For earth’s sake, don’t buy AirPods
Or any ‘use-&-throw’ battery-powered Bluetooth headset
This morning, I read in the news that Apple’s $24 billion wearables and accessories business (Apple Watch, AirPods, and HomePod smart speaker) is set to become Apple’s second-largest business, surpassed only by the iPhone.
That set my alarm bells ringing. Just yesterday, my 7-month old, fully charged bluetooth headset conked off 30 minutes into my one-hour workout. Unfortunately, like most Bluetooth headsets, its batteries can’t be replaced so it’s just e-waste. This kind of stuff is what makes 16-year old Greta Thunberg scream blue murder at me for daring to steal her generation’s future. I can relate to Greta’s outrage as my own kid’s favorite word is ‘unfair.’ We need to do our two bits for the planet we are leaving our kids.
Apple claims to be environment-conscious, and even offers to replace AirPod batteries, but at an exorbitant cost which is just a few dollars less than the cost of a new set of AirPods. The fact that Apple removed the audio jack from iPhone 7 onwards makes it obvious that their intention has always been to push us to buy new AirPods. So all that environment talk is just eyewash.
Anyway, Apple stopped revealing how many units of the products they sell. However, it’s estimated they sold 35 million AirPods in 2018. The famous Apple tracker, Ming-Chi Kuo estimated back in 2018 that AirPod sales would cross 100 million units in 2021. Those AirPods didn’t even have noise-canceling or sweat proofing. With the improvements in AirPods Pro aimed squarely at the massive ‘workout’ market, I’m guessing sales will probably touch or cross that 100 million mark by 2020 itself.
Expect 100 million AirPods to be trashed every 18 months
The elephant in the room is the life of AirPods. This article says you can expect AirPods to last for 18 months. So every 18 months, you can expect 100 million AirPods to turn into toxic e-waste.
I’m afraid to even try to visualize the massive scale of the environmental disaster that is the AirPod.
This site dramatically illustrates the scale of e-waste with a scary analogy.
We generate about 40 million tons of e-waste every year. This is equivalent to throwing out 800 laptops every single second.
Switch back to wired headsets
Tiny drops make an ocean. If we want to preserve our planet for our kids, we need to do whatever we can, no matter how insignificant it seems.
Avoiding bluetooth headsets could be one such tiny step that makes a huge difference. I think we should go back to wired headsets even though those wires can be a big pain in the neck, and elsewhere. Besides, wired headsets have other advantages other than being environmental-friendly.
One less device to charge
As more devices go wireless, charging them has added unnecessary stress to my life. The battery experts say you shouldn’t either overcharge or undercharge your devices, as this will shorten their batteries’ lives. From what I could understand, it seems the ideal charging range is between 20–80% if you want to play safe (or 65–75% if you are an OCD type).
This has turned my relaxed ‘plug it & forget it’ life into a stressful ‘plug it & check it’ life. I did discover a battery alarm app for my Android that warns me when the charge reaches a preset level. Sadly, these apps only seem to work on iOS and Windows if the display is on, which is impractical.
I really don’t need another device that requires daily charging.
Music on wired headsets usually sounds better because bluetooth tech compresses sound files for quicker transmission, so it doesn’t match the original sound quality. I must admit this difference is less noticeable as Bluetooth tech improves, with many headsets now having the latest aptX tech. AirPods sound quality is good but even Apple doesn’t claim it’s great.
You can easily test the sound quality on your bluetooth headset. Play a song on it, and listen carefully. Midway through the song, plug in a wired headset into your phone. The song will automatically continue playing on the wired headset. Listen to it. Depending on the quality of your headset, the clarity and improvement in sound quality can be surprisingly noticeable.
Latency, or delay in sound
Ever notice how things often seem to be out of sync when you use a Bluetooth headset with your TV? That’s because using bluetooth causes a short delay between when an audio signal is sent and when you actually hear it. You won’t notice it when listening to music as it’s just audio. But if that audio is part of a video, like when you’re watching TV or playing a game, that delay may sometimes cause your sound to be out of sync with the video.
Not a good experience.
Unlike wired headphones where you just plug in and are good to go, Bluetooth pairing can sometimes be a nightmare. I recall how intensely grateful I once felt on managing to pair my wife’s iPhone to her car’s music system in an amazingly fast 30 minutes.
I must admit this is one area where AirPods excel as they connect almost instantaneously to your phone.
