While they have several drawbacks compared with in-ear headphones, I’ve always enjoyed using open-fit buds like the Huawei Freebuds 4, purely because I find a lot of in-ear designs relatively uncomfortable to wear for long periods.
That is never a problem with the Freebuds 4, which nestle into the outer ear surprisingly securely. Throw in the IPX4 water resistance rating (not as high on most dedicated sports headphones, but a rating which has coped with plenty of my sweaty workouts and rainy runs) and the Freebuds 4 are an attractive alternative to sports buds with ear-hooks or in-ear tips.
The Freebuds also offer active noise cancellation, rarely found on open-fit headphones. This ANC uses Adaptive Ear Matching (AEM) technology to detect the shape of your ear and produce the best ANC for you.
Other parts of the spec sheet are less impressive, with battery life a weak spot. The Freebuds 4 last just four hours on a single charge and the case only adds another 18. Those numbers also drop to 2.5 and 11.5 hours, respectively, if you’re using the ANC.
The case is pleasingly round and pocketable though, and the design of the buds is also appealing, if strongly reminiscent of the original AirPods. The stems of the buds contain touch controls, and employ taps, squeezes and swipes to control playback and turn the ANC off and on. The taps and swipes work well, but I found the long squeeze to be an absolute pain to execute correctly, especially while running or working out but even when sitting at my computer.(opens in new tab)
Fortunately I didn’t have to do it often, since the squeeze turns the ANC off and on, and anyway I found the ANC to be almost entirely useless. I didn’t notice any difference when activating the ANC in any situation – whether I was running by a busy road, travelling on a train or trying to block out the sound of my neighbour’s lawn mower. Given the cost in battery life, I’d keep the ANC turned off.
In contrast to the weak ANC, the sound quality of the Freebuds 4 was surprisingly good. In-ear buds with tight seals are always going to have an advantage, particularly for bass, but the Freebuds 4 have an enjoyably clear sound profile and didn’t suffer from distortion or harshness when listening to music at high volumes. Even with the open design I was able to hear podcasts when running in busy environments.
They’re not going to be the first pick for sound quality, and you can get better from cheaper buds with a closed design, but if you do prefer the open-fit style they won’t let you down on sound.
I never had any problems with the fit when running, and in fact I found the Freebuds 4 were more secure than in-ear buds with some kind of wing to keep them in place, such as the Huawei Freebuds 4i. Even when sweating up a storm on runs during the recent heatwave the Freebuds 4 sat comfortably in place.
This was also the case on indoor cycles, but when doing strength workouts I did find that some exercises could sometimes dislodge the buds. If you’re planning on doing a lot of HIIT sessions including jumping moves, the lack of an ear hook or wing might see the Freebuds 4 come loose.
As with the original AirPods, how secure you find the fit of buds like this will differ from person to person. For me, they’re actually more secure than many in-ear buds when exercising, and I prefer headphones which don’t dig into my ear canal.
I enjoyed using the Freebuds 4, in almost exactly the same way I enjoyed using the original AirPods. The Freebuds offer a similar package to Apple’s headphones (if you discount the ineffective ANC on the Freebuds). If you find both pairs at the same price I’d probably lean towards the AirPods because they have slightly longer battery life at five hours in the buds plus 19 more in the case.
You will have to really prefer the open-fit design to consider the Freebuds 4, though, since Huawei itself as well as many other brands make superior sports headphones with in-ear or ear hook designs that cost the same or less. You can get better battery life and sound quality in particular – even budget headphones like the Tribit FlyBuds 3 match or outperform the Freebuds 4 on these fronts.
All that said, I really like the Freebuds 4 simply because of their pleasing design and comfortable fit, and the sound quality is more than good enough for me. If you are keen on open-fit headphones for running and don’t want to use AirPods, or find the Freebuds 4 cheaper, then they won’t disappoint.
HUAWEI FreeBuds 4 - Wireless Bluetooth Open-fit Earphones with Hybrid Active Noise Cancellation, High-Resolution Sound Triple-Mic Earbuds, Long Battery Life, Fast Wired Charging, Silver Frost (opens in new tab)
Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.
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