The modular nature of the Fairbuds XL is a welcome change in these days of apparent planned redundancy in products. It’s not just about that though, as they deliver solid audio performance with the added bonus of decent noise cancelling.
Fairphone is a brand usually associated with ethically and environmentally friendly smartphones. These devices, such as the recent Fairphone 4, buck the current trend of irreparable handsets that dominate the tech landscape – or should that be landfill? – by making them modular, allowing pretty much everything to be replaced.
It will even sell you the spare parts directly so you don’t have to scour eBay or AliExpress for cheap knockoffs that may or may not fit.
Now, the brand is turning its attention to the over-the-ear headphone market with its Fairbuds XL – the name a play on the word excel rather than denoting an extra large size. So, do they sound as good as their intentions? Let’s have a listen.
Design & Build
Clever modular construction
Stitching a bit messy
Fairphone offers the Fairbuds XL in two distinct liveries. There’s the standard black that adorns most headphones, but if you’re feeling a little more colorful, then there’s the green pair like the ones I have here.
As well as the overall two-tone effect, there’s also some black, red and white dapples on the outside of the ear-cups, adding a little Jackson Pollock to proceedings and an indication of the eco-friendly construction. It’s all neat and pretty cool if you want something more interesting than flat black.
The headband and cushioning are covered in vegan leather, as are the cups. It’s soft and comfortable, although the outer stitching is a bit messy where the headband meets the metal bands that house extendable arms. This could be down to these being pre-production examples though, so be sure to check this area if you intend to buy these headphones.
The arms themselves are plastic, as are the outer chassis of the ear-cups, but they feel sturdy and don’t flex in ways that would alarm. The right cup is home to the controls, which are made up of a button for switching between the various ANC and pairing modes.
Beneath this is a gold mini-joystick control which will be very familiar to anyone who has ever seen or used certain Marshall headphones, such as the Marshall Monitor II ANC. This can be pushed either up or down to control the volume or left and right to skip tracks, while pressing it in and holding to power on or off. It’s a great way to pack a lot of options in a tiny space.
You’ll also find a USB-C charging port on the underside of the cup, plus a few indicator lights to let you know if the battery is running low or when the XLs are in pairing mode. Sadly, there’s no 3.5mm jack, so if you were hoping to use a wired connection you’ll need a different set of cans.
The arms are hinged though, so you can fold the headphones for storage in the provided waterproof bag.
Of course, the main selling point of the Fairbuds XLs is the modular construction. With these headphones, pretty much any piece can be replaced, meaning that you won’t have an expensive set of cans become unusable just because a cheap plastic part fails. I can tell you that this is an excellent approach, as my own Marshall Major III headphones suffered this exact fate.
Even after contacting customer services several times, all in search of a small bit that would have cost next to nothing, I was told that the company didn’t sell spares, and that I should basically buy a replacement set of headphones. Appalling service from the Marshall headphones team, but this shouldn’t be an issue with Fairphone.
The headphones can be disassembled with a small Phillips-style screwdriver, and the cable that attaches to the cups has a USB-C connector at each end, making it a simple job to plug and unplug.
Checking the Fairphone site, it seems that the prices are fair indeed, with things like the arms that attach to the cups costing around €20 (all prices are listed in that currency), the batteries are the same, while the most expensive part is the right speaker module at €80 as it also houses the controls.
Fairphone makes a big deal of its commitment to the environment too, with the company using 100% recycled aluminium and plastic for the construction. Not to mention that it pays its workers a living wage, which isn’t something that could be said for most outsourced processes in tech companies.
So, they’re good quality headphones, which shouldn’t make you feel guilty about their manufacturing which is refreshing these days. Oh, and I should have mentioned that they’re also IP54 rated, so they’ll survive the rain without checking out.
Of course, none of the ethical practices will be worth that much if the product isn’t any good. Thankfully, that isn’t the case with the Fairbuds XL.
