Sony WF-1000XM3 ($228)
Battery: 16 Hours
Smart Assistant: Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa
What We Like: Ridiculously good sound quality, fantastic app, huge range of features
What We Don't: Bigger than most other true wireless buds, imprecise controls.
See the Sony WF-1000XM3s
Putting noise-canceling technology into a pair of earbuds is incredibly difficult. Doing it well is almost impossible. Fortunately, nobody discouraged Sony from trying. The WF-1000XM3 true wireless earbuds not only pack in genuinely brilliant cancelation, but they’re also some of the best buds we’ve ever tested. In this review, we look into the sound, design, comfort and fit, packaging and accessories, specs, and more of the Sony WF-1000XM3s. To see how they stack up against other models, check out our list of the best earbuds.
Overall Sound Quality
The Sony WF-1000XM3s are a pair of true wireless earbuds - as in, two single buds with no cables connecting them. They’re relatively expensive for a pair of earbuds, at $228, which means they cost only slightly less than the $249 Apple AirPods Pro. But here’s the thing: the WF-1000XM3s sound significantly better. Sony are absolute masters at extracting every ounce of detail from the music, and the WF-1000XM3s only confirm this. No true wireless earbuds from any other brand – Apple, Bose, or Jabra – sound quite this good.
It’s not just that the sound delivers exquisite detail. It absolutely does, but that’s not the reason we love these so much. It’s also not the confident bass or the surprisingly wide soundstage. What we love most about the WF-1000XM3s is the overall feeling of assured audio quality. There’s a laid-back nature to the sound; an elegant confidence, like watching a jazz pianist improvising, knowing that they’ve got the skill and the talent to make just about anything work. We found that whatever genre we put through the WF-1000XM3s – metal, hip-hop, classical, pop – the sound never faltered. Everything felt robust and clean, with each instrument in its proper place, nothing overcooked or fatiguing. Even tricky parts, like the grungy bass on a metal track, felt solid. Compared to the Apple AirPods Pro, there’s no question which earbuds are better. Don’t get us wrong: the AirPods are good, occasionally great, but they just can’t match the Sony buds for sheer audio mastery.
Sony have dabbled with true wireless earbuds before. We have fond memories of the WF-1000X earbuds, which were a $90 pair that covered the basics but not much else. The WF-1000XM3s show that those earlier earbuds were just a rehearsal - a chance to iron out the kinks before the curtain rose. Well, it’s risen, and we can only give the WF-1000XM3s a standing ovation. They sound absolutely superb.
Of course, sounding good is only one of the reasons for buying a pair of WF-1000XM3s. The other is noise-canceling. The sheer joy and convenience of a pair of noise-canceling earbuds, especially while travelling, can’t be sniffed at. Bose are the unquestioned king of cancelation – their Bose Noise-Canceling Headphones 700 offer the single best noise canceling we’ve ever heard. But those are over-ear headphones, and expensive ones, at $399. When it comes to earbuds, Bose’s offerings haven’t been quite as good. Now they’ve got an additional hurdle to climb, because the cancelation on the Sony WF-1000XM3s is outstanding.
One of the most frustrating things about any type of noise-canceling is how it can muffle the music slightly. That’s not a problem here. The WF-1000XM3s offer only the merest hint that the music is being affected when the cancelation is active. And when it’s active, the outside world is very effectively turned off. Although low, constant noises demonstrate this best, such as plane engines and the sound of traffic, it’s quite easy to block out voices, alarms, and just about anything else. It also helps that you can fine-tune the cancelation, balancing it with Ambient Sound Control (more on this below) to give you precisely the amount of cancelation you want. We think the cancelation offered here is better than that found on the aforementioned AirPods Pro, and there is no competing pair of earbuds from Bose that even come close. The QuietComfort 20s are the nearest competitors and they just aren’t as good.
Of course, adding in all that noise-canceling technology does make the earbuds a little larger than we might have liked. We will talk about this in more detail when we discuss the look and design of the WF-1000XM3s, below. Or you could just jump there now.
