Fairphone’s repairable wireless earbuds put the industry on notice
8 mins read

Fairphone’s repairable wireless earbuds put the industry on notice

True wireless earbuds are fragile, easily lost, and prone to battery damage. Given their size and cost, companies will want you to take them out when they are unavoidable. However, Fairphone has created a pair of buds with easily replaceable batteries, as well as a swappable cell in the charging case. And, look, if the engineers working at this small Dutch company can work on it, the armies of designers in the steel and glass cathedrals of Apple and Samsung have no excuse.

The Fairbuds are a pair of true wireless earbuds that look a lot like Samsung's Galaxy Buds, with a controller on the outermost surface on either side. Fairphone promises six hours of battery life on a single charge and an additional 20 hours of battery life inside the case. The buds are packing the usual feature list, which includes ANC, multipoint connectivity as well as an IP54 rating for sweat and water resistance. As always, the company wants to argue (at least on paper) that just because Satan has the best toys, you can have fun wearing a Halo, too.

The FareBuds are the company's second success at True Wireless Whip, following 2021's obviously named True Wireless Stereo Earbuds. They were made from Fairtrade gold and 30 percent recycled plastic, but they were still more part of the problem than the solution. At the time, I berated the company for launching a product contrary to its environmental goals. In retrospect, the nonsense name should have been a sign that these were a stopgap. Since then, the TWS were dropped, and the company released the Fearbuds XL, a pair of over-ear cans that I liked.

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

Image of a FireBud with the battery slider open.

Photo by Daniel Cooper/Engadget

I don't think it's unfair to say that Fairphone prioritizes repair over look and feel, so these won't be taking the podium at the Beautiful Gadget Awards. I had a pair of AirPods Pro on my desk and when I sat next to the Fairbuds, the difference between the two was almost comical. The Fairbuds' case is almost twice the size and, while the corners are rounded, it will still remain an unwelcome presence in your jeans pocket. Not that acres of space are wasted in this case, but this is one product that the armchair designer in me keeps wanting to slim down.

There are other irritations too, like the action button is at the top of the charging tray but the status light is next to the USB-C port. It's not a deal breaker, but you'd expect these fit and finish issues to be a focus for any future version two. But the point of these irritations is that beauty has been sacrificed on the altar of repair, and that's why you'd buy a pair.

I probably need to make this clear, for those who will point to the iFixit guide that will tell you how to swap out the battery airpods and a galaxy bud That it is possible to do so. But if the guides ask you to use a heat gun, scalpel, vice, pry bar, and glue-dissolving solvent, it's not an easy task anyone can do. When I say you can replace the batteries on each FireBuds as easily as you can replace the batteries on a '90s cell phone, I mean it.

In fact, my first attempt took all of 30 seconds because you just have to take a small, flat-head screwdriver to remove the rubber gasket. Once done, you just have to gently pull out the hinged holder and the battery will pop out easily. Change to a new cell, slide the rubber gasket back into place (if you're gentle, it pops back into position without any fuss) and you're done.

Similarly, the charging case houses a replaceable battery that is held in place with a single Phillips head screw. A few twists and the charging plate pops out, revealing the 500mAh cell beneath, enabling users to purchase a replacement outer shell, charging tray, and case battery. You can also buy eartips, earbuds, and earbud batteries from Fairphone's online parts store.

The image shows the Fairbuds case open, exposing the charging plate and battery.The image shows the Fairbuds case open, exposing the charging plate and battery.

Photo by Daniel Cooper/Engadget

It's possible that you'll only want or need to replace the battery once every three or four years, so you won't benefit from this flexibility on a daily basis. Reading a lot of online conversations, a general rule of thumb is that most TWS buds last two to three years before things go wrong. Fairphone also offers a three-year warranty on the buds, but I'd expect a well-used pair of Fairbuds to last twice as long, assuming you don't lose them in the sewer or leave them behind. Of a cab.

Sadly, I can't be as complimentary about the sound quality of the FireBuds, which isn't as strong as you might expect. They're not bad by any means, but the default sound profile doesn't have the dynamics you hear in competitors. It doesn't matter whether you're playing a lush orchestral piece by Jerry Goldsmith or something as powerful as Korn, you'll feel that the sound is tighter and flatter than other products. It's as if the top and bottom ends of the sounds are being cut off to keep everything from getting out of control.

The Fairbuds app has sound profiles that I found equally weak as users were able to choose between standard tuning, bass boost, or flat. None of them feel any different. There's also a studio option where you can adjust the tuning with eight specific frequency bands. This is where you can really improve the sound quality, but it takes more time and effort than you can put in on a regular basis.

At least the basics are great: I've been testing these for the past five days and I haven't felt the need to recharge the case's battery at all. Even with ANC on, I think I got at least 20 hours out of these things and I still have juice left in the tank. And the ANC itself offers the same background muffling you'll hear in every other mid-range ANC earbud.

One mantra Fairphone has always reiterated is that it doesn't expect to make a phone that will outperform the big manufacturers. Its products are designed to attract those who want something manufactured more ethically, and act as a north star for the technology industry more broadly. There are a lot of engineering questions that remain over the long term regarding durability, bulkiness and ease of use. But Fairphone's impact here should be to throw a challenge to its bigger rivals to use their vast resources to create an earbud that isn't doomed to live in the trash from the moment it's born.

The Fairbuds are making their debut today in Europe from Fairphone as well as various retail partners across the region. They are priced at €149 and although there is no word on the matter yet, it is likely that we will see them arriving in the US at some point in the future.

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