Huawei FreeBuds 3 Review: A Solid AirPod Alternative

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A recent report from IDC looked at the surge in sales for the wearables market of 94.6 percent, with “hearables” (as the research firm terms them) leading the charge. In particular it pointed to wireless earphones as the key element for the improved uptake and highlighted the Apple AirPods for praise.

Don’t believe the report, head to your local co-working space, or anywhere a bunch of people may be gathered, and chances are you’ll see more wireless than wired earphones being used. The trend makes sense, especially as many smartphone makers are choosing to ditch the 3.5mm headphone jack for an option that works sans strings.

While the AirPods are the go-to option in the market, despite being heavily criticised when they were first released, there are also a few alternatives for those out there who do not have an iOS device.

One such option is the new Huawei FreeBuds 3 wireless earphones, which recently became available to purchase in South Africa.

So how do the FreeBuds 3 stack up against the competition? We recently took the earphones for a spin to find out.

Do I know you from somewhere?

Okay so let’s address the elephant in the room. The FreeBuds 3 look a lot like the Apple AirPods. So much so that people in the office mistook them for AirPods despite the Huawei box sitting on our desk.

The all-white design doesn’t help to stop the comparisons either, not to mention sporting a very similar form factor. This wouldn’t be the first time that Huawei has emulated a device that Apple makes, with some of the early P series smartphones also looking quite familiar to iPhone users, although the Chinese firm would never say so.

Regardless the FreeBuds 3 look quite close in design to the AirPods no matter what kind of mental gymnastics you try to persuade yourself otherwise.

Comparing the two the FreeBuds are larger, with a longer overall form factor.

While some may call them the poor man’s AirPods, we think the design is neither here nor there. After all imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that.

It’s what’s inside that counts

The external aesthetics do not concern us greatly here, especially when the FreeBuds 3 will be in-ear most of the time and out of view. Instead it is what’s happening internal that is of greater interest, and where the hearables begin to make a name for themselves.

One of the key elements that Huawei has added for this iteration of FreeBuds is active noise cancelling delivered via a new Open Fit design, which the Chinese company boasts as a world first too.

So how does the active noise cancelling perform? Pretty damned well while we were using it.

It blocked quite a bit of noise in the office during our testing, with the loud air conditioner, typing on our keyboard and other more innocuous sounds filtering nicely to the background. You can still hear if someone calls out your name though, which is a requirements unless you plan to be a complete social shut in.

Operating via the Huawei AI Life app (required for set up and pairing), the noise cancelling portion features a virtual dial to adjust the quality of noise cancelling, but this feature did not perform as expected. Luckily this did not adversely effect the listening experience.

The same AI Life app also gives you an indication of the battery life for each ear piece, as well as battery case that holds it. As such you’re given a constant idea of how much listening time is left before a visit to a plug point or the charging case is need, but more on the latter a little later.

As for the sound, the FreeBuds 3 manages to do a good job of handling a variety of genres with ease, keeping things particular crisp throughout. Our personal favourite for testing audio quality, Kanye West’s On Sight, sounded great on the FreeBuds, coping well with the synth sounds and heavy distortion throughout the track.

The same goes for phone calls, which too sounded clear. As such you won’t have to worry about removing the Buds in order to take calls.

If there is one mark against the FreeBuds 3 it’s the comfort, which took a slight hit after a couple of hours of wear. This as the hard plastic ear piece is quite unforgiving, which is great in terms of durability, but also means it can become uncomfortable to wear for longer periods. This could also be a simple case of different ear shapes not necessarily suiting the FreeBuds, but is something to consider if these are going to be your everyday carry.

The extras on offer

So let’s talk about some of the other elements involved with the FreeBuds 3. The longer portion of the ear pieces facilitate touch and can be used to do a handful of operations. Sadly these are a little limited, not in terms of options, but rather gestures.

Here you can only double-tap the left or right ear piece, with each taking care of a specific operation, such as toggling active noise cancelling on and off, or skipping tracks. As such you can ever only perform two tasks with the FreeBuds 3 touch interface, which feels like Huawei may have missed the opportunity to make its wireless earphones more user-friendly than others out there.

Now for the battery case which houses a 410mAh battery. This aspect of the FreeBuds 3 is crucial if you plan to extend the four hours of battery life that buds alone can muster. With said battery case fully charged, you can get up to 20 hours of battery life from the FreeBuds 3. This takes care of a full day’s use or long haul overseas flight.

Final verdict

At R2 999 the FreeBuds 3 are not cheap, but the wireless earphones are jam-packed with technology and have enough features to ensure you’ll use them in a variety of scenarios. Among the myriad wireless earphones coming out to offer an alternative to the Apple AirPods, the FreeBuds 3 are offering the best overall package right now.

Yes, you could opt for something less expensive, sportier or AirPod-looking, but none of them are as good an all-round performer as the FreeBuds 3.


Robin-Leigh Chetty

Robin-Leigh Chetty

When he's not reviewing the latest smartphones, Robin-Leigh is writing about everything tech-related from IoT and smart cities, to 5G and cloud computing. He's also a keen photographer and dabbles in console games.