Sony WF-1000XM3 True Wireless ANC Earbuds Review
Does active noise cancellation work in a true wireless earbud? Read the WF-1000XM3 review from Always Wander.
Introduction to the Sony WF-1000XM3's
You might remember that I somewhat recently reviewed a pair of true wireless earbuds that I felt were probably the best pair of quality-for-value earbuds for most people (you can read about the Aukey T10 Earbuds here). Certainly a fantastic piece of travel tech or commuting tech that are convenient and affordable for a lot of different kinds of folks. Today we're going to take it a step up into the premium category. What's more, these aren't just premium earbuds. These have full-on active noise cancellation. That's right.
Sony isn't new to this game, however. There have been two previous versions of these headphones, but these ones are a generational leap, using their newest chip technology for noise cancellation (the QN1e). Sony currently owns the crown in the active noise cancellation (ANC for short) market, with apologies to Bose. So it's reasonable that they would have a serious chance to do the same here. It's also reasonable to think they can accomplish it. Yes I know most people automatically think Bose is the best, and that's because they see them everywhere. Well, it's mostly marketing, just like Apple. Great product, but not always the best (though of course they sometimes do achieve that title, too).
Known for their ANC tech in their headphones, and also their outstanding audio quality, Sony really has a solid entry here into not just the premium market, but also as a possible essential piece of your travel gear kit.
Keep reading to see if Sony succeeds. These earbuds were my own purchase, and were not sent to me by Sony. The review is all my own.
This is my Sony WF-1000XM3 True Wireless earbuds - WITH ANC - review.
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Sony WF-1000XM3 Product Overview
This pair of noise cancelling earbuds has a lot going on with them to be fair. I would not call them a simple product. I mean that in the sense of their make-up, not usability (which is good). I'd call them pretty non-flashy in their design, and functional. I don't think they are going to win any sleekness awards however - these are a bit bigger than many others and they tend to look like slightly smaller bluetooth headsets from back in the day. I couldn't really care less about that though - I bought these for functionality. And the fact that they are bigger means it packs more tech (like the noise cancelling and fantastic audio drivers). They have two little touch points on the outside that are programmed to do things like change the noise canceling mode, play/pause music, and start your phone Assistant. You also get to tweak all the settings on the Sony app as well. It's the most robust brand-app I've seen personally, and helps you with software updates, connecting the first time, and all your different settings. I won't go too in depth about the app, there are a ton of YouTube videos that will cover that one, so make sure to check those out if that is something that is a game changer for you.
They come with a really nicely made carrying case. It's bigger than most, but for me, I've never been one to put these things in my pocket. I use them traveling or commuting, and as such, I always have a bag with me. So the cases get dropped right into the bag. This case has the usual built in battery, that recharges the ANC earbuds each time you put them back in. Sony claims 6 hours of listening with the wireless earbuds and noise canceling on, 8 hours with it off. You should be able to get 24 hours with the case. Thankfully, these come set up with USB-C and can fast charge when you need it. It's huge when traveling for both the quick juice but also trimming down your cables.
At the end of the day, build quality on these is high end. The case feels nice, has a metal lid, some high quality plastic, and the headphones themselves feel really well made. Oh and last thing to note - they come with both silicone AND memory foam tips, which is a nice touch.
I'll get this out of the way right up front - because this is the first big reason you buy a premium pair of earbuds. They sound fantastic. They truly do produce some lovely sounding audio. It's rich, has a nice stage, and you don't have trouble hearing little bits of instruments or voices. Honestly, it's pretty impressive. Really. These are the best sounding earbuds I've ever used. I can't say I've used any of the ultra high end ones, but generally speaking, these are some of the best that a regular consumer would buy. I love the sound they are producing and am totally happy with that. It's a huge win. On top of the pure sound, they also support a higher quality sound codec (AAC), and also use a type of up-scaling for compressed sources if you like (can be turned on in the app). All that leads to a superior sound experience.
