I’ve not been shy about my affinity for truly wireless earbuds, from the first very expensive and very bad pair, I could see why they were next and why they were going to take the world by storm. I’ve also been a pretty big fan of Huawei’s attempts at audio gear as of late, I have been using the FreeBuds 3 for almost a year as my on the go earbuds, despite them not sounding the best, having the best ANC or the best battery life, but they were just so convenient. They were near flawless connectivity wise and sounded good enough with Good enough ANC, but Huawei is back with the FreeBuds Pro, are they really that much better?
- Mindblowingly good ANC
- Adjustable ANC
- Great overall sounds signature
- Decent battery life
- Case is bigger and heavier than last year
- A lot of features require the app, which is Android only.
- -custom ear tips.
- 11mm magneto-stabilised dynamic driver
- 40dB noise cancellation
- 2 device use concurrently
- 6.1g per earbud
- 55mAh battery per earbud
- 580mAh battery in the case
- USB-C charger
- 5v1.2 wired charging (6w)
- 2w Wireless charging
- Bluetooth 5.2
Given how much tech is packed into the Freebuds Pro, these are impressively tiny, putting them next to the FreeBuds 3 you can really see the size difference, and I’m not just talking about the case. Each earbud is roughly 13mm shorter than the FreeBuds 3, but due to the shape change of the new “Cubic Iconic” design, the stem is now a slightly larger rectangle than the previously cylindrical stem. What’s strange is that now whilst your touch target is technically larger because the stem is so much shorted, swiping gestures such as charging volume are actually harder, something to note.
The Biggest noticeable change over the FreeBuds 3 is the switch from a rigid “one size fits all” open earbud-style to the more traditional silicone ear tip design, this allows passive noise isolation, but also makes the active noise cancelling even better as it has a much stronger disparity to start with. Sadly it appears that Huawei is using custom silicone ear tips, so just swapping these out for a set of comply tips isn’t possible unless a company specifically makes a set for these, which at the time of writing, Comply has not announced any.
Taking a look at the earbud more closely, the outer part of the earbud this time is mostly stem, the stem is roughly 8mm wide and 24mm long, and on my unit the gorgeous “Silver Frost” these are a gunmetal Chrome and I am digging it so hard. On the bottom of the Stem is the two charging contacts for the case, along the long portion of the stem there are 4 slits, I am assuming these are for the microphones. On the inside, there is the bulbous portion of the earbud that houses the new stabilised 11nm dynamic driver as well as the proximity sensor, so when you remove the bud from your ear the content pauses and resumes once you put it back in.
The Charging case this time around is also quite different and I’m not much of a fan. The case is significantly larger than the FreeBuds 3 case. Whereas the FreeBuds 3 had a case with a 60mm diameter and 21mm depth. The FreeBuds Pro is now more of a pill shape with 70x52x25mm, it’s also heavier, this makes the case more noticeable in every aspect. Also, given how great the chrome on the buds looks, I’m a bit dismayed to see the boring dark grey on the case, though maybe it is for the best as my glossy “piano black” Freebuds 3 case is scratched to high heaven.
Having used the FreeBuds 3 for the better part of a year, I think I’m pretty well versed in how they sound, so I feel incredibly confident saying that the FreeBuds Pro bring the pain in a smackdown that seems so premeditated the FreeBuds 3 never stood a chance. Whether I’m Listening to some K-Pop, some classical/orchestral music or some EDM I find myself dancing along to it and just being in my own little world. These aren’t trying to be reference quality TWS if such a thing exists, but they’re tuned to reproduce the sound that the majority of people listen to very well, and they do.
A lot of this is just the passive noise isolation of the silicone ear tips, they make such a huge difference compared to the open design of the FreeBuds 3, also they are more likely to stay in when moving, which is useful. What is odd is that although each bud is 1.6g heavier than the FreeBuds 3, due to the much better seal, I don’t notice the extra weight and they feel more secure.
This is an area where truly wireless buds often fall a bit flat, or sharp, rather. Due to the small size of the drivers used companies will push drivers farther than they should, which often leads to the highs become shrill, tinny and uncomfortable, and the bass, feeling like someone is speaking to you underwater after you’ve just been punched in the head by Mike Tyson.
