Sony WF-1000xM3 Review: Noise-Cancelling Wireless Earbuds with Remarkable Sound

The AirPods alternative you've been anticipating, but only if sound and noise cancellation are your priorities.

Sony WF-1000xM3
Editor's Choice

Our Verdict

The Sony WF-1000xM3 is the AirPods alternative you've been anticipating, but only if sound and noise cancellation are your priorities.

For

  • Stellar audio performance
  • Great noise cancellation
  • Tons of personalization via companion app
  • Excellent battery life across the board
  • Luxe, sharp-looking design

Against

  • Touch controls could use some work
  • Poor call quality
  • Loose-fitting tips

Contrary to popular belief, the new Sony WF-1000xM3 is not the company's first entry in the truly wireless earbuds space. That honor goes to the sporty WF-SP700N, which is also the category's first noise-cancelling model. Sadly, those buds never lived up to their billing as an "AirPods Killer," nor as a great pair of sound-silencing wireless earbuds. 

Butthis failure didn't stop Sony from moving forward with a successor – an upgraded version with a classier aesthetic, better sound, more features and, yes, quality noise cancellation. Enter the critically praised WF-1000xM3. 

So, what you really want to know is whether Sony's latest buds are equipped to beat category favorites like the Apple AirPods (Gen 2) and Jabra Elite Active 65t? Yes, but only in certain areas. Read on to see where the WF-1000xM3 ranks among the best.

Design

Sony WF-1000xM3

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

In terms of design, the WF-1000xM3 is an acquired taste. The buds aren't as discreet as the Jabra Elite 65t or the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless, occupying more ear real estate than one might desire. At the same time, Sony made the design flatter and slimmer, which gives the buds a sophisticated mystique that will draw admiration from gawkers. The chic colorways also factor into its appeal. Both black and white versions look sexy in person with the copper accents adding a touch of elegance to its overall appearance.

MORE: Best Wireless Earbuds 2019: AirPods vs. AirPods Alternatives

Keep in mind that the WF-1000xM3 is built specifically for casual listening, not fitness. The casing doesn't support water-resistant protection like the WF-SP700N, yet it's still sturdy enough to survive tumbles onto the concrete. 

Sony WF-1000xM3

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The charging case is as attractive as the buds. From a glance, it bears the look of a sleek cigarette holder when held to the side. The two-tone black-and-copper colorway gives it some pop, too. 

Bundled with the earbuds and case are a USB-C charging cable and two types of earbuds (silicone and memory foam), three pairs of each in different sizes. That is a fair number of accessories for the asking price.

Comfort and Fit

Each bud weighs practically nothing at 0.3 ounces,. The angled sound port with soft ear tips rested gently on my ears and provided great comfort. Fatigue never set in when sporting them past the one-hour mark.

Great comfort doesn't always equal great fit, as the WF-1000xM3 feel loose in the ears. I have small ear canals, and the buds would constantly slip out during slow-paced walks. Using the memory foam tips kept the buds slightly more stable. Word of advice: don't tilt your head sideways or the buds will hit the ground fast.

Another part of the comfort puzzle is the charging case. Sony's case is more elongated than thick, so you'll at least be able to slide it into denim pockets, though it will stick out at the top. The case is listed at 2.8 ounces, making it heftier than the AirPods case (1.4 ounces), but falling into a similar weight class as the Elite Active 65t case (2.3 ounces).

Sony WF-1000xM3

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Touch Controls

Sony's flagship headphones, the WH-1000xM3, proved the company could do touch controls right. With the WF-1000xM3, not so much. The tap gestures and on-ear detection don't operate as well as they do on the AirPods.

The circle at the end of each bud serves as the touch panel. Unfortunately, you can select only one function to enable on each bud, which you can assign on the Sony Headphones app. The functions include playback, Google Assistant, Ambient Sound Control or None Assigned, which only allows for "pairing and operations during calls." 

MORE: How to Set Up and Personalize Google Assistant on Phones and Tablets

Whatever you choose to assign, the touch commands operate as follows: play/pause/enable listening modes (1x tap), forward track/answer call/decline call/digital assistant notifications (2x tap), skip-back track (3x tap) and enable digital assistant (cover touch panel). Wait, no onboard volume controls? That's correct. You'll have to adjust volume levels manually through your audio source. 

The controls aren't responsive, especially when trying to enable the listening modes. On-ear detection would work only half of the time, struggling to recognize whether I removed the buds from my ears or placed them back on.

All negatives aside, the touch panel is a lot more intuitive than it initially seemed. For instance, I found it worked better when using slide gestures instead of taps. This technique made it easier to cycle through listening modes and command playback.

Noise Cancellation 

When it comes to noise cancellation in the truly wireless space, the options are scant. It's either this or the WF-SP700N, which doesn't filter out noise well. Comparing it to ANC titans like the Bose QuietComfort 35 II or Sony's WH-1000xM3 headphones, the technology isn't as powerful, but it's resiliently effective.

Apparently, Sony added a second noise-cancelling mic to each earbud to improve performance. The proof is in the specs, as the WF-1000xM3 kept environmental fracas mostly to a minimum. I barely noticed the screeching on the tracks as the train pulled into the station, along with the rowdy passengers in my crowded car. Being out on the streets was even quieter with truck horns and rushing cars going unheard. 

However, the buds can keep out only so much ambient noise. They do pick up louder frequencies and rumblings (e.g., ambulance horns and construction sites). Over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones are better equipped for those tasks.

