Not a fan of eartips? The Huawei FreeBuds 5 are excellent open-fit earbuds that, unlike the Apple AirPods, offer active noise cancellation
- Robust Hi-Res sound
- Appealing, novel design
- Solid noise cancelling for open-fit buds
- Some will find bass underwhelming
- Overly sensitive Dynamic ANC mode
- Spatial audio unavailable outside China
The Huawei FreeBuds 5 are the latest open-fit true wireless earbuds from the Chinese manufacturer. While the Apple AirPods are most people’s go-to open-fit option, the FreeBuds 5’s feature set, which includes active noise cancellation, confident audio performance and distinctive design position them as a very capable alternative.
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Huawei FreeBuds 5 review: What do you get for the money?
The Huawei FreeBuds 5 will set you back £149 and, at present, can only be purchased directly from Huawei. They house 11mm dynamic drivers capable of Hi-Res audio when streaming over the L2HC and LDAC Bluetooth codecs and also support AAC and aptX over Bluetooth 5.2. Audio is automatically adjusted using a “triple adaptive EQ” that responds to fit, wearing status and volume level.
Employing a stylised interpretation of the open-fit design popularised by the Apple AirPods, the FreeBuds 5 sit in your ears without using silicone eartips to seal off your ear canals. They are available in glossy Ceramic White, Silver Frost or Coral Orange colourways and weigh around 5.4g each, while the case – glossy on the white colourway we were sent but matte on the other two variants – tips the scales at 45g. There are three microphones used for noise cancelling on each earbud: two located externally to monitor ambient noise and one internally to detect the sounds entering your ears.
You’ll eke out around three-and-a-half hours of use with ANC on and five hours with it off – rather lacklustre figures – though total battery life including the case clocks in at a more respectable 20 hours with ANC engaged and 30 hours with it switched off.
There’s a short USB-A to USB-C charging cable included in the box, alongside two pairs of silicone sleeves that envelop the main sections of the FreeBuds 5 in a bid to provide additional in-ear stability. The sleeves are extremely thin, however, and didn’t make a huge difference to my experience, though your mileage may vary.
Huawei FreeBuds 5 review: What do they do well?
The FreeBuds 5’s unique design will divide opinion but there’s no denying it’s memorable.
My initial impression wasn’t positive: I thought the bulbous, tear-drop-shaped stems looked a little like puss dribbling down my cheeks. They grew on me over time, however, and I came to appreciate what is an eye-catching aesthetic that helps the buds stand out in a market swamped by bland AirPods clones. It’s an alternative approach to design that is increasingly in vogue, too. The rise of 3D printing and biomimicry design mean we’re likely to see more experimental earbuds like the FreeBuds 5 cropping up.
This novel look isn’t just for show, however, as the FreeBuds 5’s design allows for a more even distribution of weight and increased comfort levels during longer periods of continuous wear. The FreeBuds 5 felt surprisingly weightless in my ears compared to other open-fit earbuds I’ve used – even if it’s not entirely obvious at which angle you should position them. Optimal sound output came from positioning the stem over my intertragic notch and, once in position, they were comfortable and sat securely in my ears, even when running.
The absence of seals blocking your ear canals means the FreeBuds 5 don’t feel as claustrophobic to wear as those that incorporate tips and also means you’re not completely cut off from the outside world. This makes them ideally suited for situations where you’re required to interact with others, such as office environments, as there’s no need to remove the buds to engage in conversations.
Being able to dampen external distractions is still handy, however, and the FreeBuds 5’s triple-microphone hybrid active noise cancellation system is a worthy aid. Many open-fit earbuds forgo ANC since the lack of a natural seal negates its powers somewhat. And while the FreeBuds 5’s noise cancellation isn’t as effective as buds with ear canal seals, I was surprised by how successfully external noise was attenuated.
