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Review: Huawei Freebuds Pro 3 Wireless In-Ear Headphones

These new pro earbuds from Huawei have a surprisingly convincing soundstage—but they can't compete with the likes of Apple, Bose, or Sony.
Huawei FreeBuds Pro
Photograph: Huawei
Huawei Freebuds Pro 3
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Compact, comfortable form-factor. Balanced and quite insightful sound. Good control app.
Ordinary battery life. Ordinary powers of noise-cancellation. Slightly awkward touch controls.

“Tricky” is to understate Huawei’s position in much of the world outside its native China more than somewhat. Few are the electronics companies that are the subject of sanction by nation-states, and fewer still are the entities that could cause the US Democratic Party to support one of the executive orders Donald Trump issued when he was president. Things have been tricky (for want of a better word) for Huawei on the world stage for more than four years now, and they show no sign of getting any easier any time soon.

The company will not go gentle into that good night, though. Its aspirations for domination of the world’s smartphone market are being recalibrated, sure, but in other areas of consumer electronics it’s as ambitious as it ever was. These new Freebuds Pro 3 true wireless in-ear headphones are just the latest case in point.

I suppose that when you’ve gone toe-to-toe with the national security departments of entire countries, picking fights with Apple, Bose, and Sony doesn’t seem like all that big of a deal. Nevertheless, the Freebuds Pro 3 asking price ($219, £179) puts them up against alternatives of widely acknowledged excellence.

Why, then, would you choose a pair of these when you could spend money on a rival product that almost certainly won’t get you put on a shadowy watchlist of possible enemies of the state?

Shiny Happy Earbuds

Huawei's new buds have a compact, comfortable (and familiar) form factor.

Photograph: Huawei

Well, for starters, you might be a fan of shiny things. The Freebuds Pro 3 are available in three finishes—frost silver, ceramic white, and, um, green—and the earbuds themselves are about as highly polished (and, consequently, slippery) as these things ever get.

The little pebble-shaped charging case they travel in, made of nano glass with some mirrored branding on its rear, is notably resistant to marking or scratching, and has a concealed hinge that contributes to a quite sleek, upmarket look and feel.

Or you might love a bit of hyperbolic language. The claims Huawei is making for the technical specification of the Freebuds Pro 3 are all easily proven, but the company is not shy of dressing up what’s straightforwardly impressive in some quite flowery language. For instance, it’s apparently not enough to explain that each earbud has an 11-mm full-range dynamic driver augmented by a planar diaphragm and Halbach array—no, for Huawei’s purposes it’s an “ultra-hearing dual driver.” For those ultra-hearers among us, presumably.

Competitive Specs, Mostly

The Freebuds Pro's charging case has a sleek, upmarket look and feel.

Photograph: Huawei

Elsewhere, the Freebuds Pro 3 are generally competitive where specification is concerned. Battery life of up to 31 hours (including the charging case) is just about acceptable, and you’ve a choice of wired or wireless charging when those 31 hours are up.

There’s three-stage active noise cancellation consisting of “off,” “awareness,” and “on”—and within “on” you’ve a choice of four stages of intensity. Wireless connectivity is dual-point via Bluetooth 5.2, and there’s support for SBC and AAC codecs along with high-resolution LDAC and L2HC 2.0 alternatives (although given that this last is exclusive to Huawei smartphones, its availability is more restricted than Huawei would probably like).

Each earbud has three silicon mics plus a bone-conduction mic to take care of active noise cancellation and telephony and voice control, and the earbuds are IP54-rated against dust and moisture.

Control is available via pinch or swipe gestures on the earbud stems. Rather strangely, though, the relevant surface is at the front, rather than the side, of each stem, which makes using them feel unnatural and awkward.

There’s also the clean, comprehensive, and remarkably nosy AI Life control app. Huawei’s relationship with Google being what it is, though, Android users will find it slightly more of a faff to obtain than any other app they’ve ever been interested in. Its half-dozen EQ presets plus 10-band equalizer are particularly useful for exploring the sonic boundaries of the Freebuds Pro 3, though.

Sonic Comfort Zone

And to be fair, those sonic boundaries are quite distant. When it comes to the sort of stuff you like to listen to, the Huawei are fairly agnostic and have a pretty big comfort zone. During the course of this test, music ranged from Funkadelic’s “I Wanna Know if It’s Good to You” as a 16-bit/44.1-kHz FLAC file to a 24-bit/96-kHz file of “Wish You Were Gay” by Billie Eilish via a 320-kbps stream of The Boy With The Arab Strap by Belle and Sebastian—and the Freebuds Pro 3 play no favorites. They seem prepared to make the best of any situation in which they find themselves.

With the EQ settings in the control app left at “Default (Huawei Sound),” there’s a very pleasant balance to the overall presentation. Low frequencies are deep and nicely textured, acceptably detailed, and properly varied when it comes to tone and timbre.

They communicate quite freely through the midrange, so no matter if it’s the massed voices of Funkadelic, the narcoleptic indie stylings of Belle and Sebastian, or the close-mic’d confessional of Billie Eilish, there’s positivity and no shortage of character to voices.

At the top end, the sound bites politely, with just about enough substance to balance out the brilliance of the treble action. Here, too, the Huawei keep detail levels high, and have enough harmonic variation available to prevent any sensation of uniformity.

The Freebuds Pro 3s seem prepared to try and make the best of any sonic situation.

Photograph: Huawei

The soundstage the Freebuds Pro 3 create is acceptably spacious and properly controlled, so even the chaos of the Funkadelic recording has a bit of discipline and separation. There’s a fair amount of dynamic headroom available, too, which means the changes in intensity apparent in each recording are described faithfully.

And the consistency of the overall tonality here, which is balanced and naturalistic, combines with an even-handed approach to the frequency range to create a convincing sensation of unity and singularity to even the most mashed up cut-and-paste recordings.

However, they’re an altogether more qualified success when it comes to active noise cancellation. Despite the relative amount of adjustability available in the control app, the Freebuds Pro 3 never quite summon the ability to do a complete job on external distractions. So reduction is what you can expect, rather than cancellation.

Those listeners who are familiar with the uncanny powers of noise cancellation available from, say, an equivalent pair of Bose true wireless earbuds will have to manage their expectations more than somewhat. At least the Huawei don’t alter their sonic characteristics depending on whether ANC is engaged or not, which is more than can be said for a fair few of their nominal rivals.

Nominal rivals, though, probably constitute the biggest problem the Huawei Freebuds Pro 3 face. This is a cutthroat market right now, and while there’s a lot to be said for the way these earbuds sound, and while their compact shininess is not without appeal, being pretty good is never going to be good enough.