[Updated on 5th of November 2018] The AI Life app will be available for iOS so you will be able to access the noise-cancelling functionality these earphones feature.

Back at IFA in September, Huawei announced their latest earphones, the Huawei Freebuds 3, which feature a suspiciously similar design to the existing Apple Airpods but include active noise cancelling, and a wireless charging case all for £169 making them cheaper than the AirPods at £199 and the Airpods Pro at £249.

There seems to be some irony that Huawei has been criticised for their AirPods like design in the past few months, and now Apple has come out with the AirPods Pro with rubber tips and active noise cancelling, something other brands have been doing for a long time.

The AirPods Pro design does also raises the question, why would Huawei implement active noise cancelling with an open fit design? Surely this is like putting your car air conditioning on and leaving your windows open?

Specification

  • Open fit design
  • Rechargeable battery-powered case with USB-C and wireless charging
  • Active noise cancellation
  • Bone sensor mic audio enhancement
  • Ultra-low latency
  • 14mm High-sensitivity dynamic driver with dedicated Bass Tube
  • 4 Hour battery life
  • 20 hours charging via case
  • Bluetooth 5.1
  • Kirin A1 Chipset

The FreeBuds 3 tick almost every box you might want from some premium earphones and Huawei are keen to point out the prowess of the Kirin A1 Chipset which provides most of the functionality.

The Freebuds 3 requires the AI Life app to access their full functionality, this will be available on both Android and iOS, however, some of the features are dependant on you running EMUI 10 on a Huawei phone. Most importantly, you will be able to access the noise-cancelling functionality.

Bluetooth 5.1

This is the same chipset that is inside the Huawei Watch GT2, and it is the world’s 1st certified BT/BLE dual-mode Bluetooth 5.1 SoC.

Bluetooth 5.1 introduces improved accuracy level of the Bluetooth tracking capabilities. Currently, Bluetooth can only guess the distance of an object based on its signal strength, with Bluetooth 5.1 you also get a direction from where the signal is coming. The new Bluetooth version will have better caching that improves connection speed and lowers power usage. Overall, it should enhance the connection with your phone, though I am not 100% sure how it works with a phone that is Bluetooth 5.0.

The earphones will also use an isochronous dual-channel Bluetooth connection. Currently, most earphones connect to one ear, then that ear transmits to the other, causing significant latency. With these, assuming you use a Mate20 / Mate20 Pro / P30 / P30 Pro, and update to EMUI 10 the phone will transmit the signal to both channels at the same time.

Uncompromising Sound

Huawei claims uncompromising Sound with an improved frequency response range over the AirPods 2, this is achieved with the 14mm High-sensitivity dynamic driver with dedicated Bass Tube.

They have used some trickery for voice calls too, the microphone is on the bottom of the stem, but rather than sitting right at the end, it is indented a little stopping it picking up any unnecessary wind noise. They then combine this with a bone sensor that detects the vibration of the head tissue and only picks up and strengthens user’s voice, effectively weakening the environmental noise.

No IP Rating

The feature missing I would have liked to see is the lack of an IP rating, this is probably not an issue for most people, but I exercise a lot and unfortunately I someone that sweats a lot more than normal. I used to break every wired pair of Bluetooth earphones I had within 6 months, regardless of IP rating. I have found totally wireless naturally are more water-resistant than the wired counterpart due to the lack of controls on a wire. I have been using the Groov-e Soudbuds since June, and they also lack an IP rating, and I have had no issues with them yet. However, with an RRP of £169.99 I am not sure this is something I would like to risk with these, and they will remain my travel earphones.

Design and Fit

I would normally include the fit section further down with performance, but the entire design affects the fit of these.

If there is one thing I would not have copied from Apple, it is the design of their earphones. However, it seems this is not a unanimous opinion. My partner hates the rubber ear tip design and finds it awkward to get a fit, and intrusive. The popularity of the Airpods would indicate that she might not be the only one with this belief.

However, while some people may prefer the open design of these, I guarantee it will have more fit issues than its ear tip counterparts. In my case, this is precisely what happened, I have big ears, and it would seem big ear canals, I always wear the largest rubber tip on standard earphones. With these, as soon as I put them in, the right earphone was threatening to fall out as soon as I wiggled my head.

