The Mac Hardware Report: About those Audio Jacks!

September 24th, 2009

In talking with David Biedny for an episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I came to realize that he had twice encountered a hardware issue similar to one I’ve faced. That’s the ease with which the audio input or output jack on a Mac note-book can break.

Here’s what I mean: My 2006 17-inch MacBook Pro developed a defective input jack a little over a year after it was purchased. Evidently something was stuck inside, no doubt a broken pin, but I couldn’t see it, and the local jeweler who inspected it as a favor wasn’t able to locate the cause of the problem. Since the unit was out of warranty, I wasn’t optimistic about getting it repaired, but since I planned to sell it in a few months, I decided to, as they say, take the hit.

As I recall, the price of replacing a daughtercard plus labor came to over $200. The third-party Apple reseller’s service manager told me that some units that exhibited the same problem actually required replacement of the main logic board, which would have cost far more.

I chalked this experience up to just one of those things until I interviewed David for this week’s episode. He told me it had happened twice to him. First on an aluminum PowerBook G4 and then on a 15-inch MacBook Pro of the same vintage as mine. He decided not to pay what he regarded as an excessive amount of money for that repair, and is using an old USB audio interface to handle the input and output chores.

David is a practical fellow, although he might want to consider other options should he decide to eventually sell his note-book. However the larger issue here is whether we’re both unlucky, equally careless or whether the design is sufficiently flimsy to allow for such damage to occur.

I’m not about to make a choice there. But I am concerned why it’s so expensive to replace a part that probably costs less than $1.00. The answer is, of course, that service people these days simply are not trained nor inclined to do component level repair. Rather than remove the offending part and replacing it with the good one, it’s more convenient to simply run a diagnostic to see what’s wrong, and swap the offending printed circuit card.

Now in fairness to the techs, when you’re working with miniaturized components in very close surroundings, it’s easy to make a mistake and cause other problems that may not reveal themselves until the repaired machine is back in the hands of the owner. Granted that makes an awful lot of sense. Besides, the replacement circuit board, which is generally refurbished, has been fully tested at the factory to meet the manufacturer’s specs. When someone is replacing an individual part by hand, who does the quality control, and would you pay for a second tech to examine the work performed by the first? There may be a supervisor or quality control person on hand in a larger repair facility, but not at an Apple Store or regular third-party repair shop.

Besides, consider the profit margins when a dealer can sell you the full circuit card rather than the individual part.

Now there’s nothing to stop you from doing your own repairs if you are adept at the process, have the proper tools, and can find the parts you need. I wouldn’t presume to discourage you, just so long as you know the risks, a mistake that may take down not just the card you’re repairing but other parts on the computer.

As much as I’d like to see a bank of techs making these simple repairs, it’s just not practical anymore. The world of consumer electronics is far too complicated. Besides, when something real serious goes wrong, the manufacturer and the dealer would no doubt prefer that you just buy the newest model instead.

You almost feel that way when it comes to an iPod, where just cracking open the case might, literally, crack it. Sure there are plenty of how-to documents online to ease you through the process. There are also repair shops that can replace the broken parts for you. Apple, however, will usually just exchange the broken unit with a refurbished model and return it to you, and then rebuild the older product on their own time and simply send it to someone else. Or, if it’s badly damaged, just recycle the working parts.

Of course, the real question here is all about design efficiency and reliability. As David reminds me, he’s never seen a bad audio jack on an iPod, and I can say the same for the various models I’ve used, nor the three iPhones I’ve owned since the product was originally introduced.

This doesn’t mean that such problems don’t occur. Certainly a media player or smartphone will probably get lots more use and abuse than a note-book computer over its lifetime. The headphone plug might be pulled out and inserted far more often, thus creating the potential for failure. But our limited experience indicates it’s happening on our note-books. Maybe the modern unibody models are superior in that regard, or maybe not. Maybe we’re just unlucky, and there’s no problem at all with Apple’s audio jacks. What do you readers have to say on the subject?

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3 Responses to “The Mac Hardware Report: About those Audio Jacks!”

  1. p2 says:

    > Besides, consider the profit margins when a dealer can sell you the full circuit card rather than
    > the individual part.
    I think you mean profit and not profit margin. Given the fixed costs on repairs, the profit margin for replacing a jack should have a profit margin of several hundred percent but the actual profit would be on the order of 10 dollars.

  2. Bill Burkholder says:

    As an old radio producer, multi-image AV producer, and video producer, I have to say that cables, connectors, switches, and dirty power sources are the major “fault points” of electronics.

    Yes, I’ve had issues with my MacBook Pro audio out jack. It works fine, most of the time, but I once plugged a headphone set into it without looking at the plug, first. I felt something “not right” as I pushed it in. Sure enough, it didn’t sound right, either. I removed it, feeling the same resistance. Once I saw that the tip was bent, I began to worry, and tested the ‘book with a new set of headphones with a clean plug.

    No signal! Arrgh! I shut down the Mac, removed and reinserted the plug a few times, rebooted, and somehow, that “fixed” the issue. I’ve had no problems with it since, and that was months ago.

    I’ve read elsewhere that folks have had this problem, and that they’ve used all manners of gizmos to reach into the little hole and straighten things out, remove pieces of broken parts, etc. I won’t go that far!

    These parts are too fragile, but hey, there’s more to them than an iPod earphone jack. Most PowerBook and MacBook connectors include both analog audio and optical digital audio connections in the same jack. So it is probably easier to damage them.

    If you’re serious about recording audio, a FireWire interface is probably the way to go, because USB often exhibits latency issues. But USB is plenty good enough for casual listening.

    That said, any external interface is just another expense and another gizmo you have to carry and put on your desk… So unless you need it…

    Caring for cables and connectors is an important part of living with electronics. Had I not loaned my headphones to my daughter, she probably would not have stepped on the plug and bent the tip of the shaft…

    I always buy (or make) the best cables I can find. In my radio and AV days, this saved me countless times. I always went with steel connector casings, never plastic, and I always made sure the strain relief was intact before using a cable. Winding cables properly, with the natural curl of the wires inside, is important, too, for longevity. So is storing them in airtight containers when they are not in use.

    Again, cables, connectors, switches, and power sources cause more problems with electronics than anything else. Use properly grounded surge protectors. Don’t run cords or cables under rugs, or where they’ll get pinched and shorted. Don’t run phone, audio, video, USB, or FireWire cables next to power cables. Pull on the plug, not the cable, to remove it. Push plugs in straight, and pull plugs out straight. Don’t force switches or connectors. Follow these guidelines, and your gear will work for you a lot longer…

  3. dfs says:

    This is totally off-subject, Gene, but I just came across a sentence in an Information Week article on Windows 7 which is such a gem I can’t help sharing it with you and your readers: “… just 16% of companies plan to implement Windows 7 within a year, our InformationWeek Analytics survey of 1,414 business technology pros finds…” Read the whole story here:

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