Huawei has a hit on its hands - the FreeBuds Pro offer excellent ANC and great audio at a competitive price
- Effective ANC
- Bold, balanced sound
- Great mic quality
- No IP rating
- Tricky to get out of the case
Huawei has been steadily improving its audio offerings over the past couple of years without truly upsetting the Apple cart. That could all be about to change with the release of the Huawei FreeBuds Pro: a pair of true wireless earbuds offering some of the best noise cancelling around.
Despite what its current chief executive Guo Ping describes as “non-stop aggression” from the US government, it’s been an impressive year for the Chinese manufacturer. Its new smartphones may lack Google apps but top-tier hardware has helped Huawei overcome those severe software restrictions. Elsewhere, laptops like the MateBook D 15 and MateBook X Pro have established the company as an affordable and capable alternative to the industry’s big players.
However, its lineup of headphones has been lagging a little way behind, with the 2019 FreeBuds 3 lacking bass, external noise attenuation and hindered by unresponsive touch controls. Huawei has taken those criticisms on board and the resulting FreeBuds Pro are a far more attractive prospect. Delivering effective ANC, punchy, dynamic sound and a compact, comfortable design, they provide serious competition for the likes of Sony, Bose and Apple.
Huawei FreeBuds Pro review: What you need to know
The FreeBuds Pro are the follow up to last year’s FreeBuds 3, Huawei’s open-fit, wireless noise-cancelling earbuds. This time around, the company has ditched the open-fit design in favour of silicone eartips to better secure them in your ears and improve sound isolation.
They of course still rely on Bluetooth for connecting to your audio source and the buds are equipped with the Kirin A1 wearable chip, which is Bluetooth 5.2 certified, and in terms of codecs, both SBC and AAC are supported. Aside from ANC, the FreeBuds Pro offer the usual range of true wireless earbuds features: touch controls, in-ear detection, a portable charging case (which can be charged wirelessly) and the ability to tweak a few things via the AI Life smartphone app.
It’s important to note that these are earbuds designed for use with devices running Android. They’ll pair with iPhones no problem, but as AI Life is not available on the iOS store, users will be hamstrung in terms of how much control they have over the FreeBuds Pro.
Huawei FreeBuds Pro review: Price and competition
The FreeBuds Pro are available from Huawei’s UK store for £170. Between £150 and £200 is the sweet spot for premium, active noise-cancelling true wireless earbuds and you’ll find some great options in that price range.
The most effective ANC earbuds we’ve tested, the Sony WF-1000XM3, will set you back £169, while the superb Libratone Track Air+ are available for £179. 1MORE’s True Wireless ANC earbuds are another impressive alternative, delivering detailed audio for £170.
Should you be able and willing to stretch your budget over the £200 mark, there are the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2, which we described as some of the best sounding buds around, and the ever-popular Apple AirPods Pro: the go-to choice for iOS users.
Huawei FreeBuds Pro review: Design and features
One of the biggest complaints about the Freebuds 3 was that their design negated their ability to reduce external noise. The open-fit style let too much sound in, counteracting the buds’ solid noise-cancelling tech. That’s been addressed in the FreeBuds Pro. They now have silicone eartips that seal your ear canals and provide strong passive noise cancellation in addition to ANC.
Not only do the tips provide that all-important sound isolation but they also ensure the buds fit more securely in your ears. You get a choice of three sizes and can have the AI Life app run a “Tip fit test” to check you’ve selected the right ones. This is useful in theory, but I ran the test with all three sizes of tip and was told they were all good, so it’s not as helpful as it might seem. I settled on the largest set, which provided the best combination of sound isolation and comfort, and was able to wear them for long periods without any discomfort.
The buds themselves are a boxy affair, with short, rectangular stems replacing the longer, rounded ones the FreeBuds 3 used. I certainly appreciate the fact that they’re less dangly and the flat surfaces make the touch controls easier to use.
The flat outer surface of each earbud also houses a “force sensor” enabling various controls via a quick squeeze of the stem. Squeezing once plays or pauses music and accepts or ends a call. A single squeeze can also be used to switch your Bluetooth connection between two different devices and the remaining controls see a double-squeeze skip you forward a track, a triple-squeeze take you back to the previous song and a long squeeze activate either ANC or Awareness mode.
Locating the force sensor takes a little getting used to but works consistently and squeezing rather than touching means you’re far less likely to accidentally execute a command. Volume controls are handled by swiping up or down on the sensor and, again, work very effectively.
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The FreeBuds Pro charging case is larger than many of its competitors, its hinge has a pleasing amount of snap and it supports wireless charging in addition to USB-C charging. Getting the buds out of the case can be a frustrating endeavour, however. They sit vertically in their housing and they’ll slip back in unless you get a firm grip on the stem rather than the bud. It’s one of those little quirks that becomes a non-issue once you’ve been using the buds for a while but the process is still not as smooth as it could be.
Battery life on the buds is stated at around four-and-a-half hours while listening to music with ANC on and seven with it off. Given how good the ANC is, I had it activated the majority of my time using the buds and the company’s claims proved accurate. While four-and-a-half hours is a little on the meagre side by industry standards, the charging case provides a further 15 or so hours of charge, which is ample. And with the case charging to full in under an hour when connected via USB-C, you’re never going to be without audio for too long. Battery life is of course affected by how loud you play your music, so dialling down the volume a notch or two not only helps preserve your hearing but will give your buds more longevity, too.
In-ear detection is present and correct, pausing audio as soon as one bud is removed from your ear and resuming once it’s popped back in. It’s a feature you’d expect to see at £170 but can be a bit erratic, which isn’t the case with the FreeBuds Pro.
