The Huawei Freebuds 4i follows the footsteps of the Freebuds 3i that was released last year, sporting a semi-in-ear design, active noise reduction (ANC) capability, and solid battery life - all for less than €100. Has the Chinese company managed to wow us again with these entry-level true wireless earbuds?
- ✓Excellent battery life
- ✓Balanced audio signature
- ✓Classic yet premium design
- ✓Compact and solid casing
- ✓Affordable price
- ✕Average ANC performance
- ✕AI Life application is almost useless
- ✕No IP certification or wireless charging support
- ✕No HD codec support
- ✕Poor microphone function
A brief look at the Huawei Freebuds 4i
The Freebuds 3 failed to make a mark for itself when it was released at the end of 2019, as it tried in vain to combine ANC alongside an open fit design. Huawei learned its lesson well, switching to a semi-fit form factor with the excellent Huawei Freebuds 3i. That design was further improved upon in the Huawei Freebuds Pro, which proved to be the earbuds that arrived at Huawei's pinnacle and has been sitting pretty there ever since.
It's been several months since I last reviewed a wearable device, which is actually rather insane when you think about it. But in terms of true wireless earbuds with ANC capability, I mostly have high-end models in mind. The Jabra Elite 85t that I use on a daily basis, the Sennheiser Momentum TW 2 that I absolutely loved, or the old but still solid performing models that are the Sony WF-1000XM3 and the Apple Airpods Pro.
All of these models are far more expensive than the Huawei Freebuds 4i. However, I found that the Chinese manufacturer's earbuds fared quite well in terms of audio quality and battery life, which were above and beyond what I had expected for a device within its price range. What more could you ask for in a pair of true wireless earbuds that is a champion in value-for-money proposition?
Classic yet premium design
The Huawei Freebuds 4i carries a very classic look with a long, flattened stem, sporting a partial in-ear design that doesn't completely obstruct the ear canal. Everything that is required to provide its magical audio performance has been tucked into an oval-shaped case with a shiny, deep red coat on the outside.
In short, I liked the:
- compact and solid carrying/charging case
- comfortable and stable open-fit design that is not intrusive
In short, I didn't like the:
- lack of waterproof certification
- stem form factor
- extremely glossy coating
Unlike smartphone reviews, there really isn't much to talk about when it comes to the aesthetics of your everyday true wireless earbuds. The Huawei Freebuds 4i does have a very classic form factor that we've seen a hundred times before.
This choice itself is not bad per se, I just prefer a more discreet form factor in the shape of a bud, one without stems that protrude in an unsightly manner. The red color does give off a premium look, similar to Apple's PRODUCT Red range (yes, Apple invented the red color!). However, I find the exterior coating to be too glossy for my liking, enabling the earbuds to feel greasy to your touch all too quickly. A matte finish would have been far more elegant.
In terms of ergonomics, I found the Freebuds 4i to be extremely comfortable and they performed well when remaining in place, as I frantically tried to do some serious headbanging in sync with the Doom soundtrack.
Controls available on the earbuds remain very limited, where the back of each earbud is touch-sensitive, recognizing simple gestures such as double taps and a long press. That's all it does, so at least you do not have to memorize a gamut of gesture controls. Huawei is certainly keeping it basic here.
The charging case is also compact in size and overall, offers a solid feel. The hinge is firm when opening and closing, where the lid clearly does its job well and closes with a satisfactory snap. The magnets within hold the earbuds securely in place. There is a button on the right that you can press in to pair it to your smartphone or Bluetooth-compatible device, while a USB-C port at the bottom makes for convenient charging, with an LED in front to remind you of the remaining battery life and pairing status.
The Huawei Freebuds 4i has a very neat finish that oozes with a premium look, although the glossy red coating and stems do detract from its overall elegance. Of course, these are totally subjective as beauty remains in the eye of the beholder. You might have a totally different opinion, and that's cool.
A sound that does not make its price
The visual design is neat, but since this is a pair of true wireless earbuds, we're more interested in the sound. The Huawei Freebuds 4i comes equipped with 10mm transducers in each of the two earbuds, and are compatible with Bluetooth SBC and AAC codecs. It is rather disappointing that aptX, LDAC, and even Huawei's in-house codec, L2AC, are not supported.
In short, I liked the following:
- balanced W sound signature
- precise and clear sound
- bass is notable but not too heavy
In short, I did not like:
- the lack of different HD codec support
- not the most neutral earbuds
As you know, I hate the rather confusing vocabulary used by audiophiles when describing sound. Words such as "sibilance", "brilliance" or "boomy" horrify me to no end, despite my love for the language. It's a shame to use such adjectives to describe the audio performance of a mass-market product.
Let's keep it simple, shall we? The Huawei Freebuds 4i has very balanced sound from one end of the frequency range to the other. The bass, mids, and highs are properly accentuated. This balanced frequency response is referred to as the W signature.
You must be careful here though. Being balanced does not equate to being neutral. The bass is accentuated but remains disciplined, without drowning out the rest of the audio. The mids, which contain the primary essence of most songs, can stretch itself to the high range with ease. This delivers precise and sharp audio that is almost incisive (it's difficult to describe, I know).
I will not dwell on the microphone quality in hands-free mode since the voice pickup is sadly, mediocre. The wind noise cancellation promise by Huawei did not materialize, either.
