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Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM3: Noise-cancelling showdown

May the quietest earbuds win.

Published onMarch 19, 2021

A picture of a man wearing the Apple AirPods Pro (1st generation) noise-canceling true wireless earbuds.

Apple caught plenty of flak for ditching the headphone jack and made audio enthusiasts livid with the first and second-generation AirPods design. The Apple AirPods Pro is what happens when a company yields to customers’ priorities. They’re a massive upgrade from the original design. There’s no doubt that the AirPods Pro is great for iPhone users, but what about the rest of us?

We’re pitting Apple against the Sony WF-1000XM3 to settle which true wireless earbuds command the noise-cancelling market.

This Apple AirPods Pro vs. Sony WF-1000XM3 article comes from the audio experts at our sister site SoundGuys. Check out their in-depth Apple AirPods Pro vs. Sony WF-1000XM3.

Update, March 19, 2021: This article was updated to address the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro, Jabra Elite 85t, and Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 as alternatives.

Apple AirPods Pro vs. Sony WF-1000XM3: Fit and hardware

A woman wears the Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds and reaching for the touch panel of the left 'bud.

First thing’s first, how does the AirPods Pro construction contrast the Sony WF-10s00XM3? Well, the former features an all-white exterior with a minimalist design philosophy. Sony takes a more sophisticated swing at total wireless earbuds: black dominates the earbuds and case, and is complemented by copper accents. Both are plastic but only Apple went the extra mile by getting the AirPods Pro IPX4-certified, which gives users the option to exercise in them without worrying about voiding the warranty.

Start here: Headphone buying guide: A beginner’s guide to all things headphones

The AirPods Pro has been completely overhauled from the original and second-generation AirPods, meaning the case is shorter, stouter, and the earbuds are outfitted with nozzles that create an honest seal to the ear canal. Not only does this passively isolate you from noisy surroundings, but it’s the reason noise-cancelling functions at all. The nozzles aren’t angled as aggressively as the Sony WF-1000XM3, but whether this is a pro or con depends on your ear anatomy. Apple designers certainly did their homework when creating the silicone ear tips: rather than sliding each earbud collar over a plastic nozzle, you slide it into a moat-live divot surrounding the nozzle. This makes for a more secure hold while also making it easier to remove and re-place ear tips.

If you intend to use your earbuds during intense workouts, play it safe by getting the AirPods Pro.

Sony does have Apple beat on the diverse ear tip array it provides listeners. While Apple provides standard small, medium, and large ear tips, Sony supplies an array of options that vary in size, density, and material (e.g. memory foam and silicone). You’re more likely to find a proper fit with Sony’s earbuds.

On-board controls

Both headsets offer touch controls, but operation is different. The Apple AirPods Pro use force-sensitive stems to register stem squeezes. Sony’s true wireless earbuds sport glossy panels that require a combination of taps to control playback or cycle through listening modes. Both noise-cancelling units house proximity sensors for auto-ear detection. The AirPods Pro automatic ear detection functionality is confined to iOS devices, while Sony’s works across the board.

The AirPods Pro case supports wireless charging

The Apple AirPods Pro earbuds charging case in a man's hand.

Despite the whole Apple AirPower debacle, the AirPods Pro supports wireless charging with Qi-certified mats and includes a wireless charging case to boot. That’s right: you don’t have to choose which AirPods package you’re going to get, nor do you have to pay an extra $40 for a feature we’ve seen baked into cheaper options, such as the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus. If you don’t care for wireless charging, you’re limited to Apple’s Lightning cable; the Sony WF-1000XM3 charge by USB-C cable only.

This is one of the more subjective portions of the Apple AirPods Pro and Sony WF-1000XM3 comparison, so many of you are bound to feel differently about our decision. Since the Sony total wireless earbuds feature an elegant color palette, more natural control mechanism, and vast assemblage of ear tips, we’re giving the first round to Sony.

Which pair of earbuds is better for phone calls?

