Huawei FreeBuds 5i Review: Good, but not great for the money

Huawei’s FreeBuds 5i provide decent audio quality and battery life, although their active noise cancelling could be more powerful.

Relatively affordable
Range of colour choices
Pairing button on the case
Decent audio
ANC is at least present, but…

… it’s not very good at blocking out sounds
Some intermittent issues with the left bud
Android users will need to sideload AI Life app

To say that there’s a lot of choice in wireless buds would be an understatement. There’s hundreds of them out there for every price range, right up to premium pairs from the likes of Apple, Google, Samsung and Sony.

That’s not where Huawei’s latest pair, the FreeBuds 5i sit. They’re a more budget-conscious pair, priced at $159 outright. That’s not the cheapest you can buy a set of true wireless buds for, although they do promise active noise cancellation, a feature that often costs quite a bit more.

Huawei FreeBuds 5i: Design

Huawei Freebuds 5i

The Huawei FreeBuds 5i are your classic stalk and bud style headphones, highly reminiscent of Apple’s class-defining AirPods.

Each bud weighs in at around 4.9g, a little lighter as per Huawei than the Huawei FreeBuds 4i they’re replacing in the company’s lineup.

As is typical with most true wireless buds, you get a set of replacement rubber tips for those who need larger or smaller tips than the standard medium ones that come preinstalled. I’ve not tested swapping them out as I found the medium tips to be about the right size for my ears.

One nice inclusion here that you don’t see with every pair, and especially more budget-centric pairs is a short USB A to USB C cable for charging. There’s no charger in the box, but at least you should be able to hook up the Huawei FreeBuds 5i to power with few issues.

The Huawei FreeBuds 5i case comes in three colour choices, Nebula Black, Isle Blue or Ceramic White. The buds within the case will largely match that colour choice, though they’re encased in glossy plastic where the case has a more matte finish, at least on the Isle Blue set Huawei sent my way.

As is (sigh) the case for just about every set of buds on the market, there’s also support for touch gestures and holds to play, pause, change ANC modes and more. I always find these tricky to use in real world situations, and, surprise, the Huawei FreeBuds 5i were no different here in any way at all.

One very welcome inclusion on the Huawei FreeBuds 5i case is a side mounted pairing button. That’s hugely preferable to the way that some pairs rely on long (and often hard to judge) presses on buds to initiate fresh pairing sessions.

Huawei FreeBuds 5i: Installation and performance

Huawei Freebuds 5i

The Huawei FreeBuds 5i are Bluetooth 5.2 headphones, and that does mean that you can connect them to just about anything that talks Bluetooth simply by pressing on that side mounted button for long enough to start the pairing session, then finding them on your device of choice.

However, if you want to configure the Huawei FreeBuds 5i, you’ll need Huawei’s AI Life app installed.

Owners of Huawei phones – surely a shrinking demographic in Australia – should get a pop-up when the Huawei FreeBuds 5i are detected, as long as the phone in question is new enough. Quick testing with the newest Huawei phone I had to hand – the Huawei P30 Pro – yielded no such luck, however.

Which meant that I was stuck pairing with Android and iPhone devices.

I’ve made this comment before in my review of the Huawei Watch D, but it’s truly odd that iPhone users have a cleaner time of it than Android owners when dealing with Huawei peripherals. Huawei’s app for connectivity here is called AI Life, and it’s freely available in the iOS App Store.

But you won’t find a compatible version of AI Life in the Google Play store, because of Huawei’s ongoing issues with the US government. That means sideloading via Huawei’s AppGallery, a feasible but not exactly friction-free process.

AI Life allows you to set touch gestures and control active noise cancelling or awareness modes, as well as very limited equalisation options.

It’s basically a bass boost, treble boost or default setting, so those looking for tweakable response curves will need to look elsewhere.

Huawei Freebuds 5i
The right bud (pictured) connected every time. The left bud… not so much.

