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Fairphone launches a fully repairable set of over-ear headphones

Fairbuds XL offers an alternative to your existing cans for €249.

Daniel Cooper / Engadget

It’s been ten years since Fairphone launched with the laudable goal of making a better phone than its competitors. Not better in the spec-list sense, but by building it with greener materials and ensuring that they are easily and comprehensively repairable. More importantly, the company has sought to improve the working conditions of the people building the devices in the first place. That’s by paying fairer wages or offering workplace training and other benefits that major manufacturers might be unwilling to do. All the while attempting to produce gear that can at least stand proud alongside brand-name devices costing two or three times as much.

Now, Fairphone is launching its first pair of over-ear headphones, Fairbuds XL, with the same focus on utility and repairability. The company says they’re the “most sustainable headphones on the market,” with almost all of the parts user-replaceable and available to buy. They can’t just be repairable and last a long while, however, they also have to sound good enough that you’ll genuinely want to use these over what else is in the market. Specs-wise, you won’t just get the basics, but active noise cancellation (ANC), multiple audio modes, two-point Bluetooth connection and a two-year warranty that’s likely to include hardware support for a lot longer.

The Fairbuds XL are available either in speckled black or speckled green. I was loaned the green model for two weeks, and while the black looks like every other dull-ass pair of cans on the market, the green is utterly gorgeous. I love the orange contrast cabling and the lovely pop of copper on the four-way joystick, and enjoyed walking around in public with these on.

The design, with its visible wire connections and fold-in arms, is a generation or two behind the cutting edge. You know, your Sony XM5s and B&W Px7s and Bose QC45s, with hidden wires, hinged earcups and an overall more elegant setup. I don’t think it’s an issue unless you’re suffering from a serious case of status anxiety, but if you are, you’re probably not thinking about buying these.

As for the hardware, there’s the aforementioned four-way joystick, a dedicated ANC lozenge button and a USB-C port, and that’s it. This minimalism carries across to what else is in the box: A recycled polyester / nylon carry bag and a little paper manual. There’s no USB-C charging cable, audio adapter or anything else, since Fairphone assumes you already have this stuff, or can just as easily buy it from its store.

Image of Fairphone's Fairbuds XL on a table surrounded by books.
Image of Fairphone's Fairbuds XL on a table surrounded by books. (Daniel Cooper / Engadget)

Fairbuds XL comes with 40mm dynamic drivers, Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) and an Ambient Sound Mode. It has an 800mAh battery which the company says will last for 26 hours with ANC or for more than 30 hours with it switched off. You’ll get around 320 hours of standby time and, once that’s exhausted, charging from cold is pegged at three hours. Supporting Bluetooth 5.1, Fairbuds XL offers dual-point connectivity, letting you hook up and switch between two paired devices. This switching was mostly reliable, although I found there were some device combinations – like an Android smartphone and my mac OS laptop, that it simply refused to play nicely with. Weighing 330 grams (11.6oz), the cans don’t outstay their welcome on your head, or your ears. The earcups are soft enough that I’m not forced to take them off because they’re uncomfortable.

Inside, those 40mm diameter drivers have a frequency response running from 20Hz to 20KHz. That puts it in the same bracket as a number of low and mid-budget sets on the market, of which this probably sits at the higher end, price-wise. Since it lacks any real background in sound, Fairphone sought out help from Sonarworks, a sound calibration company that works with a number of pro audio companies and artists. Its SoundID software will let users calibrate their audio profile to tweak how sound comes out of their headphones for a more personalized experience.

Now on the whole, I do rather like the sound that comes out of the Fairbuds XL. I’m not a massive fan of some of the genres which modern audio tests calibrate for, preferring instead something calmer, cleaner and more atmospheric. One thing I’ve always used to test a headphone’s quality is to see how well you can hear the breaths of the horn players during Finale from the Tron Legacy soundtrack, which are really clear here. Or how alive Max Haymer’s piano feels when playing his jazz reworking of Optimistic that you think you’re in the room. London Grammar’s Stay Awake feels urgent, more meaningful here than in some headphones I’ve tried.

The ANC, meanwhile, was very reliable at drowning out a lot of the ambient noise in my office, inside and out. It totally eliminated the sound of my own typing, the sound of a vacuum cleaner, the building work a nearby neighbor was doing and a crying baby out in public. The one time I had an issue with it was taking a stroll around my local area and getting a face full of wind, but there’s no strong wind setting in the mobile companion app like you’ll find on other products.

In order to offer a greater level of customization, Fairphone is also launching a Fairbuds App for iOS and Android. This will allow you to change the EQ presents – tuned by Sonarworks – for a similar level of tweaking as you could find in SoundID. The app also offers the usual bunch of guides, tutorials and access to customer service, as well as the promise of future software updates. You’ll also be able to order replacement parts directly from the app, which should help prompt you to seek out a fix if things start to go wrong.

