Fairbuds XL review: modular headphones designed to go the distance

One of the first things I did when I got my hands on Fairphone’s new over-ear headphones, the Fairbuds XL, was dismantle them. Not because there was anything wrong with them but because, if there’s one thing Fairphone does well, it’s building products that are not just possible to take apart but actively enjoyable to do so. And I’m happy to report that the same is true here. After unclipping plastic tabs, levering open metal fasteners, and unscrewing some good old Phillips-head screws, I was left with a pair of over-ear headphones neatly deconstructed into around a dozen constituent parts.

This modular construction isn’t just a design flex (though, to be clear, it’s impressive) but an attempt to ensure that if and when parts of the headphones start breaking over time, it’s possible to replace the faulty module rather than purchase a new pair of headphones for €249 (£219, around $273). Hardware faults are covered under a two-year warranty, and much like with Fairphone’s smartphones, parts will also be available to buy directly from Fairphone. Also like Fairphone’s smartphones the headphones will be sold in Europe, but not the US.

The Fairbuds XL are cleverly designed and feature-rich, with active noise cancellation and water resistance to boot. But like Fairphone’s other products, these sustainable elements appear to have come at a cost. It means that, based on sound performance alone, the Fairbuds XL don’t feel competitive at their relatively premium price point.

Fairphone Fairbuds XLThe GoodModular designLovely controlsGreat ANCThe BadSound isn’t greatNo dedicated 3.5mm portMultipoint connectivity confusing to activateHow we rate and review products

Despite the Fairbuds XL headphone’s modular construction, they manage to look like a relatively normal pair of wireless over-ear headphones. Even if the cable connecting the two ear cups is visible to make it easier to detach, Fairphone has managed to make it look like a design flourish rather than a repairability compromise. On the right ear cup, you’ll find a joystick control, noise canceling button, and USB-C charging port but no dedicated 3.5mm headphone jack. The left ear cup offers no external controls but houses the user-replaceable battery. My review sample came in green, but the Fairbuds XL are also available in black.

I’ll get into the controls and lack of a standard audio jack in a second, but first, I have to discuss the delightful process of disassembling the Fairbuds XL. The outer ear cap covers can be easily pried off to release their plastic clips, while the ear cushions detach with an anti-clockwise turn. The speaker-to-speaker cable can simply be unplugged, while the ear cups are each held on with a pair of screws. Finally, the headband can be disassembled by sliding off the cover, and the base headband sections detach with small metal levers.

I wouldn’t say the disassembly process is completely effortless, and there were a couple of moments when I was scared I was about to break the headphones before they unclipped. But I’d prefer this to a pair of headphones that are so easy to dismantle that it feels like they’re about to fall apart in your hands. It’s also nice to see an IP54 rating for dust and water resistance, which should mean light rain or sweat won’t harm them, despite the modular construction. That’s not bad considering water resistance isn’t a given with even premium headphones. (Neither Sony’s WH-1000XM5s, Bose’s QuietComfort 45s, or Apple’s AirPods Max have an IP rating, for example.) 

There’s a joystick and USB-C connection but no 3.5mm port.

The Fairbuds XL, broken down into roughly a dozen modules.

This ease of disassembly and availability of spare parts means that it should (theoretically) be possible to keep these headphones in good operating condition for years to come. The exact length of time will depend on how long Fairphone has parts available, however, and the company currently isn’t making any firm guarantees about how long that’ll be beyond the two-year warranty that comes with the headphones. It expects to have spare headphone parts available for a similar length of time as spare parts for its smartphones (it promised six years of spare parts for the Fairphone 4, for example), but it’s a shame it’s not able to offer a firmer guarantee.

The joystick on the right ear cup is a great way to control the Fairbuds XL. Taking inspiration from a similar button included on Marshall’s headphones, the joystick can be held down to turn the headphones on or off, pushed up and down to control volume, and pushed left and right to skip tracks. It’s simple, it’s easy to find with your thumb while wearing the headphones, and it’s far more reliable than competing swipe-based controls or buttons that have to be pressed up to three times to skip tracks. The separate ANC button activates noise cancellation and transparency mode and also puts the headphones into pairing mode. 

I’m less of a fan of the lack of a dedicated 3.5mm port. Instead of letting you use the Fairbuds XL as wired headphones with a traditional 3.5mm cable, Fairphone instead offers wired connectivity through the USB-C port, similar to what we saw Apple offer via the AirPods Max’s Lightning port. In theory, you should be able to use any number of aftermarket dongles and USB cables to connect the headphones to your source device. But in practice, the wildly varying specs of these aftermarket accessories (and inconsistent labeling by manufacturers) meant that I had a hit-or-miss experience with the cables and dongles I had on hand. Maybe plan on picking up Fairphone’s €12.95 (£11.95) 3.5mm-to-USB-C cable to avoid the hassle. 

The Fairbuds XL support multipoint connectivity, meaning they can be simultaneously connected to two devices, like a laptop and smartphone, and switch between them as needed. Once it’s set up, the implementation is solid, with barely any lag present when hopping between devices. But actually getting connections established to two devices is a little confusing, and it felt like I was using trial and error to get to that point. As far as I can tell, you need to put the headphones back into pairing mode after connecting them to your first source device — and essentially ignore the “disconnected” notification that plays. After turning them off and on again, they then seamlessly established connections to both devices.

