Sony WF-1000XM3 review: Still superb, but no longer unique
“The WF-1000XM3 are a groundbreaking pair of fully wireless earbuds.”
- Awesome sound and call quality
- Fantastic battery life
- Great noise canceling
- Compelling app-based features
- Comfortable fit
- No water-resistance
- A bit bulky
For years, we’ve considered Sony one of our favorite headphone makers in the game, with its noise-canceling WH-1000XM3 (and their two predecessors) perennially topping our list of the best headphones, and earning editor’s choice honors. When Sony announced its new true wireless earbuds, equipped with the same amazing noise-reduction tech the company has packaged inside its award-winning over-ears, we paid attention.
The new WF-1000XM3 earbuds are everything we had hoped for, offering substantial noise-canceling, great fidelity, and the same great app-based features we have loved from the company for years. But in the scant few months since their debut, Apple’s AirPods Pro made their own splashy launch. We still think very highly of the WF-1000XM3, but Apple has proven that Sony’s accomplishments are no longer unique.
Fit and finish
The WF-1000XM3’s name confusingly bears an “M3,” or Mark 3, to match the uber-popular over-ear WH-1000XM3, even though these are only Sony’s second pair of true wireless earbuds. The new buds come in a slick black-and-copper charging case with a flat top embossed with the Sony logo.
That USB-C powered case is substantially sized, but can still fit in most pockets, and the flat top allows you to easily lay it top-down on surfaces when you’ve got the buds in. The cap flips up to reveal the two earbuds inside, and a big red LED in the front of the case lets you see if they’re charging.
Aesthetically, the buds look well made, but aren’t much to write home about when it comes to style. That’s likely a purposeful choice by the Sony team — given that many buyers of noise-canceling headphones are commuters and businesspeople, it makes sense the company would stick to a tried and true design, with simple, pill-shaped housings and a black-and-gray color scheme with small copper accents. They’re bulkier than the AirPods Pro, yet also understated compared to Apple’s iconic white golf tees.
If you’ve been in the working world for some time, the look will be familiar: The headphones resemble miniature versions of the Bluetooth headset you might have worn around town in 2006, with the oval-shaped shell joining an ergonomic inner section with rounded acoustic chambers that culminate in soft silicone ear tips. Sony includes two different tip thicknesses in three sizes (small, medium, and large) each, all but guaranteeing you’ll find a pair that’s right for you.
Features and controls
There are very few wireless earbuds that compete with the Sony WF-1000XM3 in terms of features. For starters, the headphones boast an outstanding 8 hours of battery life per charge with noise-canceling off, and a still AirPods Pro-besting 6 hours with it on. The case also has plenty of juice, offering three full charges for 18 hours of backup battery if you’re using the headphones with noise-canceling on, and 24 hours with it off.
There’s also a quick charge feature that will get you 90 minutes of playback in just 10 minutes – great for those who are forgetful about recharging before commutes or short flights.
A glossy touchpad on each bud’s exterior allows you to play and pause music, access your voice assistant, and change songs, but Sony has also packed in some other nifty extras, including the ability to long-touch the left earbud to temporarily pipe in sound from the outside world, so you won’t have to remove a headphone while you’re trying to hear announcements or make a drink order on a plane.
Speaking of removing your earbuds, like the AirPods Pro, the WF-1000XM3 have sensors that pause music and eventually go to sleep when you remove them. Pop them back in and they’ll resume playback or turn on and re-connect, depending on how long you’ve left them.
In terms of their marquee feature, noise-canceling, Sony has packed the tiny buds with its QN1e noise-canceling chip (the same one inside its popular over-ear noise cancelers) and placed two microphones on each earbud to help block out the outside world. That processing works like an absolute charm, easily drowning out keyboard clicks, public transit noise, and loud in-office conversations. You won’t get the same insane reduction you’ll hear on the bigger WH-1000xM3 over-ears, but these headphones have a staggering amount of reduction for their size, and coupled with the fact that they offer excellent passive noise isolation on their own, we’re very impressed with their performance in loud spaces.
Each earbud can also be used separately on calls or for music, and the microphones and noise-canceling worked wonders for call clarity, with sound quality that is akin to many dedicated Bluetooth headsets.
