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AirPods 2 vs. Sony WF-1000XM3: The best wireless earbuds are...

Sony's new earbuds have great sound quality and noise cancellation, but they're $70 more expensive than the AirPods. Are they worth the splurge?

sony-wf1000-airpods-2
Angela Lang/CNET

Apple's AirPods have been a knockout success since they first launched in 2016, but now they face a lot more competition from other Bluetooth earbuds, like Sony's WF-1000XM3 Truly Wireless earbuds. At $229, they're significantly more expensive than the $159 AirPods, which cost $199 with the wireless charging case. But they offer a lot more features than the AirPods, including active noise cancellation and better sound quality. But that's just on paper: To declare a clear winner, we had to test them out ourselves. 

We wore both buds for about two weeks to test everything from sound quality to comfort outside of lab conditions. 

AirPods vs Sony earbuds


AirPods Sony Earbuds
Connectivity H1 chip QN1e chip
Bluetooth Bluetooth 5.0 Bluetooth 5.0
Battery (earbuds alone) 5 hours 6 hours
Charging case Yes Yes
Battery (including case) 24 hours 24 hours
Fast charge 15 minutes = 3 hrs 10 minutes = 1.5 hrs
Adjustable ear tips No Yes
Adjustable fit No Yes
Voice Assistant support Yes Yes
Noise isolation No Yes
Controls Tap controls Tap controls
Price $159 at Amazon $228 at Amazon

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Light and compact vs. a tighter seal

The differences between these buds start from the moment you take them out of the box. They have completely different designs for both the buds and their respective case. The AirPods rest in your ear while the Sony buds wedge snugly inside your ear canal. They come with seven different tip options to choose from (including the ones on the buds) so you're likely to find a good fit if you're willing to test a few out. Sony recommends trying different sizes on different sides because your ear canals may not be exactly symmetrical. 

We both felt that the AirPods were a lot lighter and more comfortable for all-day wear, but this really depends on the shape of your ear. The AirPods may end up feeling too loose for some people. The Sony buds definitely feel clunkier when you're walking around, but they provided a more secure fit (and the added benefit of blocking out more noise) thanks to those swappable in-ear tips. We didn't have any issues on an outdoor run wearing either pair, although we did notice the Sony buds were significantly heavier.

airpods-2-2019-5
Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

Bear in mind that neither of these wireless earbuds are officially water resistant, so they may not be ideal if you are using them during a sweaty workout. But the AirPods did survive their share of water exposure during our unofficial testing. We sprayed them, dunked them and put them through a full wash cycle and they still came out of it in working order. 

As for color options, the AirPods are only available in glossy white. With the Sony buds you have a choice between a black matte finish with copper accents or a taupe finish with gold accents, both with matching cases. Apple's charging case looks like a dental floss container, but it's compact and easy to slip into a pocket without creating too much bulk. The Sony case is twice as big and not as easy to slide in, but the metallic lid and matte finish makes it look and feel more high-end. 

The AirPod case charges via Lightning port while Sony's has a USB-C port. Apple also offers a wireless charging case, which costs $79 on its own and is backwards compatible with the first-gen AirPods. Or you can pay $200 to get it bundled with the AirPods.

Lexy: I've never had a problem with the fit of the AirPods, but I appreciate the extra layer of passive noise cancellation that the Sony offers because they sit further in my ear. I preferred the AirPods for running, but for everything else, I'd choose the Sony.

Vanessa: I love the color options of the Sony buds, but I've never been a huge fan of the in-ear tips and the AirPods feel more comfortable in my ears. I also prefer the smaller, lighter form factor of the AirPod case and the buds themselves, especially if I'm on the go. 

Winner: Tie (Sony buds win for Lexy, AirPods for Vanessa)

Sony wins on sound quality, but call quality isn't as clear

The AirPods have always been OK when it comes to sound quality -- not best in class, but not the worst either. Once you've listened to the Sony buds though, it's hard to go back. Sound quality on the Sony buds is incredibly clear, with well-defined mids and bass. There's also an equalizer (found in the Sony Headphones Connect app on iOS and Android) that you can use to adjust the sound profile. The app can also automatically determine where you are and adjust the sound profile accordingly. With the AirPods, what you hear out of the box is what you get. 

The other big advantage that Sony has over Apple here is active noise cancellation. We found it was almost as good as a pair of over-ear noise-canceling headphones and made commuting on public transit much more tolerable.