Ambient Sound Control and Adaptive Sound
You don’t win the headphone wars with just noise-canceling and great sound, even though you may be the best at of both of those. Sony have two more weapons in their arsenal, and they’re both equally useful and fun to play with. The first is known as Ambient Sound Control. It’s the opposite of noise-canceling, in that it deliberately lets in the outside world. You can control exactly how much you hear, and how much is canceled out, using a simple slider in the app. Setting the slider to 0 turns noise-canceling on full, and setting it to 20 turns it off completely in favour of ambient sound (both work while music is playing, and while it is paused). It’s a great idea, but we did find that even at maximum settings, Ambient Sound Control didn’t let in as much of the world as we would have liked. The Focus On Voice option, a simple checkbox in the app, allegedly amplifies any person’s voice around you. For example, you could use this setting to make sure you don’t miss any announcements in the airport. In practice, we found it made minimal difference. The Ambient Sound Control is nice to have, but it isn’t essential. A similar feature offered by the $249 Apple AirPods Pro is better, but only slightly.
The other interesting feature in the WF-1000XM3s is Adaptive Sound. This tracks whether you are sitting, walking, running, or on a commute on the train or bus, and automatically adjusts the balance between ambient sound and noise-canceling. It’s a similar feature to one which we saw in the Jabra Elite 85H over-ear headphones (full review here). Their version was called SmartSound, and it did much of the same thing, only not nearly as smooth as Sony’s. You can adjust everything, from how much cancelation each setting provides to how long it takes to turn on after detection. It’s not a game changer, but we found it to be very useful, especially if you’re the kind of person who wears your earbuds all day every day.
360 Reality Audio
If Ambient Sound Control and Adaptive Sound weren’t enough, you can even use the app to activate something known as 360 Reality Audio. If you listen to music services like Tidal, you’ll sometimes come across albums – Kind of Blue by Miles Davis is one that springs to mind – that have been recorded in what amounts to surround sound, with a much wider soundstage than a traditional stereo song. 360 Reality Audio lets you take advantage of that. It not only delivers you the full surround experience, but also analyses your ears. It does this by having you take a picture of each ear, which is then used to adjust the sound for maximum clarity.
We must admit that we have no idea how this works. It’s vastly different to any sort of sound personalisation we’ve come across before, like the Nuraphone (full review here) headphones which use a variety of tones to map the inside of your ears. We can say, however, that the effect is incredible. 360 Reality Audio sounds wonderful. Of course, you not only have to be signed up to services like Tidal or Deezer – this won’t work on Spotify – but you also have to be in the mood for one of the very few albums actually recorded in surround sound. As such, you shouldn’t buy the WF-1000XM3s just for their 360 Reality Audio; it’s nice to have, but won’t be useful for everyone.
Generally, the call quality of the Sony WF-1000XM3s was good. However, we did encounter a few incidences where the other person couldn’t hear us, forcing us to disconnect the buds and reverted to speaking on our phones. While this didn’t happen all the time, we found it concerning that it happened more than once. If you find yourself taking calls in noisy environments often, you may want to steer clear of these earbuds. For a pair that gives smooth, easy call quality no matter what the circumstances, we recommend the ubiquitous Apple AirPods (2nd Gen).
Looks and Build Quality
Here is something you should be aware of if you’re interested in buying the Sony WF-1000XM3s: they are big. Bigger than many other true wireless earbuds we’ve tested. They have to be; you don’t get technology like this into an earbud and keep a compact frame. But it does mean that, while they certainly aren’t uncomfortable to wear, they do stick out significantly more than others, like the Apple AirPod Pro. If you don’t like the idea of noticeable earbuds protruding from your ears, then you may want to steer clear of these.
Other than the large size, the design is impeccable. Sony have really mastered their house look, and the black housing with gold accents is stunning. It worked well on their WH-1000XM3 headphones (full review here), and it looks equally good on the earbuds. There’s a subtle logo, a gold microphone slot, and a subdued blinking light that lets you know the power status and connection of the buds.
Waterproofing and Working Out with the Sony WF-1000XM3s
One thing you don’t get, however, is waterproofing. The Sony WF-1000XM3s do not have any waterproof rating whatsoever, and we would not advise taking these to the gym or out in the rain. While they will probably withstand a few splashes, they are absolutely not designed to get wet. If you’re looking for a pair of earbuds that are a little more rugged, or that can handle a sweaty gym session, we recommend the Jabra Elite Active 65t (full review here). They are a $190 pair of buds that offer IP56 waterproofing, a rating that means they can withstand some serious soaking and dust. While they don’t sound quite as good as the Sony earbuds, they are better for use in the gym or outdoors.
