Sony hasn't been much of a player in the true wireless (AirPods-style) headphone arena, but its new WF-1000XM3 may change that. While it's not cheap at $230, 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, and has a feature the AirPods don't have: Active noise cancellation.
That's a big deal for the true wireless headphone category: With the exception of Sony's earlier and somewhat underwhelming WF-1000X and WF-SP700N, the new WF-1000XM3 are the only true wireless headphones with the feature. Bose has announced its Noise Cancelling Earbuds 700, but they won't ship until sometime in 2020.
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, the current CNET Editors' Choice for full-size noise-canceling headphones. For this new true wireless model, Sony skipped the Mark 2 and went 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 beige 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.
Not everybody is going to love that design. It mixes both modern and retro aesthetics and the earphones aren't as discreet as say, the Jabra Elite 65t or Elite Active 65t. They stick out of your ears more than some true wireless earphones, which made me feel a little geeky. But they did fit my ears securely and I found them comfortable to wear.
It's important to note that with these earphones it's crucial to get a tight seal to get optimal sound quality and optimal noise canceling. As with the Beats Powerbeats Pro, you will likely be disappointed by the performance without a tight seal.
To help ensure that you get a better fit, you get an assortment of ear tips, and one should fit your ears. Truth be told, none of the provided tips quite worked for me. I used a set of XL tips I had on hand that are little wider than the largest tip Sony provides. That extra bit of width enabled my ear canal to be sealed off and made all the difference for both sound quality and noise canceling.
A note about the charging case. It's a little bulky but does have a nice premium feel to it and the buds are easy to get in and out of it. Battery life has improved from the WF-1000X. 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 (my tests confirmed those numbers). There's also USB-C charging, with a 10-minute quick-charge feature giving you 90 minutes of battery life. The charging case delivers three full charges on the go.
There are touch controls on each earpiece, but no volume controls -- you have to use your phone for that. Some people may find that irritating; I personally don't care that much about having volume controls on the buds. 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 and adjust noise-canceling levels using the Sony Headphone Connect app for Android or iOS.
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.
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, though they weren't as good as I hoped. They do have some noise reduction that helps cut down the background noise when making calls outside and I could hear callers just fine. But the callers I spoke with said they weren't all that wowed with how I sounded ("OK" seemed to be the operative word). Perhaps Sony can improve call quality with a future software upgrade, but the early unit I was using fell a little short of expectations based on how high-tech these earphones seem.
I was more impressed with the generally rock-steady wireless connection -- I experienced minimal Bluetooth hiccups and dropouts -- and noise-canceling performance. The noise canceling isn't as strong as what you get with the over-ear WH-1000XM3, but it's a significant step up from what was in the earlier WF-1000X. To maintain more consistent noise canceling, I turned off the "adaptive sound control" in the app and manually set the noise canceling to the highest level and left it there, particularly when I was outside. To be clear, the noise canceling isn't on par with what you get from Sony or Bose's full-size headphones, but if you have a tight seal, it does work well -- it ably muffled a lot of noise on the streets and in the subway.
As I said in the intro, 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 Beats Powerbeats Pro have slightly bigger bass, but I thought these Sonys have more refined sound and are more articulate overall. You can tweak the sound settings in the companion app, but like with the WH-1000XM3, I didn't think playing around with the EQ offered any improvements in the sound quality (I ultimately ended up leaving it in the "flat" setting).
Aside from the call quality in loud environments, the only other real strike against this model is that it's 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 used them for light workouts at the gym without a problem, 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 (though that model is already widely selling for $180 now). Despite that drawback, if the best sound is what you're after, these should definitely be on your shortlist for true wireless headphones.
Here are the WF-1000XM3's key features, according to Sony: