Huawei Freebuds 3 review: The Android AirPods Pro alternative
Huawei's newest competitor to the AirPods Pro provides a wide range of features, but fails to properly execute in noise cancelling or overall audio quality terms.
If you're an Android user – and especially a Huawei Android user – then the Huawei Freebuds 3 are the closest you're going to come to the AirPods Pro experience without giving money to Apple. They're generally very good headphones, but the noise cancelling features are disappointingly inconsistent.
Where to buy them: Amazon
- Available in white or black
- Wireless charging is standard
- Fair sound
- Noise cancelling is hit and miss – and mostly miss
- Some features only work with EMUI 10
- No iOS app for noise cancelling
- Mediocre battery life
In its third generation of don't-call-them-AirPods-because-that's-copyrighted FreeBuds, Huawei has added a range of new features to its take on true wireless headphones. The Freebuds 3 come with wireless charging as standard, offer noise cancelling inbuilt without a Pro suffix and provide a range of colours at a price point lower than the standard Apple AirPods.
Which is all great, right?
You can't get something for nothing, and using the FreeBuds 3 reveals the weak points of Huawei's approach and quite why they're a little cheaper than the established Apple models. For Android users averse to giving Apple any money at all they're a fair pair of headphones, but Huawei still has work to do if it wants to unseat Apple.
- Black or white options
- They look like AirPods
- Slightly larger enclosures
- Looser fit than standard AirPods
- Round carrying case
There's absolutely no getting around the fact that the FreeBuds 3 look an awful lot like AirPods. That's the regular AirPods, not the AirPods Pro variant, with the same in-ear, tip-free design. Where Huawei does shake the Apple tree is with the radical step of making the FreeBuds 3 in more than just a glossy white finish.
Buy a set of AirPods, or for that matter AirPods Pro, and you're stuck with the same white plastic colour that Apple has been making for decades now. Buy the FreeBuds 3 and you get some choice – just. Huawei does produce its FreeBuds 3 in a directly-emulating-AirPods white finish, but there's also a glossy black option, which is what I've been testing out for this review.
Frankly, it feels rather like putting Darth Vader's AirPods in your ears every time I put them in. I did draw a few odd stares while out and about with the FreeBuds 3 in my ears; by now everyday folk are used to the look of AirPods, but wearing the dark side variant is something of a fashion statement.
The lack of customisable tips means that the FreeBuds 3 play in the same space as Apple's original AirPods, but not quite as well. The actual tips are fractionally bigger, and the microphone stalks are slightly longer, and this has more of an effect than just on style grounds.
I found the FreeBuds 3 slightly less comfortable to wear for a long time than Apple's own AirPods. Maybe I've been a touch spoilt by the AirPods Pro, but the larger size sat less comfortably in my ears, with more movement. I've never had a problem jogging with the original AirPods, and while the FreeBuds 3 didn't actually fall out of my ears during a test run, they definitely felt less secure as I pounded the pavement.
While the FreeBuds 3 design is shamelessly "inspired" by Apple, you can't make the same claim for the supplied charging case, which is a glossy circular puck in the same shade as your choice of FreeBuds 3 colour.
It's larger than either the AirPods or AirPods Pro case, but the shape works well enough when slipped into a pocket for getting around. My only complaint here is that the pairing button on the black case is a little hard to discern if you don't know where it is and want to pair with a new handset.
Back to top
- Audio quality is fair
- Noise cancelling needs constant tweaking
- Huawei saves the best tech for EMUI 10
Huawei proudly boasts that the FreeBuds 3 offer noise cancellation via its own Kirin A1 processor built into each earbud. If all you do is pair the FreeBuds 3 to your smartphone via Bluetooth, it's activated by double tapping the left earbud, at which point a friendly voice lets you know if it's active or not.
Open ear headphones like the FreeBuds 3 are always going to be challenged by noise cancellation for the very simple reason that there's no isolation aspect as you'd get with either over-the-ear full headphones or headphones that use isolating tips.
However, I was genuinely surprised by the noise cancelling nature of the FreeBuds 3, which can only be described on a regular connection as weak.
Often I'd find there was no difference at all, and even giving it an easy challenge, with a fan right behind me to test the difference, the dip in external noise was very soft indeed.
