What’s the one thing the comfortable Apple AirPods don’t do well? Blocking out the noise around you. It’s not a deal-breaker, but Huawei’s engineers have overcome this with their own true wireless headphones. The result is the Freebuds 3, which unlike Apple’s new AirPods Pro maintain the open-air structure yet still add active noise cancellation.
The Freebuds 3 closely resemble the golf tee style made popular by the AirPods and don’t seal inside your ear, yet by using some clever technology, Huawei has integrated active noise cancellation. Don’t expect complete isolation from the world — the Freebuds 3 will provide a 15-decibel reduction in ambient noise, which Huawei said is all that’s needed in most everyday environments.
The result is that the Freebuds 3 often provide an uncanny level of noise reduction for a pair of headphones you barely know you’re wearing.
Does noise cancellation really work when headphones are not sealed inside your ear? The answer, rather surprisingly, is yes, provided you don’t expect the world to be entirely drowned out. A lot of the effectiveness is down to Huawei’s clever app, which lets you adjust the noise cancellation in an unusual way. The Freebuds 3 design may be one-size-fits-all, but the noise cancellation is considerably more customizable.
Sitting in a cafe wearing the Freebuds 3, right next to a very loud man on his phone, and “untuned,” the Freebuds 3 did not remove his voice or the ambient bustle of the cafe itself to the extent where they weren’t distracting. Open the Huawei AI Life app on my phone — the Huawei P30 Pro, in this case — go to the Noise Cancellation option, and there is a spin wheel which lets you tune out the sound around you.
It takes a lightness of touch to get this right. Spinning the wheel icon round frantically won’t do anything, but by slowly making minute adjustments you can make surprising improvements. With a couple of seconds of careful tweaking, I could remove enough of the background noise to allow me to concentrate on the music. Remember, these are open-air earbuds, just like the Apple Airpods, and to get any noise cancellation at all is impressive.
When I swapped to spoken word, a further tiny adjustment in the app ensured the outside world is suitably removed. When you move to a different location, you need to revisit the app and further tweak the noise-cancellation setting. Later, traveling on the train, the Freebuds isolated me enough that I couldn’t hear passengers around me, but I could still hear the announcements.
The noise cancellation is not as pronounced as sealed headphones, and the astonishing Sony WF-1000XM3 are far more effective, for example, along with many others. However, the Freebuds 3 are remarkably good at distancing the wearer from outside distraction, and all without being uncomfortable or heavy.
Sound and comfort
The Huawei Freebuds 3 are highly wearable and very comfortable because they don’t seal inside your ears. This ultra-comfort is what makes me love the Airpods, and it’s great to have something similar with the added benefit of noise cancelation. There’s no fatigue, which is a big deal. It’s better for your ear health too, when headphones aren’t stuffed inside your ears holding the air out and everything else inside.
The Freebuds 3, like the Apple Airpods, are entirely forgettable once inside your ears. They were not always incredibly secure for me though, and one fell out at the gym, and when I was bending down to change shoes too. All ears are different, so this may not be the same for everyone. My Airpods have never fallen out.
How about the sound? Huawei has fitted a 14mm driver with a bass tube to each Freebud, returning a surprisingly bright sound, which lacks a satisfying bass thump despite the on-paper impressive speaker specs. You have to make an effort to catch the bass, just as you’d expect from open air headphones. Therefore, the Freebuds 3 have a vocal and mid-forward sound, with a central soundstage that focuses your attention, rather than immersing you in the music. The result is a casual, pleasant listen that doesn’t reveal unheard detail, or provide a highly emotional sound; but it’s great for those times when none of that matters — like the gym, your commute, or walking around the city.
The earbuds are designed to make great voice calls too. A bone sensor in the main cavity and a specially-adapted microphone in the stalk work together to reduce wind noise for clearer chats to the point where Huawei said you can still hold a conversation while wearing the Freebuds 3 while cycling at around 12 miles per hour. A low latency time of 190ms makes it good for gaming, which to put into context, beats the AirPods 2’s latency time of 220ms, and the Samsung Galaxy Buds latency time of 564ms.
App, chip, and battery
Interested? Good, but let’s talk about the AI Life app. It’s essential to the Huawei Freebuds 3 experience, as the noise cancellation tuning is found inside. It is downloadable from the Huawei AppGallery on Huawei phones, but not Google Play at all. You also need a Huawei phone with EMUI 10 onboard if you want the low latency features and the super-fast pairing. If you have a Samsung phone, or another Android phone, you have to scan a QR code on the Freebuds 3 box to get AI Life. If you own an iPhone, you can’t get the app and the noise cancellation effect is fixed.
The battery inside will last for four hours before needing a recharge, and an additional 20 hours comes from the case itself. The Freebuds 3 supports wireless charging, and will take power from the P30 Pro’s reverse charging feature, too.
Making all this possible is a brand new wearable chip from Huawei, called the Kirin A1. It’s the first to use both Bluetooth 5.1 and Bluetooth Low Energy 5.1 protocols for solid connections and greater range. The small chip is designed not just for audio products, but also for smart speakers and wearables, which could include a future Huawei Watch GT smartwatch. Interestingly, the power consumption of the Kirin A1 is 50% lower than previous similar chips.
Price and availability
The Freebuds 3 aren’t for sale in the U.S., but can be purchased in the U.K. for 170 British pounds, or about $220. They will be available starting November 14 from Amazon, Carphone Warehouse, and also selected network partners. Apple’s new AirPods Pro are $250 or 250 British pounds, so in the U.K. at least the Freebuds 3 are substantially cheaper. The Sony WF-1000XM3 are $230/220 pounds and are worth the extra due to the excellent active noise cancellation, and superior sound quality. If you want sound quality, the Cambridge Audio Melomania cost just $130/130 pounds, and are fantastic.
The Freebuds 3 are the first in what we expect to be a long line of smart wearables from Huawei and provide high levels of comfort, some very clever noise cancellation technology, and great battery life; but the sound quality isn’t as good as some of its competitors.