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Sony's new true wireless headphones have a killer feature you won't find on AirPods

The $230 models, coming in August, offer active noise-cancellation. Oh, and they sound awesome, too.


Until now Sony hasn't made much of a splash in the true wireless (Airpods-style) headphone arena. But that may be about to change with its new WF-1000XM3, which is available today for preorder for $230 and ships in early August. 

I've been playing around with an early review sample and while it's certainly not cheap, it's the best-sounding set of truly wireless earbuds at this price, matching and perhaps even exceeding the performance of pricier competitors from Sennheiser, Beats, Master & Dynamic and Bang & Olufsen. Needless to say, it crushes the AirPods' sound.

If you did a double take on the model number, that's because Sony also makes a popular over-ear noise-canceling headphone called the WH-1000XM3. It's so good we gave it the CNET Editors' Choice award in 2018. Like that model, the WF-1000XM3 is equipped with active noise cancelation. That's a huge deal for the true wireless headphone category: With the exception of the earlier WF-1000X, the new WF-1000XM3 are the only headphones in this class with the feature. Bose has announced its Noise Cancelling Earbuds 700, but they won't ship until sometime in 2020.

It's worth noting that the company has skipped the Mark 2 true wireless model and gone straight to the Mark 3 in an effort to unify the current model numbers of its flagship 1000X headphone line. I'm fine with that because the WF-1000XM3 has a very different design from the original WF-1000X. It's a totally new headphone with a new charging case (the earphones come in black and a gray color), new drivers, new touch controls and a new QN1e processor that improves both the noise-canceling effect and the sound quality. They use Bluetooth 5.0.

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Battery life is also better. At moderate volume levels, Sony says you can get up to 6 hours with noise canceling on and up to 8 hours with it off. There's also USB-C charging. A 10-minute quick-charge feature gives you 90 minutes of battery life and the charging case delivers three full charges on the go.  

That case is a little bulky but it does have a nice premium feel to it and the buds are easy to get in and out of it. With these earphones it's crucial to get a tight seal to get optimal sound quality and optimal noise canceling. You get an assortment of ear tips and one should fit your ears -- I went with the largest and was able to get a good seal. 

There are touch controls on each earpiece, but no volume controls -- you have to use your phone for that. You tap the right touchpad to control audio playback, access your voice assistant and answer and end calls. Tapping the right pad allows you to toggle through three sound modes: noise-canceling mode on, noise-canceling mode off and a transparency mode that lets ambient sound in. You can also change the sound modes using the Sony Headphone Connect app for Android or iOS and access other settings.

Like the AirPods, Beats PowerBeats Pro, Jabra Elite 65t and other some other true wireless models, the earbuds have a sensor that detects when the bud is in your ear and when it's not. When you pull the bud out of your ear, your music will pause. Put it back in and your music resumes. You can use just one earbud to listen to audio or make calls if you want.

The WF-1000XM3 also comes in gray.

David Carnoy/CNET

And here's something cool: Sony's brought the Quick Attention attention feature found on its over-ear noise-canceling headphones to these earbuds. Instead of holding your hand over the earcup to pause your music and let sound in so you can talk to someone, you tap and hold your finger on the left touch pad.

I thought these performed pretty well as a headset for making calls. They do have some noise reduction that helps cut down the background noise when making calls outside and I could hear callers just fine. And while the noise canceling does work well -- it ably muffled most of the street noise -- it's not quite as strong as what you get with the over-ear WH-1000XM3.  

The headphones in their charging case.

David Carnoy/CNET

As I said, where these really excel is with their sound quality. They have clean, well-balanced sound with well defined, meaty bass that made me think they're a worthy companion to WH-1000XM3. If you're going pay this much for true wireless headphones, this is how they should sound. 

The only strike against them is that they're not listed as being sweatproof or water-resistant. I like to run with my true wireless earphones and these stayed in my ears pretty securely despite not having any sport fins. I think they'd be fine for light workouts at the gym, but if you sweat a lot, I'm not sure I'd risk damaging them.

Again, these cost $230 while the original WF-1000X cost $200. Hopefully, we'll see them get discounted to $200 to match the price of the AirPods 2019 with the wireless charging case. Despite that drawback, if the best sound is what you're after, these should definitely be on your short list for true wireless headphones.

We'll have a full rated review in the coming weeks when we get a final shipping sample. 

Here are the WF-1000XM3's key features, according to Sony:

  • Completely new design and new drivers 
  • Active noise cancelation
  • Touch controls
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • New QN1e processor (24-bit audio signal processing and DAC with amplifier)
  • Battery life: Up to 6 hours with noise canceling on and up to 8 hours with it off
  • Charging case delivers three additional charges
  • USB-C charging
  • Quick charge feature: 10 minutes of charging gives you 90 minutes of battery life 
  • Support for AAC codec (but not Apt-X)
  • Two color options: Black and gray
  • Price: $230

This story was originally posted last Friday.