By most estimates, Apple’s AirPods business alone is worth about $8 billion. Let that sink in for a minute. No wonder everyone’s getting into the true wireless earbuds game — from Samsung to Google to Microsoft to Amazon. And of course, Huawei joined the party a while ago. Its third generation FreeBuds 3, while beating the AirPods Pro to market (IFA 2019), compete directly with Apple’s latest offering.
I‘ve been using Huawei’s FreeBuds 3 on and off for a couple months now, but also enjoyed a brief stint with Apple’s AirPods Pro, so here’s what you need to know. This isn’t a direct comparison or a full-on review. I just want to share my experience with the FreeBuds 3 from the perspective of someone who primarily uses Android and enjoys quality audio. I’d consider myself an audiophile, but I’m just not pedantic enough to qualify, nor do I want to be.
Basically, the FreeBuds 3 are $200 Bluetooth 5.1 true wireless earbuds with active noise cancellation that look and feel like AirPods (non Pro) but sound much better. They work best with Android phones since there’s no iOS app, and offer additional convenience features when paired with a Huawei handset.
If you’re familiar with the AirPods’ design, you know what to expect from the FreeBuds 3. The only major difference is that Huawei’s earbuds are also available in black, and that the case is shaped differently. Instead of a rectangle with rounded corners, the FreeBuds 3 have a circular case with rounded edges. The top third of the case pops opens to store/charge the earbuds and reveal an LED that reflects the earbud’s charge level (red for low, yellow for mid, and green for high).
At the bottom of the case you’ll find a USB Type-C connector and another LED that relays the case’s state of charge. While the FreeBuds 3 and most of the case are shiny plastic, the hinge is a dark chrome Huawei-branded metal square that’s centered on the backside of the case. A pairing button, located on the right edge of the case completes the package. Other than being a fingerprint magnet, it all looks and feels appropriately premium.
If you’ve ever worn AirPods (non Pro), you know what to expect from the FreeBuds 3 in terms of comfort. For me, the fit is excellent, and the earbuds don’t fall out of my ears, no matter how much I shake my head. Unlike the AirPods Pro and most other noise canceling earbuds, the FreeBuds 3 don’t have silicone tips to form a seal inside the ear or provide any kind of passive noise cancellation. This makes them extremely comfortable to wear and less likely to transmit vibrations (like your own footsteps) into your ears.
In terms of audio performance, the FreeBuds 3 are a big improvement over the AirPods and, in my opinion, sound more natural than the AirPods Pro. Before I continue, let me warn you that I’m picky about audio and I find most modern headphones and earbuds too bass heavy. I prefer a flat frequency curve, detailed mids/highs, and precise imaging. My headphones of choice are $150 BeyerDynamic DT990 PRO and my default “earbuds” are $250 Etymotic Research ER 4SR in-ear monitors (IEMs). You can also find me listening to Sennheiser HD 600, Sony WH-1000XM3, plus select Westone, Shure, Grado, and AKG products.
With that out of the way, the FreeBuds 3 exhibit a slight bass bump out of the box, but unlike the Huawei Freelace I reviewed last year, it’s mild enough that I chose to forego EQ in most cases. The FreeBuds 3 rendered Lizzo’s “Cuz I Love You” with a spectacular level of finesse and nuance. I found the mids/highs impressive for true wireless earbuds, with voices and cymbals sounding particularly rich. The low end is solid, and imaging is crisp. If anything, the FreeBuds 3 can be a bit clinical at times, but that’s a minor fault. I only wish the earbuds also supported aptX.
Noise cancellation works fine, but the FreeBuds 3 can’t match the AirPods Pro’s performance. Yes, having a seal inside the ear helps. That being said, Huawei’s earbuds do an OK job at removing continuous ambient noise like fans. In other words, noise cancellation still makes a difference — just don’t expect the FreeBuds 3 to replace your Sony WH-1000XM3 on your next flight. On the plus side, you can adjust the amount of noise cancellation in the app.
Speaking of which, noise cancellation struggles when it’s windy outside. On a recent walk I found myself having to constantly adjust the amount of noise cancellation in the app for the FreeBuds 3 to properly eliminate traffic noise. This is annoying, but isn’t an issue in calmer weather. As for phone calls, the FreeBuds 3 do a good job. Callers heard me loud and clear, even in noisy environments, making conversations easy and natural.
The FreeBuds 3 are rated at 4 hours of battery life each, plus 20 hours more with the case. In my experience, 3 hours of use per charge is more realistic, especially when using noise cancellation and listening at higher volumes. Still, I honestly have no complaints here. The case supports 6W wired charging, and 2W Qi-compatible wireless charging, so you have options when it comes to topping off.
Huawei makes an app oddly called AI Life (available in the Google Play Store), which lets you adjust various settings, like the amount of noise reduction and the double-tap behavior for each earbud. It also enables firmware updates, but unlike Sony’s Headphones Connect app, there’s no EQ functionality. For those rocking a Huawei phone running EMUI 10 or higher -- like the P30 Pro or Mate 30 Pro -- the FreeBuds 3 support two more convenience features: pop open to pair, and wearing detection.
Overall, Huawei seems to have hit the sweet spot with the FreeBuds 3. They beat the AirPods Pro on price, comfort, and sound quality, Sure, the design is derivative at best and copied at worst, active noise reduction is basic, and the app only supports Android, but despite having access to a wide selection of true wireless earbuds -- from Apple, Samsung, Sony, Razer, TCL, and Jabra -- I keep coming back to the FreeBuds 3 for casual listening. That’s gotta count for something, right?