It’s a tricky thing, being original. You could, for example, wear a banana costume while twerking in a Flump-filled paddling pool, only to discover that you’re the seventh brave pioneer in the world to do so. It’s much easier to give up, slip your jeans back on, and temporarily numb your existential dread with the trashy reality shows that society insists on cramming down our throats.
With those images fresh in your mind, let’s talk about the Huawei Freebuds 4i. Like countless other wireless earbuds on the market, it’s fair to say that they’re pretty much AirPods clones — and that’s okay. Apple’s wireless buds are ludicrously popular, with the downside of the company’s classic high entry price to match. At just £80 though, Huawei’s latest mid-range earbuds let you get the same look for far, far less, earning it budget-conscious brownie points.
Positioned under Huawei’s own £130 Freebuds Pro offering, can the Freebuds 4i still serve up a decent listening experience despite its more wallet friendly price? We spent a week with them to find out.
Design: Slippery when wet (and dry, and everything in between)
The Freebuds 4i come in three fetching colours — white, black, and red — and are IP54 water resistant up to 1m, shrugging off rain with ease. Our review unit is the delightfully glossy black version, and the compact case resembles a delightfully premium, piano-black pebble. Crack it open, and you’ll discover the earbuds resting inside.
We’ve already covered their AirPods-esque DNA, so there’s not much else to say in the looks department, apart from the fact that the overall build quality of the case and earbuds themselves is excellent. The case in particular feels very robust, and the magnetic lid closes with a very sturdy, satisfying snap.
Things take a bit of a step back in one key area though — getting the flipping earbuds out of the case is an exercise in frustration. We’re not sure if it’s the glossy finish, or the use of a magnet that’s just a little too powerful, but we found the removal of the earbuds to be an incredibly frustrating process almost every single time.
We don’t have particularly gargantuan hands, but the combination of a snug fit, slippery finish, and strong magnet result in our fingertips constantly slipping off the earbuds when trying to remove them from the case. Having conferred with other trusted reviewers (we meet at a secret underground Tech Cave every other Tuesday to discuss Very Secret Things), we can confirm we’re not the only ones either.
We’re not saying that the buds are impossible to remove — after a while you’ll get the knack of positioning your fingers in the right spot and applying the right grip, and it becomes a much rarer issue. Just don’t be surprised if your fingers are fumbling around like a claw machine that’s lost the will to live when you first open them up.
Lastly we have the controls, which are all but invisible. Each earbud can be configured on your phone to have certain actions assigned to a double-tap, while a long press toggles between the 'noise cancelling' and 'awareness' modes. The controls work reliably and are useful for skipping tracks and pausing, but we wish we could somehow slide up and down to change the volume as well, instead of having to rely on our phones.
Performance and sound: Punchy, clear, and private
The Freebuds 4i have 10mm dynamic coil drivers and a "sensitive polymer composite diaphragm." We’re told the latter improves dynamic responsiveness to produce better audio, and is an alternative to paper, plastic and other types of diaphragms used in headphones.
Fancy terms aside, we’re happy to report that for their price, the Freebuds 4i deliver a pleasant and robust listening experience. The most notable element is the bass performance, which remains punchy across all genres. The killer bass and drum mastery in Snarky Puppy’s 'Lingus.' for example, comes across really well, without overpowering the nuance of the other instruments. The thumping bass performance also carries over with superb results in more synthetic avenues like trance tracks, and particularly shines in all of those modern bastardised Gen Z TikTok remixes that we hate ourselves for finding catchy.
Our only realy niggle with the sound performance is the fact that while the highs and lows are well balanced, mids can get a little lost and muddied at times. You’ll clearly pick up on basslines, hi-hats and crisp high notes, for example, but things like heavier guitar riffs in something like System of a Down’s 'Toxicity' can feel a little flat. It’s nothing major, mind, and on the whole, the listening experience is enjoyable.
Considering their price, we’re pleased to see that Huawei has also thrown active noise cancellation (ANC) into the mix too. Using built-in mics to cancel out outdoor noise such as engine sounds, traffic and wind, the Freedbuds 4i do a very respectable job of blocking out the outside world. Selecting the right sized earbuds from the box will help ensure you get the best possible isolation. For us, the largest ones offered the most secure fit, but we feel it could be a bit better. Our advice? Spend a few quid on some Comply foam earbud tips, and you’ll supercharge the isolation and listening experience — and that’s true for all earphones.
Those same microphones, by the way, also work hard to make your calls clear for anyone on the other end. We tested a few phone calls while walking on busy roads, and were told that we could be heard clearly despite the surrounding wind and traffic, which is reassuring. Long-pressing an earbud switches lets you turn off ANC to extend your battery life, as well as turning on the awareness mode, which lets you hear your surroundings for safety and convenience. It works well, but it’s a more useful feature on over-ears, as buds can be quickly removed easily.
Battery life: more than enough
Huawei claims its earbuds offer up to 10 hour of continuous music playback, boosted up to 22 hours in total if you take the charging case into account. We have yet to go on a ten-hour Spotify marathon, but can confirm they comfortably lasted a full day of remote working and socially distanced wandering without any issues at all.
With ANC turned on, you’ll get less than 10 hours of use. We clocked in around eight hours with noise cancelling on, which should still be more than enough for most people, and should see you through a Transatlantic flight without any problems once the world returns back to normal.
Charging offers another handy bonus, in that a mere ten minutes can provide enough juice for up to four hours of playback. This is an incredibly useful feature for chronic Charge Forgetters who need a quick top up before their lockdown walks.
Huawei Freebuds 4i verdict
The Freebuds 4i offer a very attractive package for those seeking an AirPods aesthetic without busting their wallets wide open. They’re well-built and serve up a pleasant (if not class-leading) listening experience, with solid noise cancellation, call quality, battery life and charging to match.
The main thing that lets it down is the fact that the earbuds can be tricky to remove, but it’s something you get used to. A bigger concern for Huawei is something like the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 wireless earbuds, which can be snapped up for around £20 more, offering superior sound quality (though no active noise cancelling smarts).
If you’re after the AirPods look with good performance and a reasonable price to match though, these could very well be the buds for you.