There are three noise-cancelling modes available: Cozy (which is for places with little noise), General (which is for noisy places) and Dynamic (which automatically switches between the two depending on your surroundings). General mode hushed a fairly busy road to the point where I was able to listen to a podcast without distraction at 50% volume. It’s no match for the loudest stretches of London’s Underground, though, so you might need to replay the latest pages of your e-book after your commute. But for most of my Tube journey, the FreeBuds 5’s ANC did an impressive job, allowing me to listen relatively uninterrupted at around 75% volume.
I also enjoyed the Huawei FreeBuds 5’s audio presentation. When listening to high-resolution sources, the richness of their output was immediately apparent, particularly where mid-range and treble were concerned. Angel Olsen’s country-style crooning on “California”, for instance, was pleasingly defined, sitting front and centre but still well balanced and natural-sounding. Instruments were well separated and, overall, the FreeBuds 5 delivered a fairly spacious listen.
The Huawei My AI Life app provides access to three EQ presets – Bass Boost, Treble Boost and Voices (vocal boost) – as well as a ten-band graphic equaliser to customise the sound to your liking. All three presets make marginal but effective changes to the FreeBuds 5’s sound, though I found myself using a custom EQ more often than not.
There are also options to customise the FreeBuds 5’s touch controls, with the responsiveness of said controls warranting no complaints. By default, double tapping the left or right earbud will play/pause content, though you can have that action skip to the next song, previous song or wake a voice assistant instead. Holding either bud will enable/disable noise cancelling while swiping up or down on either bud adjusts volume. You could reasonably expect greater customisation of the hold and swipe buttons, but the control scheme works well overall.
Elsewhere in the app, you’ll find battery life figures for both the buds and charging case along with toggles for rest reminders that draw your awareness to long listening sessions and a low audio latency mode. You can have the earbuds play a chime if you’ve lost them too, which is useful assuming you’re still connected to them via Bluetooth.
Bluetooth connectivity itself was seamless, with the buds rapidly connecting to both my laptop and smartphone as soon as they were removed from the case. In-ear detection was equally responsive and accompanied by a helpful bleep when the sensors registered that the buds were in place.
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Huawei FreeBuds 5 review: What could be better?
Although I enjoyed the sound profile of the Huawei FreeBuds 5, there were times when I pined for a punchier low-end reproduction. Even with bass-boost engaged, techno and other dance music didn’t have the same impact as it would have had were my ear canals sealed off. This is the big limitation of an open-fit design, though the FreeBuds 5 are no worse than their contemporaries in this regard.
Also related to the open-fit design is the buds’ poor defence against wind noise. When running in the park, I found the gush of wind to be too loud to hear a podcast unless I was at 90% volume, even with noise cancelling engaged, which was a little uncomfortable.
ANC may be pretty effective, but I found the Dynamic mode overly sensitive, changing level every ten to 20 seconds when walking beside a road with variable amounts of traffic. While this is indicative of an effective adaptive system, the fluctuations were too frequent and made for a rather unsettling listening experience. I was also very aware of the static noise generated by the ANC while using General mode in quiet environments. Fortunately, the Cozy mode elicits no such noise, so you’ll want to use that when in the peaceful confines of your own home.
While spatial audio support used to be reserved for more expensive earbuds, options such as the 1More Aero and the Sony WF-C500 have made it a more accessible feature. The FreeBuds 5 follow suit, although the feature is only available in China at present, which is a shame. Should it be made available here, it would add another string to the FreeBuds 5’s bow, but for the moment they’re lacking a cherry on their admittedly excellent cake.
Huawei FreeBuds 5 review: Should you buy them?
If you’re after open-fit earbuds and can live without a booming bass response, the Huawei FreeBuds 5 should definitely be near the top of your wish list. They deliver impressive high-resolution sound, are comfortable and visually arresting, and their effective ANC helps offset the amount of external noise the open-fit design lets in.
The third-gen AirPods remain a superior choice if you own an iPhone owing to their seamless integration with the Apple ecosystem and support for Spatial Audio, but are more expensive and don’t have ANC. That leaves the door ajar for the FreeBuds 5, which are an excellent choice for everyday use and fully deserving of a Recommended award.