After four generations of modular smartphones, Fairphone is turning its repairable design smarts to headphones. Meet the Fairbuds XL, a €249 (£219) pair of over-ear wireless noise-canceling headphones that are designed to be easy to repair when parts break or wear out over time. They’re available from today in European markets, but much like Fairphone’s existing smartphones, they won’t be sold in the US.
Given the company’s focus on repairability and sustainability rather than bleeding-edge technology, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the Fairbuds XL feature a fairly typical list of specs. Battery life is rated at 26 hours with active noise cancellation enabled or 30 hours without, and there’s an IP54 rating for dust and water resistance that should mean the headphones survive light splashes. Control is handled via a small Marshall headphones-style joystick on the right earcup, which sits next to a USB-C port but no dedicated 3.5mm port. For more on how the Fairbuds XL perform in practice, check out my full review.
In theory, wireless headphones are an ideal consumer tech product to receive a repairability overhaul. They don’t run an ever-evolving operating system like Android that needs to be continuously updated to deal with security vulnerabilities. And the relatively minor year-on-year improvements made to headphones mean that models which might be several years old can still be competitive with their modern equivalents.
And yet, it can be frustrating trying to get an older pair of headphones repaired. When the control buttons on my personal pair of Bowers & Wilkins PX wireless headphones started to fail, the company’s support team told me via email that their “age and complexity” meant they wouldn’t be able to provide a fix. Instead, I was offered a potential discount on a new pair of headphones. That is understandable, considering the PX were first released in 2017, but frustrating when there’s so little reason to replace them.
In fairness to Bowers & Wilkins, its response isn’t unusual among headphones manufacturers. I asked a handful of brands if they’d be able to repair a pair of their headphones with a dead battery, and the results were mostly disappointing. Marshall Group tells me it currently has no in-house capacity for repairing its headphones (though it claims it’s working on it), and Bose says it generally replaces headphones for customers if the battery dies under warranty and swaps them out for a new, discounted product if they die outside of warranty. Neither Sony nor Apple provided an official response, though Apple advertises a $79 out-of-warranty battery repair service for the AirPods Max, and a 6/10 repairability score from iFixit suggests battery replacements are not just possible but relatively straightforward for Apple’s flagship over-ears.
Fairphone is taking a much more proactive approach to repairability with the Fairbuds XL, however. It’s making spare parts easily available via its website, and the headphones themselves have a modular construction that’s designed to make it easy to detach and swap out the part that’s developed a fault. The hope is that trifling issues like “age and complexity” won’t consign them to a landfill just because their battery has lost capacity, a cable has frayed, or control buttons have grown unresponsive over time.
Photo by Jon Porter / The Verge
Fairphone has already produced several repairable smartphones, but its co-founder Miquel Ballester tells me headphones presented several unique challenges. “Headphones are very mechanical products, much more than smartphones, I would say,” Ballester tells me in an interview. “So, in a way, the challenge of making headphones is even higher.” The company already sells a pair of true wireless earbuds, but they weren’t designed in-house, and while they’re said to be sustainably produced, they’re also unrepairable.
The Fairbuds XL can be easily broken down into around a dozen distinct components. Sometimes this is a toolless process, like when removing the user-replaceable battery or detaching the ear cushions. Sometimes you’ll need a standard Phillips head screwdriver, like when detaching the earcups from the headband.
But unlike the company’s smartphones, you won’t be popping out individual circuit boards or charging ports to disassemble the Fairbuds XL, at least for now. Most of the electronic components in the headphones are contained within the two main speaker units, which will be provided as complete components by Fairphone. That might change over time if Fairphone’s customers start requesting access to individual parts like PCBs, microphones, or buttons, but for now, Ballester says the focus is on keeping things simple. Regardless of whether it’s your speaker driver or buttons that have broken, you’re going to need to replace the whole earcup.
Fairphone is offering a two-year warranty with the headphones that covers manufacturer defects like faulty USB-C charging ports or batteries. For repairs under warranty, the current aim is to send out replacement components to users for them to install themselves. Replaced components can then be sent back into Fairphone to be recycled and / or reused.
Meanwhile, Fairphone will also sell replacement parts from its website to cover damage that occurs as part of normal wear and tear not covered under warranty. These parts include batteries (€19.95, £17.95), ear cushions (€14.95, £13.95), and three separate headband components (€19.95 each, £17.95). So even if the headphones are functionally fine, you still have the option of swapping out parts if they start looking worn or tired over time.
At this point, Fairphone isn’t making any firm predictions about how long it’ll have spare parts available for the headphones beyond its two-year warranty. That’s in contrast to the 2021 Fairphone 4, which the company sells with a five-year warranty and has said it expected to have spare parts available until at least 2027. The reason for this is simple — the company simply doesn’t know how long its headphones are going to last in the real world.
“Consciously, we don’t have a public target yet because we have no historical information about this category,” Ballester says, “This is something that we need to now assess over the next year.” Once Fairphone has details about the field failure rate of the headphones, it’ll be able to produce a forecast for how long it’ll have spare parts available, but for now, all it’s guaranteeing is support for a standard two-year warranty period with the expectation that it’ll have spare parts available for far longer.
As you’d expect from Fairphone, it’s also attempted to ethically manufacture the Fairbuds XL in the first place with sustainable materials. The cover on the headband is vegan leather; it uses 100 percent recycled aluminum in its construction, 100 recycled tin in its solder paste, and 100 percent Fairtrade Gold in its supply chain. And the company has initiatives like offering a living wage bonus to factory workers.
Like its phones, Fairphone doesn’t plan on selling the Fairbuds XL in the US. “It’s a matter of focus and capacity and doing things properly,” Ballester explains, noting that the company would need to set up the operational capacity to handle returns and repairs outside Europe if it wanted to sell the Fairbuds XL in more markets. “It would probably be too much to set these up only for headphones,” he adds.
It will be some time before we can properly evaluate how successful Fairphone’s first attempt at producing a pair of repairable headphones will be. After all, it won’t matter how repairable the Fairbuds XL are if you can’t buy replacement parts for them after just a couple of years.
But it sounds like Fairphone is already looking ahead to its next challenge, repairable true wireless earbuds. I ask Ballester whether he thinks it’d ever be possible to create a truly repairable pair of true wireless earbuds that might finally address the widespread criticisms faced by popular models like Apple’s AirPods, which feature such a thoroughly unrepairable design that not even Apple bothers to replace their batteries when they fail.
“Let’s have another interview later this year,” he responds with a smile.