Obviously Marmite is at the very top, but not all that much further down that list of ‘love it or hate it’, you’ll find open-fit earbuds. You know which camp you’re in, but even if you’re convinced the open-fit design (i.e. earbuds without needing ear tips) isn’t for you, read on. Huawei is confident it can both convert the doubters and delight the already-convinced with its Freebuds 5 wireless earbuds.
The Huawei Freebuds 5 are on sale in the United Kingdom for £139 per pair. In the United States they’re more like $179, while in Australia they go for AU$279 or thereabouts. At this sort of money, the ‘dangly stem’ AirPods-style design and the ‘lozenge’ twist-to-fit alternative are the predominant designs from which to choose – virtually every brand with a hint of credibility has a true wireless product that fits into one of those categories. Our favourite models at this price point include the JBL Reflect Flow Pro (£160 / $180) and the JBL Live Pro 2 TWS (£130 / $150 / AU$200), both five-star entertaining options with a good mix of fit and features.
But not for the first time, Huaewi is playing the iconoclast...
Design & comfort
Are you familiar with the ‘Chicago Bean’? The sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park is officially named ‘Cloud Gate’, but no matter what you call it, there’s no denying that the Huawei Freebuds 5 look like tiny little scale models of Anish Kapoor’s celebrated artwork. Especially in their silver frost finish.
Codec support LDAC, SBC, AAC
Battery life 5 hours (earbuds, ANC off); total 20 hours (with charging case, ANC off), total 30 hours (ANC on)
Weight 5.4g (each), 45g (charging case)
Finishes x 3
But even if you decide to go for the ceramic white or coral orange versions instead, the Freebuds 5 are a globular, quite organic shape that’s distinct from pretty much any other true wireless earbud out there. The quality of construction is unarguable, and the finish is so smooth it’s almost slippery. The bulbous shape makes it very easy to get the earbuds out of their charging case though, which means they’re ahead of any number of nominal rivals on that score at least.
At 5.4g each the earbuds are of unremarkable weight and the open-fit design means that there’s no seal formed when the earbuds are in position, which helps them feel airily comfortable. That’s if you enjoy the sensation, of course – if you don’t, then the Freebuds 5 feel (like every other open-fit design, such as the AirPods 3) dangerously loose and unstable.
In actual fact, though, the Huawei buds prove perfectly stable in every real-world scenario. These aren’t sports earbuds, it should go without saying, but as long as you don’t intend to do anything more strenuous than walk around a bit while you’re wearing them, they’ll stay securely in position. Even if they look slightly like they’re leaking out of your ears.
The Freebuds 5 use Bluetooth 5.2 for multi-point wireless connectivity, and they’re compatible with SBC, AAC and hi-res LDAC codecs. Once digital audio information is on board, it’s delivered by a pair of big (11mm) dual-magnet dynamic drivers – Huawei reckons this arrangement is good for a claimed frequency response of 16Hz to 40kHz.
When it comes to controlling the earbuds, you have a number of quite comprehensive and well-implemented options. The Huawei AI Life control app (free for iOS and Android) is, in all honesty, suspiciously nosy – but if you fork over all the relevant details, it offers decent functionality, apart, for some reason, from actual playback control. In the app you can check on battery life (of the earbuds as well as the charging case), switch noise-cancelling ‘on’ or ‘off’ (and if you choose ‘on’ you can select between three levels of intensity), and check for firmware updates. You can ask each earbud to play a sound if you’ve temporarily misplaced them, you can switch wear-detection ‘on’ or ‘off’, and you can toggle between ‘on’ or ‘off’ for low latency performance too. And you can also define the functions of the capacitive touch control on each earbud too.
The capacitive area on each earbud is large enough to accept a swipe as well as a touch, and either way the Huawei are responsive and reliable. Controls available run to ‘answer/end/reject call’, ‘wake voice assistant’, ‘play/pause’, ‘skip backwards’, ‘skip forwards’, ‘ANC on/off’ and ‘volume up/down’ – the app gives you a lot flexibility as to the gesture required to access the desired control.
The mic array on each earbud takes care of noise cancellation, telephony and interaction with your source player’s native voice assistant. Calls are clear and intelligible at either end, and voice assistants respond reliably. And the IP54 rating means the earbuds will be protected in pretty much any realistic environment, from the drizzly outdoors to sweaty humid conditions.
The pebble-shaped, palm-sized charging case is compatible with QI-certified wireless chargers, and it has a USB socket at its base too. Charging up from flat to full takes about 40 minutes with a wired connection.
Huawei isn’t the only company to make conditions as favourable as possible before deciding on the sort of battery life it’s going to publish – but in the case of the Freebuds 5, the numbers seem fairly easily achievable. Listen to some music using the AAC codec, at around 50 per cent volume, and you should be able to eke five hours or so out of the earbuds if ANC is switched off. Do the same thing with ANC on and you’re looking at more like 3.5 hours. Add in the charges held in the charging case and you should be good for 30 hours (ANC off) or 20 hours (ANC on) before you need to take on some mains power.
A quick straw poll around these parts reveals that more people in the office dislike the way the Huawei fit (or, more precisely, how they feel when they’re fitted) than like it – but obviously you’ll make your own mind up. If you do enjoy the ‘open-ear’ sensation, here’s what you need to know about the way the Freebuds 5 sound.
With a 16bit/44.1kHz file of the obligingly revealing Last Night by Arooj Aftab streaming via AAC, the open, spacious nature of the Huawei presentation is immediately apparent. The earbuds give just as much emphasis to the spaces and silences in the recording as they do the actual sounds – and they keep those silences dark, too. So there’s a solid sense of scale, as well as impressively organised soundstaging, to the recording.
The claims for the frequency response don’t seem as fanciful as they did at first, either. That the Freebuds 5 dig deep into the low end and extend a long way into the top end is not up for question – it’s what the earbuds do once they’re there that’s the issue.
Despite their presence and substance, the Huawei don’t extract all that much detail from the tune. Information regarding tone and texture that you know is there gets overlooked, especially if it’s in any way transient. They communicate more fully through the midrange, but even here detail levels are not all they might be. There’s plenty more character and technique in the vocal performance than the Huawei earbuds are letting on. And the lack of rigour where low-frequency information is concerned is compounded by less-than-complete control, meaning the Freebuds 5 don’t express rhythms with as much certainty as they might, either.
Switching up the quality (on a technology level, at least) to a high-resolution file of Last Nite by The Strokes via LDAC brings improvements, certainly where low-end authority is concerned. But it also highlights a slight, but definite, reticence with the dynamics of the recording. Little of its customary attack or verve is communicated by the earbuds – everything happens at a fairly fixed level of intensity, and there’s an overall sensation of ‘matter-of-fact’-ness to the way the earbuds hand over the music that compromises its energy. In comparison, we find JBL’s Reflect Flow Pro offering a considerably better balanced listen, and the fit is the opposite to that of the Huawei.
The words ‘perfectly fine’ came up more than once in relation to the Huawei Freebuds 5 during our review, and yes, that is exactly the amount of faint praise it looks like. In some ways, these earbuds have plenty going for them, especially where specification is concerned. But a divisive fit and an indecisive attitude towards music undermines them quite a bit.
- Sound 3
- Features 4
- Comfort 3
Read our review of the JBL Reflect Flow Pro
Also consider the JBL Live Pro 2 TWS