They may not be Huawei’s best earbuds, but the FreeBuds 5i aren’t too far behind the FreeBuds Pro 2 and are quite a bit cheaper
- Effective noise cancellation
- High-resolution audio support
- Comfortable design, compact case
- Limited EQ options
- No wireless charging
- Some Huawei-exclusive features
The Huawei FreeBuds 5i are the Chinese manufacturer’s latest pair of noise-cancelling earbuds and share a lot in common with their stablemates the FreeBuds Pro 2.
They make a few sacrifices to hit a lower price point but borrow heavily from the flagship Pro 2 to significantly improve on their predecessors, the FreeBuds 4i. They’re not only the best buds under £100 for Huawei phone owners but they’re also a great option for anyone else looking for a great value pair of true wireless earphones.
Huawei FreeBuds 5i review: What do you get for the money?
The FreeBuds 5i have a list price of £90, which is a tenner more than the FreeBuds 4i cost when I reviewed them in March 2021. It’s crazy to think that the 4i were the cheapest noise-cancelling earbuds I’d tested at the time; two years on and you’re spoilt for choice in this area.
The 1MORE Aero, Redmi Buds 4 Pro and Lypertek PurePlay Z5 are all available for similar money, while the Edifier W240TN (£60), EarFun Free Pro 2 (£50) and UGREEN HiTune T3 (£37) offer noise cancellation at an even lower price.
The FreeBuds 5i’s specifications sheet reads favourably when compared with the rivals, with Bluetooth 5.2, multipoint pairing and support for the AAC, SBC and LDAC codecs. They miss out on the Huawei Hi-Res Wireless Audio (HWA) codec found on the Pro 2 but this isn’t a big deal if you have an LDAC-compatible phone.
Design-wise, the FreeBuds 5i look similar to the 4i but they’re 11% lighter and the stems that protrude out of your ears are shorter. They now come with an IP54 rating, certifying them dust-tight as well as splash-resistant, and a new “Isle Blue” colourway replaces “Honey Red” in a lineup that also includes “Nebula Black” and “Ceramic White”. Small, medium and large silicone eartips are included in the box, along with a short USB-C cable for charging the FreeBuds 5i’s case.
That case is pebble-shaped, weighs 34g, has a battery indicator on the front and a Bluetooth pairing button on the side. If you own a Huawei phone running EMUI10 or above you won’t need that, though, since the company’s “Pop-Up Pair” feature prompts you to connect the buds as soon as you snap open the lid.
In-ear battery life is stated at 7hrs 30mins when streaming audio over AAC at moderate volume with noise cancellation off. Switch ANC on and that figure drops to around six hours. When you factor in the case, you can expect between 18 and 28 hours of audio playback depending on volume and your use of features. Unlike the FreeBuds Pro 2, the FreeBuds 5i do not support wireless charging.
They also lack the Dynamic noise-cancelling setting found on the Pro 2. This automatically adjusts attenuation based on how loud your environment is and worked successfully on the Pro 2, so is a bit of a miss. However, the other three settings (Ultra, General and Cosy) are a welcome upgrade on the single noise-cancelling mode found on the FreeBuds 4i. There’s also an Awareness mode, which is Huawei’s take on a transparency mode and actively pipes in external noise.
Touch-sensitive panels on the outside of the 5i’s stems let you execute basic controls and these can be customised via Huawei’s AI Life app, which is available on both iOS and Android.
There, you can also toggle on wear detection, a low-latency mode and rest reminders, which encourage you to take a break if you’ve had the buds in your ears for a long period of time. Additionally, the app provides access to a limited range of EQ presets, displays the battery life of the buds and case and lets you ping the buds if you’ve misplaced them nearby.
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Huawei FreeBuds 5i review: What do we like about them?
