We’re haunted by the memories of AirPods past. Some teardown engineers still wake up in a cold sweat dreaming about cutting open these tiny, glued-together earbuds. But Apple’s new AirPods Pro are here, so we soldiered on and tore them down—and no amount of noise cancellation, silicone ear tips, or fancy algorithms can wipe away our frustration with Apple’s wireless headphones and their egregious disposability.
The AirPods Pro earned another unfortunate 0-out-of-10, on par with the 1st- and 2nd-generation AirPods, despite these Pro buds featuring a design that could have made battery replacements possible. Alas, that’s not Apple’s plan.
Apple confirmed to Wired that AirPods Pro “are no more repairable than previous versions,” a statement we were a bit surprised to hear given the structural changes they made. Inside these new earbuds, we discovered an all-new design that bypasses the proprietary batteries in the stem in favor of somewhat standard button cell batteries. The approach is promising—these could’ve been semi-repairable headphones.
“If you had to perform a battery replacement on the AirPods Pro, you could theoretically separate the two halves of the bud and replace just the battery and audio driver, since the two are glued and soldered together,” Jeff Suovanen, our teardown engineer, explained to me. “This would allow you to keep the stem section, which includes most of the expensive stuff, including the processor and amplifier, microphones, antennas, and touch sensor.”
Unfortunately, the AirPods Pro are still really difficult and time-consuming to open up. “It’s not practical or economical for a repair shop, or probably even Apple, to do battery replacements or other repairs on these,” he says.
AirPods Are Dying, and Apple Can’t Hide the Bodies
That’s a problem, because all batteries have a finite lifespan. If you use AirPods every day, the battery will degrade to an unusable level in a matter of a couple of years, sometimes sooner. At that point, they’re done for. You have no option but to buy a completely new set of AirPods. Nearly three years after the AirPods first released, early adopters have been feeling the pain already.
Technically, Apple offers “battery service,” but this is a misleading way of saying they’ll let you trade in your old pair for a fresh new set for $150—nearly the cost of a brand new pair of non-Pro AirPods anyway. (Battery service for AirPods Pro is the same price.) If you sprung for AppleCare+, you’re lucky enough to get free replacements if the curse happens within two years of your original purchase.
After you trade in your old AirPods, Apple claims they hand them off to recycling facilities. But Apple is said to have sold 35 million pairs of AirPods last year alone, which means 70 million individual earbuds would need to be meticulously disassembled in order to be properly recycled in the next year or two. And sales are only expected to skyrocket from here on out, meaning more and more AirPods on the recycling backlog—or, more likely, thrown into the waste stream. Apple has failed to provide any takeback collection numbers, and based on what we’ve seen, hardly anyone is taking advantage of this trade-in service. We’ve asked Apple and two of their contracted recyclers, Wistron GreenTech and Universal Recycling Technologies, for detailed numbers but have not yet received responses.
Why Apple May Have Designed the AirPods the Way They Did
It’s possible to manufacture tiny, wireless headphones with replaceable batteries. Samsung’s Galaxy Buds are equipped with standard button cell batteries that you can easily buy online and replace yourself. So why did Apple change the AirPods Pro design to use a standard battery without plans to actually repair them?
I asked Arthur Shi, our resident electrical engineer, what Apple might have been thinking. “The Galaxy Buds, PowerBeats Pro, and the new Sony buds all use the same battery,” he told me. “When Apple decided to use a bigger battery for the AirPods Pro, it may have been cheaper for them to go with an existing battery design and manufacturer versus developing another special form-factor battery.”
But Apple usually isn’t shy about designing custom batteries for their hardware. Another possibility is that this modular design allows for simpler testing and rework in the factory, which could lower manufacturing costs dramatically. Or, after so much bad press about their environmental “efforts,” it’s possible Apple that just wanted to make AirPods more cost-effective to recycle.
It Doesn’t Matter: AirPods Are Still Disposable
We can hem and haw about how much Apple’s actually recycling, but that isn’t really the point, because recycling should be a last resort. It’s destructive. Making a disposable product is terrible for the environment, whether it’s recyclable or not. The real environmental impact is in manufacturing, and Apple is planning on manufacturing a lot of AirPods.
This product will be successful. Millions of people are going to buy them. For many of them, $249 will be the most that they have ever spent on headphones. And, after a year and a half, their $249 investment is going to slowly stop working. Their battery life will slowly fade, alongside our hopes for a sustainable electronics industry.