An earphone regularly falling out is obviously the worst-case scenario, but a loosely fitting earphone will also severely affect the quality of the audio.

Determined to make the most out of these, and due to their similar design to the Airpods, I resorted to Amazon and bought third party silicon caps for them. I initially went for the cheapest option called OneCut which cost me a massive £4.23 then got carried away and bought the AhaStyle 2 at £11.99.

Using these completely transformed the fit for me, the first pair made them fit in my ears quite well but with a little bit of wiggle, while the second pair had a perfect fit. This also transformed the sound, and I will cover that in more detail later.

It is worth noting, that while these did not fit in my ear in their default state, my partner loved them. So it is hard to say if Huawei is right or wrong adopting this style, I won’t mark them down for it, but it is something you need to consider when buying them.

Now we have got the ear tip design out of the way, everything else is sort of normal. These have a stem, identical to the Airpods, I suspect this is as much function as it is form, keeping the centre of gravity close to your face when you don’t have eartips locking the earphones in place.

The case is an attractive circular design with a Huawei logo on the front, then USB-C on the bottom and the wireless charging part on the flat back.

Pairing and AI Smart App

These can work like any other earphone where you just pair them from the Bluetooth menu, which is what I did at first. However, they come with their own companion app called AI Life, at the time of writing this is not public and Beta only, but during my use, it has worked perfectly.

With the earphones paired, you get battery data for each earphone and the case, you can then also enable and customise the noise cancelling.

I would strongly recommend using the app, apart from the battery status, the ability to tweak the noise-cancelling makes a significant difference

Beyond that there is not much functionality, I would have liked to see some EQ options as well as some location data, bringing them in line with the Airpods. I suspect this is something that will come with EMUI 10 and/or phones equipped with BT 5.1.

It looks like Huawei will bake more functionality into EMUI 10 for these, making them much more like the Airpods. This will include wearing detection, and something called pop-up and pair, which I assume is an easier method of pairing.

Performance

When walking around all of my testing was done with the silicon covers applied, I opted to use the OneCut tips which are just a silicon cover with a hook, rather than the others with a tip to go inside your ear. Hopefully, this replicates what they should sound like while at the same time keeping them in my ear.

When I sat down in my office I used them as is, they feel OK in my ear, and I was surprised how good they sound, including the quality of the bass. That being said, I still feel you get a superior sound with ear tips.

I did let my partner try them out, she is not the most discerning audio reviewer, she is happy with the quality of audio direct from a TV, but she does agree with my comments, and she much prefers this fit over silicon eatiped earphones.

These exceptionally comfortable to wear, even though I used silicon tips most of the time, they felt less invasive than other earphones, and I didn’t get that achy sense from wearing them too long. If they did fit a little tighter in my ear without the silicon I could see why people prefer these over the normal style, it just feels like there is nothing there.

The overall audio quality to be excellent and I would put them on par with the 1MORE Triple Driver if not a little better. I have spent around 14-16 hours listening to these, primarily with music, though I also tested with Netflix and some gaming. I worked my way through the appropriately titled Songs To Test Headphones With on Spotify as well as listening to my usual crop of music which flip flops between electro swing, hardcore punk and all things in between.

The overall sound is well balanced and with exquisite detail in the opinion of someone that does not have audiophile hearing. Instruments are layered, and complex songs don’t sound muddled.

Bass is superb, not quite as deep as the 1MORE, which is inevitable with the design of these, the seal created by eatips is fundamental to bass performance. While these don’t have quite the boomy lows that 1MORE can achieve, the bass is very well represented, I always like to listen to Benny Benassi Satisfaction to see how earphones perform with bass and if they distort and these tackle the track with aplomb with plenty of low-end grunt without distortion.

Tracks from Rage Against the Machine with screeching guitar and screaming vocals tested the earphones on how well they could handle harsh some extreme sounds, where again they performed admirably. With some earphones I have to dial down the volume as the highs can be too harsh, but with these I had no such issues across genres. I have also noticed that cheaper earphones can give me tinnitus which I think is from harsh mids and highs, but I have experienced no such issue here.

The mids are lush and work to highlight human voices which are always clear regardless of the track.

Overall I found the sound profile is excellent not neutral but not too bassy either.