Inside the left ear cup, there’s a user-replaceable battery.

Fairphone rates the Fairbuds XL for 26 hours of playback with noise cancellation on, rising to 30 hours if you turn it off. That’s a little less than Sony’s XM5s (30 hours with ANC on / 40 with it off) but a hair better than the 24 hours Bose rates its QC45 headphones for with ANC on. In practice, I got around two weeks of use out of the headphones — which involved wearing them while traveling on public transport and around the house but not for extended periods sitting at my desk — before needing to recharge.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t happily wear them at my desk for long periods. The Fairbuds XL are a comfortable pair of headphones to wear, even as a glasses wearer like me. They’re not too tight on the head, and they’re big enough that my ears weren’t uncomfortably pinned down. They’re comfortable enough that I sometimes wore them on public transport purely for the noise canceling without listening to music, and they did a good job of canceling out the screeching of the London Underground around me. I did come across one annoyance while wearing the headphones around my apartment, where the clattering of cutlery would confuse the headphones’ ANC and cause it to pop slightly with each loud clank. Fairphone spokesperson Anna Jopp tells me the company is aware of the issue and is aiming to fix it with a future firmware update.

All of this is to say that the Fairbuds XL do a good job with most of the secondary aspects of headphones like noise cancellation, battery life, and controls, while also offering Fairphone’s trademark modularity, repairability, and sustainable manufacturing. But I’d be lying if I said they sounded like a pair of headphones that cost €249.

That’s not through a lack of codec support. Although there’s no support for LDAC or aptX Lossless, the Fairbuds XL support aptX HD in addition to AAC and SBC. And there are also a series of four equalizer presets to choose from in the Fairphone app (see the “agree to continue” section below) if you want to attempt to adjust the sound — though you can’t fine-tune them further.

The headphones are comfortable to wear.

But regardless of whether I was listening to the neutral “Copenhagen” preset or the bassier “Tokyo,” none can escape the fact that the Fairbuds XL don’t offer a particularly detailed sound. As a result, I broadly stuck with the default “Amsterdam” EQ preset, which Fairphone describes as having an “allround powerful sound with real presence.” Listen to a layered track like Paranoid Void’s “Null,” and the Fairbuds XL make it harder to hear the separation between guitar and bass. It’s the same with Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” where all the string instruments feel less distinct. 

That’s not to say that the Fairbuds XL aren’t competent. Their bass never unnecessarily booms, nor is it flat and absent. “Brianstorm” by the Arctic Monkeys feels every bit as pounding and energetic as it should, and the Fairbuds XL passed the “does the ending of Royal Blood’s “Out of the Black” make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up” test with flying colors. 

I never wished I was listening to music on a different pair of headphones. But there’s a lack of fullness to their sound that I’d expect to hear at this price point.

Also firmly in the “not a deal-breaker but annoying” category is the Fairbuds XL’s microphone performance, which made my voice sound muffled and a little hard to hear as soon as background noise picked up. I wouldn’t trust these headphones for important hands-free calls.

The detachable cable that connects both ear cups.

The Fairbuds XL’s battery in among its disassembled modules.

At €249, are the Fairbuds XL good value for money? That’s the question I kept returning to while trying to write this conclusion. In terms of the value you’re getting in the box on release day, the answer is a resounding “not quite.” Their design, controls, and noise cancellation are all solid, but their sound quality is closer to what I’d expect from a pair of €150 headphones.

But this being Fairphone, that’s not the whole story, because when you buy a Fairphone product, your money isn’t just going into the product that comes in the box. It also pays for the living wage bonus that goes to the factory employees assembling the headphones and the work that Fairphone has done on ensuring the headphones use materials like fair trade gold.

That money also pays for a design that’s easier to repair and maintain over time. In particular, I think it’s absolutely fantastic that replacing the headphones’ battery is as simple as unclipping a plastic cover and swapping in a readily available €19.95 (£17.95) battery. This feature alone could ensure that a pair of Fairbuds XL are usable for years longer than their competitors. But without specific assurances about how long spare parts are going to be available, it’s harder to quantify how long their life span might be and, hence, harder to say how worth it the extra cost is. I would be very surprised if there weren’t still spare parts available in half a decade’s time based on how long Fairphone has supported its smartphones. But as of this writing, it’s not guaranteed.

Like every first-generation product that offers “longevity” as one of its selling points, a purchase is a vote of faith in Fairphone’s ongoing support of the Fairbuds XL. The most repairable design in the world won’t matter if parts aren’t readily available long into the future, and this ongoing support is a key part of what your €249 purchase is getting you. Based on Fairphone’s history, I think it’s earned the benefit of the doubt. But I wouldn’t blame anyone who’s more skeptical of the value on offer here.

Agree to Continue: Fairbuds XL

Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it — contracts that no one actually reads. It’s impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But we started counting exactly how many times you have to hit “agree” to use devices when we review them since these are agreements most people don’t read and definitely can’t negotiate.

By using Fairphone’s Fairbuds XL companion app you’re agreeing to:

The final tally is one mandatory agreement.

Photography by Jon Porter / The Verge