With the FreeBuds 3i, Huawei will be embarking upon the true wireless earbuds path for the first time without having to settle for an ugly-looking device that hangs out of your ear. It achieves this by using silicone plugs in order to better seal the ear canal against any outside, environmental noise. The ANC technology used is, theoretically, capable of delivering additional peace and quiet. Does this sound like a well-known concept to you? Yes, under the name Magic Earbuds, the Honor brand carries an almost identical model in its lineup, which are available at an even cheaper price point. Why then is this Huawei variant the better option? You will find out more in our review.
- ✓Seals in audio better than its predecessor
- ✓Good audio quality at this price point
- ✓Transparency mode
- ✓IPX4 protection
- ✕Wind-prone ANC
- ✕Disjointed design
- ✕iOS app unavailable
Huawei FreeBuds 3i release date and price
The Huawei FreeBuds 3i have been available since May 2020, arriving only in white. At launch, they cost £99.99 in the United Kingdom. At other online retailers, they are available at a slightly cheaper price. The drop in prices is probably due to the company's internal competition. The Honor Magic Earbuds, which does carry a very close resemblance to this pair, was released by daughter brand Honor at the same time, are down to £74.98, and are available in white and the "Egg Blue" version.
Huawei FreeBuds 3i design and build quality
Huawei's previous offering, the FreeBuds 3, was modeled after Apple's AirPods 1 and 2. Just like its stylish competitors, the hard plastic headphones are easy to insert in the ear. It's quicker and more comfortable than in-ear headphones that sport silicone plugs. Those models tend to require you to jerk them every time in order to make sure that they fit properly. However, they do a far better job at sealing the ear and isolating external sound from entering your ears. That's probably why Huawei FreeBuds 3i, like most other true wireless headphones - including the Apple AirPods Pro - employ this route and rely on earmolds to shield the ear canal.
Huawei holds on to this legacy design. The earpieces continue to merge into an almost three 3 cm-long bridge, which gives the wireless headphones the appearance of toothbrush heads. Huawei has apparently not yet succeeded in miniaturizing all the technology in such a way that it fits into a discreet, bud-shaped housing, like the Samsung Galaxy Buds+, for example.
The packaging comprises of the standard carrying case, which also doubles up as a power bank. Instead of the rather flat, oval shape like its predecessor, the carrying case of the FreeBuds 3i is shaped more like that of a tiny candy bar (mmmm, yummy!).
In terms of aesthetics, the design does not differ much from the Honor Magic Earbuds - apart from the brand name, of course. Unlike the daughter brand Huawei, however, the FreeBuds 3i offer protection against sweat and water splashes according to the IPX4 standard. It is not known whether Honor has equipped is model with a similar rating, but simply wanted to save on the certification costs. In any case, in conjuncture, this means you can indulge in sports while you are in the rain using Huawei headphones with a clear conscience. This is a small but possibly decisive difference should you want to claim your warranty or take out a guarantee after experiencing possible water damage.
Features and operation
The Huawei FreeBuds 3i connects to an Android smartphone and iPhone via Bluetooth. Users of Huawei phones with EMUI 10.0 or newer have it even easier. If they open the charging case near the smartphone, both devices will discover each other all on their own. The FreeBuds 3i will feature Bluetooth 5.0, but they also work with earlier versions of the wireless standard, so even older smartphones are backward compatible.
If you stream music from your smartphone to the True-Wireless headphones or use them for hands-free calls, you can control some functions directly on the earbud buttons. A remote control is directly integrated via a touch-sensitive surface area. By default, you can start and stop music with a double-tap, as well as answer and end a call. With a long press, you switch the suppression of outside noise on or off. It does not matter which of the two earbud buttons you press, they will get the job done either way. Right out of the box, both of them deliver similar functions.
If you use the app called Huawei AI Life, you can assign different functions to each of the two earbud buttons individually. You can also double-tap to skip to the next or return to the previous track, or activate the smartphone's voice assistant. The long-press can also activate the so-called transparency mode instead of noise suppression if configured accordingly. This ensures that the integrated microphones on the Huawei FreeBuds 3i pass the audio signals through, letting you hear people and traffic sounds even when you are enjoying your music with the earbuds lodged firmly in your ear canals.
