The Huawei FreeBuds 4 can be presented either as the “non-earphone” counterparts of the FreeBuds 4i, or as the successors of the FreeBuds 3 released in the fall of 2019. Of the two descriptions, the latter is probably the more apt, as the FreeBuds 4 are so similar, in appearance at least, to their elders.

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So, like the FreeBuds 3, these are true wireless headphones formulating a very surprising, if not unprecedented, promise: to offer noise reduction while adopting a button earphone format, i.e., headphones that don’t seal the wearer’s ear canals in any way.

The FreeBuds 4 are of course part of Huawei’s HarmonyOS ecosystem, and therefore benefit from extensive integration with the brand’s smartphones. They’re also compatible with iOS and Android devices, but in roundabout ways and/or incompletely – we’ll come back to that during this test.

They’ve been available since June 2021 at a tentative launch price of £149.99.

Manufacturing & accessories

Between the FreeBuds 3 and FreeBuds 4, Huawei has obviously focused its development efforts elsewhere than on design. The outer casing of the new model is strictly identical to the old one.

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Other than that, there’s nothing much to say about the FreeBuds 4’s build, either good or bad. The whole thing is quite efficient – one could also say banal, depending on one’s mood. The relatively cheap plastic of the earphones themselves is compensated by a rather neatly assembled case; the hinge offers a perfectly fluid movement, and inspires confidence in its solidity.

The said case is technically compatible with wireless charging… but not in the standard way. It works in “reverse charge” mode with a Huawei smartphone, but not with third-party Qi chargers. This is especially disappointing because it’s a regression from the FreeBuds 3.

<!–[if IE 9]><!–[if IE 9]><img src=”” alt=”Headphones come with a 1m USB-A to USB-C charging cable.” />

Headphones come with a 1m USB-A to USB-C charging cable.

The FreeBuds 4 assert themselves as scrupulous followers of the “classic” AirPods school, with their one-size-fits-all design supposedly able to magically fit all ears. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, that goal is just a pipe dream, and Huawei’s earbuds suffer from an extremely variable fit for different users.

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For some, no problem, the earphones fit perfectly cosily between the tragus and the anti-tragus, and stay perfectly in place there. For others, it’s a disaster: it’s impossible to position the earphones securely in your ears, they slip out and fall out immediately, even when you’re standing perfectly still. The fault lies in a stem that is too far away from the body of the earphone, and which can therefore, depending on the morphology of each, be in frank abutment on the cartilage of the ear.

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Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know which category one belongs to, other than by trying the headphones in person. At least, assuming you’re on the right side of the fence, then you’ll enjoy obviously perfect comfort: due to the total lack of intrusion into the ear canal, the headphones never cause any discomfort and know how to be completely forgotten.

User experience

The controls are distributed on two tactile surfaces, on the back of the stem of each earphone. The manufacturer seems to have made every effort to make them as comprehensive as possible. By default, they include play/pause/answer calls (double tap), activate/deactivate noise reduction (long tap), and even adjust the volume (slide up or down). This last gesture, however, is borderline unusable in practice; it’s nearly impossible to perform without dropping the earpiece from your ear…

<!–[if IE 9]><!–[if IE 9]> Des détecteurs de port sont présents, assurant la mise en pause automatique de la musique lorsque l'on retire un écouteur.

Wear sensors are present, ensuring that music is automatically paused when an earpiece is removed.

The Huawei AI Life mobile app allows you to customize the effect of the dual apIt also provides a very basic audio customization feature (bass or treble boost), a function to make an earphone ring if it’s lost, and firmware updates. It also gives access to a very brief audio customization setting (bass or treble amplification), a function to make an earphone ring in case of loss, and finally to firmware updates. A prerequisite for all this is that you are not an iPhone user. The app is only available on Android – and not even via the Google Play Store. On a smartphone of any brand other than Huawei, the installation must be done via an APK to be downloaded from the manufacturer’s website.

<!–[if IE 9]><!–[if IE 9]> Application Huawei AI Life sur Android

Huawei AI Life application on Android

Finally, it’s only with Huawei smartphones running HarmonyOS and nowhere else that the FreeBuds 4 offer quick pairing and integration of headphone controls directly within the phone settings.

Battery life is unfortunately the Achilles heel of the FreeBuds 4. The meagre 4 hours promised by the manufacturer are already not very engaging, but the reality is even crueller: during our measurement, it is only after 3 h 30 min, without noise reduction, that the earphones knew the dryness. The kind of score that we already found a bit borderline in 2017, at the dawn of the existence of true wireless headphones, and which has become frankly difficult to accept in 2021.

