Teardown: Apple AirPods wireless earphones
Image credit: iFixit/Apple
How do Apple’s much-debated AirPods square up?
When Apple announced that it was taking the 3.5mm headphone jack off the iPhone 7, there was a predictable wave of angst. Was the company trying to force the market for wireless earphones and headphones?
To some extent, it probably was. But the truth is that Bluetooth audio had been making significant inroads for some time before Apple jumped (and even then, only partly so, since you can get a 3.5mm-to-Lightning adaptor for the iPhone, and thus continue to use wired kit). According to Slice Intelligence, wireless models accounted for 75 per cent of ear/headphone sales in the US last Christmas.
Nevertheless, Apple accounted for a lot of that. Slice further estimates that its Beats subsidiary (acquired in 2014) has 15.4 per cent of the wireless market and now its in-house branded AirPods have taken 26 per cent.
The success of the AirPods is particularly noteworthy. Trailed heavily and for much of 2016’s second half as a peripheral for the full range of Apple devices (Watch, iPod and Macbook can also be seamlessly connected), the product still achieved market-leading share very quickly given its official 13 December shipping date.
From a design point of view, AirPods arguably illustrate three key aspects of Apple’s current technological and industrial strategies: fully leverage having your own silicon, pack as much into the real estate as possible and maintain a consistent approach to industrial design.
Let’s start with the silicon. The AirPods feature Apple’s own new W1 chip. It does a lot more than simply handle the Bluetooth connections (although these are simple to establish with other Apple devices).
The W1 also incorporates power management, so that the tiny 93mWh battery within each pod offers up to five hours of listening at one-hundredth of the charge capacity of the iPhone 7.
And then there’s the really clever stuff. The W1 works with sensors and accelerometers within each pod so that the devices can, for example, detect when they are in or out of the ear and pause or start the music accordingly; determine whether mono or stereo playback is appropriate depending on the number of AirPods you are using; and assist with noise cancellation when you are using the earphones to make hands-free calls.
Integrating so much of the functionality within the W1 obviously helps Apple cram so much into each AirPod. These are small devices, weighing just 4g each with dimensions of 16.5x18x40.5mm. Cables, boards and all other elements are intricately brought together.
A good idea of how tightly packed a design this is can be gleaned from the post that descends from the main earbud. As you would expect, this has the main microphone for calls at its foot, but then within the stem itself Apple has inserted both the tiny battery and an antenna to improve reception (a persistent complaint with Bluetooth audio devices has been dropped signals).
Some early users have said that the AirPods look a little strange – largely because of that extended stem – but they still carry through the same physical feel as the wired headphones Apple has hitherto shipped with iPhones. Indeed the form factor and fit of the buds themselves is essentially identical.
The final part of the package is the AirPod container/charger. Most reviewers have accurately likened it to a dental floss container. However, this small box contains a further small battery – 1.52Wh – to charge the pods and a Lightning connector so that it can itself be charged. Inserting the buds in a charged case for just 15 minutes will provide three hours of life.
This kind of size-driven design has meant that the buds are essentially impossible to repair, an iFixit Teardown team giving the product a rare 0 out of 10. The only way to get inside the casings to change a component is to destroy them; the only external fastener used throughout the design is glue.
Were the AirPods sold in the same range as pound-shop headphones, even a fair way above that, this might not be too much of a concern. But AirPods are still premium-priced products, currently retailing in the UK at what appears to be a Brexit-adjusted price of £159 (the US retail price is $159).
In that context, reviewers who have been able to use the product over extended periods have applauded their convenience and the sound performance, particularly the bass response. The only major criticism is that while these are good from the point of view of cutting another cord, they do not sit as comfortably or snugly in the ear as earphones with replaceable silicon fittings.
So far, Apple users do not seem to have been greatly deterred. However, as Bluetooth hardware does inevitably start to come down in price, it will be interesting to see how easily the AirPods retain their speedily won market leadership.
Key components: Apple AirPod wireless earphones
1 Complete left AirPod
2 Right AirPod cover
3 Right AirPod IR/noise cancellation mic/speaker housing
4 Main board and test array
5 Stem membrane
6 Microphone and battery
8 Programmable SoC, Cypress Semiconductor
9 Custom W1 processor, Apple
10 Audio Codec, Maxim
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