However that's not the whole story. If you pair the FreeBuds 3 to an Android phone, you can optionally download Huawei's "AI Life" app, which manages both the pairing process and the noise cancellation level with a circular slider within the app.
The pairing display is very similar to the pop-up screen you get when pairing AirPods, or the Powerbeats Pro or Beats Solo Pro headphones to an iPhone. That's a tad shameless, but it's not a bad thing. Sadly, if you're pairing the FreeBuds 3 to an iPhone, there's no AI Life app, which means no tweaking the noise cancellation algorithm.
Equally sadly, even if you do, the results are wildly inconsistent and frankly a little annoying. The idea is that you turn the wheel on the app to select the level of noise cancellation appropriate to your current circumstances. The reality is that you either spend your entire listening time tweaking and re-tweaking, even when the noise signal is consistent, or you pick a level and hope for the best.
You can very much increase the level of cancellation with the AI Life app, but I had more than one instance where it cut out for a few seconds before coming back on board, which was both startling and irritating.
Audio quality is also only on the fair side. As an example, listening to Prince's Gold, I felt as though some of the underlying keyboards were a touch muffled.
I could rock out to Led Zeppelin's Stairway To Heaven, but switching even to the regular AirPods gave me a better appreciation of the instrument mix at the start and the heavier guitar work towards the end.
The darker guitar work on Metallica's Enter Sandman was fair, but it lacked the oomph and range you'd get out of better headphones.
Huawei also saves a few features of the FreeBuds 3 exclusively for its own EMUI 10 handsets. Here in Australia right now that means only the Huawei Mate 30 Pro for now.
If you're after headphones that pause when you take them out of your ears, you've got to pair them with an EMUI 10 phone. EMUI 10 phones can also take advantage of a dual channel connection with the FreeBuds 3, which means that distinct audio channels are sent to each ear, as distinct from bouncing from one bud to the other. This should give them better latency and battery life, but in a very limited test with the Mate 30 Pro, I can't say I picked a massive difference from that particular feature.Back to top
- Four hours battery life at maximum
- Battery case can take that to 20 hours
- Wired or wireless charging
The size of wireless headphones is always an anchor on how much overall battery performance you're going to get. If you want more battery life, you'll need to buy bigger headphones that can pack in more power.
Huawei rates the FreeBuds 3 as being capable of up to 4 hours of playback time, and that's a fair estimation of what you're likely to see. That's less than the 5 hours of advertised playback you'd get out of the regular AirPods, but it's well within expected range of headphones of this type. I certainly couldn't take them beyond 4 hours of battery life in listening tests.
The charging case can add another 16 hours of playback to the FreeBuds 3, so they're essentially capable of taking in most international flights without issue, although you would have to take pauses while the case powers up the FreeBuds 3 if you run them entirely flat.
One nice feature here where the FreeBuds 3 do outperform Apple's AirPods is the inclusion of wireless charging. You can more rapidly power up the case and FreeBuds 3 via USB C, but it's also easy to drop the entire case onto a Qi-compatible charger to add some juice.Back to top
Should you buy the Huawei FreeBuds 3 headphones?
- Not quite the AirPods killers Huawei makes them out to be
The FreeBuds 3 talk a big game, but they're ultimately not as well tuned or as comfortable as the Apple equivalent, even if they are marginally cheaper than the 2nd generation AirPods with the wireless case. Wireless charging is a nice inclusion, but the FreeBuds 3 themselves have lower battery life than a regular set of AirPods too.
Active noise cancelling should make the difference here, but the default setting is too weak, and the AI Life-led approach is far too hands-on to be really effective.
If you're an Android user who utterly hates the idea of giving Apple money, then these are a fair but not great alternative if you really want that "AirPods" look. If not, there are better alternatives out there beyond Apple.Back to top
Huawei FreeBuds 3: Pricing and availability
The FreeBuds 3 headphones sell in Australia for $299 outright.Buy now from Amazon
Huawei FreeBuds 3 Specifications
- Product name
- Huawei FreeBuds 3
- Earbud dimensions
- 41.5 x 20.4 x 17.8 mm
- Case dimensions
- 60.9 x 21.8 mm
- Earbud weight
- 4.5 g
- Charging time
- About one hour
- Listening time on a single charge
- 4 hours
- Total listening time with charging case
- Around 20 hours
- Black, white