Apple’s AirPods are notorious for becoming e-waste when their batteries no longer hold a charge thanks to a design that makes them extremely hard to repair, but not impossible to repair, thanks to the efforts of Swiss hardware hacker Ken Pillonel who’s shared his solutions online.
You might remember Ken Pillonel as the engineer who one-upped Apple by hacking a fully-functional USB-C port onto an iPhone. That one-off creation went on to sell for over $86,000 at auction, while Pillonel continued to show off his hacking skills by downgrading an Android phone with Apple’s proprietary Lightning port—a truly cursed creation that he probably couldn’t pay someone to use.
Pillonel’s latest target are the Apple AirPods wireless earbuds which Apple will simply replace if users start to experience charging or battery issues (assuming they’re under warranty) as a result of a design that makes opening their charging case to gain access to the battery without damaging it impossible. As Pillonel discovered, if you want to replace the charging case’s battery yourself, you need to come at it with a cutting tool to remove the outer case, destroying it in the process.
Through some trial and error, Pillonel managed to design and 3D print a replacement outer sleeve for the case, and with the help of a resin 3D printer instead of one that uses a plastic filament extruder, it came out looking quite professional. But he didn’t stop there.
An inevitable e-waste destiny isn’t the AirPods’ only sin. Apple still continues to hobble its wireless headphones with a Lightning charging port—even on the $550 AirPods Max. So while replacing the battery on his AirPods charging case, Pillonel figured he’d go the extra mile again (or kilometer, given he lives in Switzerland) and replace its Lightning charging port with USB-C.
As with his iPhone upgrades, putting a USB-C port on the AirPods’ charging case was no easy feat, requiring custom PCBs and even mounting brackets to be designed and ordered before precision soldering and even welding could be attempted. But it worked, and Pillonel is one step closer to eliminating Apple’s Lightning cables from his life altogether, and you could be too.
He’s not putting the hacked AirPods up for auction, but Pillonel has created a website, AirPodsDirtySecret.com, that links out to the 3D files and PCB files on GitHub for those who want to attempt this hack themselves. He’s also in the process of setting up a giveaway for the custom components he created, and gauging the interest of potentially putting together an AirPods upgrade kit that anyone can buy—but will probably still require skills with a Dremel and a soldering iron.