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Teardown: Apple AirPods, wireless ear buds

Image credit: Apple

Apple AirPods: debatably dearer, disappointingly disposable?

The first comment I want to make about Apple’s second generation of AirPod wireless ear buds is that they are the first Apple product I have found it easy to convince my kids not to buy. In fact, they convinced themselves.

The reason for that goes to the heart of the iFixit teardown that underpins this article. It rates the product at 0 out of 10 for repairability. In the team’s view, this is not a product that, like most Apple lines, is hard to repair. It is impossible.

Actually, the first-generation AirPods got the same score. The other issue here, then, is that there has been no progress on that front – and we will see below why that matters.

“After two years, AirPods are still disappointingly disposable,” the analysis says. “Those tiny batteries will fail before long and good luck replacing them (or even recycling them).”

On a device this small, you do admire the engineering skill that has been necessary to assemble the AirPod feature package.

A new in-house-designed Apple H1 chip (H for headphone, apparently) adds Bluetooth 5, better-quality sound, improved power management for 50 per cent longer talk time, and hands-free Siri personal assistant support – all in essentially the same board real-estate as the W1 chip in the first generation. The buds themselves integrate batteries, microphones, antennas, speaker drivers and circuit boards in a tiny package.

AirPod X-ray view

Image credit: iFixit

Then you try taking them apart and, well, here is a taste of the experience.

“Flex cables, antennas and microphones are all carefully folded together like origami and cemented in place with glue. We cut away as much of the outer casing as we dare, and painstakingly scoop out the rest with a fine dental pick,” the iFixit team writes. 

“Our badges say ‘Teardown Engineer’, but today we feel more like surgeons, or paleontologists. Paleosurgeons?”

Even the charging container needs to be put in a vice so that you can access it to get to the battery there.

At this point, I know some of you want to cry out: “For pity’s sake, man, can’t you see how small these things are? Can’t you understand that something so tiny and complex will inevitably end up being effectively disposable?”

Fiddling around inside an AirPod

Image credit: iFixit

And normally, I would bow to your undoubtedly far greater practical design experience and button my lip - but here’s a thing. Just two weeks before operating on the AirPods, iFixit undertook a repairability teardown of Samsung’s Galaxy Buds. These are comparable in size and functionality to the AirPods. The Samsung effort earned a mark of 6 out of 10.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. When it was necessary to pry inside the device, it still had to be done carefully. These are small and fragile things. Some cables in the Galaxy Buds’ charging case were soldered rather than clipped in place.

On the other hand: “External assemblies are held together with clips instead of glue, making for a mostly non-destructive entry process. Disassembly can be accomplished with common prying tools and a Phillips screwdriver. The earbuds use coin-cell batteries that are relatively easy to find online for future replacements.”

Unfortunately, there are no still images from iFixit’s Samsung teardown, but you can see a video of the team’s work by visiting the Teardown section of ifixit.com.

As a result, there are a number of things that make me feel very disappointed with Apple.

First, the second-generation AirPods are more expensive than the Galaxy Buds: £159 vs £139. We’ve all got used to paying more for Apple design, but it would be nice to think that the extra 20 quid covered more than the margin, cute aesthetics and any extra silicon NRE (which you suspect will also be more widely amortised over the company’s Beats range anyway).

Second, and connected to that last point, Apple has been polishing its environmental halo of late. Specifically, in early April, the company convinced contract manufacturer Foxconn and chipmaker TSMC to sign up to its green supplier scheme. Kudos is due to the two suppliers, who operate in areas where greening your business is a way above average challenge. Apple, well, now not so much.

Third, though, I need to go to my kids’ objections to disposable products of any kind, where there is evidence that could be avoided. Their generation does not just look at global warming, but also islands of plastic bags in the ocean and mountains of e-waste on the land. With some justification, they blame all of us for allowing that to happen – and they roll their eyes when it looks like we cannot be bothered.

The batteries used in these ear buds will die in about two years and then you have two bricks. Lego-sized bricks, but bricks none the less. Somehow that’s not good enough.

Sure, these are only headphones. But they are headphones from arguably one of the fussiest design companies on the planet. So please indulge me a bit if I argue that such fussiness should be allowed to go both ways.

Key components: Apple AirPods

Exploded view

 1.  Ear bud (opened)

 2.  Case – flip top

 3.  Case – AirPod dock

 4.  Case – battery

 5.  Sync button

 6.  Case – wireless charging coil

 7.  Case – logic board

 8.  Case – cable

 9.  Case – inner assembly

 10.  Case – housing

 11.  Case – charging port

 12.  Ear bud – speaker driver/sensors/logic board

 13.  Ear bud – antenna/battery

Apple AirPods teardown

Image credit: iFixit

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