To help us provide you with free impartial advice, we may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site. Learn more

Huawei FreeClip review: Earbud couture

Our Rating :
Price when reviewed : 180
inc VAT

Supremely comfortable and able to provide first-rate ambient awareness, the Huawei FreeClip are an idiosyncratic choice for fashionistas

Pros

  • Offer great environmental awareness
  • Extremely comfortable
  • Solid battery life

Cons

  • External sound impacts audio quality
  • Design will be polarising
  • Disappointing mic quality

Huawei has pushed the boat out when it comes to wacky design this year. It released the Watch Buds, which house a pair of earbuds inside a fully functioning smartwatch in March, and the FreeBuds 5 – open-fit earbuds with bulbous, tear-drop stems – a month later.

Its latest headphones, the Huawei FreeClip, are equally out there where aesthetics are concerned. If you were to see someone wearing these walking down the street, you would be forgiven for mistaking them for large, shiny earrings.

READ NEXT: Best wireless earbuds

Their appearance will certainly be divisive – I don’t think I’m quite trendy enough to pull them off – but their open-ear design has some practical benefits. You can remain fully aware of what’s happening around you with them clipped to your ears and the fact that no part of the buds extends into your ear canals makes it surprisingly easy to forget you’re wearing them. The sonic experience they deliver isn’t bad either, although they’re no match for similarly priced earbuds that create a seal to isolate sound and dampen external distractions.

If you’re a cool cat looking to make a statement with your audio tech while remaining engaged with your surroundings, they’re worth considering, and the increasing popularity of open-fit earbuds may see them gain some traction in the mainstream market. But the inherent limitations of their design mean they can’t be relied on by those in search of daily drivers for use when commuting or in a noisy gym.

Huawei FreeClip review: What do you get for the money?

The Huawei FreeClip cost £180, with customers who order directly from the Huawei store between now and 29 January receiving a free Huawei Band 8. That outlay gets you a pair of true wireless earbuds the likes of which I’ve never come across before. While other open-fit options like the Shokz OpenFit and JBL Soundgear Sense use earhooks to hold themselves in position, the FreeClip, as their name suggests, clip onto your ears.

Their “Acoustic Balls” – the part of the buds that emit sound – are suspended just inside the opening of your ears and are counterbalanced by “Comfort Beans” that rest behind the helix (the main cartilaginous section) of your ears. These are connected via a short length of flexible steel coated in elastic that helps keep the structure stable and ensures the buds don’t fall out or move around.

The buds are lightweight at 5.6g apiece, IP54 rated for dust and water resistance (the charging case has no IP rating, however) and are designed in such a way that either bud can be clipped to either ear. The earbuds automatically detect whether they’ve been clipped to your left or right ear and switch channels accordingly so stereo sound is delivered correctly.

The FreeClip operate wirelessly over Bluetooth 5.3 and support four codecs: SBC, AAC, L2HC and LC3. They can connect to two devices simultaneously but won’t automatically switch between them based on which is playing audio. You’ll need to pause audio on one device before playing it on the other or hop into the Huawei AI Life app to switch sources manually. It’s worth noting that this feature is unavailable in the iOS version of the app.

Audio is delivered via dual-magnetic-circuit dynamic drivers that Huawei says offer more low-end punch compared with single-magnet solutions. The FreeClip also make use of a “Reverse Sound Field Acoustic System” to channel sound directly into your ears and reduce how much of it leaks into the world around you. The buds can also automatically adjust volume and their low- and high-frequency audio reproduction to optimise performance based on the level of ambient noise in your surroundings and the shape of your ear canals. 

Touch controls are supported and can be tweaked in the AI Life app, where you’ll also find toggles for wear detection, a low-latency audio mode and automatic left/right switching. There are three EQ modes available in addition to the Default mode – Bass Boost, Treble Boost and Voices – along with a “Find My Earphones” feature that allows you to play a high-pitched sound through each bud to help locate them. Those using Android phones also gain access to an option that allows volume to be increased beyond the default maximum – something I’ve not seen on true wireless earbuds before.

Battery life is stated at eight hours of audio playback or five hours of voice calls for the earbuds, with the accompanying charging case offering more than three full charges to take total playtime to around 36 hours. The case can be topped up via USB-C using the cable supplied in the box but also supports wireless charging. Ten minutes on charge gets you roughly three hours of listening, and the buds can be fully charged in under an hour.

READ NEXT: The best cheap wireless earbuds

Huawei FreeClip review: What did we like about them?

The biggest advantage of open-fit earbuds is that they allow you to remain aware of what’s going on around you and in this regard, the FreeClip excel. Unless I was listening to something particularly raucous at maximum volume, I was able to hear even the slightest noise in my surroundings.

Knocks at the door that I might have missed had I been wearing buds with ear tips were picked up loud and clear, I was able to navigate the busy streets of London with my wits fully about me and could hold conversations with no problem whatsoever.

The FreeClip don’t obstruct your ear canals to the same extent as buds that rest directly inside your conchas, like the Apple AirPods, and their compact design allows more sound through than bulkier alternatives from Shokz and JBL. That sound is perfectly natural as it’s coming directly to your ears from the outside world and free of the static crackling that often accompanies the transparency modes found on noise-cancelling earbuds.

