The latest advanced TWS earphones from Huawei are FreeBuds 4, and they bring an iterative upgrade over 2019’s FreeBuds 3. Not to be confused with the newly launched FreeBuds 4I, FreeBuds 4 has an open ear design with active noise reduction, which claims to filter up to 25 dB ambient noise. You also get the latest Bluetooth 5.2 connection and longer battery life in a slightly more compact form factor compared to last year’s model.
I got the chance to test the new FreeBuds 4 for a long time by using them as my only earphone for work, travel, gym and everything in between. Let’s see if FreeBuds 4 really is a tangible upgrade over their predecessors. More importantly, can you really get reliable ANC from open fit earphones?
Design and build quality
FreeBuds 4 brings an open fit with long stems that are immediately reminiscent of Apple’s regular AirPods, and with the visual resemblance between the earphones are certainly present. The charging case is slightly smaller and weighs less than the one on FreeBuds 3, which should make them easier to fit in trouser pockets and bags. It still looks like you’re carrying a set of dental floss around, and I personally prefer the square look of the AirPods.
The moment I put FreeBuds 4 in my ears, I noticed that they would not really be put and tend to loosen over time to the point where I felt like they were going to slip out and fall. Other people who tried them reported that they fit nicely with their sound receptors, so the problem was apparently on my side.
Despite the poor fit, I still enjoyed the light and unobtrusive form factor, which contributed to several hours of listening sessions without ear fatigue or soreness.
The charging case has had a stronger build this time compared to FreeBuds 3 and definitely feels more premium. The opening mechanism is rock solid and brings a satisfactory snap when closed. The top lid can now support the weight of the whole case without closing tightly, which is a clear sign of the improved construction. The earplugs themselves are well put together and survived the occasional fall from almost 2 meters on the ground without scratches or scuffs.
Huawei is selling two versions of FreeBuds 4 for that matter – a wired charging version used for this review and a wireless charging model that has yet to be made available. The contents of the box include the knobs in their charging case, a USB-C cable for charging and some manuals. The knobs are IPX4 classified for water and dust resistance.
As soon as you put the earphones in your ear, you will get an accompanying sound telling you that they are connected. You can use one of them separately, which is cool if you want to share your music with a friend. Removing one of the knobs instantly stops all media, including videos on smartphones, tablets and laptops.
The pairing process is the same as most other TWS earphones – you open the case and hold down the pairing button for a few seconds and then select FreeBuds 4 in the Bluetooth menu. Pairing with Huawei devices is instantaneous as soon as you press the top cover. You also get a sleek animation of the buds to tell you that they are connected.
You can pair two devices at the same time (for example, your phone and laptop), and the earphones are smart enough to know which device you are using at the exact time and can switch back and forth between them. This feature also worked flawlessly on non-Huawei devices, which is a welcome addition if you are not fully invested in Huawei’s ecosystem.
Huawei’s AI Life app is your one-stop-shop for managing all the features of FreeBuds 4. Even if you’ve using a non-Huawei phone, it’s best to sideload the app from the Huawei’s AppGallery Store, as the Google Play version did not support FreeBuds 4 for some reason. After installation, you get battery status for both left and right earbuds as well as their bag, a connection center for all your paired devices and plenty of motion control shortcuts.
Huawei AI Life app controls
The touch-sensitive stems on FreeBuds 4 are definitely a strong point and worked exceptionally well in my test paired with Huawei devices and smartphones, tablets and laptops from other brands. There is a double push and a long push movement on each knob as well as a vertical stroke to adjust the volume. You can map the actions with double and long press, while swipes are rightly reserved for volume adjustment.
The Find My Earphones feature is pretty self explanatory. The knobs can play a really loud sound to help you locate them if they have been misplaced.
A great new addition to FreeBuds 4 is the Open-fit Active Noise Cancellation 2.0 system. It brings automatic noise reduction adjustments based on the ambient environment with dual microphone hybrid noise reduction system instead of the single microphone system on FreeBuds 3.
