Motherboard Editor-in-chief Jason Koebler bought fake AirPods when he was in Shenzhen. Staff writer Caroline Haskins, who wrote AirPods Are a Tragedy, examined them.
I got a pair of AirPods as a Christmas gift. I’m not terribly proud of this fact. I believe that electronics should be repairable, easily recyclable, and last a long time. AirPods are none of those things, and also signal a type of disposable wealth and disconnect from the real world that is, at best, kind of annoying. I also really like my AirPods because they generally work well, because I can fall asleep in them while listening to ASMR videos without getting tangled in cords, and because they don’t get violently ripped out of my ears when I bump into a doorknob or whatever.
It’s been a while, I think, since a specific gadget made a large number of people Actively Mad. AirPods feel like the end result of Apple destroying the headphone jack and replacing it with something that kind of sort of works better but also costs $159, needs to be charged every few hours, and is easily lost. Can’t afford them? Well, I hope you like dongles. This is all to say that there’s been a backlash to AirPods even as lots of people have either embraced them or at least begrudgingly accepted them.
I don’t know whether counterfeit and knockoff AirPods say more about the people who love or hate AirPods and Apple, but on a trip earlier this year to Hong Kong and Shenzhen, I saw counterfeit AirPods everywhere. There was the relatively upscale AirPlus ($45), which came in a box that looked exactly like an AirPods box and was being sold at legit-seeming electronics stores, there were AirPod knockoffs called i9WS ($20) and LK-TE8 ($20), which were sold at pharmacies, kiosks, electronics markets, and street fairs, and there were actual counterfeit AirPods ($75), which were sold in boxes that said “AirPods.” Upon closer inspection, the text and photos on these boxes were a little blurry. These AirPods were not, in fact, “Designed by Apple in California.”
I bought three different pairs of counterfeit AirPods. Rather than try them out myself, I gave them to Motherboard staff writer Caroline Haskins to try out for a few weeks. Earlier this year, Caroline wrote the essay “AirPods Are a Tragedy,” an anthropological look at what AirPods mean. If normal AirPods are a symbol of late capitalism, what, exactly, are counterfeit AirPods?
- Jason Koebler
Introducing the Fake AirPod
AirPods are aggressively recognizable. This is good for Apple, because from a quick glance, a passerby can tell that a person owns AirPods and likely owns at least one accompanying Apple product, like an iPhone. AirPods instantly turn people into walking advertisements for the company.
This passerby can also know that a person paid about $160 to get the earpods. In this way, AirPods are similar to the Hollister and Abercrombie shirts that were popular in 2004. People who wore these shirts didn’t just become walking advertisements for Hollister and Abercrombie. They also projected a “cool kid” status because they could afford to wear clothes from the popular, brand-name company.
The great irony in fake AirPods is that they cost about $30, a fraction of the cost of real AirPods. But from a quick glance, they communicate wealth in the same way that regular AirPods do.
But of course, they don’t work the same as regular AirPods. The charging cases on all three fake AirPods look extraordinarily similar, and in fact, two out of the three fake AirPods have Lightning charging ports, just like on a regular AirPods case. The LK-TE8 is the only exception and uses a USB-C charger.
There’s also some small differences. For instance, on a normal pair of AirPods, there’s a small LED light between the AirPods when you open the case that glows green, orange, or red depending on how charged it is. But with the fake AirPods, the LED light is located on the front of the charging case. All three cases glow either red or blue, but never green or orange.
There’s also some tiny differences on the actual AirPod earbuds. The i9S TWS, for example, has tiny power on/off buttons on the stem of the pods. It also has lights that alternatingly blink red and blue, like a police siren, right after you turn on each pod.
On the bottom of each stem, a normal AirPod has a tiny metal seal over a metal microphone grille. People can use these microphones to talk to Siri or take calls. But the i9WS and LK-TE8 don’t have microphones. Instead, they have a silver seal with two gold dots. Each gold dot is a magnet that holds each pod to the bottom of their cases. (There’s corresponding gold magnets in the earpod-crevices of both the i9WS and LK-TE8 cases.)
Normal AirPods pair with Apple devices very easily. A big pop-up appears on the bottom-half of a device screen showing an image of AirPods and a giant “Connect” button. The pop-up is meant to jump out to the user and signal that this device is Apple-approved.
Meanwhile, all of the fake AirPods require the user to go into Settings, go to the Bluetooth tab, and select the model names from a list of “Other Devices.” After connecting to them once, each pair of Fake AirPods will appear under “My Devices.” There’s an otherness that’s projected each time users choose to use fake AirPods. Users should know, from the get-go, that they’re not from Apple.
Admittedly, though, some of this “otherness” has nothing to do with the iOS interface. When all three fake AirPods connect to a phone, a female robot voice says "pairing" or "connected." (This voice is very loud and startling on the RW AirPlus.) Regular AirPods, by comparison, make a charming “bloop bloop” noise when they connect to a device. OneZero wrote that this sound exemplifies the feeling of connection. This is intentional: Apple wants AirPods to convey harmony and agreement with the paired device, and with the user.