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With noise reduction enabled, we even fall into the grotesque, with an endurance then barely exceeding two hours. The latter figure is of little importance, however, as noise reduction is of little interest – more on that later.

The case of storage can lavish to the ear-phones a little more than 4 full recharges, for a total autonomy of a big fifteen hours.

The broadcast latency of the FreeBuds 4 in Bluetooth is 333 ms. This is a high value, which would be unacceptable if we had to translate it directly into sound/picture lag when watching a video.

<!–[if IE 9]><!–[if IE 9]> Délai de la réponse impulsionnelle en Bluetooth

Bluetooth impulse response delay

As is often the case, headphones are able to set up automatic compensation with most video playback applications. But unfortunately, this compensation is not perfect here, and there remains a desynchronization of approximately 100 ms, certainly bearable, but nevertheless clearly perceptible.

Finally, the use for video games is to be avoided completely.

The FreeBuds 4 offer a sound rendering that one would like to praise for its beautiful neutrality, but which is actually quite difficult to comment on in a purely objective way. Here again, we are reminded of the poor universality of the earphones’ fit according to the user’s morphology: the sound depends largely on the way you position the earphones in your ears.

The distance between the earphone transducer and the wearer’s ear canal determines the amount of low frequencies perceived. If the earphone sits a little too firmly, the sound becomes low and boomy. Conversely, if the earpiece is too loose, the sound will be anemic. In between, there’s a balance – and it’s fortunately in this in-between position that most people who stay in the race after the fit test, and thus manage to wear the headphones comfortably, should fall into.

<!–[if IE 9]><!–[if IE 9]> Réponse en fréquence

“Average” frequency response, without noise reduction (black) and with (dashed green)

In any case, we can at least point out the control these low frequencies show in absolute terms… and as long as we carefully leave noise reduction off. But we prefer not to dwell on the rendering with noise reduction, for reasons that will become obvious in the last sub-section of this test. Without noise reduction, we appreciate at best the benefit of the very large width of the on-board speakers (14 mm), which notably allows a very honourable depth for button headphones. In spite of a rather frank attenuation below 40 Hz, inevitable because of the total absence of acoustic seal between the membrane and the auditory canal, the presence of the extreme low register is completely honest.

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<!–[if IE 9]><!–[if IE 9]> Réponses aux ondes carrées à 50 et 500 Hz, sans réduction de bruit (noir) et avec (vert pointillé)

Square wave responses at 50 and 500 Hz, without noise reduction (black) and with (dashed green)

The midrange and treble show no less agility, and are surprisingly accurate. The overall sound is not the most detailed, and the smoothness of the different sound elements can sometimes be slightly at fault, but the whole remains of a quite satisfactory clarity in any case.ircumstances, even on the densest music. The dynamics are generous, accentuated by the slight emphasis on the frequency zone between 2 and 4 kHz, giving a little extra edge to snare drum hits or electric guitar attacks, for example. All this is done without any excess, and never compromises the musicality of the rendering.

<!–[if IE 9]><!–[if IE 9]> Bien que non nulle, la distorsion harmonique reste inaudible sur tout le spectre. La remontée dans les graves est un artefact de mesure, conséquence de l'absence de sceau acoustique entre l'écouteur et l'oreille artificielle de notre mannequin.

Although not zero, harmonic distortion remains inaudible across the spectrum.

The rise in bass is a measurement artifact, a consequence of the lack of an acoustic seal between the earpiece and our dummy’s artificial ear.

All in all, the FreeBuds 4 are still rather difficult to recommend without reservation to seasoned sound aesthetes – those will always prefer the sonic constancy and amplitude that only good earbuds or semi-earbuds can provide. But they are still well above the average for button headphones. That’s not bad.

<!–[if IE 9]><!–[if IE 9]> L'application AI Life propose deux modes d'égalisation non-paramétriques,

The AI Life app offers two non-parametric equalization modes, “bass boost” (red) and “treble boost” (blue), both of which are not very interesting.

Active noise reduction

Let’s face it: the FreeBuds 4’s noise reduction is simply not effective. When it’s on, you can hear the speakers working as best they can to compensate for external noise. But the laws of physics are what they are: without any acoustic seal formed between the speakers and the user’s ear canal, and with the positioning of the earphone impossible to control as it depends on the morphology of each person, all these efforts are perfectly vain, and have no effect whatsoever on the intensity of the perceived noise. Even to speak of “anecdotal” noise reduction is an understatement: it is simply non-existent, nothing more and nothing less.

<!–[if IE 9]><!–[if IE 9]> Bruit de référence en noir, isolation passive en gris pointillé, réduction de bruit active en rouge.

Reference noise in black, passive isolation in dashed grey, active noise reduction in red.