However, the 11mm drivers here, whilst not the biggest, is actually pretty impressive, I think some of this has to do with how the drivers are mounted in the earbud themselves, they’re basically shock-mounted my a series of magnets, this decouples vibrations from the driver hitting the case, and It really makes the strings in Lindsey Sterling’s “phantom of the Opera” or 2CELLOs’ Pirates of the Caribbean feel, well effortless. What is funny is that the FreeBuds Pro has a smaller driver than the FreeBuds 3, 11mm to 14.2mm, but they sound so much better due to the other parts of the earbud around the driver, it’s one of the best examples of “more than the sum of it is parts”.
Mids tend not to suffer as the highs and lows do, the mids tend to suffer by everything being squashed together, so the tonality of singers or different wind instruments which are very different end up sounding almost indistinguishable. Thankfully that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Once again these aren’t going to win any awards for being the most accurate audio device on the market, but the mids have been emphasized in a way that makes me think this is where the bulk of the time was spent in tuning.
I usually pair vocals in the mids section as I find that when one is impacted the other is as well, and just like with the mids sounding spaced out with each instrument has enough room to shine, vocals are the same, whether I’m listening to BTS, Backstreet boys or Thomas Jefferson in the Hamilton soundtrack they are all distinctively different, heck I can hear the nuance in Hamilton that has been missing from the other buds I’ve been reviewing recently, but I guess that’s also coming with the cost, spend more, get more.
This is the area where you can tell these are “general user” earbuds not specialised for a particular type of music as the bass here is strong, not quite Skullcandy strong, but enough to take you by surprise if you have it a notch or two too high, as happened to me when a random mix of songs threw “BANG BANG BANG!” by Big Bang on after something relatively low key, enough to jolt me in my seat for sure
I do wish there was an EQ option in the AI Life app to save an EQ profile to the buds themselves as it stands the control has to be done through the AI Life app, which can be a bit restrictive. The bass still feels good and not overblown, but it is powerful, there are some devices that prioritise the bass to a point where nothing else is really recognisable, this isn’t that, but you will notice the bass for sure, great for EDM for sure.
The FreeBuds Pro use what I’m assuming is an updated version of the Kirin A1 chip from the FreeBuds 3 and recent wearables, now with Bluetooth 5.2 support. Huawei is boasting that the new dual Antenna design can help keep a constant connection whilst in range and won’t be as susceptible to interference from concrete as others, and I have found this to be mostly true. There is one part of walking from my office to the kitchen where there is cumulatively about three, multiple inch thick walls covered in horsehair plaster, for those that don’t know horsehair plaster is quite radio-opaque, meaning radio waves, Bluetooth included, struggle. Once I’m past that weird point, even if I get further away from the source device, the connection is rock solid.
The AI Life app used to control the FreeBuds Pro is fine, but I would like to see some things added, mainly the EQ I spoke about earlier. The big problem is that the availability of the App is limited to Android. And with Huawei being annexed from the Google sanctioned version of Android, I fear that it is going to be harder to get people to use these who don’t have a Huawei device with App Gallery. But think of it this way. You get the FreeBuds pro, you own an iPhone and use a Windows PC or Mac. You cannot upgrade the firmware of these buds unless you get an Android emulator for the PC, and these have gotten at least 3 firmware updates in the time I’ve been testing them, and my FreeBuds 3 over the last year have received multiple firmware updates, so that’s pretty rough. Without the app, you also cannot alter the type of ANC used, and the multiple types of ANC are also one of the great parts of the FreeBuds Pro.
Active noise cancellation
One of the other large parts Huawei wanted to talk about in our briefing and at the launch was the ANC on the FreeBuds Pro. using the multiple microphones and different algorithms, the FreeBuds Pro are able to cancel out an absolutely insane 40dB of noise, for reference, Bose’ award-winning QC35s can cancel about 25dB and those are over the ear designs, holy crap. So, how is the ANC in the real world? Insane.