There are four sound profiles: Amsterdam (standard), Copenhagen (more treble), Tokyo (more bass) and Boston (heavy bass). I’ll be honest, I found that only really Amsterdam and Boston offered much real difference, and even then, the changes weren’t massive. In fact, I’d say that I’d opt for Amsterdam over Boston even if I was listening to something pretty bassy like Low’s More, with its wonderfully teeth-rattling glitchcore overdriven bass. Suffice to say, I feel like the sound profiles need to be more distinct here, but it’s something that Fairphone should be able to improve upon in the coming months.

Image of the Fairbuds XL partially-disassembled.
Image of the Fairbuds XL partially-disassembled. (Daniel Cooper / Engadget)

Of course, Fairphone’s obligation stretches beyond the idea of simply making the hardware modular and repairable. The company says Fairbuds XL uses 100 percent recycled aluminum, 100 percent recycled tin in its solder paste and 80 percent recycled plastic. It added that it has integrated Fairtrade Gold into its supply chain, and uses 100 vegan leather for both the ear cushions and headband.

In terms of working conditions for the people who made them, the company will pay 0.55 USD per headphone made to “fill the living wage gap of production line workers.” And that it is “working with the supplier on improving working conditions based on workers’ needs.” It will also back carbon-reduction projects to help reduce CO2 emissions to ensure the headphones are essentially climate-neutral.

These are all laudable, but even Fairphone serially admits that the effort it makes can only make a small difference in the grand scheme of things. Its work is limited both by its size and relatively small market share, which means that it can’t do everything that it would like to. As much as it can say it’s producing the fairest device on the market, it can’t claim ownership of a halo that it doesn’t deserve. The best it can hope for, however, is to try and push the technology world toward approaching a more sustainable approach for its products.

(This is a good moment to share a gripe about the company’s True Wireless Earbuds, which it launched alongside the Fairphone 4. These are made with fair and recycled materials, and were dubbed as “e-waste neutral,” but weren’t modular or repairable. Given most TWS earbuds have sealed-in batteries, they become effectively unsalvageable when they break. Fairphone offered replacement cases, tips and buds, but it seemed to join the tide as opposed to swimming against it. With the Fairbuds XL, the focus has moved back toward an audio product that sails closer to Fairphone’s true ethos)

Fairphone’s overall ethos is that its products are – with the above exception – user-repairable, and easy enough that anyone should be able to take them apart and keep them going for years to come. The company has already shared a list of parts you can buy from its online store, which includes a new battery, left and right speaker modules, headband assembly and cover, as well as the ear cushions. Prices range from €19.95 (around $22) for the battery all the way to €79.95 (around $88) for a new speaker module, which connects to the setup with an integrated USB-C cable.

As for the ANC selection button, four-way joystick and the specific PCBs inside the earcups, those can be repaired, but right now, only at the company’s repair center. This, to me, seems pretty fair, since users probably won’t be comfortable taking a soldering iron to their cans. The deal is that you can swap in modules to keep this thing going for as long as possible, but if you want to keep it going with completely-original parts, you’ll need more expert help.

Fairphone customarily ships out its loan units for review with an iFixit #00-size Phillips-head screwdriver in the package. This is because it wants reviewers, and by extension potential buyers, to know how easy it is to take apart its products and put them back together. Imagine if Apple, Samsung, John Deere or any of the other companies that are regularly behind anti right to repair legislation had a similar attitude. As usual, I didn’t start disassembling the Fairbuds XL until I’d spent enough time listening to them, just in case something broke, but I needn't have worried.

The easiest repair to make is swapping out the battery, which requires you to pop off the outside cap on the left earcup. If you’ve got strong fingernails, you can lever out the battery and swap in a replacement in half a minute if you’re on the slow side. Removing the ear cushions to replace them is similarly a matter of just twisting them a quarter-turn to unlock them from their mounts. This is easy stuff, which makes it all the more frustrating that most companies won’t let users make these sort of common repairs.

Feeling braver, I then opted to detach the speaker modules from the headband in their entirety to mimic the process of replacing one. You just need to pop out the battery, twist off the ear cushions and then you can slide out the USB-C cable sticking up top. After that, you need to unscrew just two small screws which hold the whole assembly to the headband. The process took all of two minutes, and that was probably because I was going slow to avoid messing up.

Fundamentally, the Fairbuds XL follow through on the usual Fairphone promise of a modular, almost infinitely-repairable device. It has many of the necessary fundamentals to make them a worthwhile purchase for many people, including good ANC, long life and a comfortable design. What it lacks, for now, is a certain dynamism in its sound profiles that would give users more choice in how tunes are presented. Thankfully, that’s something that could be fixed in a later update, which is something that Fairphone has historically been very good at doing. In fact, if you’re happy with very good sound, and want to help make the world a slightly better place in doing so, then I’d say these are a very solid bet.

The name is a bit silly, however.

Fairbuds XL will be available to buy in Europe from tomorrow, May 11th 2023, on Fairphone’s website, priced at €249 (around $275).