Huawei FreeBuds 3 review: No more AirPods envy

True wireless earbuds are becoming popular with users and manufacturers alike. The last few months brought lots of new options to market, including some from companies that you wouldn’t normally associate with audio products, such as Microsoft and Amazon. It’s Apple, however, that continues to dominate with its AirPods and brand new AirPods Pro.

The Huawei FreeBuds 3 are Huawei’s answer to the AirPods 2. They look very similar, they come with a similar charging case, and have many of the same features.

However, the FreeBuds 3 are not just an answer to another company’s hit product. They stand on their own, thanks to features like active noise cancelling. That’s a world first for open-fit earbuds, and something that Apple only added earlier this week on the AirPods Pro.

The new FreeBuds cost €179, so they’re not exactly an impulse buy. Should you get them? Find out in our Huawei Freebuds 3 review.

About this review: I wrote this review after spending about six days with the FreeBuds 3. I tested them with a Huawei Mate 30 Pro, a Mate 20 Pro, several other non-Huawei phones, and my Windows 10 laptop. Huawei supplied an apk file of the AI Life beta app. The FreeBuds 3 ran software version

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Man taking the Huawei Freebuds 3 out of white charging case with P30 Pro in the background

The charging case is slightly larger than the AirPods but it’s still super portable.

Huawei FreeBuds 3 review: Tech and specs

  • Kirin A1 chip with Bluetooth 5.1 and BLE 5.1 (world first)
  • Codecs: AAC, SBC
  • Isochronous dual channel connection (smaller power consumption, higher transmission rate)
  • Active noise cancellation (world first for open-fit earphones), adaptive, up to 15dB
  • 190ms minimum latency (with compatible devices)
  • 2.5 second connection time
  • Bone sensor for clear voice pick-up
  • Anti-wind-noise design
  • IPX4
  • 14mm driver with dedicated bass tube
  • Wired charging: USB Type-C (5V 1.2A 6W)
  • Wireless charging: Qi standard (2W)
  • Battery: 30mAh per earbud, 410mAh per case.
  • Battery life: 4h (earbuds only), 20h (with charging case)
  • Weight: about 4.5g per earbud, 48g for the case

What are the Huawei FreeBuds 3 like?

You saw it coming: the FreeBuds 3 are unashamed AirPods copycats. They look very similar to the Apple AirPods 2, to the point that it’s hard to tell the two products apart.

Just like the AirPods 2, but unlike the AirPods Pro, the FreeBuds 3 use an open-fit design, meaning they just sit in your ear, rather than plug into your ear canal. This is a mixed blessing.

They are very comfortable and you can wear them for hours at a time and literally forget you have them on. At the same time, the design provides almost no insulation from outside noise, which impacts sound quality. The active noise cancelling helps – a little – but it’s no match for anything louder than, say, the whirring of a ceiling fan. More about the Huawei FreeBuds 3 sound quality below.

Man holding Huawei Freebuds 3 earbud by the stem and placing in his ear

The Huawei Freebuds 3 have a touch-sensitive stem that you can tap for playback controls or to activate the active noise cancelling.

The buds fit comfortably in my ears, and basically refused to fall out even when I tried to shake them off. Your mileage may vary, and as a caveat, I didn’t use these buds while working out.

The buds fit comfortably in my ears, and basically refused to fall out.

Like many other true wireless earbuds, the Huawei FreeBuds 3 case doubles as a charger, and includes its own battery, allowing you to charge the buds on the go. The case has a capacity of 410mAh, and Huawei says that should be enough to charge the earbuds about four times over.

The case is a big part of the FreeBuds 3 experience – just like the earbuds, it feels lightweight, but well-made, even if it’s not particularly fancy. The spring-loaded lid closes with a satisfying snap. My only concern is the long-term durability of the hinge, as it’s already become a bit looser after only a few days of use.

The FreeBuds 3 are IPX4-certified. That means you shouldn’t worry about sweat or rain, but don’t try to wash them or use them in the pool.

How do you use the FreeBuds 3?

You can use the FreeBuds 3 either on their own or using Huawei’s AI Life app (coming soon).

To pair the FreeBuds 3, open the case (leave the earphones in) and push the button on the side of the case for two seconds until the LED inside the case starts blinking. This will put them into pairing mode. You can then connect them to your favorite device using the Bluetooth menu.

I used the FreeBuds with half a dozen devices running Android, Windows, and iOS, and they connected quickly and hassle-free every single time.

Man taking Huawei Freebuds 3 charging case out of pocket

The case is round and smooth, making it easy to take out of your pocket.

The FreeBuds 3 lack any physical controls, except for the pairing button on the case. Instead, you control them with double-tap gestures or through the AI Life app.

Out of the box, a double tap on the left earbud toggles the active noise cancelling. A double tap on the right bud starts playback (if it’s stopped) or skips to the next track.

The earbuds usually detect taps accurately, but they’re not foolproof. Occasionally they fail to detect a double tap. The reverse is more annoying: a few times, when I was simply adjusting the right earbud in my ear, the touch was interpreted as a double tap, resulting in a skipped track.

You can adjust what the double-tap gestures do from the AI Life app, currently in beta. You can set them to play/pause media or to wake the voice assistant, or just disable them completely. You can also adjust the strength of the active noise cancellation.

Once it becomes available to the public, the AI Life app (which appears to be a rebranded version of the Huawei Smart Home app available in the Play Store) will work with any Android phone. Customers will be able to download it by scanning a QR code from the FreeBuds 3 retail packaging or from Huawei’s AppGallery app store. AI Life won’t be available in the Play Store itself.