The chemicals in bluetooth headset batteries are toxic and don’t degrade easily. Wired headsets don’t have batteries. The wires and plastic components do contribute to e-waste, but they are not as harmful as dead batteries.
Wired headsets use fewer elements than wireless ones so making them is far safer. AirPods use plastic and rare elements like tungsten, tin, tantalum, lithium, and cobalt. These minerals are mined by impoverished people who are paid unlivable wages to work long hours in dangerous conditions. Assembling the final product in China is an equally exploitative exercise. This article on the subject (which I already linked earlier in this post), is an eyeopener.
Durability and longevity
Wired headsets usually last for a long time, so in this sense, they are less polluting than wireless headsets. The ten-year-old wired earphones that came with my old iPod still work. The only reason I stopped using them for my morning runs, is because they aren’t sweat-resistant.
Apart from physical durability, there’s the tech that forces us to keep upgrading. Each new generation of Bluetooth can do stuff the previous generation couldn’t, and it’s not just less power consumption. Take my old iMac (2011 model). Its version of Bluetooth does not support airdrop. Transfer of files with my Mac is a painful experience as compared to the seamless and almost instantaneous airdrop transfers between my iPhone 6S+ and iPad (6th gen). Such compatibility issues are rare with wired headsets as their hardware evolution peaked many years ago. Since then, improvements if any, have been minor.
Bluetooth devices also have more parts like batteries and charging ports which make them more susceptible to damage. I believe a leaky charging port on a rainy day is what ruined my bluetooth headset even though it’s rated as IPX4 sweat and splash resistant.
Bluetooth radiation is nowhere as strong as cellphone radiation but it’s still too new a technology for science to understand its longterm effects. This is especially relevant to something that’s stuck up close to your brain like the AirPods. In short, you are serving as an unpaid guinea pig for Apple and the Bluetooth devices industry. Just so you know.
Convert wired to wireless
If you need Bluetooth only occasionally like when driving, you might want to consider an audio receiver. Just plug your wired headset into this tiny device, which has a built-in Bluetooth that helps it connect wirelessly to your phone. It usually comes with a microphone and can be clipped on to your shirt lapels. In effect, it converts your wired headset into a wireless one whenever needed. (If your phone doesn’t have an audio jack, this can also serve as a wireless alternative to using a dongle/adapter).
Of course, this means you have all the usual bluetooth headaches like pairing, charging, and so on. The advantage is that if you run out of charge, you can simply unplug your wired phones, and plug it directly into your phone (assuming it has an audio jack). The battery life and sound quality of these devices are so-so. But if you are okay with that, it sort of gives you the best of the wired and wireless worlds.
More bang for your buck
The new AirPod Pro costs $249 in the US, and a mindboggling ₹24900 in India, which is like $351. Even if the AirPods can do miracles, that price in India is way too exorbitant for what is just a headset!
I first tried out a Bluetooth headset when prices started dropping. That first headset was a Chinese brand whose biggest plus was its low price. Surprisingly, it worked for over a year. This prompted me to upgrade to a sports (sweat-resistant) bluetooth headset, this time from Xiaomi, another Chinese brand, which is currently the top-selling mobile phone brand in India. Xiaomi is usually reliable, but this headset was a lemon.
As you can see (below left), I got the Xiaomi a little over six months ago for ₹1499 or $21. But its promised 9-hour battery life on a full charge is already down to 30–45 minutes. Seeing it was failing and out of its 6-month warranty, I got a wired replacement (below right) on a sale for ₹449 or $6.5.
I have taken this wired headset out on two runs (one in the rain) and it’s good value for my money. I get noise-canceling, good sound with decent bass, sweat/water resistance, tough, tangle-free cords, a mic, volume control buttons, and clip to attach the mic to my shirt.
It also has ‘sound transparency,’ that hyped up feature of the AirPods Pro where you can hear ambient sound with a tap. Works a bit differently on my headset, though. You just loosen the earplugs a bit to unseal the sound insulation of the silicon earpieces. The hooks ensure the headset will not fall out, while at the same time ensuring all ambient sound is audible to you.
The cons as compared with the Xiaomi are the headset has wires, double-pressing the volume buttons won’t skip songs, and a straight audio jack pin (which is more damage-prone than an L-shaped pin). However, at 2% the price of AirPods Pro in India, I have no complaints.
Some day, bluetooth headsets may work without built-in polluting batteries. When that day comes, I will switch back to wireless headsets.
For now, I will continue living in my entangled world of wires.
(Link to same post on WordPress).