Now reason number 2 you would be considering these - the active noise cancellation. For true wireless earbuds, this is a very new phenomenon. In fact, until recently, I don't think there were anybody other than Sony producing them. Apple has of course just released the Airpods Pro model, and because every mobile article ever now has to at least mention Apple products because a lot of people just assume they are the best thanks to the marketing, I'll discuss that in it's own section. But the short - Sony is king on this. Even vs. Bose. I was very, very pleased with the ANC on these. It's VERY important that you get a good seal on the fit, as with any earbuds, and when you do there is a noticeable bump in the ANC performance. I think you need to be realistic though - earbuds are not going to have the same noise cancelling abilities as full on, over the ear headphones. They just aren't. The feature on these though - is still impressive. I would like to point out that you should expect them to be handling more of the PASSIVE sounds: rumbles, droning, farther away voices, etc. They can't stop the ACUTE noises: loud talking right next to you, loud bangs etc. Those will be muffled a bit, but they don't disappear. They can't work magic. On commutes: the street noise and train noise drops significantly (though not arriving and departing trains of course). Sounds faded away outside my office on 23rd in Manhattan (including background voices) and Brooklyn streets were super quiet. For traveling: I also tested these out while wandering, of course. That's what I'm here for. In the lounge, they did a good job of driving most noises to the background. The overhead TV got more distant, people's footfalls fell away, and general here and there noises were mostly gone. Lounge was quiet though, to be fair. As for walking in the airport itself, I'd say similar experience to the on-street performance. On the plane, they worked great to block out the noise of the plane and many of the voices, but not the loud announcements. I'd call them a big success in terms of size to performance ration. Again, they knocked most of the passive noises right down.
Beyond those huge pieces, I was very happy with the touch controls. In a lot of earbuds, it's very much a gimmick. I hate to say that, as someone that loves tech, but it's true. All sorts of cheap headphones have it. In the Aukey Key Series T10's that I reviewed, it was ok but a bit spotty in everyday practice. Not here. The touch panel was obvious and easy to find without looking (which is how it works when in your ear), it recognized my finger presses every time. Quick and easy, it worked great. Play/Pause, Ambient sound mode, etc. Never had an issue. And holding the Ambient Sound button cuts music and amplifies the environment around you to hear things like cashiers, train announcements, flight attendants, etc. It's like super hearing, awesome.
The Bluetooth performance was great too, which I'll add onto later. Battery performance was very strong as well. While I didn't do any scientific drain test, my usage with commuting and at work for music and phone calls over the course of a week has not led me to plug the case in yet. I'd say that's great.
Outlining a few of the things I didn't like, I'd have to start with working on the fit. They weren't really the most comfortable earbuds to begin with. I started with the medium silicone tips, and they fit in my ears fine I suppose. But, I wasn't that impressed with the ANC just yet - and just as I mentioned earlier, you REALLY need to make sure you get a good seal. I wasn't convinced I was getting that. So, I jumped up to the largest silicone tips. These were MUCH better as a seal - and now the ANC was awesome.
That being said, they were still not that comfortable. I found they placed a lot of pressure on my ear, and after 1-2 hours or more, they were pretty tired and I needed to take the buds out. Finally, I tried the large memory foam tips. Bingo. Fantastic seal, and much more comfortable.
They kind of did always feel like they were just about to fall out though - and I think that's just more of a weight distribution thing. To be clear, they never did. Stayed fine. I just think most of the weight is on the outer side, so it kind of messes with your mind a little.
Further, I felt that the set up process could have been better. I took me a few tries to get them connected and into the set up and software updates, etc. Now, it's possible I did something wrong or out of order, which just made the entire process not smooth (to note, I had no issues in this process with their bigger brother, the over the ear WH-1000XM3). But there were quite a few updates, and it seemed like it was causing a disjointed connection process. I will leave the door open to human error on that, though I've done it plenty of times. By no means a reason to not buy these. Nothing along those lines, let's not be silly.
That's pretty much it.
Here's a shot of the buds outside of their housing.
The Improvement Requests
Only thing I'd request back to Sony on this one, is to make the WF-1000XM3's a bit more comfy. Earbuds are hard, it's such a personal experience because our ear canals are all different - so I can't exactly whinge too much about this. If it's possible, I'd make that better. I've not had issues with any other brands, so maybe it's the measurements on the tips, the weight, or the fact that I NEED to pick a size that creates the perfect seal so the technology works. Not completely sure, but that's it.
The Performance Piece
I started this as a section on my previous earbuds review, and I think it's important for Bluetooth earbuds. This section isn't about the sound, but rather about the performance of the connection itself.