If you don’t install AI Life, the FreeBuds will work like any other Bluetooth headphones. You still get the double-tap support, but you won’t be able to change or disable the gestures. However, if you can connect them to a Huawei phone (maybe in a store), any changes you make to the double-tap gestures will carry over to your non-Huawei devices.

The AI Life is a nice touch, but it’s not a requirement to use and enjoy the FreeBuds 3.

The AI Life is a nice touch, but it’s not a requirement to use and enjoy the FreeBuds 3. It just adds a bit of extra convenience.

However, there are a few perks that are exclusive to Huawei devices running EMUI 10. These are Wearing Detection, which stops and resumes playback when you take your earbuds out and put them back in, and Pop-up Window, which shows a pop-up screen on your phone in order to make it easier to connect the earphones.

Huawei’s “Isochronous Dual Channel connection” technology is also exclusive to EMUI 10 devices. It sends data to each earbud individually, which has a few benefits: improved battery life, lower latency, and higher transmission rates. Other manufacturers send data to one earbud, and then it’s bounced off to the other earbud, which is less efficient.

How and when do you charge them?

Huawei FreeBuds 3 with battery cases in black and white

You can charge the FreeBuds 3 over a USB-C cable or wirelessly. If you go the wireless route, you can use a dedicated charger like Huawei’s own wireless SuperCharger, or a phone with reverse wireless charging, like the Huawei Mate 30 Pro or the Samsung Galaxy S10 or Note 10.

With a full charge, the FreeBuds 3 should last you about four hours of continuous playback. Enabling the active noise cancelling will draw a bit more battery life. You’ll get the best results with a Huawei device running EMUI 10. A fully charged case will add an extra 16 hours, bringing total battery life to 20 hours.

Most users won’t listen for four hours straight, so it’s good that the case acts as a portable charger. If you’re not a heavy listener, you’ll probably get away with charging once a week or so.

What do the Huawei FreeBuds 3 sound like?

I was pleasantly surprised by the sound quality of the Huawei FreeBuds 3. The sound is rich and pleasant around the middle. You don’t get the deep rumbling bass you’d get from other types of headphones, but it’s more than adequate for my tastes and listening habits. The bass in this particular form factor is quite impressive.

Because there’s almost zero physical isolation, outside noise tends to drown out some frequencies, especially at the low end. That’s the biggest weakness of open-fit designs, and something you’ll have to deal with the FreeBuds 3 (and also the Apple AirPods 2).

Active noise cancelling (ANC) is supposed to help stave off outside noise, but I found it a bit overhyped. I was able to hear it in action, but the conditions had to be just right. For instance, when I turned on my microwave or the kitchen faucet, ANC cancelled out some, but not all, of the noise. I could still hear the hum, it was just a slightly different hum. And that was an ideal setting, with a quiet, constant din, and no other noises to drown out the effect. In normal, real-life use, I couldn’t hear much of a difference with ANC on or off.

I was pleasantly surprised by the sound quality of the Huawei FreeBuds 3.

If you use the FreeBuds 3 in quiet environments, you’ll probably want to keep ANC off (or tone it down using AI Life). You can actually hear a faint hush noise when listening at low volume that sounds a bit like rain outside.

All that said, ANC is still a great feature to have, and I would definitely activate it when travelling by train or plane, when even a little bit of attenuation helps. Just don’t expect any wonders.

The fact that the FreeBuds 3 don’t block out noise can be a positive. If you don’t turn up the volume too high, you can easily maintain a conversation without having to take off your earbuds. Open-fit buds are also preferable for outdoor activities or just for walking on busy streets, when you need to keep an ear on your surroundings.

White Huawei Freebuds 3 in its charging case pictured alongside P30 Pro and the black color

The charging case has a magnetic lid that snaps shut securely to keep the earbuds in place.

Who are the Huawei FreeBuds 3 good for?

You should consider buying the FreeBuds 3 if:

  • You own or plan to buy a high-end Huawei smartphone;
  • You want wireless earbuds that are easy to use, and that remain comfortable for extended times;
  • You want an AirPods-like product without the high price tag and ecosystem lock-in;
  • You want noise cancelling, but don’t like in-ear designs;
  • Want a portable design with good battery life.

You should look into other options if:

  • You’re invested in the Apple ecosystem;
  • Prefer in-ear designs that isolate outside noise;
  • Want a perfect snug fit;
  • Want a pair of earphones you can use and abuse while working out;
  • You’re on a budget.

Should you buy the Huawei FreeBuds 3?

Close up of the IR sensor for Huawei Freebuds 3 earbuds on P30 Pro

The Huawei FreeBuds 3 will be available globally over the next few weeks. They won’t be sold in the United States. In Europe, they will cost €179. In the UK, you’ll be able to buy them starting November 14 for £169.99.

For users of Huawei smartphones who want a great pair of earphones, the FreeBuds 3 are an obvious recommendation.

The FreeBuds 3 are a great choice for users who want an AirPods-like pair of earphones that are more compatible with Android devices. For users of Huawei smartphones who want a great pair of earphones, the FreeBuds 3 are an obvious recommendation. They sound great, they’re a pleasure to use, and the case provides extended battery life.

At £170, they’re not cheap, but the FreeBuds 3 are more affordable than the AirPods Pro, the Sennheiser Momentum, or the Sony WF-1000XM3. If you use a Samsung phone, the Galaxy Buds are cheaper and provide a snug fit, for better or worse. Cheaper platform-agnostic alternatives also exist.

Read more: The best true wireless earbuds of 2019 – SoundGuys

Stay tuned for our full comparison between the FreeBuds 3 and the Apple AirPods.

And that concludes our Huawei FreeBuds 3 review. Are you interested in these earphones?

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