The Huawei Freebuds 4 are ridiculously ambitious true wireless earphones. They are, essentially, an Apple AirPods rival with active noise cancellation.
“Like the Apple AirPods Pro?” You might say. Not quite. The AirPods Pro are IEM earphones with a rubber tips that blocks your ear canal. The Huawei Freebuds 4 are designed to let an air gap exist between the outside world and your inner ear.
Hats off to Huawei for pushing this hard, and the Huawei Freebuds 4 are among the better earphones of this style we’ve heard. However, real-world battery life of 2.5 hours gets old very quick and you can get more engaging sound from a normal ear-clogging pair, including Huawei’s own Freebuds Pro.
Price: Is it good value?
The Huawei Freebuds 4 cost £129.99 and the aim here is totally transparent – blow raspberries at Apple. Its AirPods cost £159.99 and don’t have active noise cancellation.
However, if we had that sort of money to spend on a true wireless pair we’d head straight to something like the Sony WF-1000XM4. These are ear blockers just like the AirPods Pro but sound better and are much more practical than the Huawei Freebuds 4.
Their active noise cancellation is in a totally different league of effectiveness, their battery life is longer and you won’t be accused of buying knock off AirPods by your friends.
Huawei has done a solid job with the Freebuds 4, but it’s hard not to recommend one of the many IEM-style style alternatives.
The Huawei Freebuds 4 look eerily similar to the original Apple AirPods. They have plastic white earpieces, and that funny little stalk that dangles below your ear holes.
Even five years on since this style became a thing, we think it looks a little odd, but each to their own.
Build quality is great, and they do at least separate themselves a little from the Apple AirPods with a much rounder charge case. You pop them in, and get around four earpiece charge-ups before you’ll need to plug in the case.
The only problem is that when people see you’ve bought AirPods-that-aren’t-AirPods, they’ll assume you bought some godawful cheap pair off Amazon. Not this actually rather well-made and not-cheap set.
As with most earphones like this, which sit on the cradle of your ear cartilage rather than plugging into your ear canals like corks, it may seem the Huawei Freebuds 4 are going to fall out to start with. We took them on a few runs. First time out, the initial five minutes were mildly dread-filled. Move around a bit and you can feel them start to gradually migrate in your ears.
However, they don’t fall out. They find their equilibrium and, hey presto, the movement stops. These things only weigh 4g a piece, so can’t build up enough momentum to actually make a bid for freedom. The Freebuds 4 are IPX4 water resistant too, which is good enough for runners and gym fans.
Each ear will have its own natural seating position, but we found we could wear them for hours, no problem. No significant discomfort. They are, of course, not much use for blissed-out listening in a summery park. Move to your side and any contact with a towel or makeshift rucksack pillow will make them fall out.
The curious thing about earphones like the Huawei Freebuds 4 is they don’t really block out every sound. There’s still going to be a gap somewhere in your ear’s opening, letting traffic noise in. It’s not a great idea to ramp up the volume to compensate, either.
Huawei has tried to fix this with active noise cancellation. Most ANC earphones create a controlled environment where outside noise is already somewhat reduced by a physical barrier.
Huawei attempts to make up for it with software smarts and additional mics that effectively estimate out how much noise is actually getting into your ear. It works, but only sort of. The Huawei Freebuds 4’s cancellation does at least reduce a bit of the lower-mid and bass frequency junk that can so easily steamroll your tunes. It also seems to do something more interesting and useful.
Without ANC we find the earphones’ mids can become a little brash sounding, especially when you’re outdoors and need to bump up the volume a bit. Switch ANC on and the bass appears to increase in-line with the level of outside sound. This helps to smooth and fill out the sound, and give it a little more power.
Will the Huawei Freebuds 4 compete with a pair of IEMs like the Sony WF-1000XM4? Absolutely not. You still lose too much of the mids outdoors and while the volume of bass is OK, it doesn’t have the punch, depth and control we usually look for.
Listen indoors where the Huawei Freebuds 4 don’t have to perform gymnastics to sound OK and there’s a pleasant tonality to the upper mids at lower volumes. But, again, they don’t sound entirely composed when you crank up the dial.
We’d still suggest using ANC when indoors as the sound is slightly fuller with it on. However, battery life is pretty poor in this mode. Huawei claims 2.5 hours. The left bud died after two hours 35 minutes, the right seven minutes later. Battery life is better with ANC off, at around four hours.
Other features? The Huawei Freebuds 4 have a sensor that pauses your music when you remove an earpiece. And the earpieces have little touch sensitive areas on the stalks that toggle ANC and let you control playback. Earphone controls like this can be a nightmare, but we had no problems with these.
Pro tip: switch off ANC if you take a call. We pretended it was 1999 and tested them out with a real-life phone call to an actual human. They complained it sounded like World War 3 was going on until ANC was switched off. Call-based cancellation and ANC seem to be mutually exclusive.
OK, let’s get the obvious one out of the way. The Huawei Freebuds 4 are more feature-rich than the original Apple AirPods and have less “basic” sound. They try a little harder to bring out the resolution in music. And while the ANC may not do a great deal, the AirPods don’t have any cancellation at all.
However, the AirPods last a bit longer off a charge.
Moving to earphones we like a bit more, we’d prefer to listen to a bunch of IEM-style earphones over the Huawei Freebuds 4, such as the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1+.
Top IEM earphones make for a more engaging listen whether you’re indoors in the quiet or out on a busy street with buses and charging waves of prams to avoid. Almost all good silicone tip earphones with ANC will fo a better job of blocking out external sound than the Huawei Freebuds 4 too. This is no surprise. Getting it to work at all is a real technical achievement. But when you’re talking about spending your hard-earned £130, the actual results matter most.
The Huawei Freebuds 4 are made in the image of the Apple AirPods. That is the problem. It’s a 2016 design that wasn’t all that practical in the first place, particularly if you take the train or bus to work in a grey office rather than being chauffeur driven to an alien spaceship in California.
Huawei spices things up with active noise cancellation. And it’s a miracle this works at all in a non-isolating earphone. The ANC mode also tweaks the sound so it can cope better with noisy environments, which is smart.
But just as we’d always recommend you should buy the Apple AirPods Pro over the Apple AirPods, or recommend commuting by road bike over a Penny-farthing, an IEM earphone is where it’s at for ANC earphones, for most people anyway.