Earphones are a dime-a-dozen sort of deal in this modern age and it has been a while since I looked at earphones as I’ve been pretty content with my AirPods for the longest time. However, they have been frustrating to use since switching to Android. This is where Huawei stepped into the fray and gave me an audio experience that, while not the best around, is a very compelling proposition considering its incredibly agreeable entry price.
The Huwaei FreeBuds 5i are a pair of in-ear monitors (IEMs) that sit around the price point of $159, with the price increasing to $189 if you select the Ceramic White or Nebula Black variants. With the purchase comes the earphones themselves, their associated charging case, a short USB-C cable intended for charging, and some alternate ear tips for the earphones themselves – contrary to popular belief, one size does not fit all.
The charging case is mostly fine. It’s hard to really do one of these incorrectly as it has to serve three very simple purposes – pairing, disconnecting, and charging. The case serves all of these functions perfectly well, my only very minor gripe with the case has to do with its shape. When you compare it to the case of something like Apple’s AirPods Pro, using the case with one hand just isn’t as comfortable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still perfectly usable but if you are someone who likes to open their wireless earphone case with one hand you won’t find it as nice. Beyond that, however, the case is still pretty good. The lid doesn’t feel too flimsy and the magnetism for the earphones when placed inside the case is strong enough to ensure that they never come loose. The other nice thing is unlike the AirPods, you aren’t forced to use a platform-specific cable to charge the FreeBuds 5i, as any USB-C cable will do.
I was pleasantly surprised when I started using the FreeBuds 5i as, even without downloading the feature-supporting AI Life application, the FreeBuds 5i come fully functional out of the box. The aforementioned app is not even required if you don’t wish to install it. To pair it to your device you just flip open the lid of the case, leaving the earphones themselves in the case still, and hold down the button on the side which activates pairing mode. Once paired, you have a few gestures on the earphones for some control. You can hold your finger on the stem of the earphone to change whether it is using active noise cancelling (ANC), no noise cancelling (relying on the intrinsic noise isolation of the earphone tips), and awareness mode which uses the information captured by ANC and projects it through, making it feels like you are wearing normal earphones and not IEMs – incredibly useful if you want to listen to music while still being able to hear your surroundings. Swiping your finger up or down the stem will increase or decrease the volume, respectively, and double tapping will pause/unpause whatever you are listening to.
The ability to customise these controls is available within Huawei’s AI Life application. Normally, I would consider the requirement of an application a bit of a sore point, and to a degree I still do. However, I was immediately pleased to see that, while you can sign up for a Huawei ID, you aren’t required to have one to operate this application. You are still granted complete access to the features of the FreeBuds 5i while not being logged into anything, which is a fantastic little detail. Within the AI Life app you can change your noise cancellation settings without needing to use the associated gesture, which potentially frees up a gesture for other controls. The double-tap and the hold gestures can be customised, to the point of there being a unique function on each ear for that specific gesture. Other functions include skipping forward or backwards in your playlist and waking your voice assistant, the latter of which feels a little redundant given the ability to say “okay/hey, Google” or “Hey, Siri” for most phones. The swipe function can only be set as a global function rather than on a specific ear, and it’s because of this that I recommend just leaving this one as a volume slider. There are some other features like low-latency mode, setting a priority for connection quality or sound quality, and your EQ settings.
The big functionality that is tied to the AI Life, however, is the ability to pair to two devices at once, allowing hot swapping between devices, and setting priorities for connection. The best use for this is if you had it connected to your laptop and phone, using the laptop for your music and then if you were to receive a phone call the FreeBuds 5i would automatically switch to your phone and allow you to answer using the earphones, making it an incredibly flexible handsfree device. It’s here where I truly found myself loving the FreeBuds 5i. Being able to connect my Steam Deck or Nintendo Switch to these earphones while still being able to use them on my phone was just brilliant.
Depending on what settings you choose for your EQ and priority, your battery life may increase or decrease, varying your experience. I had mine set to a bass-boosted EQ with low-latency mode enabled and a connection quality priority. With all these settings, I would normally get a good five or six hours on one charge, and the case would easily handle multiple charges of the earphones. Adding to this, when left unused and unplugged, the case doesn’t lose very much charge at all, which is in complete contrast to my old AirPods which I felt needed to be plugged in if I had left them for a week or so.
While the battery may be great for longer sessions, I didn’t find that I was able to use the FreeBuds 5i for as long as its performance allowed. Granted, I have some weird stuff with my ears, and they get unbearably itchy when I am using headphones, let alone earphones. Still, I did find that the FreeBuds 5i would teeter on the side of uncomfortable after extended periods unless placed in a very particular way. What is that particular placement? I’m not exactly sure, but most of the uncomfortableness seemed to stem from…well, the stem. I’m not sure what exactly caused this, but the outside of my ears would become a little sore after extended use. This will vary from user to user, however, as no two people’s ears are the same, and what may cause some to be uncomfortable may not do the same to others. Unfortunately, I can only really comment on my experience using them and so for me, they generally became uncomfortable after an hour or so.
Which is a shame because the FreeBuds 5i have some surprisingly good sound quality.. I’m not going to beat around the bush, these are not the best sounding earphones that I have ever used. That isn’t the nail in the coffin that most would think, however, as the sound quality is still quite exceptional, especially when you factor in the price point. The general range on the speakers is very good, however you’ll find that towards either end of the frequency spectrum it can be a little lacking. These are not earphones that an audiophile would use, but the everyday person would happily use them to listen to music while lamenting the system that is capitalism, wishing for the day where they are released from this mortal coil. Or at least wishing that Elon Musk would shut the fuck up. Am I projecting? Regardless, the general sound quality is very good on these earphones and it is hard to justify wanting the lower and higher ends to be a little more precise and well-handled when that would affect the great pricing of these earphones.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the Huawei FreeBuds 5i. My last IEMs were wired Sennheiser earphones many years ago and they were fantastic, but the technology has evolved a lot since then and it could not be more apparent than in these wireless IEMs. While they can be a little lacking on the extremes of the low and high end frequencies, the overall listening quality is great, the battery life is impressive, and the feature set is fantastic which is further bolstered with the optional use of AI Life application. For its relatively cheap entry point, it’s hard not to recommend these earphones for people that want a solid set of wireless IEMs for general use.
Review unit supplied by manufacturer