I know I’m supposed to be outraged about tech companies blatantly copying each other’s designs, but I don’t have the naivety for it anymore. Huawei, the company that’s been shipping copycat Apple EarPods with its Android smartphones for years, has decided to also clone Apple’s wireless AirPods, and the product of that is called the Huawei FreeBuds. I got my hands on the FreeBuds at Huawei’s P20 launch event, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by their styling and comfort. Yes, Huawei is copying Apple; but I’m not a patent lawyer, I just want to see good tech proliferate, and the FreeBuds look promising.
If anything, I’m a little surprised that it took so long for another major company to copy Apple’s AirPod design. As I wrote in my recent assessment of the AirPods after long-term use, I’ve grown accustomed to their alien look and I believe the extended stem design is the right way to go with truly wireless earbuds. By pushing the Bluetooth antenna and the battery out of the earphone and into the stem, Apple’s been able to balance the contradictory demands of providing both a clean wireless signal and a highly respectable sonic output. Huawei is following the same blueprint with its FreeBuds.
Regrettably, Huawei wasn’t allowing any listening tests during its P20 event in Paris, however I was able to quickly try on the FreeBuds and I liked their fit and comfort. I’ve never had any issues keeping the AirPods in my ears (which has proven problematic for others), and the FreeBuds were similarly effortless to wear. Unlike the hard-shell AirPods, the FreeBuds come with a silicone tip attachment, which goes deeper into the ear than Apple’s buds do. That provides a higher degree of noise isolation, which is a feature the AirPods almost entirely lack. After a brief try, I’m left with the impression that the FreeBuds are a close match for the (physical) ease of use and wear of the AirPods. If you’re going to copy something, you might as well copy it well, right?
The FreeBuds have a slightly longer, slightly flatter stem than the AirPods, and their case is a little larger. Huawei promises double the AirPod battery life from a single charge, claiming you’ll get 10 hours of music from the FreeBuds without their case (and the case will recharge them to extend that further, just as with most other truly wireless buds). I like Huawei’s case, which has the same sort of shiny plastic finish as Apple’s. It closes with a satisfying click and opens with a simple push of the thumb, again just like Apple’s.
Huawei’s more generous with the colors than Apple, and you’ll be able to buy the FreeBuds in a glossy black variant as well as the familiar white. Even with the AirPods’ help, I’m not sure the world has yet adapted to seeing snow-white hockey sticks protruding from people’s ears, and so the even less common black might be the more socially disruptive option here. Then again, the black FreeBuds won’t be immediately confused for an Apple product, and that might be valuable to you.
In Europe, Huawei is pricing the FreeBuds at €159, which is a nice bit cheaper than the €179 AirPods price across the continent. The key question remaining is whether Huawei has succeeded in copying not only the look but also the sound and reliability of the AirPods — if that’s the case, I don’t think many consumers will mind what the FreeBuds are a copy of.