Sony programmed another listening mode into these buds called Ambient Sound, which lets you hear your surroundings more clearly. It doesn't work as well as the Elite Active 65t. 

Audio Performance

You either love or hate Sony's boom-bastic sound profile. With the WF-1000xM3, it's a sound that you'll embrace, thanks to better-balanced bass that opens up the soundstage to cleaner mids and highs.

U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is given the warm-sounding resonance it deserves. Whereas most earbuds would blanket some of the track's sonic elements (e.g., crashing cymbals), the WF-1000xM3 accentuates them, blending nicely with the aggressive snares and Bono's commanding vocal projection. The bass lick and horn section on The Spinners' "I'll Be Around" also sounded as clear as on the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless, and better than the AirPods or the Elite Active 65t.

Sony WF-1000xM3

(Image credit: Sony)

Something that really caught my ears was the WF-1000xM3's great audio reproduction. I could hear the distinct imperfections on mono recordings with strong bass content. This was evident when listening to the Wu-Tang Clan's "Enter the 36 Chambers," which stimulated nostalgic vibes as the buds mirrored the album's pure, unfiltered sound to perfection. The background static and choppy censors on "Protect Ya Neck" speak for themselves. 

Ideally, you will want to listen to music with noise cancellation on, which I'm happy to report does not diminish sound quality. This will increase the bass levels. The low end takes a dip in ambient mode, but still packs a punch.

True audiophiles might gravitate more toward the Momentum True Wireless' spacious audio, but even with its boomier presence, the WF-1000xM3 sounds amazing.

Special Features

Those who own a current pair of Sony wireless headphones should be familiar with the free Sony Headphones app. It's a must-download for iOS and Android users that augments the listening experience on multiple levels, from control management to sound customization.

Listeners have the option to play with the built-in EQ and create their own sound profile or choose from nine different presets: Bright, Excited, Mellow, Relaxed, Vocal, Treble Boost, Bass Boost, Speech and Manual (aka default). Each lends itself well to specific music genres; Bass Boost and Treble Boost are geared toward hip-hop heads, whereas Vocal will appease doo-wop/Motown lovers.

Sony WF-1000xM3

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

You can also adjust the Ambient Sound levels to let in as much background noise as you want when playing music. Other features to play around with include the Automatic Power Off setting, playback controls, firmware updates and a Sound Quality mode to prioritize sound over stable connection (and vice versa).

The other notable feature on these buds is Google Assistant Integration. The digital assistant is also available for use on iOS devices via app. Google's AI bot works well, supporting solid speech recognition. My voice commands were heard and met with fast results.   

Siri is available for use on the WF-1000xM3, but only on compatible iOS devices (iPhones/iPad), not macOS (MacBook).

Battery Life

Sony rates battery life at up to 6 hours with noise cancelling on and 8 hours with it off. The WF-1000xM3 held up its end of the bargain, giving me enough juice over the past three days to enjoy Spotify without recharging. Even with the buds 70% charged out of the box, I managed about 2.5 hours of use daily before tossing them into the case. 

MORE: Best Wireless Headphones 2019

Speaking of which, the charging case produces three complete charging cycles, which equates to 18 hours. The case's charging time completion could be lower (approximately 3.5 hours), but that it supports USB-C and quick charging softens the blow: A 10-minute charge gets you 90 minutes of use.

Call Quality and Connectivity

For wireless earbuds engineered with such powerful circuitry, the WF-1000xM3 is not a good calling headset. My first few calls were disastrous as the mics were muted for some odd reason. I checked my smartphone settings and the Sony app to confirm that everything was fine. 

When the buds finally worked, my girlfriend complained about hearing keyboard clatter in the background, as well as my voice cutting out several times and sounding muffled. The few times I was audible, she said it sounded like I had my mouth covered. Taking calls outside was worse, with my parents distracted by the ambient noises around me.

Sony WF-1000xM3

(Image credit: Sony)

On the plus side, the buds support Bluetooth 5.0 and NFC to make pairing seamless, for the most part. The latter feature requires removing the buds from the case, but it's no hassle. Just place your smartphone on the case's NFC symbol and you'll be connected. You can pair to devices through the Headphones app as well. 

Whichever setup you choose, the buds hold a strong connection. I enjoyed up to 38 feet of wireless listening away from my smartphone. Stuttering only occurred when stepping out of range. 

Bottom Line

The Sony WF-1000xM3 is more than just a do-over done right for the brand (I'm looking at you, WF-SP700N). It's a true wireless triumph that successfully combines stellar sonics with impressive noise cancellation. A plethora of features and solid battery life also elevate its status among the elite.  

Deep, rich bass and tonal balance give the WF-1000xM3 an edge over the AirPods and the Elite Active 65t in the audio department. As amazing as it sounds, noise cancellation remains the buds' true X factor. Even if its predecessor is its only true competitor in the product category, the WF-1000xM3 does a solid job of blocking out loud noises to enjoy music. 

But the WF-1000xM3 has a few drawbacks that keep it from storming into the number one spot. It could have benefited from physical buttons (certainly a volume rocker at the top); the unreliable touch controls make call management and playback frustrating at times. The loose fit and poor call quality are also major letdowns.

While we await Apple and possibly Bose to drop their own noise-cancelling alternatives, it's going to take a valiant effort from either competitor to top what Sony has brought to the table.