Apple has an incentive to make it as easy as possible to connect AirPods to devices. AirPods debuted in 2016, the same year that the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus eliminated the headphone jack from the iPhone ecosystem.
By removing the headphone jack, Apple didn’t just make its devices less user-friendly. It created a problem that, by design, only Apple could solve. AirPods seamlessly link to Apple products. They can easily switch from being connected to an iPhone, MacBook, or Apple Watch, depending on which device you’re using. But this is only feels “convenient” because it’s easier than using a dongle to link wired headphones to an iPhone.
Listening Through Fake AirPods
I’m no sound-expert, but the fake AirPods don’t sound like real AirPods. They sound slightly fuzzy, like the sound-equivalent of having blurry vision. They sound cheap. There’s definitely a reason for this (something like “there’s a limited treble and base range”), but that’s arguably irrelevant. Fake AirPods are supposed to look like AirPods, not necessarily sound like them.
Apple knows that the appearance of AirPods is more central to marketing the product than its sound quality. In Apple’s promotional video for AirPods, the sound quality isn’t mentioned until the second-to-last sentence. (“And of course, the new wireless AirPods deliver incredible sound.”) AirPods have a sound quality that can generally be described as “fine” but not “great.” But that doesn’t matter; the core of Apple’s AirPods marketing is the fact that they’re wireless.
AirPods are infamously strange-looking, and early AirPod reviews even called the product “dorky” and “controversial” in appearance. But each of the fake AirPods meticulously reconstructs the appearance of real AirPods.
AirPods aren’t the most expensive earbuds on the market, and the memes about AirPod owners being “wealthy” aren’t serious. However, AirPods do still symbolize wealth.
Like nearly every electronic product, AirPods are built using labor from mines, refinery facilities, and assembly facilities—usually performed by underpaid workers from several dozen non-Western countries. Thousands of low-wage workers, distributed around the world, are subject to the impulses of what capitalists call the “invisible hand of the market.” In other words, when there’s demand for a product or service, these people have work. When there isn’t demand, they don’t.
Apple does not prominently talk about labor practices in facilities that help make its products because it would undermine Apple’s “magic.” Products are supposed to appear out of pristine white packaging and “just work.” But all products, including Apple products, rely on labor and sweat from human beings.These products could not exist without low-wage labor being exploited.
That is why AirPods are able to project “coolness” and wealth. They derive their worth from labor that Apple wants to be invisible.
The Social Life of Fake AirPods
Fake AirPods are built from a completely different culture than regular AirPods. If AirPods are fundamentally Apple products, then the fake AirPods are fundamentally Shenzhen products, born from the city’s Shanzhai community of counterfeit electronic-makers.
As described by Sarah Emerson in a 2018 feature story for Motherboard, Shenzhen’s thriving counterfeit scene, in many ways, is only possible because of its “maker” scene.
“Makers, in the broadest sense, are technology tinkerers: people obsessed with hardware, tools, and communal knowledge, and who pride themselves on their DIY ethos,” she wrote.
But while fake AirPods may be designed by the Shanzhai community, they are not built one-by-one by DIY technologists working in Shenzhen’s federally-funded “maker spaces.” They’re built in assembly buildings not unlike the ones Apple would use. According to facility profiles for the products—which are searchable on Alibaba, a Chinese wholesale shopping website—they’re all based in Shenzhen. The facilities are lit by green-tinged fluorescent lighting. Workers cut, solder, wind, inspect, test, and package these products. It’s skill-based but typically under-paid labor.
So what are these fake AirPods, then?
Fake AirPods seemed destined to the same fate as regular AirPods. According to markings on the case and boxes of these products, you can’t recycle these products or throw them away safely. This means they most likely use the same dangerous, highly flammable lithium-ion battery that AirPods use, which regularly start fires in electronic recycling facilities. Since the fake AirPods are glued together, just like regular AirPods, there’s no safe way for recyclers to separate the internal battery from its plastic shell.
These fake AirPods will probably work for a couple of months with regular use. Then, they’ll probably start holding less of a charge, and eventually stop working entirely. Just like regular AirPods, they’ll make pretty, symmetric fossils. Fake AirPods will never biodegrade, and they’ll never decompose.
These knock-off AirPods are the unavoidable outcome of Apple making culturally important products that are out of most people’s price range. The same capitalist forces that make AirPods possible also make fake AirPods possible.
There will be demand for fake AirPods for as long as there’s demand for regular AirPods. Apple is reportedly planning on debuting a version of AirPods next year that are water-resistant and have noise-cancelling capabilities. In other words, the demand for tiny, wireless pods won’t subside any time soon. -Caroline Haskins