There's something you should know about AirPods
They go in your ears and allow you to enjoy your favourite music, podcasts or whatever else without disturbing those around you. Nowadays, they are smarter than ever and have no wires at all, thanks to the advent of 'true wireless earbuds' - a relatively new market that Apple's AirPods currently dominate.
The reason I've brought you all here today is to share some truths about Apple's beloved white ear sticks - stuff I found out while considering to buy some recently. I tried really hard to convince myself they were a good decision, but couldn't bring myself to it.
In one word, they're wasteful.
To understand just how wasteful, and in what way, we have to look at the way they've been engineered and the scale at which they're being produced.
Apple is not the only offender here, but since they effectively 'started it' with AirPods and have such a huge market share for true wireless earbuds, they will be the corporate antagonist of this blog post. Other culprits will be mentioned later.
The design of Apple's AirPods is similar to any wireless earbud of today's age: each 'pod' contains a small speaker, some other stuff and a rechargeable battery. Pretty simple right? Accompanying these components are a few simpler items: the white plastic casing, and sizeable globs of glue to seal the deal.
The problem with having a wireless earbud that is filled with glue is that, well, it's full of glue and there's no easy way of opening it up. Granted, you're probably not too worried about this, as you would have no reason to open it up and peek inside, that is unless you're trying to fix them.
As demonstrated in a teardown by iFixit, there is no way to get into the AirPods' internals short of using a scalpel and damaging the outer plastic casing that everything is glued to. Not exactly the ideal situation for a repair.
So what though? Who is going to want to repair their AirPods? The design is pretty simple, what could actually go wrong with them?
AirPods have proven to be a pretty reliable piece of tech, generally. The first component to go bad under normal use would be the tiny rechargeable battery in each earbud.
Think back to your first Walkman or iPod. Remember the wired headset that came with that? Those were simple - so simple in fact that there's a good chance you could plug them in right now and they would work as if they were new.
Anyway, batteries. Today we are filling our lives with more and more of em - our headphones and earbuds are no exception. The problem for our devices is that batteries are a chemical reaction - one that gets less efficient over time, meaning they will eventually fail.
Pair this with the rigors of everyday life and the batteries are bound to degrade over time - usually quite a bit faster than the degradation we see in larger devices like smartphones and laptops.
While one could reasonably expect 3-5 years out of a smartphone before it needs a battery replacement, what about your wireless earbuds? How long will it be before their charge lasts minutes instead of hours? The answer to that is around 2 years, 3 if you're lucky.
Now this in itself isn't anybody's fault - it's just a limitation of current battery technology. Batteries, like all things, have a limited lifespan.
The real bummer, however, comes when a companies like Apple (and many others in their wake) know about these limitations, but instead of designing a product that can be fixed up when the battery dies, they choose to mass produce a product that ultimately has to be thrown out when that one component fails.
Apple itself cannot and does not repair broken AirPods. If you send them in for battery service, they replace the entire units and discard the old ones.
Apple’s “battery service” for AirPods is code for “throwing it away.”
Apple does appear to be recycling old AirPods, but we really don't know the extent to which they are doing this, and this method currently only works if you give your retired AirPods directly to Apple at the end of their lifespan, for no monetary reward. If you'd like to do this, click here (NZ).
Alternatively you can opt to pay a 'battery service' cost - slightly less than the purchase cost of a new pair if you're out of warranty - to get your hands on a pair with fresh batteries.
The reason you should be mad about this is because Apple will happily charge you $159 USD for AirPods or $249 USD for AirPods Pro knowing either model will be barely functional within 2-3 years, and using the term 'battery service' to describe unit replacement is wildly misleading.
But again - at least they appear to have active recycling initiatives for AirPods and are displaying some form of responsibility. It's not ideal, but it's definitely more than can be said for many AirPod competitors, especially the super cheap ones.
Most people don't seem to know about it, so it's not affecting their purchasing decisions.
One thought that may have passed through your mind so far is, surely two little bits of plastic can't have that much of an impact?
I do agree with this at a basic level, but consider this - the market for true wireless earbuds is growing rapidly and millions upon millions of units are already being sold each year. That adds up - and the fact that AirPods have been so successful confirms to other companies that irresponsible design decisions like Apple's are okay.
But then, maybe that is just the price we have to pay for true wireless?
No, it's not! There are options on the market right now that compete in terms of size, style and price to Apple's offering and have serviceable batteries inside them. How much sense does that make?
I encourage you to vote with your wallet if you are thinking of buying true wireless earbuds.
I've compiled some options below that rival AirPods and AirPods Pro while having an eye for longevity.
My recommendation - AirPods alternative
Samsung Galaxy Buds
If you're a hardcore Apple fan, please switch off your brand loyalty for just a second while we take a look at Samsung's offering. Yep, these will work with your iPhone. The Galaxy Buds earned an iFixit score of 6/10, the highest score for any true wireless earbuds so far (Jan 2020) thanks to a relatively easy to service battery in each earbud.
- Colours white, black or yellow
- Comparable price and specs to AirPods
My recommendation - AirPods Pro alternative
There isn't a whole lot of specific information on Sony's website about repairability for this model, but the fact that this teardown was able to open one of the earbuds up and remove the battery without any damage is a good sign that at the very least third-party repairers will be able to fix them up outside of warranty.
- Comes in white or black
- Cheaper than AirPods Pro with comparable specs
List of Shame
Some models I researched whose public repairability information is unclear at best and shady at worst.
- Apple AirPods & AirPods Pro
- Marley Liberate Air
- Jabra Elite Active 65t
- Powerbeats Pro
- Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless
If in doubt, Google the model name and 'battery replacement' and see what comes up.
With the recommendations above, when the batteries do eventually fail - a repair agent should be able to open them up, pop new batteries in and hand them back to you like magic. My only advice at that point would be to make sure your repairer recycles the old batteries.
If you already own a pair of AirPods, don't feel bad. They are a great product in pretty much every way except for the short lifespan. So enjoy them while they last, and perhaps next time factor serviceability into your decision.
I ultimately bought the Sony WF-1000XM3 in white and I love them.
So, that is the story of the true wireless earbuds of today. Unfortunately it's only the tip of the iceberg in the tech world, but the good news is that as a consumer, you have a choice as to which companies you support with your money. Make it count, and good luck out there.
If you have an Apple product you'd like to recycle...
If you think there's something I should add to this post or you have any feedback, please leave a comment or head over to Contact and get in touch. All information in this post is based on information that was readily available online at the time of writing.
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