Review: Huawei's FreeBuds 4 are light and trendy, but ultimately unimpressive

Wonderful design is let down by an all-important shortcoming.
Wonderful design is let down by an all-important shortcoming. Photo credit: Newshub

Huawei's FreeBuds 4 are launching in New Zealand next month as the latest addition to the crowded earbuds market in Aotearoa.

For what's become a must-have item for most people these days, these particular in-ear headphones are unquestionably stylish, lightweight and won't be overly expensive - I'm expecting somewhere around $220 based on overseas prices.

But can Huawei's latest earbuds offer premium performance for their price, or do you have to be willing to give up on functionality for the form?

I've been using the FreeBuds 4 for a few weeks now and here are my thoughts.

The good

On first unboxing the FreeBuds 4, I was immediately impressed by the size and shape of the charge case.

It's roughly the same thickness as my Apple AirPods Pro case, but slightly less wide. It's also rounder and lighter which means it's more comfortable in my hand and in my pocket.

And these buds are gorgeous! I've worn all kinds of different sizes, shapes and colours since I got my first Walkman in the mid-1980s and these might be the best looking yet.

The matte case doesn't do justice to the shiny Silver Frost wonders inside. I wouldn't say I'm a bling-y person, but putting these in feels like I'm telling people my ears demand to be looked at. They're practically jewellery.

But that style isn't worth anything if they're not fun to wear - and so the good news is the FreeBuds 4 are very comfortable, including over long periods of time.

It's really hard to get over just how light they are - at times it barely feels there's anything in my ears.

Huawei FreeBuds 4
Photo credit: Newshub

It ends up playing weird tricks on my brain: I'm impressed, but I'm also wondering if things so apparently unsubstantial can perform as well as heavier and bulkier options.

I was worried that lightness might give issues when pounding the streets or on a treadmill, but that proved unfounded. I was able to exercise with the earbuds in without them dislodging, something pricier and less balanced options aren't always able to do.

Further functionality of the FreeBuds can be unlocked by the installation of the Huawei AI Life app on your smartphone.

The app can be used to switch noise cancelling on and off, play sounds to find them if they're lost, update firmware and select EQ effects.

The most useful thing, however, might be the ability to set what happens when you double-tap the left and right buds. By default they're both set to play/pause what you're listening to, but you can set them independently to skip songs and wake your voice assistant too.

As things stand, you can't change what happens when you touch and hold the buds (it currently switches noise cancelling on or off) or when you swipe up and down the stem (the volume is increased or decreased), but presumably that could come later with firmware updates.

As for battery life? I had no issues at all. With active noise-cancellation (ANC) enabled, you'll get around 2.5 hours on a full charge and around four hours without.

In total, by using the case to recharge, you can get a maximum of 14 hours of total playback with ANC enabled, Huawei says.

I simply never needed to go this long without putting the earbuds in the holder or charging the case and so this fits well within my acceptable range for my lifestyle.

The bad

Unfortunately, for all of those good aspects, I was left decidedly unimpressed when it came to the most important functionality of earbuds - how good they sound.

Huawei claims the FreeBuds 4 use "adaptive ear-matching technology to detect your unique in-ear shape and how you wear the earbuds, then intelligently selects from a variety of noise cancellation modes to achieve optimal low-frequency sound reduction."

I mean it sounds impressive, right? I'm imagining some kind of 3D laser popping out to scan the inside of my ears to make sure the buds deliver perfection.

That's simply not the case.

Huawei FreeBuds 4
Photo credit: Newshub

One of the great joys I get from using ANC is stopping the constant background drone of the air conditioning at work.

While the FreeBuds 4 do reduce some of the environmental noise, when directly compared with others offering the same functionality, they clearly weren't as good.

And my disappointment only increased when it came to actually listening to music.

I was surprised at just how tinny and generally unimpressive things sounded, whether ANC was on or off. The music felt like something of an afterthought when I wanted it front and centre and powerful.

Ozzy Osbourne didn't sound so much like the Prince of Darkness with the FreeBuds 4, he transformed into a meaker Baron of Twilight instead.

Setting a bass boost via the EQ in the app did make it more listenable and brought some of those deep noises to the fore, but it's too little and still not deep enough to make it pleasurable.

The verdict

There's something so enjoyable about having a set of earbuds that look amazing, are comfortable to wear for long periods and comfortably fit into your pocket.

But if that comes at the expense of sounding great, then you really are left with a decision to make.

If you're someone who finds comfort more important than the fidelity of your music then the Huawei FreeBuds 4 are a relatively low-cost option that could suit.

But if you're looking to maximise sounds on the go then, I'm afraid, you're going to have to look at other options.

Those other buds might not look as good, or be as comfortable to wear - but some things just aren't worth compromising on.

If as much detail and attention had been put into the sound as the other aspects the FreeBuds 4 could be game-changers. As it is, they're just so-so.

Newshub was supplied a set of Huawei FreeBuds 4 for this review.