Huawei FreeBuds 4i Review: Worth Upgrading To?

Love them or hate them, wireless earphones are everywhere. It has been well documented that smartphone makers are ditching the 3.5mm headphone jack or moving to USB Type-C, so the old wired earphones you have are likely going to be obsolete, if they aren’t already. Just like their wired brethren, however, a good pair of wireless earphones can be hard to find, especially for the right price.

A few iterations deep now, Huawei has been touting its offerings as an alternative to the well-known AirPods. Despite being memed heavily for the “courage” it took to ditch the wires, the AirPods are most people’s gold standard as far as all-around wireless earphones go.

So what about the new FreeBuds 4i, which Huawei recently launched in South Africa?

These new earphones boast many of the same features as its predecessor, which proved solid and a more than capable alternative to the AirPods, but if you happen to own the FreeBuds 3 for example, is there a need to upgrade to the 4i’s?

We answer both of those questions below, having spent the past two weeks testing out the FreeBuds 4i.

Here’s what we learned.

Sincerest form of flattery

First design, and there’s no getting around the fact that Huawei has been more than a little “inspired” by the AirPods. The same held true of the FreeBuds 3 and has continued with this latest iteration.

There are, however, some differences between models. While the form factor is the same, Huawei has reworked the tip and overall shape of the head. The result is an earbud which sits far more comfortably in-ear. On the FreeBuds 3, the lack of silicon tip meant the earphones became a little uncomfortable after a long listening session. We therefore found ourselves fiddling with the buds and repositioning them often as a result.

While the 4i’s could easily be mistaken for the Apple AirPod Pros by any uninitiated, the imitation does not feel cheap in any way.

There’s also the addition of magnetised elements in the stem of the earphones, which mean they stay fixed in the charging case, but also attract one another if placed close together on the table whenever you take them out of your ear.

It’s a small touch, but one that could prove helpful for the forgetful.

The other notable change is with the charging case, which is more oval than round as with previous models. The change in shape would normally be nothing to write home about, but we were less than impressed with the quality of the lid on the case.

This as the hinges for it felt quite flimsy and often closed too easily. If you wanted to rest the opened case on a flat surface, it would close.

There is also the not too small matter of it being more difficult to pull the earphones from the respective slots in the case. It may be because we have pork sausages for fingers, but there is little room to wedge your pinky and thumb into place for decent leverage.

This may come off as nitpicky, but given the myriad wireless earphones we’ve reviewed of late, this was something that immediately stood out. It also was not a problem on the FreeBuds 3.

As you like it

So what about setting up?

Here the FreeBuds 4i perform as expected. The connection is facilitated via Bluetooth or via the Huawei AI Life app. The latter brings with it more controls, like the Wear app does for Samsung Galaxy Buds earphones. Unlike that one, however, you can simply pair with a smartphone, tablet or PC in the Bluetooth settings tab, which is something that frustrated us when reviewing the Galaxy Buds Pro earlier this year.

Connections happen rapidly, and in next to no time you’ll be listening to music.

To make the most of the FreeBuds 4i’s smart features though, you’re likely going to need the AI Life app (available on Android and iOS). This as it allows you set up features like touch controls tat you can assign to each earbud. These include the usual array of shortcuts, such as playing/pausing music, next/previous song and activating the Wake voice assistant.

The AI Life app also features the nose control settings – noise cancelling, awareness or no setting at all. The noise cancelling works well enough, but won’t block out everything. This is understandable as truly impressive active noise cancellation often requires a unit built into the in-line volume controls or on larger over-ear headphones. The awareness mode is like noise cancellation lite, still allowing sounds in the immediate vicinity to come in.

We would have enjoyed some sort of equaliser controls to be present in the app, as the listening experience on the FreeBuds 4i seemed tuned to those who like things a little bass heavy. That’s great for working out or zoning out, but if you’re wanting something a little more nuanced, the FreeBuds 4i were a little lacking in our opinion.

If you’re wanting something well suited to the mids and highs, it may be better to look elsewhere to get that fix.

It should also be noted that spoken word, namely YouTube vlogs and audiobooks are a little on the tinny side, and do not sound as rich as they should.

That said, the overall experience is not poor. It would simply have benefitted from some fine tuning.

Where the FreeBuds 4i do excel though is battery life. Here Huawei claims up to 10 hours, which fits in with what we experienced over the past two weeks. The charging case carries a further 12 hours on top of this, and come in handy for quick charging as roughly 10 minutes of charging yields four hours of battery life.

With Huawei having a fairly strong recent history in this department, it is one area the FreeBuds 4i shine.

Final verdict

At R1 499 (RRP), the Huawei FreeBuds 4i are relatively well priced when you measure audio performance, battery life and smart features compared to what else is on the market in that price bracket. The problem we have encountered, though, is that the same could be said of the FreeBuds 3 or 3i.

As such, for those who own either of those, the need to upgrade is not there.

That said, if you are on the lookout for solid wireless earphones with great battery life and which are not pegged down to any one ecosystem, the FreeBuds 4i are well worth a shout.



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