If you don't want to be completely immersed in your music, the Sony buds will also let you adjust the amount of external noise they let in and select to emphasize voices. You can adjust this manually on the Sony app or rely on the app to do it automatically based on what it thinks best suits your situation, whether you're walking, running, commuting or in the office. 

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Angela Lang/CNET

In terms of call quality, the results aren't as clear. The Sony buds will obviously sound better to the person wearing them, but the person on the receiving end will have a better time hearing you on the AirPods. Because the microphones rest at the end of the buds (closer to your mouth), we found that they're better at isolating your voice. The Sony buds pick up more ambient noise. 

Lexy: The sound from the Sony earbuds blew the AirPods out of the water for me. I didn't feel like I had to tweak any settings in the equalizer, although I love that I had the option.

Vanessa: When it comes to sound quality there's really no competition, the Sony earbuds win hands down.

Winner: Sony wireless earbuds.

Tap controls, voice assistants and more

Both the buds have customizable tap controls that allow you to control your music without reaching for your phone. The Sony buds can be adjusted from the Sony app on iOS or Android devices, while the AirPods can only be customized from the settings menu of an iOS device. Android users won't be able to change the tap controls on the AirPods. 

You can play, pause, skip forward or back, but sadly neither one of them includes volume control. To adjust the volume you'll have to pull out your phone or summon your digital assistant. A simple "Hey Siri" will do for the AirPods, while the Sony buds require you to tap and hold the touchpad to launch Google's Assistant. 

Both also let you take one bud out of your ear and the music will pause. 

sony-wf1000-airpods-3
Angela Lang/CNET

The touch panel on the Sony buds was a little sensitive at times, so it's easy to accidentally brush against it when adjusting the buds or tucking hair behind your ear. So much so that you may find yourself accidentally hanging up on a call (or two) like we did. 

Sony offers NFC on the case so you can simply tap-to-pair with an Android phone. Apple's AirPods connect automatically when you open the case next to an iOS device. You can also pair the AirPods with an Android and the Sony buds with iOS manually through their respective Bluetooth settings.

The AirPods use Apple's latest H1 chip while Sony uses the QN1e chip, a noise canceling processor for its buds. Both have Bluetooth 5 support. Overall, we didn't experience any significant dropouts on either but found the AirPods were a little better in maintaining a solid connection to iOS. Sometimes the Sony buds didn't quite get it right when paired with an iOS device and wouldn't register on the Headphones Connect app even though they were playing music.

Lexy: I don't generally use the voice assistant so that feature doesn't matter to me, but I do love the NFC pairing on the Sony earbuds when using Android. And it's great to be able to customize the tap controls regardless of whether I'm using them on iOS or Android.

Vanessa: I like using the hands-free Siri feature on the AirPods to adjust the volume, but prefer the deeper level of customization the Sony buds gives you on both Android and iOS devices. 

Winner: Tie. Both offer a solid Bluetooth connection and customizable controls. If you want hands-free voice commands the AirPods may be the better bet, but Android users will appreciate being able to adjust the controls on the Sony buds. 

Now playing: Watch this: AirPods 2 or Sony WF-1000XM3: Wireless earbud battle
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Battery life is a close call

While the Sony earbuds offer you the most juice out of the earbuds themselves (six hours of listening time compared to five hours on the AirPods), both offer you the same amount of total charge when you factor in the cases. Each can hold up to 24 hours of total charge.

It's also worth noting that the six hours that Sony quotes is with active noise canceling turned on. With it off, you'll get almost eight hours from the earbuds before you'll need to charge them.

They both also offer you a quick-charge feature, so if you're short on time you can still get a decent amount of listening time. Charge the AirPods for 15 minutes and you'll get three hours of listening time. Charge the Sony earbuds for 10 minutes and you'll get 1.5 hours.

The best Bluetooth earbuds are...

Lexy: For me, the Sony WF-1000XM3 are the clear winners. The sound quality is fantastic, I love that I don't have to charge them as often as the AirPods and the noise cancellation is almost as good as a pair of more expensive over-ear headphones.

Vanessa: There's no doubt the Sony buds take the crown when it comes to sound quality, but I'm more interested in convenience so the AirPods are better suited for me. I use my buds mostly for calls, commuting and the occasional run, so I prefer the open design of the AirPods. They're also smaller, lighter and more comfortable to wear (at least for my ears) and the case is more compact. 


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