Living in a big city, the frequency the Bluetooth operates on takes a severe beating. It's crowded, and can affect your personal listening. That's why when coming out of a subway to a crowded area you often get skipping. The signal is basically choked, like slow internet. The Sony WF-1000XM3's have a new Bluetooth chip, that allows each earbud to receive transmissions vs. using a relay method most earbuds have. This means it should be closer in performance to Apple's proprietary chip than the cheaper sets (Apple does this amazingly well). In practice? Flying colors. I've yet to experience any real skipping due to crowded city conditions. Once there was a quick second blip, but I barely noticed it and really it only happened like one time.
In terms of connecting to my phone when pulled out of the case, no issues. They connected almost instantly each time with never a problem. I really don't think it can be considered a pain point anymore when compared to Apple Airpods. The gap is now gone, though this connection idea still perpetuates.
Another area this new chip seems to work well to prevent is the "open space" issue. Bluetooth often needs to bounce off things to work. If there's no buildings, walls, etc. then there's nothing to bounce off of. This leads to more skipping and a terrible listening experience. This is also another reason your environment matters. I'm happy to announce that the big, open intersections that would daily give me issues with my other pair, not a problem on these. Really cool, and really happy about that. For more info on this situation, check out the review I linked to earlier - I got a little more in-depth there. So, again, your environment matters. Remember that before you decide to get some Bluetooth headphones.
The last thing to mention, is with video latency. That means, when you are watching a video with Bluetooth headphones, is the audio in sync with the video? It remains to be seen if these can survive the brutality of the Airline owned streaming environments (doubtful due to the bandwidth of their media delivery) - but no issues for me with YouTube, which is great. Same on Netflix over normal airport WiFi.
The Airpods Question
As is the norm now, I have to mention this because people will ask otherwise. To be up front, I have not used either Airpods model before. But, I've watched and read more than a hundred reviews over the years that both review them directly or discuss them in the context of another product. For regular Airpods, I'll stop you right there. Those aren't in the same class as these, it's not a competitive product. It isn't.
What about the Airpod Pro's? Don't those have active noise cancelling too? They sure do. Is it better than Sony's? Based on my research, no, it is not. Sony still wins. Sony's sound quality is wildly better, and the noise cancelling wins as well. But don't believe just me, watch and read the comparisons. It's pretty firmly in Sony's favor overall. BooredAtWork is a good YouTube channel that just did a comparison, he's very honest and trustworthy - and he loves headphones. Check that one out, but others of course as you can't just use one source and call it research! I do hear that the Airpod Pro's are in fact better at call quality though - so if that's something that's important to you or a game changer, you might want to consider that! I can count on one hand the amount of times I've taken calls on my BT headphones, so not an issue for me.
Final Thoughts on my Sony WF-1000XM3 Review
So what do I think? I think these are a no brainer if you're in the market for premium travel earbuds with industry leading noise cancellation technology. That's really all there is to it. Apple Airpod Pro's can't touch these in terms of ANC or sound quality. And for me, those are the primary reasons for buying premium gear. I actually think these provide a tremendous value in the space. They're $30.00 cheaper than the Airpods, and will go on sale more frequently as well. Unless you are just wicked devoted to Apple as a brand (all good if so, totally free to do that in today's world), these are the noise canceling earbuds that you want.
Who are these for? Well as we've already mentioned, these are for the person that's in the market for premium buds, wants superb sound quality, many features, and the category leading ANC. They are also for the person that is looking to trim down their travel gear kit - particularly for business. Not to sound too vain, but these are much better than over the ear headphones when you are having to go to a meeting straight off the plane. You still get the quiet ride and great sound, but you don't have to worry about headphone head. A real problem, as most people on business trips can't wear a hat to cover that up. So keep that in mind.
The downsides to these as we've covered are that the fit can take some finagling and getting used to, and I should also mention these are not water proof in any way - so they aren't going to be your gym partner (still look to the lower end ones for that, you'll thank me when they eventually fail due to getting beaten up). Lastly when considering for travel, remember that without an adapter, you won't be using these on the airline video system. That's a downside to ALL Bluetooth earbuds. For short haul, that's OK with me. So bring your own media, or be prepared to not use those built in systems.
These are my recommendation for the best premium, mainstream earbuds you can get right now. The best noise cancelling earbuds you can get right now. And overall, the best travel earbuds for the all-in one package that allows you the glory of active noise cancellation, but also the freedom of taking up very little space in your bag. This is as of November 2019.
Here’s the Amazon link if you want to grab them: