The Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds are a finely tuned piece of tech. Earbuds are a whole different world to over-ear earphones. With their drivers necessarily smaller so they can fit in your ears, and with the recent challenges of fitting Bluetooth radios, noise-cancelling tech, and batteries into the diminutive noisemakers to keep up with the trends of the wider listening industry, they pack a lot of smarts into a small package. That's why their our top earbuds pick in our best headphones guide.
One thing can get lost in this race to miniaturize is the very reason you’re using earbuds in the first place: sound. If you want larger drivers or better battery life, you need larger earbuds, but smaller ones are preferred for reasons of portability and fashion. The Sony WF-1000XM3s are about as big as you’d want them to get, sticking out of your ears like a small Bluetooth headset. When you do get them in your ears, you’re treated to excellent sound quality and noise-cancelling, and the battery life isn’t bad either.
Sony WF-1000XM3 review: design
There’s a recurrent joke in TV sitcoms about a nerdy character wearing two Bluetooth earpieces to communicate with his cellphone, or maybe two cellphones. Either way, he’s made to look an idiot, and is subject to the scorn of the rest of the cast, who are more beautiful, less geeky, and often younger. Think of Chevy Chase in Community with his Earnoculars.
The wrong wireless earbuds can make you look like that. If they’re too big, and protrude out of your ears, you can resemble a 1950s projection of what future man might look like. The exception to this rule are the Apple Earpods, which take the geekiest of looks and make them work.
Sony’s design is very much like a miniaturised Bluetooth headset. The larger size is what leads to the improved sound quality over other players in the market, but they’re still small compared to Sony’s previous entry into the wireless earbud arena, the snappily named WF-1000X (model numbers don’t have to make sense). The important thing is they can be worn nicely in the ears, and come with a choice of three sizes (and two styles) of silicone tips to ensure a snug fit, although the tips themselves snap somewhat loosely to the earbud body. Sony’s clever push-and-twist method of insertion keeps them firmly in place most of the time.
The charging case is large too, although this is a result of increased battery capacity, and therefore greater charging ability. As the earbuds’ battery life is already excellent, you can keep them going for over 24 hours of use. Turning on noise-cancelling takes the endurance down from eight to six hours on a full charge, but it’s a sacrifice that’s worth making, while ten minutes of charging nets you 90 minutes of playback.
The one drawback to the design is its lack of sweat resistance. Dedicated workout earbuds exist for a reason, to stop perspiration from seeping through the seams in the buds’ plastic shell and damaging the densely packed electronics inside. Your ears may also become slippery, causing the earbuds to fall out. Sony warns against allowing the WF-1000XM3s to fall in water, or even in humid or wet locations. You might want to look at other fitness headphones if you’re a regular at the gym.
Sony WF-1000XM3 review: performance
Regular price: $200
Noise cancelling: Yes
Earbuds, with their tiny drivers and no way of enclosing the ear, naturally fall short of the best over-ear headphones when it comes to both sound quality and noise cancelling. The processor in these earbuds is a 24bit chip, for example, while the larger over-ear models can contain 32bit processing. And while the silicone tips try to effectively plug the ear, some ambient noise always seeps through. However, the WF-1000XM3s put out some of the best sound we’ve heard from earbuds this small.
Midtones are clear and precise, with vocals and audiobooks never falling into muffled territory. The sound is also huge, with a surprising amount of bass for such small devices without it vanishing into clouds of distortion, and it seems to get deeper when you switch the noise-cancelling on. The 6mm drivers prove their worth over and over again.
Unfortunately, there’s no aptX or HD music support, instead using SBC or AAC, so anyone pairing these with an iPhone will get the best possible sound from their device. Android and HD music player owners might like to look elsewhere for something that really stretches their device’s wireless capability but, really, unless you’re very demanding, the sound is just fine.
The WF-1000XM3s’ noise-cancelling ability is good for earbuds, but once again a step down from larger earphones, just as you’d expect. It copes with car engine noise, but don’t expect it to drown out the howl of an airplane. There’s an Ambient mode that allows more sound through, too, so you don’t miss speeding taxis when crossing the street.
The circular part of the earbud acts as a touch control, and you can assign one function to the sensitive part of each bud using the bundled phone app. Functions include playback controls, phone call controls, and invoking the Google Assistant, all with three separate commands depending on how many times you tap. It’s quite intuitive, and there’s also a sensor to tell if you’ve removed the earbuds from your ears. A recent update added Alexa support too.
Sony WF-1000XM3 review: value
The WF-1000XM3s are up against some stiff competition from Apple, Jabra, Beats, Samsung and more, but manage to stand up to the opposition well. At full price of $200+ they’re at the top-end of the price range, with only the Airpods Pro being more expensive, but this is because the Sonys, with their superb sound and broad range of features, not to mention the excellent battery life, are the top choice. If you must have Airpods, then there’s no alternative, but the WF-1000XM3s are a strong player in this field.
Should you buy the Sony WF-1000XM3s?
We initially had some concerns about the WF-1000XM3s - particularly the lack of on-device volume control, as this was only controlled in the app - but this was fixed in a firmware update that also added Amazon Alexa support and improved phone call quality. These are now the premiere true wireless earbuds, and as much as our hearts pine for features such as aptX support and sweat-proofing, we have no qualms about recommending them to anyone looking for the best wireless earbuds, or indeed the best headphones, they can find.