In an extremely thorough feature, Vice reporter (and former Outline intern) Caroline Haskins has enumerated some of the very big problems with AirPods that people who buy them probably don’t consider as potential issues down a pretty short road. People have been buying them like crazy, and it’s easy to justify the high price for subpar quality by telling oneself that they will be very careful and the headphones will last a really long time (as long as one doesn’t lose them). In fact, according to customers, the headphones start to lose battery capacity after about 18 months. To replace the battery in the $199 AirPods, Apple charges $69 per earbud ($138 total), and a little less with the AppleCare warranty.
Not only that, but because AirPods are made of a bunch of pieces glued together, there’s no safe way to separate the batteries to dispose of them safely. Technically, unless you want to pry them apart yourself, you have to keep them for eternity.
While AirPods, with their glue and bonkers repair prices, are a particularly egregious example of forced obsolescence, all Bluetooth headphones face the same basic issue: since they rely on batteries, which all eventually stop holding enough of a charge to be effective, they all have a pretty short lifespan. All rechargeable batteries are designed to last a certain number of charging cycles (full battery to dead battery) before they start to lose capacity. Apple’s laptops are meant to get around 1,000 full charging cycles, which translates to many years of regular use. It seems AirPods may only be rated to a few hundred charging cycles (or perhaps people are racing through the charging cycles much faster). AirPods have only been on the market for a couple of years, such that people who have bought them are only just starting to encounter this problem.
When it comes to earbud-type Bluetooth headphones, I have only regretted buying expensive ones, regardless of the brand. The ones that don’t get lost die fast, or the buttons stop working, regardless of how much money I spend; it is an unfortunate fact. For this reason, I buy as basic of a Bluetooth set of earbuds as I can bear, and I think this is basically the right approach. If I can’t afford to replace them every two years, I can’t afford them, period (I have two of these; they are fine).
I’m not trying to lay blame on customers (everyone should spend their money however they want) but I have tried to reckon as best I can with magical thinking about battery-based Bluetooth technology. It just is not to be trusted; it’s going to die fast, so I buy with that in mind. This doesn’t contend with the e-waste problem whatsoever, so I look forward to bequeathing a shoebox full of a lifetime’s worth of dead Bluetooth headphones to my grandchildren. But this just is the product cycle; it sucks and is garbage, and that’s precisely why no one should give their money to companies making wildly expensive Bluetooth earbuds.
In the fairest of circumstances, Apple (and all the other headphone makers, frankly) would clearly communicate the number of charging cycles their Bluetooth earbuds can stand, and/or offer replacements for way less money than they do currently (batteries, as a piece of technology, are really not that expensive). But then people might have a complete understanding that they are probably not only spending more money than they can afford, but setting themselves up to be beholden to a profoundly expensive “customer support” apparatus that will charge them almost as much money to “fix” their purchase as it would be to buy a new one. And then they might not buy the AirPods in the first place.
The battery technology is almost certainly not going to get better in the very near future, and it’s doubtful Apple will offer meaningful support for it. AirPods are sleek-looking and work extremely well with iPhones, but the only people who can afford them, by default, are people who can afford to effectively replace them every two years. And this is likely a vastly smaller subset of people than who have been buying them.