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Obsolescence by design: The earbuds edition


For well over a decade now, I’ve suffered from right side-dominant back pain. Until the past couple of years, however, the situation was reasonably tolerable. A few times a year, I’d experience intense spasms for a few days straight, which not even prescription painkillers and muscle relaxants would tangibly alleviate. Then the pain would fade away, the spasms would release their grip, and I’d be back to running, hiking, skiing and the like…at least until the next spinal outburst.

Beginning in the fall of 2019, however, the situation “evolved.” Now my pain became (generally) lower grade but more constant, i.e., chronic. The spasms were now happening pretty much every day, for short durations but multiple times a day, especially if I was in motion at the time. Eventually, the pain started moving down my right leg, too. Then COVID hit, and I couldn’t even get into a doctor to diagnose and treat whatever was going on.

Once pandemic restrictions began lifting mid-last year, I started pursuing root causes and solutions with earnest. The first step was a trip to the general practitioner, who took X-rays and pointed out that the cartilage surrounding my L2 and L3 vertebrae was in an advanced state of degradation. Genetics? Perhaps, at least in part. But I suspect the core reason had to do with all that long-distance running I’d been consistently doing the past several decades, including numerous marathons and an ultra (not to mention the preparatory training for them), along with lots of heavy-load backpacking and trekking and, beginning in my early 40s, skiing. I was paying the price for all that adrenaline-fueled past fun, no matter that I’d strived to change out running and hiking shoes religiously, kept my body fairly light in weight, etc.

Physical therapy wasn’t helpful for relieving the pain, although I continue doing it to slow further progression. Next, I was redirected to a specialist, who sent me for a MRI, which confirmed and further magnified the spinal situation that my earlier X-rays had alluded to. At this point, insurance considerations kicked in: first, I underwent several comparatively low-cost medial branch block procedures (essentially lidocaine injections into the affected areas), whose relief lasted only a day (or less) but were indicators that we were headed in the right direction, diagnosis-wise. Only then, months after my initial meeting with the specialist, was I cleared for a two-part radio-frequency ablation (RFA) procedure, beginning with my right side. Essentially, the RFA harnesses high frequency heat, pinpoint-injected via needles, to cauterize the nerves going to and from the vertebrae facet joints, thereby temporarily severing the pain-signal pathways (eventually the nerves will reconnect, and I’ll need to repeat the procedure).

What’s this all have to do with obsolescence by design, a longstanding coverage topic of mine? Well, shortly before my chronic pain phase started, my wife had bought me a pair of Beats (now owned by Apple) Powerbeats Pro earbuds for our wedding anniversary (mine are black, like the ones shown below, although they come in a variety of color combinations):

Compare them to the various makes and models of earbuds that I showcased in a recent piece, and the difference with these will be immediately apparent: not only do they snugly fit within the ear, they also include loops that fit around each ear. The point of the loops is likely also immediately apparent: they keep the earbuds in place when the wearer is moving around, such as when exercising. The Powerbeats Pro is highly rated, and I used them a few times but when my back pain “evolved” and I had to shelve my running, I put them on the shelf, too.

Fast forward to late March of this year. The left-side RFA was completed at the end of February (after the right side RFA had previously been attempted twice, the second time successfully under sedation after I experienced uncontrollable muscle spasms and intense pain the first attempt around…but that’s another story for another day…) and I was starting to experience now-still-incomplete (as I write these words in early May) but still blessed relief. Spring had sprung, as the saying goes, and my thoughts predictably wandered to a potential resurrection of my running and other exercise routines. So, I plugged the Powerbeats Pros (in their recharging case, shown below) into the charger, and…nothing.