There are 4 settings, Cosy, General, Ultra and Dynamic. I often flip between General and Ultra because I find them the most comfortable and they make the most sense to me I don’t live in an area that is quiet enough for the most part that Cosy would be useful to me. Dynamic, however, is interesting, Dynamic adjusts the level of ANC depending on your surroundings, for example, if you’re in a coffee shop it’s mute everything and when you get up to the barista and you are facing them and the earbuds detect speech aimed at them, they’ll boost the baristas voice, which is neat!
The other feature is called awareness, which lowers the ANC down a bit so you are still aware of your surroundings, but it just takes the top end off, there is even an option to enhance voices when in awareness mode. I’m personally not a fan of awareness mode, on any earbuds I’ve tried, it might be due to the fact that I have slight audio processing problems as someone on the autistic spectrum, and seeing the persons mouth move and hearing the split-second delay in my ears freaks me out, or how a person sounds artificial and different, this is amplified when it is a person I know and their voice is familiar to me.
A strange thing about awareness mode however is how it interacts with non-human entities. When typing on my keyboard in awareness mode, it is amplified, perhaps the frequency of the keys clacking is similar to one that humans speak at so it is being amped? I’m unsure, but it is very strange to be at my desk using my keyboard with Brown linear switches and them sound like clicky clacky blues instead.
One of my least favourite parts about the FreeBuds 3 was the battery life. Whilst in active use they were fine, turning on ANC significantly cut the life, and their standby time was horrendous. If I didn’t use them for 3 or so days, I would come back to find the half charged with the case near empty. I’m happy to report than on the FreeBuds Pro that’s mostly not an issue.
With ANC enabled, Huawei is claiming 4 hours of music playback, which jumps to 7 hours with ANC disabled, which is actually very close to what I would say I got, and I leave ANC on 99% of the time I’m using the FreeBuds Pro because it works well, isn’t overpowering and doesn’t make me feel like my ears are being crushed, it feels very similar to Sony’s legendary noise cancelling to me.
Something I find interesting is that Huawei quote 2 different battery estimates, one normal and one with a phone running EMUI11, with the EMUI11 numbers an hour higher than the other, I’m assuming this just has to do with a more efficient transfer protocol, as Huawei phones often use Huawei made chips, and Huawei does make some of the world’s leading connectivity equipment, Bluetooth included. The idle standby bug still isn’t fully gone, but I can leave these well over a week and still have a considerable amount of charge in the case, sometimes I think one bud doesn’t fully go to sleep or something similar, but alas, much less of a worry than on the FreeBuds 3.
Charging is pretty simple on the FreeBuds Pro. the USB-C port on the bottom of them is capable of charging at speeds of up to 6w, whereas if you chose to wirelessly charge via a Qi pad (or reverse charge from a phone) those speeds are capped at 2w. It takes about 40 minutes for the case to recharge the buds, if you want to charge the case without the buds in there, that will take closer to an hour, and if you want to charge both buds, whilst in the case and charging the case as well, that’ll take near 2 hours, thankfully that’s rarely going to need to happen, I’ve only put the FreeBuds Pro case on charge twice in the 6 weeks I’ve had them, and the first time was because it didn’t come full and I forgot to charge it the first time.
Much like the FreeBuds 3 before it, the FreeBuds Pro are very likely to become my next “default” pair of earbuds, they just work, they seem to wake up the fastest, pair the fastest, have the least interference problems, now they last longer and have even better ANC to boot. This amazing pair of earbuds does come at a price though, aside form the actual cost of £169, it’s that, at this particular moment in time, I can’t recommend them if you don’t have an Android device at least somewhere in your life. On the FreeBuds Pro site they state that it is not available for iOS yet, which makes me hope it’s coming to the App store soon, because once it is there, I have almost no qualms recommending these to anyone.
The design won’t be for everyone, and the cost might be a bit high for others, but these are premium earbuds, they’re cheaper than the AirPods Pro, sound better, and in my opinion have better ANC. Jabra’s Elite 85t is a little bit more than these, but reportedly has even better ANC, they’re also praised by the tech press at large for a reason, but I’m going to stick with these, even if I have to charge them a little more often.