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Huawei FreeBuds Pro 3 review: Stuck on repeat

Our Rating :
£179.99 from
Price when reviewed : 180
inc VAT

The Huawei FreeBuds Pro 3 prove themselves on the audio and ANC fronts, but aren’t a huge step up on their predecessors and cost more, too

Pros

  • Broad, encompassing audio
  • Plentiful and effective features
  • Improved overall battery life

Cons

  • Minor price increase
  • Weak in-ear battery life
  • Minimal customisation options

The Huawei FreeBuds Pro 3 have some spacious shoes to fill, with both the FreeBuds Pro and the FreeBuds Pro 2 garnering five-star ratings and recommendations in our respective reviews. A couple of small issues ultimately prevented them from earning our Best Buy award – but is the third time the charm?

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In short, no. While all of the qualities of the previous two models carry over here, the same problems return, with little, if any, signs of improvement. Throw a small price increase into the mix and the FreeBuds Pro 3 struggle to outshine their predecessors, let alone the countless appealing options in this price range.

Huawei FreeBuds Pro 3 review: What do you get for the money?

The Huawei FreeBuds Pro 3 retail for £180, a slight increase over the £169 launch price of their first- and second-generation predecessors. The Pro 3 operate over Bluetooth 5.2, like the Pro 2, and once again support multipoint pairing, allowing you to connect to two devices simultaneously. Codec support for non-Huawei phones covers SBC, AAC and LDAC, while Huawei phones running EMUI 13.0 OS or later can also use the high-definition L2HC 2.0 codec.

The design of the FreeBuds Pro hasn’t evolved much since the first model, with a few minor tweaks here and there. Available in either Eucalyptus Green or Silver Frost (reviewed here), the buds have the same rectangular stems, adorned with simple and unobtrusive branding, moulded into contoured drums with silicone ear tips. The mirrored plastic style has carried over from the Pro 2, as has the IP54 dust- and water-resistance rating. 

The case still doesn’t offer any kind of IP rating, but it does have improved battery capacity compared to the Pro 2, despite being slightly smaller. With ANC disabled, in-ear battery life is touted at around 6.5 hours, but the charging case brings the total up to an impressive 31 hours. Switch ANC on, and you’re looking at just 4.5 hours in-ear – half an hour better than the Pro 2, at least – and 22 hours total, which is again an improvement over the Pro 2. There’s no fast charging option, but the case can be charged wirelessly or via USB-C.

You can check the exact battery level for both the earbuds and the charging case in the Huawei AI Life app (this is no longer on the Google Play Store, but non-Huawei Android users can still find it via the Huawei App Gallery). With the app in hand, you can easily jump between your two connected devices in the Connection centre, toggle noise-cancellation modes, adjust the EQ settings – including six presets and a ten-band graphic equaliser – and view the control scheme. 

The FreeBuds Pro 3 use the same pinch and slide controls as their predecessors, and for the most part, these work pretty well. A pinch on either stem will answer a call or play/pause music, for instance, while sliding a finger up or down the forward-facing side of the stem will adjust the volume.

Rounding out the features in the app are an extremely effective wear detection mode, which can be toggled on or off in the settings, a find my earbuds feature that plays sound from the buds to help you locate them if misplaced, and an audio mode that’s designed to keep the signal from cutting in and out when you’re in areas of high network congestion. 

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Huawei FreeBuds Pro 3 review: What did we like about them?

Something that set the FreeBuds Pro 2 apart from the first model was that they were co-tuned with French audio company Devialet, following successful collaborations on speakers like the Huawei Sound Joy. Huawei decided to go it alone for the third-gen model but I’m pleased to report that audio quality hasn’t suffered as a result. 

