A first step towards sustainable Bluetooth audio, but no more.
Five years after Apple launched its AirPods, many others have entered the earbud end of the Bluetooth audio market. They stretch from heavier hitters like Samsung, Huawei and Xiaomi to specialists in low-cost peripherals. A ‘professional’ pair can cost more than £200 – Apple AirPods Pro are £239 – but prices can go down to less than £20. Quality and lifespan vary.
With the increasing disappearance of the 3.5mm socket on many smartphones, there is concern about Bluetooth audio’s contribution to electronic waste. Dutch consumer electronics company Fairphone has established itself in Europe with smartphones that are repairable and recyclable. Its fourth-generation model just received 10 out of 10 for repairability from specialists at iFixit. To coincide with that, it has entered the earbud business.
Fairphone doesn’t have all the answers yet, but its entry does perhaps suggest it is part of the way forward.
The environmental problem with earbuds is that they do not last as long as wired earphones. Audio specialists at Sound Guys have highlighted the most obvious problem: “Batteries have a limited lifespan. AirPods batteries will last anywhere from 18 months to three years. In 2020, 233 million true wireless earbuds were sold globally with 33 per cent more expected to sell in 2021. We can expect over 450 million of [their] batteries to reach their end-of-life by the end of 2023 and more thereafter. And that’s just earbuds.”
As small as these products are, that is an awful lot of lithium-ion cells to manage. To their credit, brands such as Apple and Amazon run earbud-recycling programmes, as do some leading retailers. There are also specialist and public recyclers. But another problem is you and me.
While it might occur to us to recycle a handset, earbuds are so small they can easily be chucked out with the normal rubbish. It does feel like a bit of a grind to go to all that ‘effort’ over something so tiny, doesn’t it? For comparison, even alkaline battery recycling can often be an after(the bin)thought.
Then there are the recycling and repair challenges posed by the size of the product. Apart from the battery and the Bluetooth circuitry needed to offer a True Wireless Stereo experience, there is mounting technological competition around speaker and microphone quality, host-device control, noise cancellation and other forms of audio processing.
Commentators such as investor and New York University Professor Scott Galloway have meanwhile suggested that earbuds could form part of the path to augmented reality. So, the processing demands look likely to increase and involve more functionality being packed into their small form factor.
Designing something that is easily fixed and accessible is not about to get any easier, if Galloway is right. Given all that problem statement, how has Fairphone tried to mitigate the problem?
The first question that needs to be raised concerns physical design – and the answer is, ‘Not really’. After its separate Fairphone True Wireless Earbuds teardown, the European iFixit team rated the product at just 1 out of 10 for repairability.
“The critical charging case and earbud components – including batteries and port – are soldered together,” their analysis notes. “Reliance on solder, plastic rivets, and clips make repair harder than the use of screws and connectors.”
For now, Fairphone has not been able to overcome the issues that have dogged rivals which place less emphasis on repair. “We’re still a little bummed these aren’t easier-than-average to service,” iFixit adds.
On a more positive note, Fairphone has dug into the design elsewhere, particularly for lifetime. It has used Fairtrade gold and 30 per cent recycled plastics where possible, and on the technical front has made optimisations in power management to the buds and the charging case to give its version twice the shelf-life of rivals, the company claims.
This is better, but it is still only a start. Wired earphones and headphones can last a decade, sometimes longer. That is roughly twice what Fairphone has achieved. They also have less nasty stuff inside them.
In terms of audio performance – what you would have hoped would be the main value – the Fairphone True Wireless Earbuds reach a lot of the right notes for a UK retail price of £89.95.
There is optional active noise cancellation (ANC), with 10mm (32 ohm) drivers at a sensitivity of 101+/-3dB. Two microphones in each earbud handle calls and ANC. Charging time is two hours for the case (500mAh) and one-and-a-half for the buds (50mAh). Bud active-life is five hours. There is also IPX4 water resistance.
Given Fairphone’s philosophical emphasis on recyclability and repairability, consumers who share those concerns may still feel that wired and more environment-friendly alternatives remain a better bet (or at least Bluetooth ear- and headphones with an optional 3.5mm connection). Given how fast wireless earbud demand is growing, they may have a point. Fairphone has made progress, but you hope it can accelerate its efforts and prompt others.
Fairphone True Wireless Earbuds: key components
1. Earbud case
2. Battery bracket (case)
3. Driver housing
4. Earbud tip
5. Earbud assembly A (left)
6. Earbud assembly B (left)
7. Earbud (right)
8. Earbud holder, case PCB and battery
9. Earbud PCB, battery and driver
10. Proximity sensor PCB
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