It has been a while, but the Apple AirPods do not have a definite rival. We still do not know who the elusive main contender is in the Apple AirPods Vs. XXX battle. It is not to say there aren’t contenders. There are many phone makers and the audio brands who make wireless earbuds. Across price points. It is just that one has really stepped up to become the torchbearer for the Apple AirPods rivals. That is why there are genuine hopes from the Huawei FreeBuds 3, the latest earbuds from the smartphone maker. Its party piece—brilliant noise cancellation.
The Huawei FreeBuds 3 are priced at Rs 12,990. This means they go straight into battle with the Samsung Galaxy Buds+ that are priced at Rs 11,990—these don’t have ANC, but a snug fit and very good battery life as well. It also has a price advantage over the brilliant Jabra Elite 75t (these cost around Rs 14,999), and the Bose SoundSport Free Wireless (these set you back by Rs 18,990).
We get the design inspiration, and totally understand
But are these the AirPods of the Android world? By the looks of it, the design surely seems inspired by something we’ve seen before. What is it—we are just not able to put our finger on it! Anyway, Huawei says they are inspired by nature. Sure. There is absolutely no doubt that these earbuds are light, easy to wear and indeed wearable for hours on end without any sort of discomfort. Each bud weighs about 4.5 grams, which is featherlight in the larger scheme of things. The Dolphin Bionic Design follows the simplest of earbuds design principles—a stem that sticks out of the ear, touch controls and the open-fit design that sits inside the ear. There is no excess fat, there is no bulk and there are no unnecessary curves that may make the buds look bulkier than they actually are. You can get this in black and white colours—our review device is the black one, which has a glossy finish on the case and the earbuds. Looks good, though can catch smudges easily. I couldn't shrug off this feeling that Huawei could have done the branding a bit better on the case. Right now, it gets hidden on a metal plate that also catches fingerprints and smudges. That shiny insert does look a bit out of place on an otherwise pure black case.
Different strokes for different folks
Pairing is quite simple, be it an Android phone or an iPhone. In case it doesn’t get detected automatically, leave the buds in the case, open the lid and press the physical button on the curved spine of the case for two seconds to put this in the pairing mode. You must download the Huawei AI Life app (free on Android) to get detailed functionality of the FreeBuds 3. And that includes noise cancellation.
Therein lies the big difference between Apple AirPods and Huawei FreeBuds 3. While the AirPods work rather well with Android devices as well, the FreeBuds 3 experience is still limited on iOS devices. For instance, I couldn’t find the Huawei AI Life app for the iPhone or iPad. So, how do you work the noise cancellation now? Tap near the top of the left earbud stick to enable or disable noise cancellation. It is very much possible to use these earbuds without the app, but it may be a deal-breaker for some.
If you have a Huawei smartphone, you get a couple of extra goodies as part of the experience. You get a pop-up window on your phone the moment the FreeBuds 3 are nearby, asking you to pair. The wearing detection feature also adapts better to EMUI. But even if you haven’t, it’s still a pleasant enough experience anyway.
For me, Huawei FreeBuds 3 paired effortlessly with the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra and also the Apple iPad. Whichever device is nearby and was last connected, gets the privilege of automatic connection every time you open the lid of the FreeBuds 3 case.
Sound is all about subtlety
In each earbud is a 14mm dynamic driver and bass tube, a voice and a bone-conducting microphone, and Huawei’s Kirin A1 chip that drives a lot of things. This is one of the larger audio drivers in the wireless earbuds’ ecosystem, which is a great foundation to build on for good sound. And that is exactly what you get—rich, loud and vibrant sound. For open-ear buds, the clarity and detailing for mid and higher frequencies is very good. The soundstage is wide enough and at no point do you feel hemmed in by perceived limitations of physics. Having said that, these don’t have any ear-tip add-ons, which means you do lose out something to the ambience. But that is before you activate the active noise cancellation (ANC) mode. The Huawei AI Life app lets you control exactly how much ANC you want, depending on your surroundings, with a rather cool dial-style control.
I have experienced noise cancellation on the Apple AirPods Pro, and the Huawei FreeBuds 3 do come close—though Apple’s implementation of ANC offers smoother transitions and a little less pressure build-up inside the ear, in the same environments. But that observation is also subjective. That being said, the FreeBuds 3 do a good job of blocking out the ambient sounds so you can feel immersed in whatever it is you are listening to.
Often, earbuds tend to struggle when it comes to reproducing the lower frequencies, that is bass. Either they sound woefully short or they overcompensate with audio tweaks that make the overall signature something of a muddle. Not so with the Huawei FreeBuds 3. The bass tube that sits just before the audio driver ensures you get a generous amount of bass to go with the music. It is just about right, never sounds boom(y) or artificially enhanced, and never tramples over the other frequencies. I do have a feeling that some will find this underwhelming still, but it works for my fairly conservative playlists.
The Ear/Wearing Detection, that allows playback of music or movies when you take off the buds, didn’t work for me on the Galaxy S20 Ultra or the iPad.
The power game…
Battery life is also quite good for the FreeBuds 3 to become a companion for your travels. You get around 4 hours of playback on a single charge, though you can eke out more if the ANC is turned off and the music playback volume is low. Top it up with the charging case, and that means a bit more than 20 hours of playback in total. That is matching Huawei's estimates. The charging case has a USB-C port, which is right up there with the times. But the Samsung Galaxy Buds+ do a lot more, buds and case individually as well as combined, something that regular travelers might find more appealing.
The Last Word: This makes a stand in the midst of tough competition
The Huawei FreeBuds 3 gets you a design that is very similar to the Apple AirPods, which is a good thing because this design just works. Building on that, you get good sound, a stable connection, very good ANC and robust battery life. Android users may have found a slick wireless earbuds option for their phones. That being said, it is hard to ignore the brilliance of the competition. This is a tough battle to be in. The Samsung Galaxy Buds+, if you don’t specifically want the ANC feature, are very attractive because of the great battery life and very fine build. And if budget is no bar, then the Jabra Elite 75t just impresses straight off with the attention to detail and great sound, solid battery life and a very slick companion app. Really, it will be tough to choose one.