I tested them on a OnePlus 9 Pro with my Deezer HiFi account, which streams 16-bit FLAC songs at 1,411 kbps that is equivalent to "CD quality." I discovered that the Huawei Freebuds 4i really did sound better than the usual ultra-low W sound of affordable true wireless earbuds like the OnePlus Buds, for example.
Inadequate active noise cancellation (ANC)
The Huawei Freebuds 4i also offers active noise cancellation (ANC) via a dual-mic system that works by simple phase inversion, similar to its competitors.
In short, I liked the:
- good reduction of airborne noise
- decent passive isolation performance in spite of the partial in-ear design
In short, I did not like:
- the algorithm that fails to filter out certain frequency ambient noises
- disappointing wind noise cancellation performance
- ANC capability is not quite up there with the industry's best yet
The Huawei Freebuds 4i does not allow you to automatically or manually adjust the ANC sensitivity levels. You can either turn it on or off, or opt for the Perception mode which amplifies ambient noises.
For background noise such as voices or your PC/console's fan, Active Noise Cancellation proved to be effective and manages to reduce the degree of noise pollution enough to help keep unwanted noise out. This was especially obvious when I was out and about snapping pictures for my smartphone reviews (like the recently published OnePlus 9 Pro). or when I was geeking out on Rocket League on my PS4 while listening to the latest SCH album.
On the other hand, noise that occurs from direct contact with a surface is not detected by the algorithm. When I take the subway or even when I am at home, the ANC tends to miss on the vibration and similar ambient noise. I could even hear my neighbors who live upstairs tap dance to their heart's content, without the Freebuds 4i doing anything notable to drown it out.
The active noise cancellation of the Huawei Freebuds 4i certainly suffered from the partial in-ear design, since the earphones do not totally obstruct the ear canal from outside noises. However, ANC performance is decent under the right conditions, and perhaps we should not expect more from a pair of earbuds that cost less than €100 in the first place.
AI Life: The almost useless companion app
Huawei is content to offer AI Life as the Freebuds 4i's companion app. This app is simply sad - it hasn't been updated on the Play Store since August 2020. iOS users will certainly not gain any benefit from it.
In short, I liked:
- NOTHING (the interface is almost too simple though)
In short, I didn't like:
- AI Life is unavailable on iOS
- Installation via AppGallery or APK required
- No equalizer
Specifically, if you download the AI Life app from the Google Play Store, your Huawei Freebuds 4i will not be recognized or detected as the app has not been updated. So you have to download the AI Life APK from its official page (thanks NextPit community for the link!) which offers an updated version of AI Life.
The process will take only a few minutes and is really simple. But it's a real drag on the user experience to have such a messy user interface that remains platform exclusive, especially since it's only for Android users and iOS fans remain on the sidelines.
Once AI Life is installed, the app will immediately recognize your true wireless earbuds via Bluetooth 5.2, offering a simple range of settings. Sad to say there is no ANC adjustment or equalizer functions to look into here.
It's pretty sad and I'd almost advise against wasting the 5 minutes it takes to install the app if it wasn't essential to receive future firmware updates (if any).
Excellent battery life
The Huawei Freebuds 4i comes with a 55mAh battery in each earpiece and a 215 mAh battery housed in the charging case itself. The manufacturer promises up to 10 hours of listening time without ANC and 6.5 hours of voice calls. With active noise cancellation turned on, the battery life decreases to 7.5 hours of audio playback and an hour less for voice calls.
In short, I liked:
- 14 hours of total battery life with the case (with ANC turned on)
- better battery life performance than other more expensive competitors
In short, I did not like:
- charging using only the case
- no wireless charging support
In my real-life experience with it, where I spend 8 to 10 hours at the office on average with video calls anywhere from 30 minutes and above, while listening to streaming music almost continuously, I managed to eke out 7 hours of usage with the ANC activated.
I was even able to hit 10 hours (2 days at the office without recharging) with ANC deactivated. Compared to last year's Huawei Freebuds 3i or many of the more expensive, higher-end competitors, the Huawei Freebuds 4i's battery life is simply excellent.
I was just disappointed by the charging case's capacity that only allows one full charge of the earbuds and not more than that. It's a shame, really, as it should allow at least 2 full charges. However, with the ANC turned on, you can last for almost 14 hours in total with a mixed listening experience, which is excellent.
For just under €100, the Huawei Freebuds 4i are an excellent value-for-money proposition for a pair of true wireless earbuds with ANC capability.
The very balanced sound signature which is far more accurate than most affordable wireless earbuds that bombard your eardrums with bass, and the excellent battery life of 7 to 10 hours depending on whether you have activated ANC or not, are the twin pillars of the Freebuds 4i.
The active noise cancellation, while not a deal-breaker, is clearly not the best on the market.
The AI Life application and its disastrous user experience, the case's low charging capacity, lack of wireless charging, and the absence of many HD audio codec support remain its most serious flaws. However, when you consider that the Airpods Pro, the Sony WF-1000XM3, or the Jabra Elite 85t, which are far more capable, cost over €150 or even pass the €200 mark, then this compromise offered by the Huawei Freebuds 4i makes for an extremely compelling case.
The combination of great battery life, affordable price, and good audio performance make the Huawei Freebuds 4i competitive enough to be highly recommended.