Teardown: Apple AirPods Pro2
Image credit: Apple
Better in so many ways, but not for repair and recycling.
Most of us love wireless earbuds – especially us dog walkers. No longer a tangle of lead and cable followed by a painful jerk at the lobe when your best friend catches sight of the dreaded ‘Squirrel’.
Unfortunately, the planet doesn’t agree. Most earbuds end up in landfill and, though small, are being bought in such numbers and replaced so frequently that they are thus becoming an e-waste concern.
E&T previously looked at Fairphone’s true wireless entry as part of our February issue this year. Even with the company’s commitment to repairability and recyclability, they earned a measly 1 out of 10 for repair from teardown experts iFixit.
Apple recently released its flagship second generation AirPods Pro. They offer plenty of improvements in functionality, including spatial audio, a separate case speaker and longer battery life.
Many of these are enabled by the new H2 in-house-designed chip in the pods, which also enables much more effective noise cancellation. Another internal processor, the U1, makes it easy to find the small case.
After all this innovation, the iFixit repairability score remained 0 out of 10. The company’s engineers did not disguise their frustration.
“It’s clear that Apple’s wearables team are not considering repair at all [for AirPods]. These things are literally a dumpster fire waiting to happen. E-waste recyclers absolutely hate these things,” said iFixit collaborator and author Brian Merchant.
“At this point Apple has been making AirPods for six years. After all the outcry, there really is no excuse for not improving repairability. For the most loved earbuds in the world, they sure aren’t returning the favour.”
Earbuds obviously involve packing a lot of technology into an extremely small space. Some proponents of their future incorporation with augmented-reality services would even like to see that space reduced.
From a repairability point of view, Apple’s strategy continues to involve a lot of glue and insides that are effectively impossible (and arguably also dangerous) to access without doing irreparable damage to the inside. In tearing down the second-generation Pro design, Merchant found that even the case required a combination of an opening pick, metal spudger and a hot air gun. “There’s a team of Apple engineers that are going on Santa’s naughty list, I guarantee it,” he said.
Then when it then comes to recycling, the products are so tightly packed that performing the necessary separation of the battery cell from the boards and components is a nightmare. It can be done but, as has often been noted, the cost of that will involve so much manual effort for each unit that it may well outweigh the benefit to the recycler.
You do need to note that this is not solely Apple’s problem, but a universal one because of the form factor and increasingly technical competition.
However, at time of writing, a further software issue had cropped up with the new Pro design. Owners report receiving alerts on their handsets that they need to replace the batteries in the case or one of the two buds. Hardly possible since they are brand new.
Seasoned Apple watchers such as MacRumours and the Apple Software Updates Twitter feed have suggested that the problem may be that the company has ported across firmware from its AirTags, which do have replaceable CR2032 button cells making these alerts necessary.
By the time you read this, Apple will almost certainly have fixed the issue, probably via a software patch. But should an owner be tempted to poke around inside any pair of AirPods and, while cutting things open, make contact with the cell, it could explode if still carrying some charge. This is extremely unlikely but it is still far from optimal.
Earbud design continues to pose many problems, though the products remain extremely popular. What’s the answer?
IFixit’s Sam Goldheart has some suggestions and has also credited Apple for its recent progress on repairability elsewhere (a feature of our next teardown, the new Apple Watch).
“Apple is ahead of the curve in most environmental concerns... so I think they know that AirPods are broken. And I think they can fix them,” she has written.
“I’m willing to bet that if Apple stopped treating AirPods as disposable, two to three-year devices, they could design them to be opened. Unscrew the earbud, remove a gasket, swap the battery, maybe even the driver, and boom: you have a product that can be serviced by anyone. That will improve its lifespan, and make recycling painless – and therefore more profitable. It’s not as hard as you might think.”
Fair points. Perhaps those of us who love these devices should keep adding our voices here as well.
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