There was a time when it felt like smartphone manufacturers treated headphones as a bit of an afterthought. Just bundle something in that resembles a pair of in-ear headphones and that should keep consumers happy.
But demands and expectations have changed, which is why headphones such as the Huawei FreeBuds Pros now exist. Phone manufacturers have seen the mileage in developing their own high-tech headphones that major on wireless convenience.
To that end there’s no shortage of competition when it comes to Bluetooth noise-cancelling earbuds. Apple has the AirPods Pro, Samsung the Galaxy Buds Live, and Sony the WF-1000XM3. So, how does Huawei’s offering stack up?
First impressions are promising. Unbox the FreeBuds Pro and you’re greeted by their charging case. It’s a little on the chunky side, but your pockets should be able to survive the strain. Flip it open and you’ll find the earbuds nestled inside.
Provided you have Huawei’s AI Life app on your smartphone (available for Android, but not iOS at the time of writing), you’ll receive a notification to say the headphones are ready to pair almost as soon as the lid is lifted. If you ever need to reset the earbuds or pair with another device, simply press and hold the button on the side of the case.
There’s a technique to freeing the FreeBuds, which involves pushing a bud up with your thumb and grabbing it in a pincer movement. It can be a bit of a struggle sliding them back in the case, but it does get a little easier over time.
In-hand, the FreeBuds Pros look functional enough with glossy surfaces that are smooth to the touch but feel a little cheap. The finish of our review sample is Carbon Black, but there are also Ceramic White and Silver Frost options.
The earbud enclosures are deliberately curved to help fit the shape of your ear and to help distribute force on the surface of your ear and the silicone tips evenly. This allows the pressure that would normally build up on your ear to balance out for a more comfortable fit. And that’s exactly what you get. The FreeBuds pro feel lightweight and not too intrusive, despite their snug-fitting silicone eartips.
The tips are oval in shape, just like the earbud ports. This means you need to position the silicone eartips a certain way before you put them in your ears. In case you’re unsure, Huawei’s AI Life app includes both a tip-fit test and wear-detection test to help you get up and running.
Each earbud enclosure is attached to an elongated, rectangular stem. These not only help with stability but also act as your main point of contact with the FreeBuds Pros. Each stem hosts a tiny touch-sensitive button that you use to control various aspects of their performance.
Bluetooth version 5.0
Battery life 4.5 hours, 20 hours (with charging case)
Weight 6.1g (per earbud)
A quick pinch will play/pause your music and answer calls, while sliding your finger up or down the button will change the volume. It might look like you’re trying to scratch your ear when you do shift the volume, but at least it's effective.
Pinching and holding activates the Awareness mode so you can hear your surroundings and hold a conversation without having to take the earbuds out of your ears. It also cycles through to turn on the built-in noise-cancelling, and this is where Huawei has focused much of its attention in the hope of giving rivals such as the AirPods Pros a serious run for their money.
There are four main noise-cancelling settings within the AI Life app. Cosy is best suited to quiet environments, General is for everyday use when you're out and about, and Ultra claims to cut out the most noise, designed to be used in noisy places such as on a plane or train. The setting that you’ll probably use most, however, is Dynamic. Here you can leave the earbuds to use their own internal tech to pick the best level of noise-cancelling for your current situation.
The earbuds use twin Digital HD microphones and an algorithm to help achieve the noise-cancellation, and we find the FreeBuds Pros do good job of blocking out the drone of daily life. They’ve also been designed with low-latency in mind, and a few YouTube videos and episodes of The Umbrella Academy later, the Huaweis emerge unflustered.
There are two Bluetooth antennas in each earbud to help provide a more stable connection, and we don’t experience any major dropouts – even when our phone is located in the room next door.
The charging case boasts some impressive stats. A five-minute charge (when connected to mains power) is enough to give you two hours of playback with ANC enabled. It charges via USB-C or can be placed on a compatible wireless charging pad.
Battery life is 4.5 hours with ANC or seven hours without, which is competitive when pitched against the AirPods Pros and Sony WF-1000XM3s. The charging case takes total battery life up to 30 hours (without ANC) or 20 hours (with ANC). LED lights both inside and outside the case change colour depending on how much battery life is left in the case and headphones.
So far, so promising. And our initial take on the audio that pumps out of the Huawei in-ears is pretty positive too. The FreeBuds Pros deliver a lively and upbeat sound. They’re not the shy and retiring type, lapping up anything with a decent beat.
Play Starboy by The Weeknd and bass notes make an impact, weighty and full-bodied. There’s no element to the sound that really grates, but we get the sense that certain high and low frequencies have been given a slightly artificial boost to lift the mood of these headphones.
When compared with a rival such as the Sony WF-1000XM3s, however, the Huaweis lag behind in a few key areas. Dynamically, they sound quite stunted, especially with noise-cancelling turned on. At the start of The Weeknd track, as the static sound effect becomes more prominent, the Sonys reproduce it with greater clarity and distinction.
As the track gets underway, the Huaweis struggle to uncover the same amount of detail or display the same rhythmic ability. They never really give you the full picture. You can introduce a bit more spaciousness and a slight lift in dynamics by turning noise-cancelling off, but the FreeBuds Pro still come out second-best against rivals.
Play Portals from the Avengers: End Game soundtrack and it’s more of the same. There’s weight to the pounding drum beats that punctuate the opening of the track, but they should pierce the silence more dramatically. Wind instruments need more of a cutting edge to make their presence felt, too. The Huaweis are inoffensive, they simply struggle to uncover the finer details and communicate the subtleties of a track.
The Huawei FreeBuds Pros aren’t bad wireless earbuds, but they could be better. On the plus side, they are nice to use, the noise-cancelling is good and they’re both comfortable and lightweight. But sound quality lags behind the competition and you can get more bangs for your buck elsewhere.
- Sound 3
- Comfort 5
- Build 4
Read our guide to the best wireless in-ear headphones
Read our Sony WF-1000XM3 review
Read our Apple AirPods Pro review