Controls for true wireless earbuds can often defeat engineers, and we’ve had plenty of examples where they just don’t work as they should. Sony have erred on the side of caution here. There are no volume controls on the buds, and all volume is handled by your smartphone. Instead, each earbud has a small touchpad on the outer housing, and you can change the functions of each one in the app. You could, for example, tap the left earbud to switch off noise-canceling, and tap the right one to pause the music.
We love how customizable this is, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the controls are difficult to use. They always seem to demand a more precise tap than would be ideal, and they often failed to pick up the first or second tap. They also expose some slightly strange problems – pause the music, and the earbud which you’ve designated as the play/pause control stops first, with the other bud stopping a second later. We do appreciate that Sony are trying to keep things simple, but there are better ways to do this. One of the best true wireless earbud control schemes we’ve ever come across was on the Beats Powerbeats Pro (full review here). They’re a $250 pair of true wireless earbuds with physical controls mirrored on each bud. That meant there was no chance of accidentally pressing the wrong control. It’s a pity that Sony didn’t attempt this, as we think a simple set of physical buttons would have worked better here.
Update: right before this review was published, Sony confirmed they were adding additional features in a firmware update. One of these was volume controls, which could be mapped to each of the touchpads. We tested this and it worked very well indeed. So we are prepared to cut them a break here...maybe.
Sony’s Headphones Connect is a textbook example of how to design a good app. Everything you need is right there on a single page. All of the features we mentioned above, plus useful information on the earbuds themselves, including full tutorials for how to connect and operate them. The design is exquisite and the app also works for other Sony headphones, like the aforementioned WH-1000XM3 over-ears. The app is so useful that we ended up putting it on our phone’s home screen, next to our streaming music apps. The only thing we didn’t like was that the app is called Headphones Connect, rather than Sony Headphones Connect, which means it’s difficult to search for if you forget the name. This may or may not have happened to us once or twice.
The battery life of the Sony WF-1000XM3s is good, if unspectacular. We got around four hours of listening per charge, at around 70% volume, with noise-canceling on. This time was reduced a little if we made calls. There are three extra charges in the case, making for roughly 16 hours of battery life. That’s not bad, but it definitely isn’t the best on the market. The Apple AirPods Pro offer roughly 24 hours of battery life, and there are several less-expensive models that offer significantly more battery. In particular, the $33 SoundPEATS True Wireless, which don’t match the WF-1000XM3s on sound features, but offer a massive 36 hours of battery life. In the $200-plus price range, the Sony WF-1000XM3s have battery life that is on the lower end of the spectrum, but it’s still long enough to be respectable.
A recent firmware update, shortly before this review went live, added support for the Amazon Alexa smart assistant, as well as minor upgrades like being able to see the battery status of the charging case within the app. We tested the smart assistant, and it works well, coming to life with a simple press on the touchpad. Google assistant was already included, and it’s great to see Sony broadening its rich. Don’t expect Siri to appear any time soon though – Apple isn’t known for playing well with others
Despite their size, the Sony WF-1000XM3s are light (0.3oz per bud) and are supremely comfortable to wear. We had no issues in using them for long periods of time, and it was only around the four or five hour mark that we found ourselves getting a little uncomfortable. It helps that Sony offer several different tip sizes in the package, meaning it’s very easy to get a good fit. While the WF-1000XM3s don’t have the tip-size assistant found in the Apple AirPod Pros, where the earbuds will literally measure your ear canal and tell you if you need to move up or down the tip size, we had no problem with the comfort or fit.
The most important accessory for any pair of true wireless earbuds is the case. And when it comes to the Sony WF-1000XM3s, there is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that the case is large – much larger than most other true wireless earbuds we’ve tested. The Jabra Elite Active 65t buds, which don’t exactly have a small case themselves, felt dwarfed by the monster that was the WF-1000XM3 case. You can slip it into a pocket, but you will know it’s there.
However, there’s plenty of good news to balance out the bad. For one thing, the case looks superb – like a piece of high-tech equipment, with a solid fliptop lid, and a handy charging light. It feels robust and we can easily see it protecting the earbuds from a fall. The buds snap in magnetically and have handy left and right indicators. Despite its size, it's one of the best cases we’ve tested.
Beyond that, you get a simple USB-C charging cable and a variety of ear tip sizes. We do want to say that we love Sony’s packaging – as you can see from the photos, it’s designed to be informative as well as functional, and makes for a great experience when you open it up. As you’d expect from a pair of earbuds that cost over $200.
What We Like
- The Sony WF-1000XM3s are the best noise-canceling earbuds we’ve ever tested.
- The sound of the Sony WF-1000XM3s is outstanding, with gorgeous detail and clarity.
- The features you get are extraordinary, and well worth the price of admission.
- The Sony WF-1000XM3s are comfortable to wear for long periods.
What We Don’t
- The Sony WF-1000XM3s are bigger than most other true wireless earbuds and tend to stick out of the ears.
- The controls of the Sony WF-1000XM3s feel imprecise and fiddly.
- The Ambient Sound Control feature on the WF-1000XM3s doesn’t work as well as we’d like.
|Sony WF-1000XM3||$228||True Wireless||16Hrs||No||Google, Alexa||Unknown||Unknown|
|Apple AirPods Pro||$235||True Wireless||24Hrs||No||Siri||Unknown||Unknown|
|Bose SoundSport Free||$199||True Wireless||14Hrs||IPX4||Google, Siri||Unknown||Unknown|
|Jabra Elite Active 65t||$190||True Wireless||15Hrs||IP56||Google, Alexa, Siri||16Ω||103dB|
|Sony WF-1000X||$88||True Wireless||9Hrs||No||None||Unknown||Unknown|
*WP. = Waterproofing
**Imp. = Impedance
***Sens. = Sensitivity
There is fierce competition in the world of true wireless earbuds. For the record, we think the Sony WF-1000XM3s are the best high-end earbuds you can buy right now – we’ve talked about it in more detail in our roundup of the best earbuds of this year – but there’s definitely some competition. Arguably the biggest challenger is the Apple AirPods Pro. They are the latest version of the AirPods and are more expensive than the Sony buds, at $249. The noise cancelation and sound quality aren’t quite as good, but are still excellent features. The AirPods Pro are extremely comfortable, and offer an outstanding transparency mode, beating that delivered by the Sony buds. They also offer significantly better call quality and 24 hours of battery life - eight more than the Sonys. We think it’s worth buying the less expensive Sony buds, which are better overall performers, but the AirPods Pro have a lot to recommend about them.
We’re frequently asked if Bose or Sony make better noise-canceling earbuds. It isn’t even a question. Sony are easily better here – the cancelation on the WF-1000XM3s is outstanding, much better than that offered by the nearest Bose competitor. Over-ear headphones are a different matter, but if you’re talking earbuds and you still want Bose, then we recommend forgoing noise canceling and picking up a pair of $199 Bose SoundSport Free. They are outstanding earbuds, especially for working out, and offer great sound quality.
If you want a pair of earbuds to use in the gym, we recommend the Jabra Elite Active 65t earbuds. Unlike the Sony earbuds, they are reasonably waterproof, and Jabra also deliver excellent, muscular sound quality, with an emphasis on the bass. These are a little less expensive than the Sony buds, at $190, but they still managed to be some of the best you can buy right now. They are rugged, and have excellent battery life (15 hours, versus 12 for the Sony). Ultimately, the WF-1000XM3s are better earbuds, but they simply can’t compete with the Jabras’ full weatherproofing and sweat proofing.
Sony offer several other earbuds, and the most direct comparison to the newest WF-1000XM3 is the old Sony WF-1000X. They are among the first true wireless earbuds Sony ever released and it shows. The charging case is massive and the noise-canceling is rudimentary at best. However, surprisingly, the WF-1000X incorporates Adaptive Sound Control, just like the newer WF-1000XM3 buds. Ultimately, the biggest advantage of the WF-1000X buds is that they are less than half the price of the new ones, making them a good buy if you’re on a budget. And of course, if you have a bag to put the case in, because you are never going to fit it in your pocket.