AirPods are part of my daily life. I’ve recommended almost every model of wireless, portable, and easy-to-pair headphones from the start. But AppleIt is
Market-leading headphones, as well as most other competing Bluetooth headphones, have one big problem: tiny, irreplaceable batteries.
I have the first generation AirPods Pro and after about three years of constant calls, music and podcasts, I can use them for less than an hour before the “womp womp” low battery sound plays .
Hundreds of millions of these wireless in-ear sets are sold each year, with AirPods and AirPods Pro being the most popular, according to analytics firm Counterpoint Research. Their lithium-ion batteries, similar to those that power smartphones and other electronic devices, degrade over time. Because headphones are so small, their batteries tend to drain faster, usually within a few years, and there’s no easy way to replace them.
One day, your buds will end up in a drawer, a trash can or, worse, in the landfill. AirPods are one of the many tech products we buy every year that die long before we want them to.
How about doing the repair yourself? The battery researchers I spoke to said they shouldn’t be tinkered with, for safety reasons. And while there are alternative technologies that could power our devices for decades without needing to be replaced, they’re still a long way off and come with trade-offs that could deter companies from adopting them.
Warning: risk of fire
Most headphone manufacturers do not provide instructions on how to replace the batteries in their headphones or sell the batteries needed to complete the repair.
Apple offers AirPods battery service for all models out of warranty for $49 per bud, plus an additional $49 for the case. It’s expensive because it’s effectively a new pair, not a repair. “We will replace the user’s AirPod and send the previous one to a top-rated recycler for responsible management,” an Apple spokeswoman said.
And while Apple offers self-service repair for iPhones and Macs, it doesn’t provide DIY manuals or spare parts for AirPods.
I wouldn’t attempt a battery swap myself, even if I could. Community repair website iFixit gave the original pros a zero out of 10 for repairability because the internal components are glued together and the battery is soldered. A battery swap would effectively break the benefits.
Not all headphones are as impenetrable as AirPods. Gio Cerdena replaced Sony’s batteryIt is
WF-1000XM3 itself after the buds, originally purchased in January 2020, stopped holding their charge. The model is bulkier than most, hence the relatively simple repair. Mr. Cerdena, a Manila-based audio engineer, said he watched a YouTube tutorial and purchased the replacement batteries online for $24. He said it took six minutes with a screwdriver in his hand and a credit card as a prying tool.
Sony’s new XM4 buds aren’t as serviceable. A Sony representative declined to comment on the DIY repairs.
Repair at your own risk. Batteries are the least safe parts of electronics. If punctured or shorted, they can create a self-sustaining fire. In New York, much larger e-bike batteries caused hundreds of dangerous fires last year.
Tightly glued parts make it harder to repair, but there’s a reason behind it. The seal created by the glue also prevents dust and water from damaging the battery, said Zhengyu Ju, who holds a doctorate. battery research candidate at the University of Texas at Austin.
Limited battery life
Every time you use batteries, they degrade a little. Researchers and technicians measure the rate of decay based on charge cycles, that is, each time you use 100% of your battery. (It could be 30% one day and 70% the next.)
When a battery can only hold 80% of its original capacity, it is considered a misfire. Apple says iPhones can go through about 500 charge cycles before their batteries reach that threshold. For Macs, it might be 1,000 charge cycles.
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However, the company does not share numbers for its AirPods. Some analysts have separated the buds and estimate that the type of battery used will reach 80% after about 500 charge cycles. If you use your headphones daily, that’s about a year and a half of battery.
However, it is not a constant decrease over time. Batteries age quickly at first, then slowly, then quickly again toward the end of their life, said Anna Stefanopoulou, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan. Fast charging and wireless charging can degrade batteries faster, she added. Apple’s Optimized Battery Charging setting can help here. When on, AirPods will charge more slowly until you need them, depending on your charging habits.
New lithium-ion battery technology, using iron or titanate as a component, can last longer than current batteries. The tradeoff is that both types pack less power into the same space, which means potentially worse day-to-day battery life.
The titanate variety can last at least 15,000 cycles, said Charlie Welch, chief executive of ZapBatt, a company that makes lithium-titanate batteries. “Companies, and a lot of people, think batteries are disposable. Going forward, it should be a more circular economy,” he added. “The batteries should last so long that they could go from product to product.”
The exchange club
A startup, the Swap Club, adopts this circular model. You can trade in your old AirPods and receive used AirPods with new batteries starting at $50 a pair. It sounds like an earwax fiasco waiting to happen, but company co-founder Emily Alpert says the Pods are brushed and sterilized. Ms Alpert said the new batteries have a slightly longer lifespan than the originals.
The replacement process is done by robots and manual labor, she said. It is so difficult due to the size of the buds, she added, that many trading units always end up being sacrificed to the trash.
Swap Club does not yet offer AirPods Pro or third-generation AirPods. Ms Alpert said the water resistance of the new headphones is difficult to maintain after a battery swap. It’s the compromise of these tiny gadgets. To be durable, they must be water resistant. To live in our ears, they need small batteries. Both make battery replacement difficult.
We could always forgo convenience and go back to wired headphones. Apparently cool kids do.
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