While they're still working through some kinks, Sony's totally wireless WF-1000X earphones feature active noise canceling and strong sound.
Sony's answer to Apple's AirPods -- the WF-1000X totally wireless earphones -- have been getting mixed reviews. Some people seem to love them, while others think they're not as polished as they should be despite the fact that they're equipped with something the AirPods don't have: active noise cancellation. That's the electronic counteracting of ambient external noise, such as airplane engines or traffic din.
In fact, they're the first totally wireless headphones to offer this feature -- and they're also Sony's first stab at a totally wireless headphone. Part of Sony's new 1000X wireless noise-canceling line, which includes over-the-ear and neckband-style models, the WF-1000X lists for $200 (£200 or AU$399). It comes in black or gold.
These types of totally wireless headphones live and die by their design and how well they fit people's ears. In my case, they fit pretty well. Though not as light or as small as the AirPods, they're lightweight, each bud weighing in around 9 grams.
Unfortunately, they're not listed as being water-resistant, which means you'd be taking your chances if you used them at the gym during a sweaty workout. This type of headphone should do double duty as sports headphone, but Sony's marketing them as everyday headphones. That said, I did use them on a treadmill at the gym without incident.
The other thing I was a little disappointed with was that they didn't stay in my ears quite as securely as I'd have liked. They come with a nice variety of tips that help you get a tight seal -- you have to jam the tips in your ears -- but the included wings (Sony calls them "Fitting Supporters") didn't lock the buds in place as I first hoped they would. Although you get two sizes of wings, the larger fin is barely bigger than the smaller one, and neither hooked under any of the ridges in my ear.
The buds also stick out a little farther from your ears than some totally wireless earphones do. For example, the Samsung Gear IconX and Jaybird Run are more discreet. These are slightly more discreet than the Bose SoundSport Free, although there's a blue light that flashes through the translucent section of the ear piece that draws too much attention.
A quick word on the battery case: I wouldn't call it bulky -- it does fit in a pants pocket -- but ideally it'd be about 30 percent smaller. It's also got a thin metal finish that looks nice but can get dinged up pretty easily if you leave it in a bag with other metal objects as I did. (Pro tip: Keep it away from keys.)
Like a lot of these types of headphones, battery life isn't great at three hours, but that battery case gives you an additional two charges for a total of nine hours.
In my tests I usually came close to the 3-hour mark before I had to recharge, but if you play your music louder (as I did sometimes), you may fall a little short of that number. With competitors' battery life numbers creeping higher, battery life will be something that Sony needs to address in a second-generation version.
If you can get a tight seal, the WF-1000X is capable of delivering excellent sound for this type of totally wireless headphone. With a tight seal, I thought the headphone sounded smooth and dynamic and had more clarity and better defined bass than its competitors.
To reiterate, that tight seal is crucial. I tried several of the included tips and found only one -- the largest silicone tip -- that allowed me to achieve a good seal. With the other tips I tried I ended up losing some bass and the sound came across as recessed. It was a big difference.
In the Sony Headphones Connect app, you can adjust the equalizer settings -- there are several presets to choose from -- but after playing around with the EQ, I just set it to "Off" (flat setting) and went with that.
I was simultaneously impressed with and a little underwhelmed with the noise-cancellation features. Using the adaptive sound control feature, the headphones were able to detect that I was on a subway and set the noise canceling for "Transport," which was pretty cool. That said, even at the highest noise-cancellation setting the noise canceling is pretty light. And switching between the various settings yielded some change in the level of noise cancellation but it wasn't a big difference.
A couple of other features are worth noting. You can choose to let sound in and hear the inside world, which can be a good thing. Also, the earphones can be used as a headset for making calls. However, like the Bose SoundSport Free, you only hear audio through one earbud while making a call, so this is a mono headset. I thought it performed fine as a headset, though it didn't excel in this department.
There's a button on each earbud. The left has a power on/off button and the right has a multifunction button that pauses and plays your music, skips tracks forward and back and allows you to call up your Apple or Google voice assistants. Both are pretty tiny, but with a bit of finesse I was consistently able to double-tap to advance tracks. Tapping on the power button allows you to toggle through noise-canceling settings. They include "noise-canceling" on, "ambient sound" on and "off."
Some people have complained about glitches in performance, as well as some issues with poor audio-syncing when using certain video apps. I did encounter some dropouts and can't say these offer rock-solid performance. Other totally wireless earphones I've tested initially had similar problems, and we've seen Bose and Jaybird issue firmware upgrades in an effort to improve performance in the Run and SoundSport Free.
Sony has done the same. My review unit had 1.05 software on it and Sony issued a 1.07 update. I had some trouble installing the update -- I tested the headphones with an iPhone X, iPhone 6S and Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus -- but Sony got me another pair with the new firmware.
It did indeed improve performance. I still experienced the occasional interference issue, but I was able to walk around with my phone in my pocket and generally not worry about connectivity issues.
As for audio/video syncing, once I restarted my phone, I was able to watch YouTube and Netflix without a problem. I wouldn't say the audio sync is perfect, but it was close enough.
Like with many of these totally wireless earphones, even the AirPods and Bose SoundSport Free, the WF-1000X wasn't a completely polished product when it was first released. While I suspect the second-generation version will offer some significant improvements, the current version has enough good qualities, including strong sound for this type of headphone, to make it recommendable, but only if you find it discounted.