September 29, 2020

Huawei FreeBuds 3i review: Great features on a budget

This affordable pair of true-wireless headphones is worth your attention.

Huawei may struggle with apps, but its hardware remains incredibly attractive. The company’s latest true-wireless earbuds, the Huawei FreeBuds 3i, combine an accessible price tag with good sound quality and features you’ll typically find on higher-end competitors like the AirPods Pro.

Are these affordable true wireless earbuds a good pick? Find out in our Huawei FreeBuds 3i review.

About this review: The FreeBuds 3i review unit was provided to Android Authority by the manufacturer. I used the earbuds for around two weeks, connected to my Mate 20 Pro and my Asus ROG laptop.

Huawei FreeBuds 3i: Tech and specs

  • Connection: Bluetooth 5
  • Bluetooth codecs: AAC, SBC
  • Active noise-cancelling: up to 32db
  • Microphones: 3
  • Driver: 10mm dynamic
  • Controls: Double tap, long tap
  • Battery capacity: 37mAh/earbud. 410mAh charging case
  • Battery life: Up to 3.5h of playback. Up to 14.5h with charging case
  • Charging: USB-C, wired only
  • Charging time: earbuds – about 1h; total – about 115 minutes
  • Water resistance: IPX4 (splashes only)
  • Weight: 5.5g/earbud, case 51g
  • Ear tips: 4 pairs – L, M, S, XS
  • Functions: Awareness mode, Pop open to connect (EMUI 10 only), Wear detection (EMUI 10 only), virtual assistant, touch controls

What are the Huawei FreeBuds 3i like?

huawei freebuds 3i in charging case

Credit: Bogdan Petrovan/ Android Authority

As their name suggests, the FreeBuds 3i (£99/€99) are the follow-up to the more sophisticated FreeBuds 3 (£149/€189 at launch), which came out late last year.

Despite being much cheaper, the difference between the FreeBuds 3i and the FreeBuds 3 isn’t massive. In fact, if you want an in-ear design and superior noise isolation, the cheaper FreeBuds 3i come on top. On the flip side, the FreeBuds 3 have longer battery life and better sound quality in optimal conditions.

Despite being much cheaper, the difference between the FreeBuds 3i and the FreeBuds 3 isn’t massive.

The FreeBuds 3i feature active noise-cancelling (ANC) and silicone tips that go into your ear canals, dampening external noise and improving the perceived sound quality. Like the FreeBuds 3, they draw inspiration from Apple’s AirPods series, both in appearance and in feature set. The FreeBuds 3i even come with Awareness mode, which works just like Apple’s Transparency mode.

You can use the FreeBuds 3i with any Bluetooth-enabled device, but you’ll get the best experience with Huawei devices running EMUI 10 or later, which offer quicker connection and wearing detection.

How do you control the FreeBuds 3i?

The FreeBuds 3i support two simple gestures – double-tap and tap-and-hold. Using the companion app, Huawei AI Life, you can assign the double-tap gesture to playback controls, while tap-and-hold cycles through ANC modes.

Huawei AI Life is compatible with just about any Android device, but it’s not available for iOS. You could still use the FreeBuds 3i with an iPhone, but you won’t be able to customize the gestures or get software updates, unless you can get hold of an Android device.

Also read: The best headphones under $100 of 2020

When used together with a Huawei phone running EMUI 10 or later, the FreeBuds 3i connect seamlessly by simply popping open the case, and they also detect wearing to automatically pause and resume playback.

You can assign different commands for double-tapping the left and right earbud, which gives you a little more flexibility. You can choose between play/pause, next song, previous song, and wake voice assistant.

Do the Huawei FreeBuds 3i sound good?

huawei freebuds 3i in ear

Credit: Bogdan Petrovan/ Android Authority

I really liked how the FreeBuds 3 sound, and the good news is the FreeBuds 3i are not far behind in terms of sound quality. I am not by any means an audiophile, but I found the FreeBuds 3i enjoyable in most situations.

The biggest issue I noticed was with the lower part of the frequency spectrum. Bass and lower frequencies in general sound less clear compared to the FreeBuds 3. It’s not awful, but it’s noticeable. Clarity aside, low frequencies also tended to  drown out parts of the mid-range. I ran into this issue with many tracks from Billie Eilish that feature heavy bass and hushed vocals. This phenomenon, when loud sounds make it hard to perceive relatively quiet ones, is called auditory masking and is common with consumer headsets. While the result is rarely unpleasant, if you care a lot about accurate reproduction, you may find the FreeBuds 3i disappointing.

I found the FreeBuds 3i enjoyable in most situations.

The FreeBuds 3i sound quality is otherwise good, especially considering their price tag. Vocals tend to be clear, so long as they aren’t accompanied by a cacophony of drum kicks; I heard no annoying hisses or crackles, and the earbuds get quite loud.

It helps that the FreeBuds 3i feature silicon tips that plug into your ears (there are four sizes included in the package). These provide the isolation that’s sorely missing from the open-fit FreeBuds 3, as well as the AirPods and other earbuds of similar design. Thanks to this, the FreeBuds 3i sound louder than the FreeBuds 3, despite having a smaller driver: 10mm vs 14.2mm. To get a better idea of what this means, consider I could comfortably use the FreeBuds 3i at 30% volume on my laptop, where I had to crank up the volume closer to 50% on the FreeBuds 3 for the same perceived effect.

