Blow-by-blow repair attempt of Apple’s Beats Powerbeats Pro

Article By : Brian Dipert

A partnership with a local engineering company didn’t succeed in resurrecting a set of earbuds, but it still produced some interesting results, blazing the trail for a fuller teardown to be completed soon.

By now, you’ve hopefully seen (and enjoyed!) one of last month’s posts, where I shared the insights from Christoph Riehl. In his past professional life, Riehl was a member of the development team (focused mostly on the RF subsystem) at Siemens VDO for the Volvo key fob that I’ve been covering in several of my recent writeups.

This month, I’m once again “crowdsourcing” my content, this time from Huan Nguyen, a firmware engineer at local firm Halleck-Willard, Inc. (HWI), a Steripack company. Back in early June, I’d discussed how the premature failure of the embedded batteries in a pair of Beats Powerbeats Pro earbuds had resulted in them being useful only as lightweight paperweights, and that HWI had offered to attempt to resurrect them using replacement parts and video instructions from another company, Joe’s Gaming and Electronics:

I shipped the dead earbuds and replacement batteries, along with the tube of glue and tools, to HWI at the end of April, and Huan got back to me in mid-June with some disappointing news: “I’m sad to say I failed to resurrect the earbuds”. However, he’d thoroughly documented his travails, and he acquiesced to my request to republish and share them all with you here. Without further ado, over to you, Huan!

In a recent article for EDN, Brian Dipert writes about his experience suffering the result of obsolescence by design of the Powerbeats Pro earbuds. He reached out to our team to have somebody attempt the repair and document the process. I volunteered and this past weekend ensconced myself in the lab to try to bring the earbuds back to life. I pulled up the Joe’s Gaming and Electronics video repair guide that Brian mentions, fired up the soldering iron, and got to work.

Spoiler alert: I unfortunately failed in my attempt. However, the result of this attempt is documented so that readers can learn from my mistakes, and hopefully extend the life of their $200+ earbuds beyond just a couple of years.

The first step was to remove the housing cover from the first earbud. The instructor in the video recommends using a razor blade for this delicate process.

When I hear the word “razor”, I think “razor-sharp” or “cuts things like a hot knife through butter”. While working the blade through the housing plastic, I looked up and realized that, on the workbench, we have a sonic cutter available. I threw its switch and lowered the blade into the housing plastic.

It sliced easily through the housing plastic, with much less force required than for the razor blade. However, the cut it made was thicker than the razor blade, and the plastic was slightly deformed all along the cut.

When I finally broke through the seam all around the housing cover and popped it off, I discovered that the cut was quite rough. The housing cover itself looked ragged around the edges, and I feared (rightly, as it would turn out) that re-assembling the housing and cover would prove more difficult due to the deformed plastic.

The cut already having been made, I moved onto the next step of removing the battery shield. First the contact cable needed to be detached from the shield: I resorted to sliding the edge of the razor’s blade and gently levering the cable off the shield.

With the cable detached, the shield could be removed. The flathead screwdriver proved to be the perfect tool for levering the shield out of the housing.

With the battery shield out of the way, I had access to the battery and its lead wires. There was glue covering the terminals of the lead wires, as well as some holding the battery into the housing.

Removing the glue was easily done: a bit of heat from a hot air gun made it a simple task to pop the glue off from the terminals, and an X-ACTO knife sliced through the glue on the side of the battery (be careful not to short any connections, as I later did!).

With the glue removed, the soldering iron was enough to remove the battery wires. I moved the wire out of the solder blob with the iron until the blob cooled.

In hindsight, I should have set up a third hand tool or other fixture to hold the earbud while I manipulated the wire with a pair of tweezers in one hand, with the soldering iron in the other.

That done, I inserted the flathead screwdriver into the gap between the battery and PCBA/housing and levered the battery out of the enclosure.

The new battery slid right in without issue. However, its lead wires were just a bit too long, needing a bit of trimming before soldering to the terminals.

In retrospect, it might have been easier to solder the long wire to the terminal and then tuck the extra length into the gap between the housing and battery—cutting the wire required stripping it again, and I was required to strip the wire with a gentle touch using the edge cutters (rather than the convenience of a wire stripper tool).

That done, I slid the battery cover back into place, sliding it so that the tab at the top slotted back into place into the enclosure.

The remaining step in the process was to glue the housing cover back on to the housing. Applying the glue and holding the cover in place necessitated both hands, resulting in a lack of photographs for this step—but we’ll see the results later in a comparison to the second earbud.

For the second earbud, I remembered my resolution to forgo the sonic cutter and use the razor blade instead. That resulted in a much cleaner separation between the housing and its cover. I found that the best technique was to gently insert the blade’s edge into the seam, and then rock the razor back and forth while pressing it into the plastic, as opposed to trying to slide the blade back-and-forth in a cutting or sawing motion.

Unfortunately, I damaged the device in the process of swapping the second battery. I tore the cable off the shield and out of the device, as well as shorting something (as much as we like to call it “magic smoke”, I prefer keeping it inside any devices I touch!) and causing a spark inside.

Deeming the electronics irreparably damaged, I thought at least I might attempt a better re-assembly than I had performed for the first earbud. The first time, I added a bit too much glue and a bit too much around the outer edge, resulting in the glue oozing outside of the housing and creating a visible and colorful gap between the cover and housing. In this second attempt, I laid a line of glue around the entire length of the seam between the cover and the housing, making sure to bias the line towards the inside of the housing.

The end result of that was an earbud that looked close to new, with a barely-perceptible widening in the gap between the housing and the cover compared to how it was prior to disassembly. It certainly looked much better than the first earbud.

All in all, I would consider the repair not technically difficult nor lengthy (requiring me about 90 minutes to get through this process for the first time, undoubtedly less for any future attempts), but requiring a gentler touch than it might seem.

Part of the challenge in my eyes was not having all the information about the device I would like. I spent a lot of unnecessary time on the first earbud trying to delicately cut through the seam between the housing and cover because I wasn’t sure how thick it was and didn’t want to damage anything by cutting too quickly.

As these devices are designed for obsolescence rather than repair, I accepted that I couldn’t have found drawings or other information for them. Perhaps in the future such information will be available for others attempting to repair their earbuds, or even their laptops and their phones – New York state has just recently passed a right-to-repair bill, perhaps paving the way for other states in the future.

Brian, myself, and many others will be looking forward to seeing the change from users virtually having to toss their old tech into the landfill, to being able to extend their useful life and save money while doing so.

I guess we now know why Joe’s Gaming and Electronics doesn’t do onsite repairs anymore!

Abundant thanks go to Huan for his time and effort (over the weekend!), including his extensive text and image documentation of the project, in attempting the repair of the Beats Powerbeats Pro. Thanks, too, to his managers at HWI for supporting my request and his involvement. Speaking of documentation, Huan assembled a sizeable tranche of images and videos, which I’ve linked to here if you’re interested in downloading and perusing them for yourself.

powerbeats full media (part 1)

powerbeats full media (part 2)

I asked Huan to re-open both earbuds’ housings before sending them back to me, as I plan to do a complete teardown soon. Until then, Huan and I both welcome your thoughts in the comments!

This article was originally published on EDN.

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

 

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