The headphones they hold on pretty tightly, which can be a little uncomfortable for those who wear glasses and intend on long listening sessions. But, the upside is that you get an enclosed space in which to hear your audio content, with little in the way of noises from the surrounding environment.
Sound quality is very good, with a nice balance of frequencies across the board, all emanating from the 40mm drivers inside each speaker. If I’m being super-picky, then the upper mids feel slightly less prominent than others, but that could be more due to the guitar-heavy music I listen to which requires those frequencies to really pop out.
It’s marginal, so don’t let that put you off, I still enjoyed the music and benefitted from the rich tones of the Fairbuds XL. Plus, my ears have spent many years only a few feet away from enthusiastic drummers, so it could be me rather than the headphones.
There is an accompanying app, called Fairsound, which gives you access to four EQ settings, but I didn’t notice a huge difference between them all. Sadly, you can’t adjust the settings manually, so you’re stuck with what Fairphone has decided on the presets.
Volume gets up loud enough to do some damage, so maybe go easy on that part if you don’t want to be mistakenly mis-hearing frequencies later in life like some people. But, there’s no need to deafen yourself to drown out nearby-noise, as the Fairbuds XL features active noise cancellation (ANC).
Simply tapping the button on the right cup will engage the technology, with a notification letting you know what mode you’re in. The ANC is decent, although you shouldn’t expect absolute silence if you’re in a particularly noisy place. Saying that, it will take the edge off the din and give you some blessed relief, which is par for the course at this price point.
The ambient mode uses the microphones on the headphones to introduce a low level of sound from your surroundings, making it useful if you’re waiting for an announcement or just want to be aware of what’s going on around you. It works well but, due to the microphone placement, it does struggle when it’s windy. Naturally, you can switch the ANC off at that point, and switch it back on again once the weather improves.
The Fairbuds XL do support dual connectivity with devices (being actively paired with two at the same time) but it can be a little clumsy in getting it going. Basically, once you’re connected to one device, press and hold the ANC button to re-enter pairing mode.
Although it says it has disconnected to the first one, that’s not true, and once you pair the second device you’ll be able to switch between them easily by just hitting the play button on either device. Hopefully, this will be made a bit tidier via a software update.
Battery Life & Charging
800mAh removable battery
Up to 30 hours listening time
Reasonable recharge times
Fairphone fits an 800mAh battery in the XLs, with the added bonus that it’s replaceable if it ever develops a problem or reaches the end of its natural lifespan.
The capacity also delivers a long amount of play time, with the company promising up to 30 hours of playback without ANC, with that figure dropping by about 5 hours if the noise cancelling is enabled.
Obviously, I couldn’t test that in one sitting, but during my two weeks with the headphones I only had to recharge them once, which sounds about right as I was using them about two or three hours a day.
Getting back to 100% took around an hour, so you won’t have to wait too long to get them back in action.
Price & Availability
Fairphone launched the Fairbuds XL headphones on 11 May, although they’re only available in mainland Europe and the UK, so US customers would need to import them from any participating retailer.
Prices are in line with other quality over-the-ear headphones with ANC, at £219/€249 (approx $277).
This puts them in the range of the excellent Razer Opus which you can pick up for around $269/£200 or the Sennheiser HD 450BT headphones ($200/£150), both of which feature ANC but not the ethical advantages offered by Fairphone.
Check out more options in our best headphones and best noise cancelling headphones charts.
In purely sonic terms, the Fairbuds XL might not be able to duke it out with other premium headsets, but they still deliver enjoyable audio that will please most users.
The ANC is good, if not class-leading, and the battery life is great. It’s a nice package that delivers well on its ambitions.
What you need to factor into the pricing here is the ability to fix pretty much anything that goes wrong. If you’re the kind of person that wants to use the same tech for years, then Fairphone could be the best headphones for you, especially if you’re looking for an ethical option, as they’re thin on the ground.