How to get a Mac laptop's headphone jack to work reliably

A reader writes in with a common problem with MacBooks of all vintages related to audio output.

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Reader Jeremy Saklad reports a problem many have experienced over many years, including yours truly:

My Retina MacBook Pro has recently stopped detecting headphones properly when they are plugged in. It will act as if nothing is connected and just continue using the speakers. Restarting will cause it to work again, but only until close it. The problem will then return.

There can be several causes to this problem, but you can isolate the easy one first: Get a can of compressed air or an air compressor designed for use with computers. Put the laptop on a level surface, and briefly spray air into the headphone jack. (Never spray canned compressed air except with the can perfectly level; otherwise, it can leak compressed liquid and damage.)

Does this problem go away? Good! There was just dirt or debris in the hole. This is also a common problem with iOS devices.

If that doesn’t solve it, try these steps whenever this occurs:

  • Does plugging and unplugging the headphones make them work?
  • Hold down the Option key, and select the volume icon in the system menu bar to reveal audio inputs and outputs. Is Headphones selected as the output device? Does it appear in the list? If so, can you re-select it and get sound through the headphones now?
  • Sleep and wake your computer. Do the headphones work now?

If any of those three options work, and it doesn’t permanently fix the problem, go through our instructions for zapping NVRAM (non-volatile memory), in which certain system hardware settings are cached, and can corrupt. You may even need to try to reset the SMC (System Management Controller), also described in that link. (Jeremy tried resetting NVRAM to no avail.)

After trying all this, if you keep having failures or intermittent performance, it’s possible the jack’s wiring is damaged or internal circuitry has gone kaput. Take it to Apple if it remains under its regular warranty or the extended three-year AppleCare warranty, as such a failure should be covered (unless you jammed something untoward in the hole at some point).

If it’s out of warranty, Apple will likely want to replace the entire main logic board, which can be very expensive. You might look for a trusted local Mac repair outfit that could diagnose and replace just a component. You can also replace its functionality with a USB audio adapter; there are many on the market that are compatible with Macs, require no driver installation, are well-reviewed, and cost $10 or less. (Note that Apple earbuds and similar devices that bundle mic and headphones into a single plug won’t work with most of these, though they almost all have a separate mic in jack.)

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