Fairphone’s repairable wireless earbuds put the industry on notice

True wireless headphones are flimsy, easily lost, and prone to battery failure. Given their size and value, companies prefer to dispose of them when the inevitable happens. However, Fairphone has built a pair of buds with easily replaceable batteries, as well as a replaceable cell in the charging case. See if the engineers works for this small Dutch company If you can pull this off, the army of designers in the steel and glass churches of Apple and Samsung have no excuse.

The Fairbuds are a pair of true wireless earbuds that look like Samsung’s Galaxy Buds, with the outermost surface on either side being a controller. The Fairphone promises six hours of battery life with an additional 20 hours of charging housed inside the case. The Buds pack the usual list of features, including ANC, multi-point connectivity, as well as an IP54 rating for sweat and water resistance. As always, the company wants to make the argument (at least on paper) that since the devil has the best toys, you can still have fun wearing a halo.

The Fairbuds are the company’s second crack at the true wireless whip, following 2021’s aptly named True Wireless Stereo Earbuds. These were made of fair gold and 30 percent recycled plastic, but were more part of the problem than the solution. At that time I gave grief to the company for releasing a product that conflicts with its environmental goals. In retrospect, the silly name should have been a clue that these were a break. Since then, TWS has been dropped and the company has been released Fairbuds XLa pair of ear boxes that I like better.

Fairphone says the Fairbuds here are made from 70 percent recycled and fair-trade materials, with rare earth elements and tin being 100 percent recycled. The company also claims to offer improved wages for factory workers compared to rival manufacturers, and works with suppliers to improve working conditions for people on the production line.

An image of the Fairbud with the battery slider open.An image of the Fairbud with the battery slider open.

Photo: Daniel Cooper / Engadget

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Fairphone prioritizes repairability over look and feel, so these won’t be making the podium at the Cool Gadget Awards. I had a pair of AirPods Pro on my desk, and sitting next to the Fairbuds, the difference between the two is almost comical. The Fairbuds case is about twice the size, and although the corners are rounded, it will still be an unwanted presence in a jeans pocket. It’s not like there are acres of free space in the case, but this is a product that the armchair designer in me wants to slim down.

There are other annoyances, such as the fact that the action button is on top of the charging case, but the status light is on the side of the USB-C port. It’s not a deal breaker, but you hope these compatibility and finish issues are addressed for any future second version. But what these annoyances mean is that elegance has been sacrificed on the altar of repairability, and so you’ll get a pair.

For people who will point you to iFixit guides showing you how to replace the battery, I should probably clarify. AirPods and a Galaxy Bud that it is possible to do. But if the guides ask you to use a heat gun, scalpel, vice, stick and glue solvent, it’s not an easy task that everyone can do. When I say you can replace the battery in every Fairbud with the same ease as a 90s cell phone battery, I mean it.

In fact, my first attempt took 30 seconds because all you need to do is get a small, flat-head screwdriver to slide off the rubber gasket. Once this is done, just gently remove the hinged handle and the battery will easily slide out. Replace with a new cell, slide the rubber gasket back into place (if you’re gentle, it pops back into place with mostly no fuss), and you’re done.

Likewise, the charging case contains a replaceable battery held in place by a single philips-head screw. A few twists and the charging plate comes off, revealing the 500mAh cell underneath, with users able to purchase replacement outer shells, charging trays, and box batteries. You can also buy headphones, earphones and earphone batteries from Fairphone’s online parts store.

Photo of Fairbuds box, charging plate and battery open.Photo of Fairbuds box, charging plate and battery open.

Photo: Daniel Cooper / Engadget

You’ll probably want or need to replace batteries every three or four years, so you won’t be able to use this convenience on a daily basis. From reading a lot of chatter online, the rule of thumb is that most TWS buds last between two and three years before things start to go wrong. Fairphone also offers a three-year warranty on the buds, but I’d expect it to last twice as long, assuming you don’t lose or leave a well-used pair of Fairbuds down the drain. of a taxi.

Unfortunately, I can’t praise the Fairbuds sound quality, which isn’t as strong as you’d hope. They’re not bad by any means, but the default sound profile lacks the dynamism you hear in competitors. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing a lush orchestral piece by Jerry Goldsmith or something more powerful like Korn, you’ll feel the sound is rougher and flatter than the other products. It’s as if the upper and lower ends of the sounds are sliced ​​so that everything doesn’t get out of hand.

The Fairbuds app has sound profiles that I find equally lackluster, with users able to choose between a default setting, Bass Boost, or Flat. None of them feel different. There’s also a Studio option where you can adjust the tuning across eight specific frequency bands. This is where you can really improve the sound quality, but it takes more time and effort than I’m happy to put into it on a regular basis.

At least the basics are all pretty good: I’ve been testing them extensively over the past five days and haven’t needed to charge the case’s battery at all. Even with ANC on, I think I squeezed at least 20 hours out of these and still had water left in the tank. And the ANC itself offers the same background noise you’ll hear in every other mid-range ANC headphone.

One of the mantras that Fairphone always repeats is that it doesn’t expect to build a phone that will blow the big manufacturers. Its products are designed to appeal to people who want something a little more ethically made, and to act as a north star for the tech industry more broadly. There are so many engineering questions—around durability, bulkiness, and ease of use—that it stretches. But Fairphone’s effect here should be to challenge its bigger rivals to use their vast resources to create a headset that isn’t doomed to live in the bin from birth.

The Fairbuds are making their European debut today from Fairphone, as well as various retail partners in the region. They’re priced at €149, and while there’s no word on that right now, we’ll see them make their way to the US at some point in the future.

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