I have often criticised Huawei in the past for building a business model of doing stuff that other premium brands do but for a little cheaper. Huawei's products often look and feel like the ones sold by their big-ticket rivals, but the company throws in some extra features, improved specs, or something along the line. Hence, getting excited about new Huawei launches is not always easy.
I'm fairly certain Huawei's top brass don't make decisions based on my reviews, but it's safe to say that the new Huawei FreeBuds 5 is a complete departure from that approach. While the Huawei FreeBuds 4 look somewhat similar to Apple's AirPods Pro, the latest FreeBuds iteration has nothing to do with the Apple AirPods Pro 2. No, the new flagship Huawei FreeBuds 5 open-fit earbuds feature a brand-speaking new seamless curve design, an open-ear sound profile and more.
Is it time for everyone to get excited over Huawei's headphones? Is it worth getting the FreeBuds 5 if you already have the FreeBuds 4? How does the FreeBuds 5 compare to Apple's top dog earbuds? Let's find out!
[First reviewed Aug 2023]
Huawei FreeBuds 5 review: price and availability
Huawei announced the FreeBuds 5 in April 2023, and the headphones are available to buy in the UK and Europe via Huawei and third-party retailers such as Amazon for a recommended retail price of £140/ €159 (approx. $178/ AU$ 273). US and AU price and availability TBC. The buds are available in three colourways, Silver, Ceramic White and Coral Orange. I tested the Silver variety.
Huawei FreeBuds 5 review: specification
- Type: open-ear true wireless earbuds
- Battery life: 5 hours plus another 25 hours in the charging case (ANC off); 3.5 hours plus another 16.5 hours in the charging case (ANC on)
- Charging: 20 mins using the charging case
- Speaker: 11 mm dual-magnetic dynamic driver unit with a frequency response range of 16 Hz to 40 kHz
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.2
- Water rating: IP54 dust- and splash-resistance
Huawei FreeBuds 5 review: design and build quality
The Huawei FreeBuds 5 have a futuristic droplet-shaped design, which is said to be the result of 'tens of thousands' of ergonomic simulations and hundreds of optimisations. The company claims that the droplet-shaped design provides a larger contact area between the earbuds and the ears, reducing strain. Furthermore, the arc-shaped stem was designed to distribute the pressure evenly when tapping an earbud.
This all sounds dandy if you ask me. Indeed, the Huawei FreeBuds 5 are some of the most comfortable headphones I tested, thanks to the fact that you don't have to jam them in your ears, which is usually the case with ANC buds to ensure a decent level of passive noise cancellation. Touch interactions work pretty well, too, although they are somewhat limited to three (start/stop, volume up/down and toggling ANC).
I found the FreeBuds 5 comfortable to wear when working on the computer, but as soon as I started moving around, the buds began to move around in my ears a bit too much for my liking. They have no ear or wing tips, so you very much rely on the buds sitting perfectly in your ears, which is most likely the case with some people, but not with me.
I appreciate every ear is different, but I did feel that the shape of the Huawei FreeBuds 5 is more of an aesthetic choice than an ergonomic one. The thin silicone cover that can be wrapped around the buds didn't make an awful lot of difference, either. I feel the headphones would sit better in the ears if the stem were slimmer, even if the lower end of the buds stayed bulbous. Which, again, feels unnecessary, but I could live with that.
Another grief of mine is the shiny surface of the Huawei FreeBuds 5. It's a grease magnet, making the buds look less pristine after just one use. Ears aren't pretty places to store things in, and the silver FreeBuds 5 didn't help hide the sad truth that neither our ears nor hands are clean as a whistle, if you know what I mean. A matte colour or a less shiny finish would do a better job.
Huawei FreeBuds 5 review: audio performance
As you may know, headphones are just tiny speakers strapped to your head, so it doesn't matter how comfortable any earbuds are unless they sound good. The Huawei FreeBuds 5 offer decent specs in this department, with bass turbo technology which produces bass tones that drop as low as 16 Hz.
