Huawei FreeBuds 5i review: cheap headphones with premium features

The true wireless headphones market segment is an extremely dynamic one, as just about every company in the tech space (and beyond) has such products in their portfolio. This accelerates competition, and brings more and more models to market, with more and more advanced features, at more and more competitive prices. Huawei and its FreeBuds series has always stood out among budget models, but the new FreeBuds 5i model seems to have everything you need from such a product, thus bringing up the question “why are there more expensive models?”.

The design of the FreeBuds 5i hasn’t changed significantly, but there are a few differences from the 4i generation

One of the reasons Huawei is able to offer the FreeBuds 5i at a lower price than the competition and even other models in its portfolio is that these headphones are not “built from scratch”. They use the same design we saw on the FreeBuds 4i last year for the housing, and even have things in common with more expensive models like the FreeBuds Pro. However, the sizes are not 100% identical, so the covers won’t fit from one model to the next.

Huawei FreeBuds 5i accessories

Then, for the first time, these earphones use cheaper materials, like recycled plastic. In addition to protecting the environment and reducing plastic waste, the matte texture and non-uniform colour of the casing ensures an attractive design and better scratch resistance over time. Those who have used a pair of Huawei’s AirPods or even FreeBuds from older generations with glossy casings know that they scratch and “mar” over time. The FreeBuds 5i will keep its outward appearance intact for longer.

I can’t say I’m a big fan though of the “egg” shape of the housing on the FreeBuds, but this seems to be the one Huawei has been using for a few years now and on several headphone models. Thankfully, the matte texture ensures that it’s not as slippery as it used to be, so it’ll be harder to get rid of. But it will be even harder to get out of the pocket of slim fit trousers.

Huawei FreeBuds 5i case open

As with any pair of headphones in this genre, Huawei ships the headphones with a USB-C charging cable and silicone earplugs of various sizes, the medium ones are factory-installed.

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The headphones can be configured via Huawei AI Life

Unlike Samsung, for example, Huawei offers the ability to connect and configure FreeBuds 5i headsets on any phone. The AI Life app is available on both the Huawei App Gallery and the Apple App Store, and this made testing on an iPhone very easy.

The AI Life app, used to manage other smart products in Huawei’s offering, provides quick access to settings such as ANC, gestures for control, the right choice of plugs and even software updates. The interface is simple and easy to understand, and the settings aren’t overly complicated. I appreciated that you can set up gestures for each individual headphone for double-tap or long-tap shortcuts, but volume adjustment with swipes up or down can only be disabled, not replaced with another control.

I was a little disappointed, however, that you have a choice in the “sound quality” category of only three profiles. This is not the sound “quality”, but just the audio profile, where you only have the default profile, the profile that boosts bass, and the profile that boosts treble. There is no manual equalizer for creating your own profile.

I found it odd to integrate a “find” function for headphones, which only works if the headphones are plugged in, i.e. if they’re out of the charging box. If you lose the box around the house with the headphones in it, they won’t connect to the phone to play sounds so they can be found. Also, if you are left with just the headphones in your ears and don’t know where you left the charging box, it has no speakers to be found. Plus, there’s no map tracking so you can find them if they fall out of your pocket, or if you want to find out if you left them at work or at home.

FreeBuds 5i offers pretty much everything you need, but no wireless charging

Since they have much the same overall shape and design, the FreeBuds 5i are just as comfortable and enjoyable to use as the FreeBuds 4i. The battery life hasn’t changed much either, with the new model offering around seven hours of listening on a single charge. That’s a good value, but there are better models in the true wireless headphone area. Realistically though, there are few times when you’d use the headphones for longer periods without interruption and there’s little chance of using them that long anyway. Charging the headphones is fairly quick inside the box, giving about half the battery life after 15 minutes. In total, you can fully charge the headphones in the box about four times, for 28 hours in total.

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Huawei FreeBuds 5i buds front

The audio quality is very good, but we should already expect that from headphones made by big brands. What the Huawei FreeBuds 5i offers over other models in this price range, however, is sound at Hi-Res Audio Wireless standard. Of course, you’ll need a compatible phone, and as Apple doesn’t allow you to set up the playback codec over Bluetooth, we couldn’t test this capability. Of course, without Hi-Res quality music, it’s a bit hard to tell the difference anyway. TIDAL subscribers or those who listen to FLAC tracks should be able to confirm this.

Mostly, though, I liked the fact that for low-budget headphones, you have them available with some of the best background noise cancellation technology around. There aren’t multiple intensity levels, as I’ve seen on other models, but on the available setting, pretty much all background noise in a busy city or public transport can be reduced. Voices and other less regular sounds won’t be completely isolated, of course. For a plane ride, train or bus journey, these headphones will certainly be very pleasant thanks to the ANC function. And the “transparency” mode, called “ambient” mode by Huawei, does its job well and allows sound to penetrate the headphones in a natural way. You almost forget you have the headphones in your ears when you activate this mode.

Huawei FreeBuds 5i case open detail

There’s even dual connectivity, so you can have two devices connected at once, like a phone and a computer, and the sound moves from one to the other depending on which one you’re using. Transitioning is certainly easier between Huawei devices, where the concept of “super devices” exists, but it works with others too.

The only thing missing from the FreeBuds 5i, actually, compared to a pair of headphones in the “premium” range, is wireless charging. These only charge via cable. But given how infrequently you’ll need to charge them, that’s actually not much of a problem. There’s also the fact that the only way to check the charging level of the headphones is via the AI Life app, so those who don’t want to install new apps for each individual accessory will be at a disadvantage.

Huawei FreeBuds 5i usb

Conclusions

The Huawei FreeBuds 5i headphones are some of the easiest to recommend at the moment, offering a very good balance between pleasing design, above-average performance and an affordable price. The headphones are now listed at 420 lei, but those who follow the evolution of these types of accessories know that they will end up in special offers even at half price. At standard price they’re already a very good deal, but at a discount they’ll be truly unbeatable, with the Freebuds 5i offering pretty much everything you get from a pair of headphones costing over 1,000 lei at less than half price.

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