Well, strictly speaking, not nothing; the battery inside the case seemed to recharge just fine. But the earbuds themselves appeared to be dead as a doornail (or if you prefer, a parrot)…and of course the two-year extended warranty she’d purchased with the earbuds had expired around six months earlier. It was difficult to discern exactly what was going on, however, as the earbuds themselves don’t contain charge-status LEDs, only the case. More generally, they’re (as with many earbuds brands and models) heavily reliant on the companion case, which not only coordinates their charging process but also puts them into Bluetooth pairing and hardware-reset modes (initiated by variable-duration user presses of a control button within the case).

To wit, even with the case itself seemingly fully charged, my multimeter didn’t read a DC voltage on its charging pins that magnetically couple (sometimes, at least) to the earbuds when they’re placed inside it. In striving to debug what was going on, I even purchased a third-party charging case:

It did present 5V DC to the multimeter once the case was charged up, but although the control switch shown in the photo purported to put the earbuds in pairing mode, it (unlike the one in the Beats case) didn’t also implement hardware-reset functionality (hold that thought). And anyway, it didn’t resurrect the earbuds either.

So, what was the root cause of the system failure here? Was the Beats case not actually charging, either at all or adequately, although it seemed to be? Was it not passing along its stored-electron payload to the earbuds? Or were the earbuds ignoring its charging attention? Ultimately, I had to get my hands on another (self-purchased) Powerbuds Pro set to set the story straight. Both the old and new (to me; refurb’d, actually) cases charged up the new earbuds just fine. But neither case resurrected the old earbuds. The old buds were the culprit.

Here’s what I think happened. Beats’ implementation of the case-and-earbuds interaction is more robust than the one supported by the third-party case. DC charging over the two-pin interface between the Beats case and each earbud doesn’t begin until an “AC” handshake between the two over that same two-pin interface (which, among other things, can also command-signal the earbuds to hardware-reset themselves) successfully completes. But the handshake can’t happen if the earbuds are non-functional, such as if their embedded batteries are deep-drained (long-time readers may remember an analogous situation I wrote about regarding a Qi-supportive battery case). Which is what I think happened in this circumstance.

Ironically, what had specifically gotten me to reach for my dust-covered Powerbeats Pro set a few months ago was an article I saw in The Wirecutter about earbuds’ inherent impermanence and how to properly care for them to maximize their usable life. So let me get this straight. My wife buys me a $250 set of earbuds (which were on sale for $200 at the time, but still…). If I keep them hooked up to the charger all the time when I’m not using them, their embedded batteries will eventually swell and fail. If I don’t keep them hooked up, conversely, their batteries will eventually deep-drain and again irrevocably fail. Admittedly, Apple and its competitors have learned a bit about battery maintenance from experience over the years:

Optimized Battery Charging is designed to reduce the wear on your battery and improve its lifespan by reducing the time that your AirPods Pro and AirPods (3rd generation) spend fully charged. AirPods Pro, AirPods (3rd generation), and your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch learn from your daily charging routine and will wait to charge your AirPods Pro or AirPods (3rd generation) past 80% until just before you need to use them.

Still, this fundamental Achilles heel is, as I alluded to in the title of this piece, a profound obsolescence by design disappointment.

So where do I go from here? Well, in searching for information on teardowns (specifically, do-it-yourself repairs) and the like, I came across this video:

The video’s creator, Joe’s Gaming and Electronics, is (like iFixit) a supplier of spare parts for DIY repair projects, along with videos and other instruction guides. Unlike iFixit, however, the company also does in-house repairs of various electronics devices, albeit unfortunately no longer the Powerbeats Pro. However, I did obtain from them two brand new replacement batteries, along with some glue. My soldering skills (not to mention my patience) are, as I’ve admitted before, abhorrent, so I’ve recruited a local engineering services company, HWI (Halleck-Willard, Inc.), to tackle the disassembly, battery swap and reassembly tasks. Minimally, I’ll get an intriguing teardown out of this, and I might even end up with a fully functional (now second) set of buds.

Stay tuned. And as always, I welcome your thoughts on Beats’ frustrating design decision, as well as details on any alternative implementations that may exist, in the comments.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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