The earbud world just lost one of its most-repairable options.
If you’ve been following iFixit for a minute, you probably know how much we hate AirPods. Every model of AirPods has earned a 0/10 repairability score, because you have to destroy them to get inside. Worse, they set the standard for other wireless earbud manufacturers, and way too many have followed Apple’s unrepairable lead. That’s why we actually called them “evil” in a Vice article.
We’ve been telling people that Sony has proven that repairable earbuds are possible: Their WF-1000XM3 managed to be small but also easy to open, with a standard button cell battery. The XM4 line got even smaller—and a little harder to open, but we were willing to forgive a little glue.
But the XM5 line just came out, and we are beyond disappointed. Sony, what happened?!
Sony’s WF-1000XM3: A Repairer’s Dream
Back in 2020, we took a deep dive into the burgeoning wireless earbud market in an attempt to answer one question, “are all wireless earbuds as unrepairable as AirPods?” Go see the results for yourself but the tl;dr: is that many failed our repairability assessment while one product truly stood out from the competition: Sony’s WF-1000XM3.
With its easily accessible button cell batteries, Sony’s take on the wireless earbud craze was, from a reusability standpoint, the polar opposite of Apple’s AirPods. Getting into a set of AirPods, both then and now, necessitates the use of
- a vise
- a rework station
- an ultrasonic cutter
- and a host of ancillary tools
…all so you can cut and pry at the insane amounts of adhesive used in the charging case and the earbuds. By contrast, the Sony earbuds went back together—easily I might add—whereas the Apple earbuds were destroyed in the dismantling process.
Sony’s XM3 isn’t without fault though. While the charging case is easy to disassemble and the battery itself is accessible, the battery wires are soldered to the board. And that’s despite three JST style connectors elsewhere on the board.
Despite this, the WF-1000XM3 scored well on our repairability assessment and walked away as the clear favorite amongst the limited selection of earbuds capable of going toe-to-toe with Apple’s feature-rich AirPods.
Sony’s WF-1000XM4: One Step Forward, One Step Back
Fast forward to 2021 and Sony’s next generation of high end consumer earbuds, the WF-1000XM4, continued the delightfully incomprehensible naming scheme of previous years.
The WF-1000XM4 was clearly designed to address the biggest complaint leveled against the XM3, namely that it was too big for smaller ears to accommodate. The XM4 earbuds are roughly half the size of the XM3’s and the charging case shrank significantly too.
The earbuds, unfortunately, can no longer be opened up with improvised tools as the seam on each half is held together with a light layer of glue. Just the seam, mind. And with some controlled heat and a vise, it came apart fairly quickly. Still, this is a far cry from the simple clips holding the XM3 cover in place, which should still be possible to implement in these smaller devices.
On opening the earbuds, you’ll find the button cell battery has not been soldered or spot welded despite the compact arrangement of a battery sandwiched between PCB’s. Instead, the contact between the two halves is maintained by a leaf spring and some double sided adhesive tape. These earbuds are still conceivably repairable, if a bit more challenging to disassemble and even harder to correctly reassemble.
The challenge during reassembly is ensuring that both the leaf springs maintain contact with the button cell battery. I found the reassembled earbuds to be temperamental at best. The button cell easily loses contact with the leaf spring if the replacement adhesive connecting the positive and negative terminals to their respective PCB contact points is not strong enough. This meant that I ended up opening the earbuds several times to get it to work correctly.
It wasn’t all bad. I did find a pleasant surprise in the battery case. Not only did the case separate and come away fairly easily but I also found a lithium polymer battery connected to the PCB with a standard JST connector! Happy days, someone at Sony is listening! Or so I thought.
Sony’s WF-1000XM5: A Step Toward Disposability
I was eager to get my hands on the new WF-1000XM5’s to see if they’re still repairable. News of redesigned and smaller earbuds combined with leaked images of the internals had me filled with a sense of dread. They went for even smaller earbuds, and that’s usually bad for repairability. With all the progress made on the XM3 earbuds and XM4 charging case, would Sony really regress on the XM5 to an AirPods-eque disposable device?
The case is imperceptibly smaller. I was certain of it but couldn’t really tell for sure until I placed the XM4 charging case alongside the XM5 charging case.
I can confidently say that whatever size reduction was made here will have zero practical impact in how I use or store these. Whether or not this came at the cost of an easily replaceable battery will have wider ramifications.
The earbuds are significantly smaller than the XM3’s and even the XM4’s. And earbud size is a contentious topic. I have big ears and a big old ear hole which means the XM3 and XM4 were a comfortable and snug fit for me. Smaller devices like the AirPods tend to fall out of my ears.
Flip over to the other side of this contentious coin and you’ll find that smaller ears are physically incapable of accommodating the larger XM3 and XM4’s. And at a guess, I’d say that us Dumbo-lobians are essentially the southpaw equivalents of the earbud world. That is to say: we’re big-eared folk living in a small-eared world.
The engineering challenge is real. How do we address the fact that different ear shapes and sizes, as unique to each person as a fingerprint, need to be accommodated alongside repairability? Maybe the answer here is more modularity.
Opening Things Up and Finding the Batteries
The XM5 charging case is harder to get into than the XM4 charging case, despite being nearly the same size. I suspect that the fractionally smaller case creates tighter tolerances but getting inside is still doable. Once inside, I’m happy to see a LiPo with a JST connector. Nothing of significant concern here.
The earbuds are an entirely different story. The repairability on these has completely tanked. While not as incomprehensibly disposable as AirPods, the XM5 earbud batteries are no longer user replaceable with common tools. Starting with the tightly glued in halves, it requires a fair amount of pressure and an uncomfortable level of prying to pop the lid.
At which point, you’ll realize that you’ve probably separated the upper housing of the driver because the glue holding the plastic housing down is weaker than the glue securing the PCB to the battery on one side and the plastic driver housing on the other.
If I were actually attempting this repair, at this point I would be praying to the audio gods to spare my driver assembly while I frantically research and find a replacement adhesive so I can reassemble the driver module.
Hopefully you won’t run into this problem. In which case, you can turn your attention to the reason you opened this thing up in the first place—the battery— and find that it’s soldered at two points to a delicate ribbon cable on one side of the battery. The two solder points seem to connect to a nickel strip each, one spot welded to the anode and another spot welded to the cathode.
To replace this battery, I’d have to redo those spot welds on a new battery. I’m not sure I could undo the solder points without damaging the ribbon cable, especially since that’s unleaded solder which has a higher melting point than leaded solder.
If you’re a very skilled microsolderer (and a bit lucky), you might be able to replace this battery. But it requires expert-level tools and know-how. In fact, each generation of the WF-1000 series has needed more tools than the last, just for a simple battery replacement. The XM3 is proof that it didn’t have to be this way.
Thanks but No Thanks, I’m Sticking With My XM3’s
It is immensely disappointing to see that the WF-1000 series has regressed so thoroughly to the verge of being a disposable device. Its only saving grace: the well equipped DIYer or professional tech is likely to be able to repair these, with an ever-present danger that they might break the earbuds in the attempt.
A disappointing turn of events. While the WF-1000XM3 remains a favorite of mine, it’s very disheartening to see the newer XM5’s won’t enjoy the same replaceable battery design of the earlier generation devices.
While it’s easy to criticize Sony for their move away from replaceable batteries, we should also recognize that the company adjusted its position in response to consumer demand. Afterall, we vote for the end product with our money. The best way to end the production of disposable electronics is really rather simple: stop buying it.
Keep your eyes peeled for our updated list of repairable wireless earbuds.