The other big draw of the FreeClip is how incredibly comfortable they are. I had reservations about how they’d feel but these disappeared as soon as I put them on. They applied next to no pressure on my ears yet their ergonomic design meant they remained in place no matter what I was doing. The fit is so unobtrusive that I found myself forgetting that I was wearing them and was even able to sleep on my side with them on with no discomfort.

On the audio front, the FreeClip straddle both the “What did we like about them?” and “What could be improved?” sections. In quiet environments, their default mode is articulate enough to do justice to music in most popular genres and possesses the energy to effectively carry upbeat dancey numbers like Loona’s Vamos a la Playa.

Higher frequency sounds are reproduced most successfully. They’re pleasingly bright without sounding hard-edged or overly sharp and contribute to a tonal balance that’s entertaining, albeit not the most refined.

Disparate elements of tracks are knitted together with reasonable cohesion within a surprisingly spacious soundstage and vocals are handled well on the whole, too. I had no problem making out every word of Joe Budden’s Pump It Up, with the voices of the rappers both characterful and nuanced. Nat King Cole’s rendition of Deck The Halls, meanwhile, was silky smooth, with the Alabama crooner’s vocals blended harmoniously with those of his backing singers and the song’s fabulously festive orchestral elements.

I was also pretty impressed by how the FreeClip limited sound leakage. I was able to use them at moderate volume without disturbing those around me: my girlfriend couldn’t make out what I was listening to at 50% volume when sitting next to me on the sofa and I managed to avoid disturbing my colleagues when using them in the office. Higher volume listening is still an issue – prepare for stink eye if you’re in the quiet carriage of a train and pumping up the volume – but, for the most part, Huawei has done a good job of ensuring sound makes its way into your ears and not out of them.

Huawei FreeClip review: What could be improved?

There’s no getting away from the fact that you don’t get as rich or detailed a performance as you would with buds that seal off your ear canals.

There’s less immersive immediacy to the FreeClip’s delivery and I felt the need to push the volume up to above 70% to fully appreciate the scale and scope of certain tracks. I also felt that detail retrieval could have been a bit better. The FreeClip provide a decent amount of audio information but aren’t the type of earbuds you’re going to use for critical listening. 

It was in the bass department that I felt the difference between the FreeClip and silicone-tipped earbuds most keenly, however. While I wouldn’t go as far as saying the FreeClip sound thin at the bottom end of the frequency spectrum, they could certainly do with being a little bit more robust. There’s a decent level of bass control but they lack visceral impact, particularly at lower volumes.

Audio performance takes a big hit when using the FreeClip in noisy places, too. It became almost impossible to make out subtle details of songs on the Tube or while at the gym and the louder my environments were, the further I had to push volume up. Even then, it was a struggle to enjoy what I was listening to amid the racket around me. Huawei says the buds automatically adjust their volume and EQ to take changes in the level of ambient sound into account but I didn’t notice an appreciable difference during testing.

This leads me to a more minor point. The FreeClip’s touch controls don’t include the ability to change volume. You’re able to control audio playback, answer calls and hail your voice assistant using double and triple taps on all three sections of the FreeClip and I found these worked consistently. You can also assign these actions to the left and right earbuds as you see fit but, perhaps due to the auto-volume feature, volume controls are omitted. Given this didn’t work especially well, I’d have welcomed the option to adjust the volume manually without having to use my phone. 

The FreeClip have a dual-microphone setup for calls that uses bone conduction technology to try and better separate your voice from your surroundings. In the quiet of my home office, my speech sounded a little echoey but was intelligible. In noisy environments, however, voice clarity was severely impeded. Background noise was audible to those I spoke to and my voice became very muffled when ambient volume increased. People were still able to make out most of what I was saying but I did have to repeat myself on occasion.

While it’s a little unfair to place the FreeClip’s design in this section, it’s undoubtedly going to divide opinion. Those used to wearing jewellery on their ears may appreciate the way they effectively blend technology and fashion, but less style-conscious customers will perhaps view them as a little showy or even garish. I got several quizzical looks with them on and a few fellow journalists had a good chuckle when they spied them in my ears.

Huawei FreeClip review: Should you buy them?

If that kind of attention doesn’t bother you or you’re actively seeking to turn heads, the Huawei FreeClip may be for you. I prefer my headphones to look like headphones, but there’s a reason I write about technology and not fashion, so those better able to discern haute couture from Claire’s Accessories may take a different view.

And there’s no denying that the FreeClip are innovative earbuds that fill the niche they’re designed for effectively, offering fantastic environmental awareness and an incredibly comfortable fit.

But they come with a few caveats. Most importantly, you’ll need to accept that they aren’t earbuds for all occasions. Used at home, in the office or in a tranquil park, they deliver an engaging audio experience. Step onto a noisy high street or packed train, however, and you’ll probably be wishing you had earbuds with ear tips and ANC to help combat the assortment of unrelenting distractions.

Read more

Reviews