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Hands-on review: Honor Magic Earbuds

Honor - Huawei’s “youth-orientated” sub-brand - has continued to expand its product portfolio with its latest take on Apple’s Airpods.

Beginning life as predominantly a smartphone company that effectively released cut-price versions of Huawei’s latest flagships, Honor has recently been expanding into laptops and earphones as the US ban on Huawei takes its toll.

A sceptic might see the move as a way to maintain brand presence in a gadget market that is turning its back on Honor smartphones, now barred from using Google services on Android.

From a distance the Honor Magic Earbuds are almost indistinguishable from Airpods, but at £90 they come in around £40 cheaper than Apple's earbuds.

They also come with active noise cancellation (ANC), which only the £250 Airpods Pro can muster from Apple’s range.

The ANC is surprisingly effective for such small buds. Outside noises were all but totally drowned out: great for public transport, not so great if someone is trying to talk to you (although holding the earphone’s touch button can turn this feature off at any moment).

Sound quality in general is good if not excellent, although those opting for wireless buds such as these need to be aware of the fact they are choosing form over function.

Bass inevitably suffers on headphones such as these, so fans of some genres might not love the audio performance. Honor doesn’t appear to have applied too much EQ bass-boosting on these buds - a cheap trick that some manufacturers use to artificially “improve” sound quality that normally results in a muddy audio swamp.

The higher ends of the spectrum come out relatively well-rounded and warm, with slight sibilance creeping in at higher volumes.

While it may be a question of personal aesthetics, this reviewer has always hated the “dangly earrings” look of Airpods and unfortunately this questionable design choice has made its way fully intact to Honor's Magic Earbuds.

Nevertheless, many of the neat little features pioneered by Apple’s headphones are replicated here to great effect. Removing an earbud pauses the audio immediately, although reinserting does not restart it unless they are paired with a phone running Huawei’s homegrown version of Android EMUI.

This is a strange decision, as all Android-equipped smartphones should be able to handle such a feature. Perhaps this is something Honor could implement further down the line with software updates.

Each bud also comes with its own touch-based button that be customised to carry out one of several different actions. For example, a double-tap on the left bud will pause/play the audio, while a double-tap on the right will fast forward or skip – a feature especially useful to podcast fans who want to easily skip through ads. Other options for the buttons include waking the voice assistant or skipping back to the previous song.

Holding the button on either side toggles the ANC: this function cannot be customised, sadly. Sometimes the double-tap recognition could be hit and miss and the Magic Earbuds were noticeably less capable of recognising the gesture when walking briskly and thus tapping them less precisely.

Pairing is especially speedy and responsive: by the time the buds reach your ear from the case, they're ready to go and audio latency between the two buds was never apparent. Unlike some of the first-generation wireless buds, either bud can be used on its own if users want to keep one ear open for outside sounds or mainly use it as a quick hands-free chatting option.

Call quality can be a difficult thing to perfect on buds such as these, with the microphone relatively far away from a user’s mouth, a balance has to be struck between allowing enough near-distance audio in so your voice can be heard, but not so much that passing traffic drowns out what you’re saying.

In some ways Honor has pulled off a remarkable trick with the Magic Earbud’s dual microphones. Your voice can still be heard whilst cycling down a hilly, traffic-filled road with windy surroundings, something that many other headphones fail to achieve entirely. On the other hand they have a tendency to pick up some unwanted nearby sounds, such as typing on a keyboard or the sound of pans banging around in the kitchen all too clearly. The buds generally thrived in noisier environments outdoors, but were not so effective indoors, this may be fixable with software optimisations but time will only tell if that actually happens.

Honor claims the battery should last around three hours with ANC turned on and three and a half hours with it off. Real-world usage sees them come in a bit under this. The included case should also be able to recharge them four to five times before it runs dry. They do tend to drain when in standby, even when not being used. After leaving them on a desk for a few days, without any usage, you will find that the battery has depleted a fair bit on its own. Battery life is not fantastic on these headphones as a rule: three hours is quite a bit worse than the five hours cited by Apple for its Airpods or the six-hour life achieved by Sony’s WF-1000XM3 (which are admittedly a lot bulkier).

The Magic Earbuds manage to replicate many of the features found on more expensive headphones of their type very well. Occasional niggles with button recognition and less-than-stellar battery life are clues to why this pair is on the cheaper side. Most users who do not class themselves as “audiophiles”, however, probably can’t go too wrong picking up the Magic Earbuds in place of pricier alternatives.

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