Teardown: Fairphone Fairbuds XL
Image credit: Fairphone
Dutch specialist stretches sustainability and repair for headphones.
Dutch consumer electronics manufacturer Fairphone has been a pioneer in developing sustainable and easily repairable products, most notably smartphones. It celebrated its 10th anniversary at the beginning of the year and its latest offering are the Fairbuds XL over-the-ear headphones.
Released for pre-order in mid-May, the units push the envelope for modular design as other more established brands also seek to offer their takes on the concept.
The Fairbuds XL cost £219 excluding shipping (currently available to the UK and EU). The company recommends that consumers buy a 1.2m USB C-to-USB C cable for wired listening at £39.15 (though much cheaper alternatives are available). A port converter for a traditional 3.5mm headphone socket is also on offer for £11.95.
What most catches the attention is the range of modules that can be replaced: the battery, the speaker-to-speaker cable, the earcap covers, the headband, the ear cushion, the headband base, the speaker and the headband cover.
This list is not an invitation to dig into the Fairbuds XL at the board level, but does give the public a chance to upgrade heavily used parts, particularly the cushions and the battery.
The outer covers pop out, allowing easy battery replacement. The earpieces are twist-and-click mounted and dismounted. The headband folds off providing easy access to the base and cable. The speakers themselves are removed from the headband using a small-bit Phillips screwdriver. You can try this much at home.
Simple earbuds are the most notorious waste audio products, but dead over-the-ear cans also tend to be hoarded or trashed. Such products are reckoned to have a two to three-year lifespan and, to provide some idea of the problem this creates, researchers at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research reckon that we could accumulate enough unused pairs by 2026 to circle the Moon three times over. Statista estimates that 548 million headphones shipped worldwide in 2021 alone.
“Fairbuds XL are for users who are searching for a sustainable alternative and want to push for change in the electronics industry,” said Fairphone CEO Eva Gouwens at the product launch.
In addition to the modular design, the company has used Fairtrade gold, vegan leather, 100 per cent recycled plastic where possible, 100 per cent recycled aluminium in structural elements such as the headband base, and recycled tin. The company is also contributing $0.55 (44p) for each unit sold to “fill the living wage gap” for manufacturing staff in China.
However, sustainability obviously comes at a cost. Fairbuds XL are premium priced, and this is necessarily supported by the specifications.
There are 40mm drivers with active noise cancellation (ANC), Bluetooth 5.1 with multiple codec support, and up to 30 hours of battery life (up to 26 hours with ANC). The headphones also have Bluetooth multipoint capability that allows two devices to connect to the source at once.
The user can tweak pre-set equaliser modes using an accompanying Fairbuds app, and the headphones can be used with both Android and iOS devices. The app provides customer support as well as options for the headphones to be upgraded with new features over time, again looking to take the range beyond the two to three-year breakpoint.
Although this is a very modular design, Fairphone says the product is certified to IP54 to prevent dust ingress and damage from water spray.
Finally, if a user does not feel confident about fixing the headphones (or a more challenging board-level fix is needed), Fairphone says they can be sent to one of its authorised repair partners. It looks like one of those rare cases where you wonder, “What’s not to like?”
Reported pricing on the replacement parts looks attractive. The Verge says that batteries will be £17.95, ear cushions will be £13.95 and the headband elements will each be £17.95. However, these numbers are not yet on Fairphone’s website and do not include the speakers.
A quick bit of maths suggests something towards the upper end of the £50-60 range per speaker, maybe higher, based on trying to assemble some DIY Fairbuds XL for around the £219 mark. A two- year warranty is also offered.
The other question is that none of the information Fairphone has so far released specifically says for how long it will support the replacement part programme. The company discontinued support for its original Fairphone 1 handset in 2017, four years after launch, though says it plans to support its current Fairphone 4, released in 2021, until at least 2027.
There are a few things to resolve, but otherwise you mainly hope that the design choices here will trickle down into cheaper over-the-ear options. The concept seems to be what justifies the margin rather than the difficulty of its execution.
Key components: Fairphone Fairbuds XL headphones
1. Headband cover
3. Speaker-to-speaker cable
4. Left speaker and battery compartment
5. Right speaker and controls
6. Ear cushions
8. Left speaker cover
9. Right speaker cover
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