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  • Cheryl Tan

Huawei FreeBuds 4 Review: A Step... Backwards?!

If you don’t like the feeling of ear tips, you’re left with very few choices, let’s be real. There are only so many open-fit design earbuds in the market, and plenty of them come with the major downside of open-fit, the fact that there’s basically no passive noise isolation because your ear canals are partially open. But these open fit earbuds from Huawei, the Huawei FreeBuds 4, have a special little something to try and counteract that.

Okay, let’s talk design. These come in two colours, silver and white. The silver that we have here is quite similar to the one that we originally saw on the FreeBuds Pro, which are Huawei’s flagship true wireless earbuds. It’s a pretty nice matte case that doesn’t get slippery in the hand, and you get an LED indicator in the front for battery charge status as well as a USB-C port on the bottom for charging. There’s also wireless charging, which is nice.

Inside, you get the earbuds in a glossy silver colour. Unfortunately, they are a bit of a fingerprint magnet, but that’s the price you pay for good looks I guess. They’re open-fit, which means they just sit in your ear like the base AirPods do, with no ear tips. They’re pretty comfortable regardless because they’re so light and there’s no pressure on the inside of the ear.

The touch controls on the stem worked perfectly fine with a mix of taps and swipes, but again, I’d have preferred a press system rather than trying to get accurate taps on the thin stem. That being said, I love that Huawei has brought the swipe-to-adjust-volume control from the FreeBuds Pro to the FreeBuds 4. This is super convenient, so I don’t have to pull my phone out to adjust my music volume.

You also get the standard stuff like double-tap for play/pause, track skipping or call control, as well as a long tap and hold for ANC. These are pretty much customisable in the Huawei AI Life companion app, which is great.

There are a bunch of new features too, including some that are only accessible through the AI Life app, so let’s go through those first.

You get a Connection Centre bar in the app, which basically allows you to toggle between which previously paired device you want the FreeBuds 4 to be connected to. So if you previously paired your FreeBuds 4 to your laptop, a few phones and a tablet, you can choose which one you want to be connected at any one time. Unfortunately, this is only available on devices that have the latest updated version of the Huawei AI Life app, and the iOS version of the app doesn't have it right now anyway, so I still can’t recommend iPhone users getting Huawei earbuds. There’s also the option to turn multipoint connectivity on or off here, as well as to set a preferred device that your earbuds will prioritise connecting to.

You also get firmware updates in the app, along with customisation of the touch controls (only for double tap though) and information like the battery levels left in the earbuds and case, as well as the Find My Earbuds feature and a Sound Quality option that’s actually for the microphone rather than the actual sound. You get to choose whether the built-in mics focus on voice pickup while reducing ambient noise or to capture all sounds realistically. There’s also an HD Calls option that’s supposed to enhance the clarity of your voice when you’re on voice calls, which we’ll talk about later. If you want to turn wear detection off, that’s also possible here.

There’s also the option to turn ANC on or off, as well as two levels of ANC to choose from, Cozy or General. We’ll get into that later too.

You get Bluetooth 5.2, which is really nice. There’s also support for SBC and AAC, but no support for Huawei’s own L2HC codec. It seems that the codec is going to remain forever exclusive to the FreeBuds Studio headphones, which really is a shame.

Battery life is pretty poor, I’m going to be honest. Huawei claims you get four hours in the earbuds, with another 22 hours in the case, if ANC is turned off. With ANC on, that drops to 2.5 hours in the buds and 14 hours in the case. Keep this in mind when we talk about ANC later on.

Moving on, there’s an IPX4 water resistance rating, which means if you want to bring these out for some light exercise, they’ll stand up to sweat and let you enjoy your music while still keeping a ear out for any cars or bicycles nearby.

Let’s talk about ANC for a moment here. I didn’t come into this review with very high hopes for ANC, since I knew that open-fit design earbuds inherently aren’t great at blocking out external noise. However, even with the General ANC mode, which is the highest, I really didn’t notice much of a difference. Perhaps my fan whir was reduced by about half, but any louder noises were pretty much still very audible. So here we come back to the battery life issue. A 50% reduction in battery life for ANC of this quality is really quite unacceptable. I found myself just turning ANC off most of the time because it just wasn’t worth it.

Maybe I’m just biased or spoilt by other great ANC earbuds, which, by the way, the FreeBuds Pro are, but it’s just mind boggling to me that a pair of earbuds can get away with 2.5 hours of battery life with ANC turned on. This was my main complaint with the FreeBuds 3 as well. I’d say the ANC is just ever so slightly better than the FreeBuds 3, but the battery life is actually even worse. I got around 3.5 hours on the FreeBuds 3, but just 2.5 hours here.

Anyway, Huawei did say that a closer, tighter fit around the earbuds will result in better active noise cancellation, which, yeah I guess makes sense. This means that people with smaller ears theoretically should have a better ANC experience with these.

Anyway, let’s just say that you’re most likely not going to be getting these for the ANC and move on.

Microphone quality is pretty good. There was very little wind noise and my voice did come across relatively clearly even when I was outdoors with a mask on. You won't have any problems if you’re planning on using these for voice calls.

Sound quality is definitely affected by the open-fit design. Because of the design, sound naturally escapes and you get less impactful bass, which means you might end up increasing the volume to get the thump in the bassline as well as to sort of block out external noise. And, well, that’s honestly not great because you shouldn’t be listening to music at high volumes for a long time. These work best in quiet environments, so at home, in the office and such. But if you’re using them while commuting, you’re definitely going to notice external noise.

Anyway, back to the sound. Because the bass response isn’t that great, I did find the overall sound was a bit more emphasised on the mids and highs, making these a great pair of earbuds if you listen to pop, classical music, or even to stuff like podcasts. If you really like bass, you might be better served looking elsewhere, because there’s not even an EQ feature in the AI Life app that you could use to boost the lows.

Soundstage is just okay, pretty much what you would expect from a pair of TWS earbuds, and I did notice pretty decent instrument separation in the mids, with guitar plucks and vocals quite distinct, but the overall layering isn’t all that great.

So who should get these? Honestly, I don’t know. Okay, I guess I kind of do. If you hate ear tips, these are a decent enough option. But if you don’t mind ear tips, I cannot, for the life of me, see why you would pick these over the FreeBuds 4i. The 4i are cheaper, S$108 to the FreeBuds 4's S$198, have a better seal, which means you get a more impactful bass response, they have ANC as well and they have better battery life at around seven hours with ANC turned on.

It’s a shame because I really like Huawei’s audio stuff. I was really impressed by the FreeBuds Pro, I loved the FreeBuds 4i and I was thinking, hey, maybe Huawei could change my mind on open-fit earbuds. Unfortunately not, but they still are decent open-fit earbuds with Bluetooth 5.2, multipoint, pretty okay sound quality, wireless charging and all that. If you can’t stand in-ear earbuds and you use an Android phone, these might be for you.


Content by Cheryl Tan

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