Is the active noise-cancelling good on the FreeBuds 3i?

huawei freebuds 3i out of charging case with huawei mate 20 pro 8

Credit: Bogdan Petrovan/ Android Authority

The FreeBuds 3i haven’t blown my mind with their noise-cancelling, but they’re definitely better in this regard than the FreeBuds 3’s ANC, which was barely noticeable.

The ear tips keep a lot of the ambient noise out, which makes it much easier for the ANC function to make an audible difference.

Like with all ANC headphones, you’ll get the best results with low, monotone noises like the humming of an airplane cabin or car engines. Meanwhile, high frequencies come through, and ANC will struggle to adapt to variable noises like the chatter of a café.

Read more: The best noise-cancelling true wireless earbuds

If you need to work – or just relax – in a noisy environment, you’ll definitely want to keep the FreeBuds 3i in ANC mode. Even with music off, you’ll hear the difference. And when you do listen to music, you won’t need to crank up the volume as high, which is good for your auditory health.

Do the FreeBuds 3i have Transparency mode?

The FreeBuds 3i let you toggle in a special mode that helps outside sounds go through, making them easier to hear even when listening to music. It works a lot like the AirPods Pro’s Transparency mode, it’s just called different: Awareness mode.

There’s a noticeable difference between Awareness mode and simply turning ANC off. I could hear my wife talk to me easier, even without pausing music or turning the volume down. Awareness might also come in handy when walking or jogging on busy roads or whenever you need to pay attention to your environment.

Note that Awareness mode needs to be enabled from the Huawei AI Life app. If it’s not enabled, the earbuds will simply toggle ANC on and off.

How is the connectivity?

huawei freebuds 3i earbuds side by side

Credit: Bogdan Petrovan/ Android Authority

The FreeBuds 3i work over Bluetooth 5 and support the SBC and AAC codecs. SBC is the most basic Bluetooth codec around, sacrificing audio quality for lower data transfers. Meanwhile, AAC is a more advanced codec that enables better audio quality, but it’s only really suitable for use on Apple devices. Android devices tend to perform inconsistently with this codec. Bluetooth multipoint isn’t supported, so you won’t be able to connect the FreeBuds 3i to, say, your phone and laptop at the same time.

In my use, the FreeBuds 3i connected quickly and reliably to my Mate 20 Pro smartphone. I didn’t run into any issues worth mentioning. It was a different story with my laptop, where the two earbuds often went “out of sync.� One earbud would lag very slightly compared to the other, creating a noticeable echo effect. This would happen for several minutes until the earbuds would resync on their own. I also encountered short interruptions from time to time when connected to the laptop.

Is the FreeBuds 3i battery life good?

The FreeBuds 3i won’t win any prizes for battery life. In my experience, they shut down after about three hours of use (with ANC on). That’s about an hour less than the FreeBuds 3, and quite a bit less compared to other true wireless earbuds.

The good news is you’ll be able to use the case to charge them up four times over, which should push total battery life at over 12 hours.

For reference, Huawei claims up to 3.5 hours for the earbuds and 14.5 hours of playback with the case included.

huawei freebuds 3i out of charging case with huawei mate 20 pro 4

Credit: Bogdan Petrovan/ Android Authority

What I like about the FreeBuds 3i

  • The comfort and ease of use. I liked that the FreeBuds 3i connect quickly and reliably and once you have them in your ears they don’t feel heavy or uncomfortable.
  • The sound isolation and ANC. Thanks to these two features, I could tune out the outside world in a way that just wasn’t possible with the FreeBuds 3.
  • The gestures. They worked reliably.

What I don’t like about the FreeBuds 3i

  • The relatively short battery life With ANC on, I needed to pop the earbuds back into the case in three hours or less. Not ideal for those who use them at work or on long trips.
  • The connection issues on Windows laptop. The slight desync kinda ruined the experience of using them with my laptop. I am not sure if this issue is common or specific to my setup.
  • The ill-defined bass. Bass-heavy track parts lacked definition.

FreeBuds 3i review: Should you buy them?

Huawei FreeBuds 3i
Good active noise-cancelling on a budget
We can recommend the Huawei FreeBuds 3i to those looking for an affordable pair of true-wireless headphones that features active noise-cancelling. The recommendation is easier if you currently use a recent Huawei device like the P series or the Mate series.

I can recommend the Huawei FreeBuds 3i to those looking for an affordable pair of true-wireless headphones that features active noise-cancelling. The recommendation is easier if you currently use a recent Huawei device like the P series or the Mate series.

For their price, the FreeBuds 3i’s sound quality is solid. The active noise-cancelling with Awareness mode is nice to have in this price range.

You should probably pass on the FreeBuds 3i if you want the best sound. The audio hardware is less performant compared to the more expensive FreeBuds 3, and they also miss out on better codecs like aptX.

For around the same price as the FreeBuds 3i, you can get alternatives including the first-gen Samsung Galaxy Buds, the Edifier TWS1, and the Anker SoundCore Liberty Air 2. Some of these options offer wireless charging, better codecs, and superior water resistance. However, most don’t offer ANC. For that, you’ll have to stretch your budget a bit more for the Panasonic RZ-S500W noise-cancelling earbuds.

That’s it for our Huawei FreeBuds 3i review. Time to weigh in: do these earbuds look like a good deal?

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