iPod’s sound quality should be compared, i.e., to the Sony Ericsson’s “walkman” telephone (that offers very impressive equalizer settings) or other technology such as maybe more affordable audio-CD or mp3-CD-players. So as soon as somone mentions to “just get another one”, I’d be asking very detailed comparative performance questions. Since in this instance, I could perform a cost-free repair, those questions aren’t asked.
Is it ugly now? – Some people may think that this is an ugly fix. I admit that this fix doesn’t make the iPod mini exactly “new” or “particularly sleek” looking. And if iPods grew on trees I’d consider that point as interesting.
What else is out there? – Further developments may not end up with the iPod as best way to do “portable consumer electronics”. For one, Sony Ericsson will have a 3.2 Megapixel camera in a mobile phone that has their digital “walkman” technology built in, that probably may be equipped with memory cards ranging from 1 GB to 32 GB, and other companies are likely to offer very competitive products. Furthermore, if your mobile phone is “the device” that plays the music, you won’t miss a call, whereas that’s not the case if you have the headphones on and listen to an iPod. – Secondly, I just got myself a 36 CHF mp3-/CD-player. The cost of that device is about 5-10% of that of an iPod. That leaves me with a whole lot of budget, say, for music. The cost difference is quite extreme, and also, iPods don’t play CDs.
Is the iPod the future? – Not every device must automatically be replaced by the same brand / make; not every technology is really worth continuing forever. Mobile multimedia is currently seeing a lot of good competition. If you can make an expensive investment such as an iPod go a bit further without causing any repair cost – why not test whether flipping some components away from the main circuit board would fix your iPod, too; instead of purchasing a new iPod for 300 CHF, those 300 CHF could go into a different, new, possibly much more powerful mobile toy in the future. One very important aspect is the question, whether you can run customized applications on a particular mobile device, and whether a kit to create such customized applications is available or not. So far, it looks like Symbian is the way to go, and probably not the iPod.
What about taking Apple products apart? – Some people seem to be of the opinion that (a) taking apart, or (b) analyzing, or (c) critically analyzing anything Apple produces is equal to “not liking Mac”. Funny. It’s not a religion, now, is it? I just fixed an Apple product so I could keep this previously discarded, previously noisy iPod mini. Consider this: Fixing a crackling-noise iPod mini without spending money on replacement parts, only using (a) a philips screwdriver, (b) a saw to crack the case open, (c) a flat screwdriver, (d) isolating / sticky tape (you may also try duct tape), and (e) two small stripes of cardboard using nothing but a bit of playing around and intuition is, technically, hard to top in terms of minimalism or the price-effort/performance relation.
Updated April 21st, 2006
Categorised as: tech