The transparent mode is not available as standard, as you will have to update the firmware of FreeBuds 3i and Honor Magic Earbuds in order to take advantage of it. You can also do this with the app called AI Life. It is available on Android, but not for iOS. This means that if you are using an iPhone, you will need to ask your Android friends for any new changes.
ANC on the test bench
The new transparency mode worked fine during the duration of the review. Outside noise doesn't sound as natural as it does without the earbuds on. However, it is just a matter of being able to hear when someone is talking to you or when a vehicle approaches. The function does its job in any case.
However, if you like to enjoy your music undisturbed, you will probably have to activate the transparency mode less often and its counterpart more often: noise reduction. If you switch on Active Noise Cancelling (ANC), two outside microphones on the headphones try to identify wind and ambient noise so accurately that the headphones neutralize it with counter-noise.
It's not a trivial technical process and at its best, it is only found on very expensive models like the AirPods Pro. In the price range of the FreeBuds 3i, this function is not self-evident and in this case, only moderately implemented by Huawei. The technology doesn't cope well with wind noises and even amplifies them in an unnatural sounding way. But if there is no breeze on the way, it is worth activating ANC. It doesn't keep noise out as well as the more expensive models, but it is more effective than the passive shielding provided by the silicone plugs.
In this respect, the impression corresponds to the review of the Honor Magic Earbuds. Basically the same technology is used then, which has got a lurid name with "hybrid feedback ANC technology", but does not yield better results.
Huawei FreeBuds 3i audio
Whether your ANC is activated or not does not affect the audio quality of Huawei FreeBuds 3i. The sound remains the same and is not distorted by ANC.
At this price range, the Huawei model offers good sound quality. The 10-millimeter drivers provide a wide stereo sound with clear highs and mids, alongside powerful bass. The fact that the FreeBuds 3i doesn't come down quite as far at low frequencies and doesn't show the same level of detail as other more expensive alternatives ($50 to $100 price difference) is absolutely acceptable. It should not bother you that you can't adjust the sound with AI Life. The app offers neither sound profiles nor an equalizer, but sound settings under Android and iOS do have an effect.
In a direct comparison with the Honor Magic Earbuds, we can't tell the difference. So if it's just about the audio experience, there's no reason why you shouldn't go for the other sibling.
Huawei FreeBuds 3i battery
Just like the Honor twin, the 37 mAh batteries found in the FreeBuds 3i last for 3.5 hours on one charge according to the manufacturer. The charging case (410 mAh) holds enough juice for another eleven hours before you have to charge it up via USB-C. These happen to be the details displayed by Huawei for marketing purposes, and in real-life, our practical experience with it does correspond to those values. The following applies: depending on your preferred volume level, how often, and how long you use your ANC, the runtimes may vary.
These are acceptable values for this price range. But this is not the best available. The Anker Soundcore Spirit Dot 2 , for example, has a running time of 5.5 hours, plus a ten-hour reserve in the charging case. The headphones are even cheaper. To be fair, the alternative lacks other conveniences like ANC and an app for greater flexibility during use.
Compared to its predecessor, the FreeBuds 3, the battery life does seem to have taken a step backward. Both the headphones and the charging case last longer with the previous generation. However, it also hit the market with a €180 ($200) price point, while Huawei decided to settle for a more affordable route with the current model.
I felt that Huawei's change to the in-ear concept pays off. Thanks to the silicone attachments, the FreeBuds 3i passively isolate external noise better than ever, while offering an easy yet secure listening experience. The ANC anti-sound technology provides a little bit more silence, as long as strong gusts of wind do not hit you. Because of the susceptibility to howling winds, the ANC effect in this model is only a moderate performer. A useful addition, however, is the transparency mode, which can provide a greater degree of safety if you happen to spend plenty of your time with traffic around you while you are running or cycling. The annoying thing is, users can only unlock it on Android via a firmware update, because the app itself is unavailable on iOS. The sound quality is impressive at this price range, but Huawei could have done better when it came to battery life.
The FreeBuds 3i are fairly priced at the moment. The Huawei FreeBuds 3i currently only have IPX4 certification as the sole differentiating factor between the two models, and nothing else. Even the transparency mode can be upgraded in both models via a firmware update. Hence, the certified splash water resistance makes the Huawei model a technically better-equipped twin. If you do not need this feature in your everyday use, it is a no-brainer which particular model you ought to pick up if you're shopping for a pair of in-ear earbuds.