Review

Fairbuds XL review: modular headphones designed to go the distance

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One of many first issues I did after I bought my palms on Fairphone’s new over-ear headphones, the Fairbuds XL, was dismantle them. Not as a result of there was something mistaken with them however as a result of, if there’s one factor Fairphone does properly, it’s constructing merchandise that aren’t simply attainable to take aside however actively gratifying to take action. And I’m pleased to report that the identical is true right here. After unclipping plastic tabs, levering open steel fasteners, and unscrewing some good previous Phillips-head screws, I used to be left with a pair of over-ear headphones neatly deconstructed into round a dozen constituent elements.

This modular development isn’t only a design flex (although, to be clear, it’s spectacular) however an try to make sure that if and when elements of the headphones begin breaking over time, it’s attainable to exchange the defective module reasonably than buy a brand new pair of headphones for €249 (£219, round $273). {Hardware} faults are coated underneath a two-year guarantee, and very like with Fairphone’s smartphones, elements may also be in the stores immediately from Fairphone. Additionally like Fairphone’s smartphones the headphones shall be offered in Europe, however not the US.

The Fairbuds XL are cleverly designed and feature-rich, with energetic noise cancellation and water resistance besides. However like Fairphone’s different merchandise, these sustainable components seem to have come at a price. It signifies that, based mostly on sound efficiency alone, the Fairbuds XL don’t really feel aggressive at their comparatively premium value level.

How we charge and overview merchandise

Regardless of the Fairbuds XL headphone’s modular development, they handle to appear to be a comparatively regular pair of wi-fi over-ear headphones. Even when the cable connecting the 2 ear cups is seen to make it simpler to detach, Fairphone has managed to make it appear to be a design flourish reasonably than a repairability compromise. On the proper ear cup, you’ll discover a joystick management, noise canceling button, and USB-C charging port however no devoted 3.5mm headphone jack. The left ear cup affords no exterior controls however homes the user-replaceable battery. My overview pattern got here in inexperienced, however the Fairbuds XL are additionally out there in black.

I’ll get into the controls and lack of a regular audio jack in a second, however first, I’ve to debate the pleasant means of disassembling the Fairbuds XL. The outer ear cap covers could be simply pried off to launch their plastic clips, whereas the ear cushions detach with an anti-clockwise flip. The speaker-to-speaker cable can merely be unplugged, whereas the ear cups are every held on with a pair of screws. Lastly, the headscarf could be disassembled by sliding off the duvet, and the bottom headband sections detach with small steel levers.

I wouldn’t say the disassembly course of is totally easy, and there have been a few moments after I was scared I used to be about to interrupt the headphones earlier than they unclipped. However I’d choose this to a pair of headphones which are really easy to dismantle that it seems like they’re about to crumble in your palms. It’s additionally good to see an IP54 ranking for mud and water resistance, which ought to imply mild rain or sweat gained’t hurt them, regardless of the modular development. That’s not dangerous contemplating 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 ranking, for instance.) 

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

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

This ease of disassembly and availability of spare elements signifies that it ought to (theoretically) be attainable to maintain these headphones in good working situation for years to come back. The precise size of time will rely upon how lengthy Fairphone has elements out there, nevertheless, and the corporate presently isn’t making any agency ensures about how lengthy that’ll be past the two-year guarantee that comes with the headphones. It expects to have spare headphone elements out there for the same size of time as spare elements for its smartphones (it promised six years of spare elements for the Fairphone 4, for instance), nevertheless it’s a disgrace it’s not in a position to supply a firmer assure.

The joystick on the proper ear cup is an effective way to regulate the Fairbuds XL. Taking inspiration from an identical button included on Marshall’s headphones, the joystick could be held down to show the headphones on or off, pushed up and down to regulate quantity, and pushed left and proper to skip tracks. It’s easy, it’s straightforward to search out together with your thumb whereas sporting the headphones, and it’s much more dependable than competing swipe-based controls or buttons that need to be pressed as much as 3 times to skip tracks. The separate ANC button prompts noise cancellation and transparency mode and likewise places the headphones into pairing mode. 

I’m much less of a fan of the dearth of a devoted 3.5mm port. As an alternative of letting you employ the Fairbuds XL as wired headphones with a standard 3.5mm cable, Fairphone as a substitute affords wired connectivity by way of the USB-C port, just like what we noticed Apple supply by way of the AirPods Max’s Lightning port. In idea, you must be capable of use any variety of aftermarket dongles and USB cables to attach the headphones to your supply machine. However in follow, the wildly various specs of those aftermarket equipment (and inconsistent labeling by producers) meant that I had a hit-or-miss expertise with the cables and dongles I had available. Possibly plan on choosing up Fairphone’s €12.95 (£11.95) 3.5mm-to-USB-C cable to keep away from the trouble. 

The Fairbuds XL help multipoint connectivity, which means they are often concurrently linked to 2 units, like a laptop computer and smartphone, and change between them as wanted. As soon as it’s arrange, the implementation is stable, with barely any lag current when hopping between units. However really getting connections established to 2 units is a bit of complicated, and it felt like I used to be utilizing trial and error to get to that time. So far as I can inform, it is advisable put the headphones again into pairing mode after connecting them to your first supply machine — and primarily ignore the “disconnected” notification that performs. After turning them on and off once more, they then seamlessly established connections to each units.

