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Huawei FreeBuds 4i, hands on: Affordable wireless noise cancelling earbuds

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Written by Sandra Vogel on
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Huawei FreeBuds 4i

Wireless earbuds are available at a variety of price points, and it can be tricky to work out which are worth having and which are not. For a list price of £79.99 (inc. VAT, currently discounted to £59.99), Huawei's FreeBuds 4i are a neat and comfortable set of buds with good noise cancelling considering their affordable price. But there are some significant annoyances. 

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Huawei claims the FreeBuds 4i deliver 10 hours music listening without noise cancelling, or 7.5h with ANC. For voice calls, the durations are 6.5h without ANC, 5.5 with ANC.

Image: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet

The Huawei FreeBuds 4i sit in a small oval-shaped plastic case measuring 48.0mm by 1.8mm by 27.5 mm deep, and weighing 36.5g. The case has a flat back so it's stable on a desk or table, and I found it slipped into a jacket pocket or the side-pocket of a rucksack easily. On a desk the USB-C charging case presents itself well. Casing ergonomics really matters, and here it's all good -- except, if I'm being picky, for the lack of a spring release on the lid. 

I was sent a white case and buds, but there are also black and red versions available. The box also includes a nice long charge cable and two pairs of silicone tips, with a third pair already fitted to the buds.  

The design of the 5.5g buds themselves is unremarkable. The stems might be a little long, but not annoyingly so, and the wedge-shaped earpiece made a good fit for my ears. My left ear is not a fan of buds and tends to throw them out or reward me with niggly soreness after a few hours of wear. I experienced neither issue here.  

SEE: Managing and troubleshooting Android devices checklist (TechRepublic Premium)

Huawei rates the 55mAh buds as good for 10 hours of music playback with noise cancelling disabled, 7.5 hours if it's enabled, and 6.5 hours of voice calls with noise cancelling disabled or 5.5 hours enabled. Boosted from the 215mAh battery inside the case, music playback extends to 22 hours. Ten minutes of charging provides 4 hours of audio. A quick early-morning charge saw me through the day without incident.

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I paired the buds with the Android phone I happened to be testing at the time and the job couldn't be simpler. Activate Bluetooth pairing on your handset, open the charging case, press the pairing button on its side, and almost immediately the deed is done. The controls are straightforward: tap on a bud to play, pause, skip forward and back, and call up voice assist; long press to cycle through ANC on, ANC off and awareness mode. 

I found the tap gestures a little unresponsive, although the tap-and-hold gestures were recognised perfectly every time. There are a couple of other annoyances. Volume has to be controlled on the source device and playback continues when a bud is removed from the ear, so this too has to be adjusted on the source device. It's also irritating that there's no app in the Google Play store for fine control, such as making equaliser settings. This is due to the fact that Huawei no longer has access to Google apps. There is an app, available to owners of Huawei handsets, on its own AppGallery, but I was not testing on a Huawei handset, so that wasn't an option. 

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Huawei FreeBuds 4i: colour options.

Image: Huawei

In general I found the quality of music playback acceptable, if not exceptional. Talk radio and calls were fine, as was general background music while thinking about something else. But when I focused on listening to music the lack of bass tones became apparent. I also found the buds just a bit too quiet for use while out and about -- listening to the radio while on a walk or run, for example.  

Good case and bud design and respectable battery life are offset by somewhat unreliable touch controls and a lack of bass tones for serious music listening. Still, Huawei fans with access to its app store might find them an attractive purchase.

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