Each bud is fitted with a dual-driver setup, comprising an 11mm dynamic driver paired with a planar diaphragm driver, and the results are superb. Kicking off my testing with Iron Maiden’s Running Free, I was met with an energetic opening salvo of drum beats, rattling behind my head with a weighty impact. When the guitars and lyrics swooped in, it became more apparent that the low-end notes were being tightly contained, allowing the rich mid-section to perform strongly alongside the bass, rather than being smothered beneath it.

The soundstage is convincing and spreads considerably wider than I expected, giving separate sections of an arrangement plenty of space to breathe. The verticality of the presentation doesn’t quite match the breadth, but the ceiling isn’t so low that I would call it claustrophobic. Something brighter like Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ still hits high notes without feeling strangled, with enough clarity in the upper trebles to keep the breezy guitar notes and vocal crescendos sounding crisp and clean.

For the most part, I didn’t find the EQ presets to be very useful, though this was largely down to the standard tuning working so well. I tried out the bass and treble boosts with Queen’s I Want to Break Free, and while they did exactly what they promised, it came at too much expense on the other end of the spectrum. The ability to create your own tuning with the 10-band graphic equaliser is always appreciated, but the option to tweak the existing presets would have come in handy here.

Noise cancellation has always been a strong suit with the FreeBuds Pro, and things are no different here. There are once again four ANC options: Cosy, General and Ultra are incrementally effective, while Dynamic switches between them on the fly based on ambient noise levels. I primarily used the latter, as I found it was quickly able to pick up when I was in a bustling train station or walking by a busy road and handily neutralise the worst of the din. The odd higher frequencies still snuck through, but for the most part, the ANC was on point.

The same can be said for the transparency mode, which did a decent job of feeding in external sound without affecting the reproduction of my music. There’s also a voice-enhancement toggle designed to make it easier to pick out voices in the awareness mode, but I didn’t notice a difference when using it – though this is perhaps because voices were already fairly clear on the standard setting.

Huawei FreeBuds Pro 3 review: What could be improved?

The total battery life of the Freebuds Pro 3 is pretty solid and figures of 22 hours (ANC on) and 31 hours (ANC off) are in line with most of their key rivals. However, the in-ear battery life of the earbuds is woefully behind the competition.

The Anker Soundcore Liberty 4, for instance, launched at £40 cheaper than the FreeBuds Pro 3, and managed better in-ear stamina with ANC enabled than the Huawei could hit with it switched off. Even when using the notoriously battery-hungry spatial audio mode – one of the few features that the FreeBuds do not offer – the Anker can run for around five hours, just nudging ahead of the FreeBuds ANC-enabled total.

The good news is that you can press and hold on either earbud to cycle between the ANC modes when you need to conserve battery. You can even reprogram one bud to hail your voice assistant instead. The bad news is that control customisation starts and ends there. You can’t tweak the squeeze and slide gestures at all, and only the two aforementioned commands can be assigned to press and hold gestures. 

This isn’t a huge deal as the control scheme is fairly solid, but it cuts out that extra level of personalisation. I would prefer to have skip forward programmed to a double squeeze on the right earbud, while swapping the left to handle skipping back, instead of having to squeeze three times, as it currently stands. Equally, I’ve accidentally caught the volume controls enough times while adjusting the buds that I’d like the option to turn the slide gestures off completely.

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Huawei FreeBuds Pro 3 review: Should you buy them?

The thing that’s holding me up here is that the FreeBuds Pro 3 aren’t that much of an improvement on their predecessor yet the price has gone up. Sure, they sound terrific and offer effective noise cancellation, but the same can be said for the Pro 2. The price increase is only a small one, but I’m not convinced that it’s justified by the minor improvements to battery life.

The FreeBuds Pro 2 can still be picked up from Amazon at the time of writing, so as things stand, I wouldn’t recommend buying the Pro 3 over their predecessors, especially as the former are currently going for the discounted price of £140. In the same price range, you’ve also got the Anker Soundcore Liberty 4: overall battery life is slightly lower, but in-ear stamina is much better, and you get a fairly solid spatial audio mode thrown in as well.

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