The FreeBuds Pro’s microphone quality while on calls is up there with the best buds around, too. They utilise a three-mic system, with two facing outwards to capture the direction of your voice and the other facing inwards to ensure you’re heard clearly. Additionally, they implement bone sensor detection to analyse the vibrations of your head while chatting and adjust the mics accordingly. Aside from the very occasional hiss when uttering words ending in S, all reports of how I sounded were glowing, even in windy and noisy environments.
The FreeBuds Pro do have one glaring blind spot: they lack IP certification for water or dust resistance. After reaching out to Huawei I was told that they are water-resistant, and they survived a couple of trips out in light rain without issue. However, without an IP rating, I didn’t feel confident in their ability to cope with severe autumnal downpours or particularly sweaty workouts. It’s a shame, as their secure fit lends itself well to physical activity.
For those concerned about aesthetics, the FreeBuds Pro are available in three colours: ceramic white, carbon black and silver frost. They all look smart enough but do nothing to stand out in an earbud market over-saturated with monochrome products.
Huawei FreeBuds Pro review: Sound quality
While the change in design is the first thing you’ll notice when comparing the FreeBuds 3 and FreeBuds Pro, the internal components have also received an overhaul. The dynamic drivers have been downsized from 14mm to 11m but deliver a well-balanced sound profile with full-bodied bass and detailed articulation of mids and treble.
We criticised the FreeBuds 3 for lacking bass but that same accusation can’t be levelled at the FreeBuds Pro: bass fiends will really enjoy how they handle low-end frequencies. This is in no small part down to improved sound isolation courtesy provided by the eartips. Bass frequencies are given plenty of space to shine without becoming oppressive, making for a far more immersive sonic experience.
The bassline on the UK’s Official Song of the Summer – DaBaby’s “Rockstar” – popped without impeding on vocals or the infectious four-chord guitar arrangement. The 100% Clubland Hardcore playlist on Tidal sounded equally potent, with basslines pounding along at an energetic pace.
More subtle tracks like Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” demonstrated how well the FreeBuds Pro do vocal detail. The singer’s gravelly voice was delightfully communicated, with each nuanced line articulated admirably. And numbers with multiple vocalists, such as Five’s “Until the Time Is Through” possessed the clarity to allow you to easily identify each of the artists’ voices when singing in harmony.
With some earbuds, you’ll find that audio quality suffers when you turn up the volume due to an increase in how much the drivers are vibrating. The FreeBuds Pro overcome this by incorporating a damper into each bud to reduce vibrations. I didn’t notice any drop off in sound quality as I moved the volume up, which will come as a relief for those that like to listen to their music loud.
If there’s one weakness to the FreeBuds Pro’s audio, it’s that there’s no way to customise it. The AI Life app offers no EQ presets or the ability to create your own EQ. I didn’t feel the need to alter how the FreeBuds Pro sounded but it’s always nice to have that option. Marketing material states the buds adjust the EQ in real-time based on wearing conditions but this isn’t something I noticed taking place. Huawei also says you’ll be able to create a personalised hearing profile through the AI Life app but at the time of writing, that option was unavailable.
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Huawei FreeBuds Pro review: Active noise cancellation
Despite their open-fit design, the FreeBuds 3 offered surprisingly effective ANC. The FreeBuds Pro take that up a notch, providing some of the most impressive noise-cancellation of any earbuds on the market.
There are three levels – Ultra, General and Cosy – with each blocking out a different amount of sound. Huawei says Ultra mode can cut up to 40dB of external sound and, if my experience is anything to go by, that claim is a legitimate one. Walking down a busy road with Ultra mode engaged, the sound of passing traffic was reduced significantly, allowing me to listen to my music at around half volume without any disruption. The FreeBuds Pro managed to put a sizable dent in the low-end rumble of the Tube, too, although higher-pitched announcements were still audible.
You can switch between the three at any time via the AI Life app but you also have the option to let the buds do the work for you by activating Dynamic mode. Using intelligent noise-cancellation tech, the buds pick up on how much external noise there is and switch between modes automatically. It works exceedingly well. While sat quietly at my desk the buds would drop me into Cosy mode. Fire up Mampi Swift’s “Trippin” on my PC speakers and about 20 seconds in, I’d be in General mode. As the bass kicked in on the drop, the buds moved me into Ultra mode and, when I pressed pause, I’d be back into Cosy mode within seconds.
It worked equally well while out and about. Walking in less populated areas the buds would select Cosy mode, switching to one of the more impactful settings as soon as they got an inkling of increased external sound. The only time I had any issues was while sitting next to the engine on a double-decker bus. The almost constant shifting of external sound seemed to throw the buds off and there was a lot of feedback and distortion, including a low thump that was very harsh on the ears. This was an isolated incident, however, and sitting on the same bus but away from the engine didn’t result in the same problem.
Should you need to hear what’s going on around you, there’s also Awareness mode, which lets in a limited amount of ambient sound. It fulfils its intended purpose well and is particularly useful when you choose to enable “Enhance voices”, which, as the name suggests, boosts the clarity of people speaking around you.
Huawei FreeBuds Pro review: Verdict
Huawei has a hit on its hands with the FreeBuds Pro. The active noise cancellation is both cleverly executed and highly effective, while audio is punchy, energetic and well balanced. Touch controls are implemented smartly and the buds are comfortable to wear for long periods, too.
Were it not for their lack of an IP rating for water resistance, they’d have received our prestigious Best Buy award. As it is, they’re still the best ANC earbuds I’ve tested this year, although with Bose releasing its QuietComfort Earbuds, how long they’ll hold that title remains to be seen.