The FreeBuds Pro 2 are the most effective noise-cancelling earbuds I’ve tested in their price bracket, and the FreeBuds 5i put in a great shift when attenuating external sound, too. The overall reduction in environmental distractions isn’t quite as impressive – I noted a little more low-end rumble and less attenuation further up the frequency spectrum – but for £90 the 5i do a sterling job. Their ability to block out external noises is aided by a secure and comfortable in-ear fit that provides a decent level of passive isolation.
The latter point benefits their bass reproduction, which I’m pleased to say is slightly more robust than it was on the FreeBuds 4i. These are still earbuds tuned with pop music in mind, so don’t expect brain-rattling basslines, but there’s a bit of extra substance to lower frequencies. Those frequencies are nicely controlled too, which ensures vocals – the 5i’s strongest suit – don’t get swamped in a muddy mess.
Although the mid-range is front and centre of the 5i’s mix, it’s not emphasised to the point where vocals lose that essential natural quality. The immediacy with which Lizzo’s voice was articulated on “About Damn Time” helped reinforce the artist’s characterful, confident and middle-finger-up attitude and the journey from vulnerability to personal empowerment the track recounts.
I’ve no complaints about the soundstaging or instrument separation on show either. You don’t get quite the same clarity as you do from the Pro 2’s more advanced driver arrangement, but the 10mm dynamic drivers in the 5i perform perfectly well for the money.
Many a true wireless charging case has crossed my palms but few have been as pleasingly proportioned or pocketable as that of the FreeBuds 5i. It’s compact and smooth to the touch but not glossy, so it doesn’t pick up fingerprints readily (or at least the Isle Blue variant didn’t). The hinge of the lid has greater rigidity than the 4i’s, too, and there’s something extremely satisfying about the lid snapping back into place once you’ve prised the buds out.
I also really like the fact that Huawei has brought wear detection and swipe volume controls over from the FreeBuds Pro 2. Both worked very well and are among the convenience features I value most on wireless earbuds.
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Huawei FreeBuds 5i review: What could be improved?
Being able to control volume using swipes is great but there aren’t enough touch gestures to go around, meaning you don’t have the full suite of commands at your fingertips.
Commands can only be mapped to double taps and touch-and-hold actions. Assuming you leave noise-cancelling controls assigned to long presses, you have to choose whether you want play/pause, track skipping or voice assistant activation accessible via double taps. Wear detection means you can drop play/pause without too much bother but I’d rather have seen triple-tap gestures supported to cover every base.
While the 5i’s audio is a clear step up from the 4i, your options for tweaking the sound are severely limited. There are only two EQ modes available in the Huawei AI Life app – Bass Boost and Treble Boost – and no graphic equaliser to create your own EQ. It’s a shame Huawei decided against incorporating the ten-band graphic equaliser available on the Pro 2.
It’s also slightly disappointing that the 5i don’t support wireless charging. This is an understandable cost-cutting measure and one of the big features differentiating the 5i from the Pro 2 but there are similarly priced buds that offer it.
It’s also worth noting that those who don’t own a Huawei device will miss out on a couple of features. “Identify song”, which scours the internet to put a name to songs you’ve never heard before, requires a phone or tablet with EMUI 11.0 or above, while those with a device running EMUI 12.0 or above can use double taps on the buds to take photos. These are features one can live without but are a welcome bonus if you are part of Huawei’s ecosystem.
Finally, while easy enough on the eye, the FreeBuds 5i’s design is about as generic as they come. If you’re looking for buds that stand out from the crowd, you’ll want to look elsewhere.
Huawei FreeBuds 5i review: Should you buy them?
If you own a Huawei smartphone and have a budget of £100, then absolutely. Barring wireless charging and custom EQ options they tick every box and are a bigger upgrade on the 4i than the FreeBuds Pro 2 were on their predecessor.
That said, it’s worth checking the price of the FreeBuds Pro 2 before splashing out. They’ve been as cheap as £120 and it’s well worth paying that bit extra for wireless charging, improved sound quality and slightly more effective adaptive noise cancellation.