Apple continues to impress us with its headset microphone quality, and the Apple AirPods Pro microphones are something to be proud of. Voices are reproduced slightly more accurately across the frequency range of the human voice when compared to Sony’s integrated mics. Apple’s beam-forming microphones work in conjunction with a speech-detecting accelerometer to filter out ambient noise more effectively than most earbuds.

Apple AirPods Pro microphone demo:

Sony WF-1000XM3 microphone demo:

Just because Apple’s mics are great doesn’t prevent Sony from also having great microphone quality. In fact, the Sony WF-1000XM3 are great for personal and professional calls alike, but the AirPods Pro are better equipped to neutralize background noise and accurately relay your voice to the person on the other line. Either mic system is better than a standard phone but the AirPods Pro outdo the Sony WF-1000XM3 here.

Connection strength and Bluetooth codecs

The Apple AirPods Pro menu on an iPhone with noise-canceling toggled on.

Both headsets use Bluetooth 5.0 firmware and support one high-quality Bluetooth codec: AAC, which is great for iPhone owners, not so great for us Android fans. It makes sense that the AirPods Pro don’t support aptX, but remains frustrating that Sony’s don’t. They do, however, have a QN1e chip and DSEE HX processing, which allow for 24-bit audio signal processing, which benefits any platform. Apple uses its proprietary H1 chip, limiting benefits to iOS users like hands-free Siri access, instantaneous autoconnect, and energy efficiency.

Do the AirPods Pro or Sony WF-1000XM3 have better battery life?

Apple AirPods Pro Lightning input charging case

This category is the easiest to measure. The Apple AirPods Pro supplies 5.1125 hours of listening from a single charge (noise-cancelling on), while the Sony WF-1000XM3 provides just 4.76 hours of listening (noise-cancelling on). Both are impressive given how tiny the battery cells are but the AirPods Pro is the clear winner. Plus, Apple’s charging case affords more battery life when out and about: 24 hours total compared to Sony’s 19 hours total. If you need to recharge in a pinch, you can do so with either charging case

The Sony WF-1000XM3 has better noise-cancelling

The Apple AirPods Pro are undoubtedly the best AirPods to date, but they still can’t outshine the Sony WF-1000XM3 when considering noise-cancelling effectiveness.

Each chart depicts the frequency response of either the Apple or Sony true wireless earbuds. The higher up a line, the more that certain frequency range is cancelled out. By juxtaposing the charts, it’s obvious how well the Sony earbuds attenuate low-frequency noises like airplane engines and distracting street traffic. When flying from Atlanta to San Francisco, the Sony WF-1000XM3 made my two-legged trip a quiet one: extremely low (sub-60Hz) frequencies are rendered one-quarter as loud with Sony’s ANC technology as opposed to without it.

Related: Best noise-cancelling true wireless earbuds

Both earbuds offer different listening modes: noise-cancelling, Ambient Aware (or Transparency for Apple), and off. Ambient aware is useful for when you’re awaiting a train announcement or need to quickly respond to something. Regardless of which earbuds you go with, noise-cancelling protects our ears from noise-induced hearing loss by making us less inclined to increase volume as a means of drowning out background noise. If you want the best of what noise-cancelling true wireless earbuds have to offer, get the Sony WF-1000XM3.

Apple AirPods Pro vs. Sony WF-1000XM3: Sound quality

There are plenty of horns each headset toots when it comes to their respective feature sets, but ultimately, we’re comparing one pair of earbuds to another. Both Sony and Apple’s headsets are expensive, so you want to make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck when it comes to sound quality, too.

As with the previous section, we have some charts to help illustrate SoundGuys’ collected data. When it comes to frequency responses, the closer the line is to the red dotted 0dB SPL marker, the more accurate music reproduction sounds across the frequency spectrum. The Sony WF-1000XM3 elevate bass notes with tempered emphasis to mids. This low-end amplification gives your music some oomph or “punch” to it. The response isn’t neutral by any stretch of the imagination, but that can quickly be remedied via the Sony | Headphones Connect app, which lets users make granular EQ adjustments for a completely customized sound.

