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Sony WF-1000XM3 review: Still a great pair of ANC true wireless earbuds
Sony Sony WF-1000XM3
What we like
What we don't like
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.
Update. June 2021: Added new frequency response and noise-cancelling charts, and addressed information about the Sony WF-1000XM4.
What’s it like to use 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 hours, 46 minutes of listening. You can quickly charge the earbuds; 10 minutes in the case allows for 90 minutes of playback. A full charge cycle for the earbuds requires 90 minutes. 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 nearly four hours to fully charge the case alone via the USB-C cable.
Do the Sony WF-1000XM3 stay connected?
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. Unlike the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones, these earbuds can’t connect to two devices at a time. Instead, you must manually disconnect from one device before you connect the earpieces to a subsequent one.
The WF-1000XM3 earphones support just two Bluetooth codecs, SBC and AAC. Android owners may observe some streaming quality inconsistencies, and if it gets too bothersome, you might want to force SBC streaming altogether. Even with the omission of aptX support, sound quality is very good. This may be attributed to DSEE HX processing and Q1Ne chip, the latter of which also improves energy efficiency.
Is Sony’s noise-cancelling any good?
Noise-cancelling is fine but can’t compare to newer true wireless models like the Amazon Echo Buds (2nd Gen) or even the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro. You’ll notice the difference when you toggle ANC on and off but the bulk of the work is done by the interchangeable ear tips which effectively block out background noises, particularly those above 1kHz. Our charts depict optimal performance, so it’s important to take the time to find properly fitting ear tips.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 greatly improves upon active noise-cancelling and passive isolation performance thanks to the included memory foam ear tips and software-powered ear tip fit test. Then again, you have to pay quite the premium for the latest tech, $279 to be exact.
How do the Sony WF-1000XM3 sound?
Similar to the Sony WH-1000XM3 and WH-1000XM4, these earbuds amplify bass frequencies and you will notice some auditory masking especially in songs with percussive choruses. This may make it hard to hear detail from vocals and string instruments. 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:
How does the microphone sound to you?
Sony WF-1000XM3 review: Should you buy it?
The Sony WF-1000XM3 often go on sale, especially with the release of the Sony WF-1000XM4, but these earbuds are no longer at the top of the pack. While the ANC isn’t the greatest, they do remain quite comfortable for long listening sessions and are fairly compact relative to offerings from Bose or JBL.
My only gripe is the lack of an official IP rating, something Sony added to the WF-1000XM4. 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.
Samsung owners should get the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Prowork seamlessly with Samsung Galaxy smartphones and very well across Android phones. The noise-cancelling is surprisingly good at combatting low-frequency sounds and music sounds clear with a slight bump to the base notes. Samsung put its earphones through the ringer and they emerged with an IPX7 rating. The touch controls are hyper-sensitive, but this is nothing new to the Galaxy Buds series. If you only have $200 to spend on a set of true wireless earbuds, these are the earphones to get. If you have an iPhone, you might not want these earbuds as the iOS Samsung Galaxy Buds app doesns’t currently support this headset.
Learn more: Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro review: Goodbye, beans
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.
Read more: Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM3
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 onboard touch controls.
Sony’s headset sounds “boomier” due to greater bass note amplification, and the AirPods Pro are better at reproducing accurate vocals and more emphasized high notes. It comes down to personal preference here.
Don’t forget about the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds
If you want an extremely comfortable pair of earbuds with a pretty good microphone system, go with the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds. These feature an IPX4 rating and use the company’s StayHear Max ear tips to keep the earphones in place while you walk around and exercise. The USB-C case fast charges the earphones, and you can wirelessly charge the case if you have a compatible charging mat. The earphones are tuned to please general consumers with amplified bass and upper-midrange notes, your music will sound engaging and clear.