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Sony WF-1000XM3 review: A top-notch true wireless headphone with active noise cancellation

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. 

The companion app.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Read more: The Sony WF-1000X earbuds battle it out against Apple's AirPods 2 

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

  • Completely new design and new drivers 
  • Active noise cancellation
  • 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

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