The wireless earbud market has a number of entrants, but consistently in the conversation are Huawei and their FreeBuds range. The Huawei FreeBuds offer options in both the budget and high-end markets with the latest to arrive – the FreeBuds 5i – aimed at the budget market, however the bargain $159 price tag belies just how many features are packed into these buds.
Starting with Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), the FreeBuds 5i also pack in features like Dual Device connectivity to connect to two devices at once, lower latency connectivity for gaming, as well as up to 28 hours of life when using the charge case.
The FreeBuds 5i come in three delightful colour options: ‘Isle Blue’, ‘Nebula Black which both have a ‘frosted, pebble-like texture’, and ‘Ceramic White’ which has ‘the look and feel of cool jade’. Huawei have sent the Isle Blue over for review – and I’m loving this colour.
I’ve been using the FreeBuds 5i for two weeks and here’s how it went.
Hardware and Design
The Huawei FreeBuds 5i are a stalk type TWS bud design, though the stalk is shorter than the 4i model that came out in 2021. The buds are now more similar in size and share the squarer stalk of the FreeBuds Pro from last year.
The whole design is lightweight, from the buds themselves at just 4.9g to the battery case. The battery case in the Isle Blue colour has a lovely soft texture over it which is easy to grip, and it fits nicely into the coin pocket on your jeans.
Fit is everything with earbuds and in the box you’ll get Large and Small silicone ear tips, with the medium size fitted as standard. Make sure you play with the sizing – and use the fit tip test in the AI life app to make sure it’s the best for you.They stick in my ears fairly well, but there were a few instances while sweating during a workout where the glossy buds felt a little insecure and once the bud just fell out, but they should fit most ears quite well.
There’s not a lot else in the box except for a warranty card, quick start guide and a USB-A-to-USB-C cable, which is pretty short, but works well connecting to your PC for charging the case.
The earbuds themselves – labelled with (L)eft and (R)ight – are touch sensitive with support for swipe and tap functions you can configure in the AI Life app.
The touch controls are fairly intuitive by default offering tap to play/pause and swipe up/down to control volume and long press to activate Awareness Mode or ANC, or you can change all these in the AI Life app. The controls are intuitive and excellent with no missed taps or swipes in my testing.
The buds are comfortable in the ear with a smooth gloss texture, which feels nice, but can make them difficult to grip and remove from the charging case. They don’t fall out though, I went for a run and had no issues with them slipping, or with needing to reposition regularly and they’re IP54 rated, so no need to worry about raising a sweat while wearing them.
The quality of sound for the Freebuds 5i is good. The 10mm dynamic drivers with an enhanced polymer composite diaphragm deliver an excellent quality sound, with a full range of sound and the bonus that the bass has improved over the last generation Freebuds 4i.
The hybrid Noise Cancellation is good, offering a decent experience across the three levels on offer – Cozy, General or Ultra. While in theory you can go down to Cozy for a limited ANC, I just left it on Ultra which worked really well, even while on a flight – though you can still hear engine noise, it’s very much dulled down to a bearable state.
The Awareness mode is good, though not quite up to the level of the NuraTrue Pro or Pixel Buds Pro, but in this price range, it works well enough for leaving the buds in while talking to people in a store.
Battery and Charging
The Charging Case will automatically go into pairing mode when you flick it open for the first time – but if it doesn’t, hold the pairing button on the side of the case for a few seconds and wait for the LED light on the front of the case to blink white. The LED light will light up when you open it, giving you an idea of how much charge you have
The FreeBuds 5i have a 28-hour battery life when you factor in the charging case. On their own, the buds last around 6 hours when just playing music with the ANC active, but you get a couple of hours longer if you don’t use ANC.
Charging the case takes around two hours to charge with the buds in using the USB-C cable – or you can charge just the case itself in around an hour. You can also get up to four hours of use of the buds from just a 15-minute quick charge which is brilliant.
I found the battery life to be excellent, I used the buds for the full six hours to test comfort and they were super comfortable to boot.
Setup and Software
To set up the Huawei FreeBuds 5i you can simply connect them as Bluetooth, but to use or configure most features you’ll need to download the AI Life app. You’ll find a link to the app by using the QR Code on the rear of the box. The link will take you to the Huawei App Gallery on Android, or to the App store on iOS.
You’ll need a Huawei ID to use the app, login and you’ll then be prompted to add the FreeBuds to your app. Once found and paired you can access all the features, including setting your preferences for swipe gestures, enable the EQ and do the Tip Fit test.
When setting up the Huawei FreeBuds 5i you SHOULD do the tip fit test, so you can find your perfect comfort level. It only takes a minute, but it’s definitely worth it – and try mixing and matching different sizes on each bud as I found a small in one ear and medium in the other was my perfect match.
The app itself hasn’t changed since I last reviewed Huawei Earbuds, though with some less features on this more budget friendly model. Even if you haven’t used the AI Life app previously it’s ridiculously easy to navigate with all the functions easily accessible from the main screen. If you need to configure something, find it and tap the tile and you’re taken to the config.
The app will let you manage your multi-point connections and while you can reconfigure the touch controls in here, I found the default setup intuitive but you can. You can also change the sound profile between Noise Cancelling or Awareness if you don’t want to use the on-device touch controls, or change sound quality with the option to prioritise Bass or Treble boost – or leave it default.
I did actually make use of the ‘Find Earphones’ option in the app. It’s loud enough to find when you accidentally drop one under the car or down the back of the lounge, but very much limited by being an earphone speaker.
There is a small ‘Settings’ section for Smart Wear Detection and Low audio latency modes in here and a link to a help section which brings up an FAQ.
Should you buy them?
The Huawei FreeBuds 5i are excellent quality earbuds which are jam packed full of features but without the high price tag we’ve come to expect.
There’s obviously some features which can be refined, or improved such as the quality of audio, noise cancelling which are fine for the price but miss the mark when compared to higher end models. That said, not everyone wants or needs that level, and these satisfy most of what people are looking for in a pair of TWS buds.
If you’re looking for a good quality earbud under $200 with ANC and great battery life, these should definitely be on your radar to check out.
If you want to check them out you can find them online through Huawei or Amazon and in person through Huawei Authorised Experience Stores in Sydney and Melbourne.