On the connectivity front, I only hit one problem with the Huawei FreeBuds 5i.

Paired with an iPhone 14 Pro with AI Life installed, every once in a while when taking the Huawei FreeBuds 5i out of their case, the left bud would refuse to connect.

They will work in solo mono mode, but that’s not a lot of fun. Dropping them back in the case did resolve this problem, but it’s far from ideal.

Active Noise Cancelling is a big part of the Huawei FreeBuds 5i’s claim to value. They’re not the cheapest ANC buds on the market, but they’re still comfortably within the budget space at their asking price.

However, you’ve got to temper your expectations here. When they’re in your ears, the AI Life app lets you set three levels of ANC – Cozy, General or Ultra.

They do work at reducing noise, but for most folks – and based on my own testing – Ultra’s where you’re likely to leave them nearly all of the time.

Cozy and General are very soft in terms of what they block out, testing both with vehicle noise and one of my neighbours who loves his leaf blower just a little too much.

Ultra tempered the leaf blower noise to a reasonable extent given the asking price, but it was still noticeable.

Pushing a fancier set of ANC buds in my ears – like the Bose QuietComfort IIs or Apple AirPods Pro – blocked those sounds out entirely.

Huawei Freebuds 5i

What about general sound quality? Here the 10mm drivers in the Huawei FreeBuds 5i ran almost exactly as I’d expect them too.

Bass is not a priority for these headphones, even with the bass boost equaliser effect in play. Testing with Metallica’s Enter Sandman showed only the smallest level of improvement in the bass kick with it enabled, frankly.

Vocals did a little better, with Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World presenting his classic gravelly presentation quite nicely.

Switching over to a little more electronic presentation, Daft Punk’s Around The World sounded decent, but again I’ve been a little spoiled by better – and to be fair, more expensive – buds in this respect.

The short form here is that the Huawei FreeBuds 5i are decent for audio presentation, but that’s it. That’s the compromise you get in return for the asking price.

In terms of battery life, Huawei rates the Huawei FreeBuds 5i as being capable of 6 hours of playback with ANC enabled, 7.5 without.

The charging case bumps that up to 18.5 hours claimed with ANC on the go, or 28 hours without it running.

While the ANC in the Huawei FreeBuds 5i isn’t spectacular, I can’t see too many folks switching it off unless you really are desperate for a few more songs before they go flat.

With my own tests, which included using them for a bunch of street runs – where, by the way, they stayed in my ears just fine – suggested that a range of up to about 5 hours was more feasible than Huawei’s claimed 6.

That’s with ANC enabled, because why wouldn’t you? While it’s not great to get less than you’re promised, this is still reasonable within its price range.

Huawei FreeBuds 5i: Verdict

Huawei Freebuds 5i

The Huawei FreeBuds 5i aren’t your fancy set of ANC buds, and they’re priced accordingly.

General audio presentation is within acceptable limits for a set of buds at this price, and while ANC could do with being just a little bit more present, it’s also a good inclusion at this price point.

You can pick up a set of Huawei FreeBuds 5i here.

Huawei FreeBuds 5i: Alternatives

If your budget is a bit less constrained, consider units like the Bose QuietComfort II buds, Sony WF-1000XM4 or Apple AirPods Pro 2nd Gen.

Buy Jabra Elite 4 on Amazon:
Buy Amazon Echo Buds on Amazon:
Buy Sony Linkbuds S on Amazon:

But, well, those are pricey pairs.

Within the Huawei FreeBuds 5i’s budget space you could consider Jabra’s Elite 4, Amazon’s Echo Buds or Sony’s Linkbuds S.

And just for the hell of it, I tried to work out what the cheapest pair of ANC “capable” headphones I could find on Amazon were.

There’s a set on there that promise “Stereo Noise Cancellation” (SNC, I guess?) for $15.

Something tells me they might not be very good for that price. Call it a hunch.

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