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Earbuds are a recurring cost that you’re not prepared for
Smartphones were once the hot product every manufacturer jumped on, but now everyone is making pretty great earbuds. Chances are, you have one in your pocket right now. But you may not have realized that you will have to buy a new one again very soon.
If you look at things a little cynically, manufacturers have shifted to another product with a better churn than phones, and they’ve found that in earbuds, much to your disadvantage as a consumer. Whether high-end, mid-range, or budget buds, chances are they will last you for just over a year. If you’re lucky, you’ll get good use out of them for some more months. But beyond the two-year mark, we bet they won’t last.
Earbuds can’t fight science
All wireless open ear headphones and earbuds have small batteries inside. As you use the earbuds regularly, the battery discharges and then recharges when you put the buds back into the case. By design, there isn’t a single moment where your earbuds are not part of a charge or discharge cycle.
With every charging cycle, the battery will hold slightly less charge than it once did. Add these cycles up over the year, and you’ll find that your earbuds just don’t work for as long anymore.
What may have started as five to six hours of battery life now only extends to three or four. Give it a few more months, and your earbuds won’t last through a full workout session or half a movie, and you’d be forced to pick up a new pair. If you disproportionately favor either the left or right earbud for quick tasks, you should also brace yourself for uneven discharging and the premature death of just that one earbud.
With small batteries and fiddly parts, earbuds just aren't designed to last.
You can replace a smartphone battery, but that’s not really possible with earbuds. Earbuds are designed to focus on sleek aesthetics and a compact form factor rather than longevity. There’s generous glue involved in making them this small, and that glue makes it very difficult to do a battery swap or any sort of repair. For practically all OEMs, replacing a faulty earbud under warranty with a new one is more economical than attempting to tear down the tiny bud, repair the issue, and put it back together again.
In all these cases, if you’re out of warranty, which you likely will be at the end of the first year, then you’re out of luck.
Earbuds can’t fight your bad luck either
For argument’s sake, let’s presume that you won’t be affected by battery degradation and that your earbuds have infinite battery health. The challenge, then, is to ensure you don’t carelessly misplace or mishandle your earbuds in the years that you plan to hold onto them.
Far too many people around me have left their earbuds in their jeans, only to discover them after a round of thorough washing and drying. If they have never done so, then it’s often their dog that ends up chewing an earbud. There are many other ways misfortune can follow your earbud along, like leaving them behind in a cafe, having them fall out of your ears during an outdoor workout, and so on.
The point is, earbuds are very easy to damage and just as easy to lose. Their tiny size is inversely proportional to their doomed fate in the hands of the average user. If you aren’t particularly careful, you’re quickly going to cycle through a few pairs.
When life gives you a lemon, hope it's not an out-of-warranty earbud!
If you have an impeccable sense of responsibility and take good care of your gadgets, there’s always the possibility of the manufacturer handing you a lemon.
Earbuds suffer from the same manufacturing defects that other electronics do, and despite excellent build processes and quality checks, you might still end up with a pair that goes kaput. If you’re unlucky, this will happen once your warranty has run its course. It’s a hardware lottery at the end of the day, and someone is bound to pick the short stick.
Of course, some manufacturers don’t have excellent build processes and quality checks. Sometimes, the product may even have a design flaw that could cause it to break open beyond a year. Your luck lasts as long as the warranty lasts, provided you can prove it wasn’t regular wear and tear that caused this untimely demise.
How long have your last earbuds lasted you?
A good warranty is more important than ever
As with most gadgets, it’s important that you stick to brands with a reputation and an enforceable warranty. You’d likely be spending a little more, but the peace of mind is worth the extra dollars. There may even be merit in purchasing an extended warranty for your earbuds, depending on the cost and presence of favorable terms.
For buyers in the EU, the deal is sweeter. EU mandates a minimum two-year warranty on all products, including earbuds. EU consumers do pay a higher price for the same product, but they know that they can enjoy them for the next two years at least. To me, that two-year warranty opens up the possibility to purchase high-end earbuds, since I am promised a working pair for two years at least.
OEMs should offer two-year warranties in other parts of the world too, but it won’t happen until legislation forces them to. So in regions outside of the EU, pay special attention to the warranty at the time of purchase.
I’m convinced that earbuds are an annual subscription to hardware
I’ve used a whole bunch of earbuds over the past few years, and I’m more convinced than ever that they are practically an annual subscription to hardware.
No matter how careful I am, there’s bound to be a mishap with my earphones that prevents them from lasting beyond one year and some months. The same is rather true for everyone around me as well. It’s fairly difficult to use an earphone for more than two years at this point.
My advice to people buying earbuds is to factor in their short life expectancy. I hesitate to recommend top-tier earbuds to most people these days. The Airpods Pro 2 and the Galaxy Buds 2 Pro sound amazing and have a ton of features. However, people often stretch their budgets trying to afford one, not realizing that they’ll need to walk the same path again soon.
What is your annual budget for earbuds?
Can you really afford a $200-$300 earbud every year? That is a question more people need to ask themselves before splurging on a top-end pair. You’re going to buy earbuds more frequently than you would need to buy a smartphone.
Think of earbuds as an annual expense, and mentally brace yourself against surprises. With that in mind, you should probably opt for a cheaper pair that wouldn’t pain your wallet if they fall out of your ear and down the drain.
Thankfully, the mid-range for earbuds has matured rather beautifully. You can opt for good earbuds around the $100-$150 mark and receive an experience that is fairly similar to the top-tier. Yes, some features will be lacking; you won’t have the best sound signature, you won’t get the best ANC, and so on. But you do get a product that is good enough to jam on some tunes and take all of those calls.
What is your annual budget for earbuds?
I’ve been using the OnePlus Buds Pro 2 as my primary earbud recently, and I am satisfied enough not to look elsewhere, even though my Galaxy S23 Ultra would pair better with the Galaxy Buds 2 Pro. I’ve also been impressed with the Nothing Ear 2 and the OPPO Enco X2; they also make it to my recommendation list. Samsung users can stick with the affordable Galaxy Buds 2 and be served just fine.
When (and not if) my OnePlus Buds Pro 2 stops serving all my needs, I’ll consider spending in the same ballpark and pick a mid-ranger. For at this rate, I do need one pair of earbuds every year. And likely, so do you.
Tuned for bass fans