Android users don’t benefit from the AirPods Pro’s H1 chip, but all platforms benefit from Sony’s Q1ne chip and DSEE HX processing.

The closer a line hugs the dotted 0dB SPL mark, the more accurate music reproduction sounds. Let’s look at the Sony earbuds first: bass frequencies are elevated most with some emphasis to midrange notes. This low-end boost is what gives your songs that extra oomph. It’s by no means neutral but this response, and the AirPods, which we’ll see in a moment, plays well to popular music genres such as pop, hip-hop, and rap. If you’re into electronic music, you may want even more bass to your sound, in which case, this can be adjusted via the Sony | Headphones Connect app.

The Apple AirPods Pro also exaggerate low notes, but not as intensely as Sony’s ‘buds do. Upper midrange and treble frequencies do receive a substantial, 10dB boost, rendering them twice as loud as midrange frequencies (200-1500Hz), which is where most instrumental fundamental frequencies fall.

The Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds in the palm of a left hand with a beige book and leather watch on a table in the background.

On the whole, vocals sound really good with either headset. If you want a boomier sound, get the Sony earbuds and if you want more accurate vocals and to be able to perceive more detail from high notes, get the AirPods Pro.

This comes down to personal preference, but our objective measurements award the Sony (9.5 sound quality rating) a higher score, giving them a slight 0.3 point edge over the AirPods (9.2 sound quality rating).

Should you get the AirPods Pro or Sony WF-1000XM3?

Apple AirPods Pro

Both the Apple AirPods Pro and Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds are excellent, and the fact of the matter is that true wireless technology has improved immensely over the past few years. While the Sony WF-1000XM3 are better than the Apple AirPods Pro on paper, it comes down to what you prioritize most as a listener.

Sony WF-1000XM3

I’m more drawn to the Sony WF-1000XM3 design and on-board control operation. Plus, I thoroughly appreciate the low-end noise attenuation when flying or traveling by subway. That said, if you mainly need ANC to block out loud cubicle neighbors, the Apple AirPods Pro will prove more effective as they quiet sounds from 100Hz-1kHz more effectively. Perhaps your decision has nothing to do with noise-cancelling but rather with where you’ve already spent your money. Anyone beholden to Apple’s ecosystem will be more inclined to save for the AirPods Pro, which makes sense: they’re designed to work flawlessly with iOS products.

If the Sony WF-1000XM3 and Apple AirPods Pro aren’t for you

There are plenty of viable Apple AirPods alternatives flitting about, and there are even some excellent options that cost less than $50. If you own a Samsung Galaxy smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro is as good a headset as it gets. Samsung’s noise-cancelling technology is quite good (as long as you get a good fit), and the earbuds feature an IPX7 rating. As with previous Galaxy Buds iterations, the Buds Pro case supports USB-C and wireless charging. You can even toss it atop your Samsung Galaxy smartphone and charge it that way.

The Bose QuietComfort Earbuds noise cancelling true wireless earbuds rest outside of the charging case on a table and in front of a stack of books.
Lily Katz / Android Authority

Another great option for listeners who want the absolute best that ANC earbuds have to offer: the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2. Sennheiser’s noise-cancelling performance is bar none, and the design is as sleek as it comes. If you appreciate the finer things and want the ability to make slight changes to the sound profile, these ‘buds were made for you. Alternatively, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds and Jabra Elite 85t are also some of the best premium noise-cancelling options around.

If you’re an iPhone user who wants something that fits even better than the Apple AirPods Pro and don’t mind committing to a $250 budget, consider the Beats Powerbeats Pro for their ear hook design and 10-hour battery life. You sacrifice noise-cancelling but it may be worth it for athletes looking to seriously invest in workout earbuds.

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