On paper, this means better ambient sound recording and again improved noise reduction, but in reality I could not see the difference compared to the older model. FreeBuds 4 can also detect your ear canal shape and then apply the best matching noise reduction mode.
This is where we need to mention that ANC quality depends on the seal created by the earphones in your ear canal. So smaller ears will obviously be better placed here. Compared to in-ear earphones with ANC, FreeBuds 4 performed while isolating noise from outside in my personal experience. People with smaller ear cavities could see different results, so if you have the chance, test the fit before going out and buying these.
Huawei also exclaims microphones with higher sensitivity that can record sounds with up to 48 KHz sampling frequency, giving a clear voice recording even in noisier environments. You can find more details in the sound quality section below. There is also a low latency mode with 90 ms delay on HarmonyOS 2 phones (which we could not test yet) and 150 ms on EMUI devices, which is definitely a welcome addition for gamers.
FreeBuds 4 has 14.3 mm dynamic coil drivers. During my test period, I listened to various music genres along with the occasional podcast, YouTube video, and a few basketball games. The headphones delivered sharp, clear and rich sound in all use cases without pronounced bass. They are not the highest pair of TWS knobs around, but still offer a balanced sound profile, which is a noticeable step over more affordable options we have tested in the past year.
While the sound quality is above average for TWS earbuds, noise reduction is not that impressive. You certainly feel less out of touch with ANC-enabled, but it’s nowhere near the level of other premium in-ear knobs like the AirPods Pro or Sony’s WF-1000XM4. In my test, I found FreeBuds 4 to block subtle noise from outside like a keyboard stroke or the hissing sound from the water dispenser in the office.
Outdoors or in the gym, FreeBuds 4 could not impress with their noise suppression, but it has to do with the poor fit of my ears. This again makes it complicated to recommend them over an earplug in the ear with the right silicone tips that can create a better seal in your ear canal.
Voice recording from the built-in microphones was decent, but recordings came out muted. I did not see any major difference with Huawei’s 48Khz recording speed enabled, and I still find Apple’s AirPods as the golden standard for true voice recording. During phone calls, people on the other hand reported that I was receiving a loud and clear reception. Huawei placed the microphones with a windproof channel that does an impressive job in windy environments.
Huawei claims 2.5 hours of battery life with ANC enabled and up to 4 hours when turned off. The charging case extends these numbers to 14 hours or 22 hours, respectively. A fast 15 minute fast charge gives you up to 2.5 hours of music playback.
In my test, I found these numbers to be correct. FreeBuds 4 manages to hold me for two full days of work and gym sessions before the low battery indicator came on. I usually listened to music at 60-80% volume. A full charge from 0 to 100% took about 30 minutes, which is quite impressive.
Huawei’s FreeBuds 4 presents a viable option for those looking for a pair of premium open-fit earphones that offer impressive sound and do not need great ANC. The upgrades over FreeBuds 3 are iterative and felt most in multipoint pairing, revised gesture navigation and improved microphone system.
At € 150 / £ 130 for the wired charging model and € 170 / £ 150 for the wireless charging version when it launches in July, Huawei’s FreeBuds 4 offers a bargain considering the more affordable FreeBuds 4i goes for € 100 / £ 80 , while last year’s excellent FreeBuds Pro is down to € 140 / £ 130.
It is the in-ear fit that determines which model you choose, and if you are the type who prefers the open-ear models, FreeBuds 4 is for you, but do not expect the same level of noise reduction as the other two models. Battery life is decent, but not class-leading.
There’s a lot to like here in terms of audio output and added functionality with flawlessly performed multi-point pairing and gesture control, but it’s hard to recommend FreeBuds 4 because of their questionable fit. If you can snap these at a sales event that Huawei usually brings the line and your ear canals can hold them in without any hassle, then FreeBuds 4 is a worthy consideration in the rare breed of open-ear TWS earphones.