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These high-quality headphones can last years longer than Sony and Bose alternatives

Fairphone's first over-ear headphones, the Fairbuds XL, deliver great sound, but underlying features make them worth considering for the long term.
Written by Jada Jones, Associate Editor
Photo of Jada Jones wearing Fairbuds XL in green
Jada Jones/ZDNET

Fairphone, the company behind some of the most sustainable tech products, just released its first over-ear headphones, the Fairbuds XL. Naturally, what sets these apart from other over-ear headphones is that they are completely modular.

Also: Imagine your phone lasting 5 years. This company guarantees that

That's right; you can take the Fairbuds XL apart without any tools and replace any of the 11 parts yourself -- including the battery. And despite every component of the Fairbuds XL being removable, they have an IP54 rating, making the headphones water and dust resistant. 

I enjoy listening to music, and I really enjoy listening to music with headphones that can fully immerse me in the song I'm listening to. So, with the Fairbuds' focus on sustainability, do they deliver just as much value in audio output? Let's find out.

View at Fairphone

Design

The Fairbuds XL come in black or green, and the ear cups are decorated with Fairphone's signature speckles. The headphone wires are visible where the headband meets the ear cups, but that was likely necessary for the self-repairing aspect. 

Photo of Fairbuds XL ear cups on a wooden table

The green variant of the headphones.

Jada Jones/ZDNET

On the right earcup of the Fairbuds XL is a joystick, a pin-sized light, and an oval-shaped button. The joystick is my favorite part of the button design as you can long-press it to pair Fairbuds XL to multiple devices, short-press it to play or pause audio, and slide it to the left or right to replay or skip a song.

Also: The best over and on-ear headphones

The mechanic is much more functional (and less annoying to fiddle with) than typical ear cup buttons that require multiple presses to skip, replay, play, or pause songs. 

The ear cups and headband cover are made of 100% vegan leather, which feels and looks great and is, of course, better for the environment. With the leather texture, the ear cups feel secure in my ears; they don't give the impression of being too loose and are comfortable to wear for several hours.

Sometimes, on-ear and over-ear headphones can be too constricting and put too much pressure on my head, causing me to take breaks about an hour or two into use. It's worse when you're wearing accessories like earrings.

But I was able to sit at my desk and wear the Fairbuds XL for as long as four hours at a time, no breaks needed. 

Also: The best noise-canceling earbuds

For comfort alone, the Fairbuds XL are ideal for working at a desk, taking walks, or riding in a car, train, or plane. I wouldn't wear these for a heavy lift day at the gym or on a miles-long run, though. They are quite bulky and heavy, weighing more than the Beats Studio 3 and Sony WH-1000XM4 but 55 grams lighter than the AirPods Max (which I also don't recommend for strenuous exercise).

How do they sound?

In short, the Fairbuds XL sound great, but they won't top our best headphone picks. Still, I liked that the bass was deep and prominent enough to give me chills when I listened to "Can't Say" by Travis Scott, but it didn't rattle me too profoundly to make my head hurt or muffled the vocals.

Photo of Fairbuds XL in green on a black headphones stand
Jada Jones/ZDNET

These are ANC headphones, too, and the noise-canceling feature within the speakers works well with the headphone cushions to seal in the music and block outside noises. Does it beat more audio-centric offerings from Sony and Bose? Definitely not. But the ANC is good enough to put more focus on the audio than what's happening around you.

Also: How do noise-canceling headphones work?

Adjusting the Fairbuds equalizer settings in the companion app to a preset called "Tokyo," certainly helped with audio output. There are four presets in total, but Tokyo's deep bass, clear background vocals and instrumentals, and full-bodied sound made it my new default preset when listening with the Fairbuds.

Sustainable by design

As I mentioned before, the Fairbuds XL are 100% modular, so if and when anything breaks on the headphones, you can easily repair and replace the part instead of buying a brand-new pair.

photo of Fairbuds XL partially taken apart on a wooden table
Jada Jones/ZDNET

And usually, even when one part of a device may be broken, other parts still work. These parts contain precious metals and reusable components, and when they are thrown away, they're sorted as e-waste in landfills.

Review: This Chromebook is the most repairable, future-proof laptop yet

Because repairability and sustainability go hand in hand, the former is a central theme to Fairphone's mission. A Fairbuds XL battery costs only €19.95 ($21.42), a cheaper price than buying a new pair of headphones. 

Plus, when you can repair a device yourself, you can use the device for much longer. Although the Fairbuds XL can be taken apart by hand, it's certainly not for the faint of heart. 

When I tried to pry, twist, and pull the removable parts, especially the ear cups, they were so snug I was sometimes worried I'd break them. Alas, everything was modular as described.

Bottom line

The downside of these €249 (or $266) headphones -- or any product from Fairphone -- is that they're not available in the U.S. 

So, as much as I love the initiative of the headphones, and wouldn't mind snagging a pair over less-sustainable alternatives, I can only recommend them to users who reside in Europe. 

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