Most importantly, FreeBuds 5 headphones support the L2HC and LDAC codecs and are certified by HWA and Hi-Res Audio Wireless. The audio transmission rate on the earbuds is up to 990 kbps, and 96 kHz/24-bit HD audio is supported, which isn't too shabby for such compact headphones.
The buds do offer active noise cancellation (ANC), which I would call active noise reduction as opposed to complete cancellation. ANC can only be achieved if there is a high level of passive noise cancellation, which is impossible with open-ear headphones as they let in some ambient sound. In essence, you can detect a reduction in external noise levels when you activate ANC on the FreeBuds 5, but it doesn't completely block the sound.
The call quality is very decent. There is no apparent 'Zoom Effect' – when the sound pickup of the microphone is delayed, causing everyone to stop for a moment to work out who's talking – thanks to the tri-mic hybrid noise cancellation. The three-mic array is said to work in tandem with a deep neural network (DNN) algorithm to cancel out noise during calls. I only tried the FreeBuds 5 for calls in comparatively quiet environments, but they performed really well there.
You can customise the sound profile of the Huawei FreeBuds 5 via the Huawei AI Life app. This is also where the software updates happen, so it's worth hooking up the buds with the app and checking in occasionally. I had some trouble logging in on my iPhone, and once I did, it couldn't pair the FreeBuds 5 with the app. After closing and opening the app again, the situation was sorted, though.
Connectivity is good, although the Huawei Freebuds 5 only have Bluetooth 5.2 enabled, not Bluetooth 5.3. From an everyday user experience point of view, there is little difference between the two, but Bluetooth 5.3 devices are said to be more energy efficient and enjoy a boosted signal quality.
Speaking of energy efficiency: the battery life on the Huawei FreeBuds 5 isn't great, only 3.5 hours with ANC on and 5 hours with ANC off, which is way shorter than the market average (around 7-8 hours with ANC off). However, the buds charge super quickly using the charging case, in only 20 minutes from 0 to 100 per cent.
This is very much like how Apple treats their wearables – they have a short battery life but charge quickly. As long as you keep the FreeBuds 5 in their case when they aren't in use, it's unlikely you'll run out of juice at any point. And even if you do, you only have to exist without audio entertainment for around 20 minutes.
Huawei FreeBuds 5 review: verdict
The Huawei FreeBuds 5 open-ear headphones are a unique proposition. They dare to be different, which is important for both Huawei and the broader headphone market. If all companies churned out samey-samey products, taking design cues from each other, we would have to choose from products that look and feel very similar. What's the point, then?
Although they are far from perfect, and I doubt I'll be using them loads, I would lie if I said I don't appreciate the Huawei FreeBuds 5 for at least trying. I like when brands have a consistent output and get to where they are through small iterations, refinements and analysing user feedback. However, occasionally, we need watershed products like the Huawei FreeBuds 5 to help reset our audio palates, so to speak.
Should you buy the Huawei FreeBuds 5? There are plenty of decent in-ear headphones on the market for a similar price, so it's not easy to say yes definitively. If you feel strongly about the brand and prefer the open-ear design, sure, give them a try. I would advise trying them before you buy if you can to avoid disappointment.
Huawei FreeBuds 5 review: also consider
If you're looking for open-ear workout headphones, Cleer Audio's ARC II sport is your best bet. They produce a good enough sound to please audiophiles and are resilient enough for workouts, so if these are your priorities, they're worth considering. They. have Bluetooth 5.3 connectivity and support lossless audio with aptX Lossless technology, Snapdragon Sound certification and LE Audio compatibility. Read my full Cleer ARC II Sport review.
Other smaller noise cancelling options include yesteryear's Sony WF-1000XM4. Noise cancellation is okay, but the sound quality is out of this world. They aren't open-ear, though. Read Simon's excellent Sony WF-1000XM4 review.