Google Assistant integration
Intuitive touch controls
Large charging case
The Sony WF-1000XM3 is another superb noise-cancelling headset from the behemoth company. These flagship true-wireless earbuds pack a punch with their ANC performance which effectively quiets ambient noise, be it chatter at a coffee shop or an airplane engine. Firmware updates are available via Sony’s free app, making these a smart long-term investment. Let’s see if these are still worth it and how they stack up against the likes of the Apple AirPods Pro.
Editor’s note: this Sony WF-1000XM3 review was updated on July 5, 2020, to note the Panasonic RZ-S500W as a viable noise-cancelling alternative.
Using the Sony WF-1000XM3
From the charging case to the earbuds, the design is gorgeous. Regardless of which colorway you choose, black or silver, you’ll see that WF-1000XM3s radiate sophistication. Sony didn’t sacrifice function in favor of form, though; quite the contrary. The underbelly joins the housing to the nozzle and consists of a rounded, rubber surface. This friction-resistant material kept the earbuds in place when I was running to catch the subway, a frequent occurrence.
The earbuds are remarkably comfortable and may be worn hours on end pain-free.
Each earbud has an inlaid circular panel for tap-guided touch controls, which can be remapped with the Headphone Connect app. The default settings designate the left panel for noise-cancelling and ambient sound modes, while the right earbud is for playback controls. You can say “Ok Google” to have notifications read aloud, set reminders, and so on.
Sony markets ambient sound mode as a great way to have a quick conversation or hear the train conductor, but doing the former felt rude and the latter required more effort than removing the earbuds. After all, proximity sensors automatically pause and play music when one earbud is removed or inserted, respectively. As someone who enjoys evening strolls, ambient sound mode is a great compromise between being entertained and remaining aware of my surroundings.
Battery life and connection quality
The earbuds have fine standalone battery life, which allows for 4.76 hours of listening. You can quickly charge the earbuds; 10 minutes in the case allows for 1.5 hours of playback. A full charge cycle for the earbuds requires 1.5 hours. The charging case looks great and matches the earbuds perfectly. Its rubberized finish makes gripping easy, which is great for butterfingers like me. The case also supports NFC pairing if you don’t want to do the whole Bluetooth menu dance. It is, however, quite large for what it affords: an additional three charge cycles. You’ll need to set aside 3.5 hours to fully charge the case alone via the USB-C cable.
The Bluetooth 5.0 earbuds maintain a stable connection within a 10-meter wireless range. Connection strength was never an issue during testing, and there’s an option to prioritize stability over sound quality if you experience hiccups.
Is Sony’s noise-cancelling any good?
Noise-cancelling is superb, especially when it comes to low-frequency sounds (think engines and A/C units.) When I flew from Atlanta to San Francisco, there was a marked difference when toggling ANC on and off. I was astonished by how well these performed, and I peacefully napped on my flight. Passive isolation is good, too, assuming you pick properly fitting ear tips.
How do the Sony WF-1000XM3 sound?
Although the earbuds only support two Bluetooth codecs, SBC and AAC, sound quality and clarity are great. This can be contributed to both the DSEE HX processing and Q1Ne chip, which also improves energy efficiency. Regardless of musical genre, instrumental separation is audible and the recreation of three-dimensional space, while not up to snuff with full-fledged 3-D sound, is accurate.
Similar to Sony’s flagship over-ear headset, these earbuds generously bump bass frequencies. However, the exaggeration isn’t at the expense of vocal clarity because the earbuds also emphasize mid-range frequencies, though to a lesser extent than the bass. This sometimes made harmonic resonances from voices, pianos, and guitars difficult to hear. It was most obvious during instrumentally crowded rock songs. Even then, you can go into the Headphones Connect app and EQ the sound signature accordingly.
Can you use the earbuds for phone calls?
The microphone is fine for casual calls and passable for business calls. Whomever you’re speaking with will be able to detect that you’re using earbuds, rather than a handset, because of a slight echo. Additionally, the ‘buds are not great at combating external noise. My friend could hear the wind, traffic, and passersby as we spoke. However, a major perk of the Sony WF-1000XM3 is how voices are relayed through both earbuds. Many true-wireless options only transmit others’ voices through a single earpiece.
Sony WF-1000XM3 microphone demo:
Are the Sony WF-1000XM3 better than the Apple AirPods Pro?
It depends on what you prioritize in a pair of noise cancelling earbuds; yes, this is a cop-out but the fact is both headsets are at the top of their game. You’re going to be happy with performance no matter which one you get.
iPhone users will fully enjoy everything the Apple AirPods Pro afford due to the H1 chip integration. This facilitates hands-free access to Siri, quick device switching, and better battery life. Android users also enjoy fairly long battery life due to the Bluetooth 5.0 firmware, and the AirPods Pro outperform the Sony WF-1000XM3 by 20 minutes on a single charge (5 hours, 6 minutes compared to 4 hours, 46 minutes).
As far as noise-cancelling performance is concerned, both are excellent. Sony’s totally wireless earbuds edge out the AirPods Pro with regards to low-end attenuation, making them a slightly better option for flying: super low rumbles and hums (e.g. airplane engines) are rendered quieter with the WF-1000XM3 than the AirPods Pro. Both headsets support an ambient aware mode and on-board touch controls.
The AirPods Pro have better battery life, but the Sony WF-1000XM3 cancel low-frequency sounds more effectively.
Sony’s headset sounds a boomier due to greater bass frequency amplification, and the AirPods Pro are better at reproducing accurate vocals and more emphasized high notes. It comes down to personal preference here. If you have time, I implore you to read the full comparison to get a more comprehensive understanding of how these top-tier ANC earbuds compare to one another.
Sony WF-1000XM3 review: Should you buy it?
If you have a flexible budget, yes; the Sony WF-1000XM3 demonstrate why expensive headphones are worth it. These noise-cancelling earbuds work wonders while remaining comfortable for hours at a time. Many issues that plague true-wireless earbuds are remedied by all the technology packed into these fashionable earbuds.
My only gripe is the lack of an official IP rating. If listeners were able to exercise with them worry free, they would be a much greater threat to the Beats Powerbeats Pro. As we know by now, every product has its shortcomings. Of course, you still can exercise with these, but if water damage occurs, you’re out of luck and $230. Even with their drawbacks, the Sony WF-1000XM3 are some of the best true-wireless earbuds to date.
Save money and get the Panasonic RZ-S500W
The Panasonic RZ-S500W uses hybrid noise-cancelling technology that automatically scales across 50 levels of intensity depending on your environment. It costs nearly $80 less than the Sony WF-1000XM3 and does a far better job of rendering midrange frequencies null; they sound 4-6 times quieter with Panasonic’s technology. However, this isn’t necessarily a good thing: I was disoriented by the noise cancellation and had to decrease its strength via the Panasonic app. Most listeners, however, shouldn’t experience as issue with this as it takes just a few minutes for our brains to adjust to the feedforward and feedback ANC technology.
Other features include an IPX4 water-resistant rating, great sound quality, and a wonderful microphone array that accurately transmits audio to the listener on the other end of a call. Quick charging is supported, and you get a solid 5.5 hours of playtime with noise-cancelling on its highest setting.