Unlike many headphones, where apps seem mostly designed to aid pairing, the Sony Connect app offers some great features, including the ability to adjust equalization, set your desired level of noise-canceling, and assigning the button for Google Assistant — the primary voice assistant on these headphones.
They don’t have an IP rating for water resistance, so gym use is an at-your-own-risk situation
For some, the WF-1000XM3’s biggest shortcoming is that they don’t have any water resistance, so gym use is an at-your-own-risk situation. When they launched — and when we first reviewed them — they also wouldn’t let you control the volume without reaching for your phone or pulling up your voice assistant. Sony has since fixed that with a new option in its app that lets you choose between volume control and ANC on/off.
Normally, we’d hound a manufacturer of $230 in-ear headphones for a lack of water resistance, given that one of the best use-cases for true wireless earbuds is at the gym where sweat can be a serious factor. However, we don’t think the absence is a big deal here for two reasons. First, the headphones seem designed more for office and business trips than the iron palace, and second, Sony claims it hasn’t gotten any complaints about the previous generation earbuds breaking at the gym. Sony seems confident you can use the WF-1000XM3 for workouts, provided you’re not sweating buckets.
Still, Apple’s AirPods Pro manage to offer IPX4, with most of the same bells and whistles.
Sony equipped its newest earbuds with its proprietary DSEE HX engine — designed to upscale lo-fidelity sound for better overall clarity — and it works wonders on the WF-1000XM3, combining with noise-canceling to provide some of the best fidelity you’ll find in wireless earbuds.
We’ve listened to everything from the lush pop of Gen Z icon Billie Eilish to indie rockers Golden Daze, finding ourselves consistently impressed by everything we’ve heard.
Treble is clear and crisp, and there is a hefty low end that never becomes a mud pit. Instead, songs feel like they have a weight and depth that we often miss on other pairs of true wireless earbuds, which tend to feel a bit exaggerated in terms of their sonic profiles.
Plus — and this is a big plus — the sound is customizable. If the sound signature isn’t quite to your liking, you can adjust it via the EQ settings in the app, so you’ll never be annoyed with the way the headphones treat certain genres. Want a bit more sheen and cymbal shimmer in your jazz recordings? Just boost the treble a touch. Problem solved.
While it is fun to mess around with the EQ settings, we spent the vast majority of our listening time with the headphones in the standard, flat EQ position. That’s because they already feel very well-tuned straight from the factory. Everything we listened to through the WF-1000XM3 seemed to closely approximate what the mixing engineer intended, and that’s really all we can ask from any pair of headphones, especially true wireless in-ears.
The first great wireless, noise-canceling earbuds are here, and they’ve got a Sony logo on them. With the WF-1000XM3, Sony has managed to offer a pair of groundbreaking earbuds that seem easily worth the $230 premium.
Is there a better alternative?
When the WF-1000XM3 debuted, there were very few pairs of premium true wireless headphones that could compete with the WF-1000xM3 in terms of performance. At the time, the closest competitors were the Beats Powerbeats Pro, the Klipsch T5, and the Sennheiser Momentum. All three lack noise canceling, but the Beats option has more bass, the Klipsch a prettier charging case, and the Sennheiser offer better audio quality overall.
But since then, Apple’s $249 AirPods Pro emerged and they’re a wonder — proving themselves the WF-1000XM3’s equal in terms of noise cancellation and coming very close on sound quality. They still don’t offer Sony’s exceptional battery life, but iPhone users, in particular, may feel their IPX4 sweat resistance and hands-free access to Siri are compensation enough. For just $19 more than the Sonys, the AirPods Pro make for a very compelling choice.
How long will they last?
Sony has made excellent headphones for decades, and we have no reason to believe the build quality of the WF-1000xM3 is any different. It is worth noting that the lifespan of all true wireless headphones is limited by battery longevity, but we expect you’ll get at least a few years before the batteries start to show severe wear.
Should you buy them?
Yes — and especially if you’re an Android user. If you want a feature-packed pair of true wireless headphones and you like the sound of silence, the Sony WF-1000XM3 are still one of the best you’ll find.
- The best noise-canceling headphones for 2019
- The best wireless headphones for 2019
- The best true wireless earbuds for 2019
- Best AirPods Pro alternatives: 5 true wireless earbuds you need to check out
- Apple AirPods Pro vs. Sony WF-1000XM3: Battle of the best ANC buds