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

Fairphone charges the Fairbuds XL for 26 hours of playback with noise cancellation on, rising to 30 hours when you flip it off. That’s rather less than Sony’s XM5s (30 hours with ANC on / 40 with it off) however a hair higher than the 24 hours Bose charges its QC45 headphones for with ANC on. In follow, I bought round two weeks of use out of the headphones — which concerned sporting them whereas touring on public transport and round the home however not for prolonged intervals sitting at my desk — earlier than needing to recharge.

That’s to not say I wouldn’t fortunately put on them at my desk for lengthy intervals. The Fairbuds XL are a snug pair of headphones to put on, whilst a glasses wearer like me. They’re not too tight on the top, and so they’re sufficiently big that my ears weren’t uncomfortably pinned down. They’re snug sufficient that I generally wore them on public transport purely for the noise canceling with out listening to music, and so they did a superb job of canceling out the screeching of the London Underground round me. I did come throughout one annoyance whereas sporting the headphones round my condo, the place the clattering of cutlery would confuse the headphones’ ANC and trigger it to pop barely with every loud clank. Fairphone spokesperson Anna Jopp tells me the corporate is conscious of the problem and is aiming to repair it with a future firmware replace.

All of that is to say that the Fairbuds XL do a superb job with a lot of the secondary facets of headphones like noise cancellation, battery life, and controls, whereas additionally providing Fairphone’s trademark modularity, repairability, and sustainable manufacturing. However I’d be mendacity if I stated they appeared like a pair of headphones that value €249.

That’s not by way of a scarcity of codec help. Though there’s no help for LDAC or aptX Lossless, the Fairbuds XL help aptX HD along with AAC and SBC. And there are additionally a collection of 4 equalizer presets to select from within the Fairphone app (see the “comply with proceed” part under) if you wish to try to regulate the sound — although you’ll be able to’t fine-tune them additional.

The headphones are snug to put on.

However no matter whether or not I used to be listening to the impartial “Copenhagen” preset or the bassier “Tokyo,” none can escape the truth that the Fairbuds XL don’t supply a very detailed sound. Consequently, I broadly caught with the default “Amsterdam” EQ preset, which Fairphone describes as having an “allround highly effective sound with actual presence.” Take heed to a layered observe like Paranoid Void’s “Null,” and the Fairbuds XL make it tougher to listen to the separation between guitar and bass. It’s the identical with Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” the place all of the string devices really feel much less distinct. 

That’s to not say that the Fairbuds XL aren’t competent. Their bass by no means unnecessarily booms, neither is it flat and absent. “Brianstorm” by the Arctic Monkeys feels each bit as pounding and energetic because it ought to, and the Fairbuds XL handed the “does the ending of Royal Blood’s “Out of the Black” make the hairs on the again of my neck get up” check with flying colours. 

I by no means wished I used to be listening to music on a distinct pair of headphones. However there’s a scarcity of fullness to their sound that I’d count on to listen to at this value level.

Additionally firmly within the “not a deal-breaker however annoying” class is the Fairbuds XL’s microphone efficiency, which made my voice sound muffled and a bit of exhausting to listen to as quickly as background noise picked up. I wouldn’t belief these headphones for necessary hands-free calls.

The removable cable that connects each ear cups.

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

At €249, are the Fairbuds XL good worth for cash? That’s the query I saved returning to whereas attempting to write down this conclusion. When it comes to the worth you’re getting within the field on launch day, the reply is a convincing “not fairly.” Their design, controls, and noise cancellation are all stable, however their sound high quality is nearer to what I’d count on from a pair of €150 headphones.

However this being Fairphone, that’s not the entire story, as a result of once you purchase a Fairphone product, your cash isn’t simply going into the product that comes within the field. It additionally pays for the dwelling wage bonus that goes to the manufacturing facility workers assembling the headphones and the work that Fairphone has completed on making certain the headphones use supplies like truthful commerce gold.

That cash additionally pays for a design that’s simpler to restore and preserve over time. Particularly, I feel it’s completely incredible that changing the headphones’ battery is so simple as unclipping a plastic cowl and swapping in a available €19.95 (£17.95) battery. This characteristic alone might make sure that a pair of Fairbuds XL are usable for years longer than their opponents. However with out particular assurances about how lengthy spare elements are going to be out there, it’s tougher to quantify how lengthy their life span may be and, therefore, tougher to say how value it the additional value is. I’d be very shocked if there weren’t nonetheless spare elements out there in half a decade’s time based mostly on how lengthy Fairphone has supported its smartphones. However as of this writing, it’s not assured.

Like each first-generation product that provides “longevity” as one among its promoting factors, a purchase order is a vote of religion in Fairphone’s ongoing help of the Fairbuds XL. Probably the most repairable design on the earth gained’t matter if elements aren’t available lengthy into the long run, and this ongoing help is a key a part of what your €249 buy is getting you. Based mostly on Fairphone’s historical past, I feel it’s earned the advantage of the doubt. However I wouldn’t blame anybody who’s extra skeptical of the worth on supply right here.

Images by Jon Porter / The Verge

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