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Huawei FreeBuds 4: AirPods rivals with better sound, OK noise canceling

True wireless earbuds with an open design and active noise cancellation? Sounds great on paper, but the reality doesn't quite match up.

Huawei's FreeBuds 4 are a rare breed. They have an open design, so there's no ear tip digging into your ear canal. But unlike most other open earbuds, these come with active noise cancellation to block out sounds from the world around you. After having used the £130 (€150, roughly $180) FreeBuds 4 for a week, I'm a fan of their crisp sound and touch controls, but disappointed with the average battery life and just-OK noise cancellation.

The FreeBuds 4 have elongated stems and a white finish that look similar to their predecessors, the FreeBuds 3 and the original Apple AirPods. It's difficult to provide a one-size-fits-all approach with a design that doesn't have interchangeable ear tips, so it comes down to your particular ear shape as to whether these will stay in well. Even in my smaller ears, I found the buds became loose when working out. At least their IPX4 rating means they'll withstand splashes or sweat if you use them at the gym.

Read more: Best noise-canceling true wireless earbuds for 2021

When I wasn't worried about the buds dislodging, I was impressed with the sound quality from the FreeBuds 4. They have good bass response and sound dynamic, without being overbearing or overly pumped up. I found they worked well when listening to a variety of genres. The Huawei AI Life app (iOS, Android and HarmonyOS) lets you tweak the sound in an equalizer, but there are only two presets which is limiting if you like to adjust the sound profile. 

Voice calls sounded just fine on the buds, although the microphone did tend to pick up more external noise than buds like the AirPods. The FreeBuds 4 can also record with a sample rate of 48kHz, and you can hear examples of that in the video on this page. Multidevice connectivity is supported, so you can have a phone and laptop paired at the same time.

huaweifreebuds4

The FreeBuds 4 case charges via USB-C.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Noise cancellation is fine up to a point

It's difficult to get highly effective ANC without either over-ear headphones or in-ear buds that create a physical seal to block outside noise. Huawei says the FreeBuds 4 have ear-matching technology that determines how the buds fit in your ear and will adapt the ANC accordingly. But even in my small ear canals -- supposedly the optimal size to get the best noise canceling -- I could hear a fair amount of ambient sound from the outside world. I could even have a conversation while listening to music at a moderate volume.

Those catches aside, they do a better job of cutting out white noise than other open buds with ANC like the Galaxy Buds Live. I found I had the best experience when I was trying to dull a low-level city hum or the sound of an air conditioning unit. Anything louder, like plane engines or the rumble from a train, will likely be too much for these buds to drown out. As long as you're not expecting class-leading noise cancellation like the AirPods Pro or Sony WF-1000XM4, the FreeBuds 4 may help block out general ambient noise to help you focus. They may also work if you're sensitive to ANC, as some people feel pressure in their ears when listening to other buds.

Unfortunately, the battery life doesn't match up to its similarly priced competitors. You'll be able to get 2.5 hours from the FreeBuds 4 on a single charge with ANC, but that pales in comparison to rivals like the Jabra Elite 75t or the AirPods Pro, which doubles that time. Battery life can go to four hours without noise cancellation, so I would often end up deactivating ANC and using one bud in my ear while charging the other just to get through the workday.