Latency and Connection

As I am using EMUI 9 on the Huawei P30 Pro, I think these are working in the higher latency mode rather than isochronous dual channel, but I am not sure if I could tell either way. A common complaint from many people is lip-syncing with audio when watching movies. I have watched a few TV episodes and played Call of Duty mobile and not encountered any noticeable issues. Though this is one area I have not tested as thoroughly.

Lastly, I have experienced no problems at all with the quality of connection. I risked a 5K while wearing them and there were no issues with the connection dropping out or other interference that is common from moving around a lot.

Noise Cancelling

I had low expectations for the active noise cancelling, but it turned out a lot better than expected. Again, I got different performance from using the silicon tips, they work well regularly but as you would expect a tight fit improves this noticeably. The main reason for me wanting ANC is on flights to drown out the engine noise, sadly I haven’t been on a plane this week, so I resorted to YouTube and plane noise recordings.

I didn’t get the same level of ANC as you might find on a premium over the head earphone such as the class-leading  Sony WH-1000XM3 or the Bose equivalents, but they are capable of taking a significant amount of low-end drone out of the engine noise.

Using the AI Life app, you can go into the noise-cancelling settings and tune the noise. It is a strange sensation because it is not like turning up or down the sound, more like tuning in a radio. Specific points on the dial achieved superior noise-cancelling than others, however with audio off, at some points in the dial created a moderate amount of feedback hum, so you need to find a sweet spot. I found that these did not cause that strange pressure sensation your get from activating the ANC.

Battery

The 4-hour rated battery life is more mediocre than I would have liked. Huawei is keen to point out their charging superiority over Apple in the product literature but conveniently miss out the fact that the Airpods have a 5-hour charge vs the 4 here. The new AirPods Pro are rated for 4.5 hours of listening time with a single charge (up to 5 hours with Active Noise Cancellation and Transparency off) so they still outperform these even with ANC.

In most scenarios, 4 hours is more than enough, but for a long flight, you could get caught short. Similarly, if you choose to use these for sports, they will probably struggle to last many people a full marathon. I know it is an extreme example, but I do see a lot of runners using Airpods.

During my use over the past few days, I would say the 4-hour rating is conservative. I put these on early afternoon on Wednesday, and they were still going strong at 5 pm when I took them off. At 3 pm I took a screenshot with them at 85/80% and at 5 pm they were at 45/35%, that was mostly with noise cancelling off as I didn’t really need it in my quiet office. The one small issue is the right earphone recording lower than the left but I suspect this is due to the way the Bluetooth connection works, these should work isochronous dual-channel mode, but that requires EMUI 10 which is not public yet. So, therefore, the right earphone is having to relay the audio on to the left.

Thankfully, if you are on a flight and run out of juice Huawei claim these can charge 70% in 30mins via USB-C or 30% in 15mins with wireless. Which is around double the speed of the Airpods. I assume this is the case charge times, rather than the earphones themselves, however, under the official spec sheet, it is said they can get a full charge in 1 hour.

Overall

Due to the design, I have slightly conflicting feelings about these earphones, but overall, once I modified them, I loved them. The sound quality is superb, battery life appears to be better than advertised, and the noise-cancelling is also much better than expected. While the £169 price tag is steep it is cheaper than the Apple equivalents and around the same price as many other premium brands such as Bose, RHA and Jabra.

The open ear design will work well for many people, when I didn’t move around much they sounded excellent, but I think this style will have much more fit issues than others and is likely why there are so many silicon tip options for the AirPods on Amazon.  

The design decision and the ANC are what I find a little conflicting, and the open fit is naturally less capable of blocking out noise than earphones with rubber tips, even Apple has realised this with the launch of the Airpods Pro. It is not so much that the noise cancelling is terrible but it, and the sound quality overall, is improved when you get a seal around your ear canal which rubber tips provide.

If you have used AirPods and like the design, then I would say you will love these, offering the same in-ear design, superior audio, noise-cancelling and at a lower price point.

Overall as far as premium earphones go, you get a lot for your money, and they are well worth considering if you are looking for some premium totally wire-free earphones.

Huawei Freebuds 3 Review Score
  • 80%
    Overall - 80%
80%

Summary

While the open fit design is not my favourite I found these to be better than expected, they have a superb sound quality and active noise cancelling while being more affordable than the AirPods and Airpods Pro

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