It’s been a leaky few weeks for the wireless earbud market. First the Sony WF-1000XM4 showed up in the form of leaked packaging, then we saw the first halfway-convincing photograph of what’s likely the Apple AirPods 3. If you’re the kind who likes to peek behind the curtain, you’ve been spoiled for opportunities.
These are big products, too. The AirPods 3 is… a new pair of AirPods, the most titanic brand in consumer in-ears. And the WF-1000XM4 will succeed the Sony WF-1000XM3, which has parked itself in our best wireless earbuds and best noise-cancelling earbuds rankings for years. In all likelihood the AirPods 3 will prove the bigger seller, but at this early stage I think it’s the WF-1000XM4 that shows more promise. Here’s why.
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The WF-1000XM4’s leaked design looks better
Caveats apply here: leaks are just leaks, and what appears to be the Sony WF-1000XM4 packaging box sleeve (as the source claims) could be an elaborate mockup. But the radical design on show at the top of this page does match Sony’s preferred color scheme and design sensibilities suspiciously well. It also makes the WF-1000XM4, in my eyes, a lot better-looking than what we’ve seen of the AirPods 3.
The leaked photo of Apple’s long-awaited buds, above, does show some improvements on the current Apple AirPods. The stalks are a bit shorter, and like the AirPods Pro, in-ear tips have seemingly been added to a customizable fit. But while there’s always something to be said for the clean aesthetics of Apple headphones, I’d much rather have the super-compact bud design showcased in the WF-1000XM4 leak.
Stalks, stems, whatever you call them — not everyone wants to walk around with a pair of cylinders poking out of their head like a half-dismantled Cyberman. And the apparent new WF-1000XM4 has everything I want from a true wireless earbud: tight dimensions, an accessibly open pad for touch inputs and replaceable tips to create the best possible seal. In this case they look like memory foam, which would arguably be an upgrade on the WF-1000XM3’s silicone tips.
Speaking of Sony’s current-gen earbuds, this new design would be a much bigger step forward than what Apple is apparently managing with the AirPods. The AirPods 3 might benefit from a few tweaks, but a drastic redesign like Sony's shows much more boldness. Gone is the weird pill shape of the WF-1000XM3, replaced by a much more discrete bud that won’t protrude as much.
I’m extremely curious about what that little gold ring is, too — it looks too small to be a control dial, so might be a microphone or a pressure-relief vent. Either way, it’s a nice visual touch.
The AirPods 3 could lock features to iOS
I’ve complained before about Samsung and Apple keeping their headphones’ best tricks to themselves, like how the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro locks its 360 Audio mode to Galaxy phones and tablets. There’s no reason to expect the AirPods 3 will be any different: even in the unlikely event that it borrows spatial audio playback from the AirPods Pro, this and other headline features would likely only work with iOS and Macs.
Sony is much more generous with sharing its tech around. Its spatial audio equivalent, 360 Reality Audio, works with a huge range of source devices and even headphones from other brands. Compatibility with the WF-1000XM4 is practically a given, and I wouldn’t have to worry about it only working because I have an Android phone. That in turn would give me the flexibility to freely switch to iOS in the future, or simply to use the earbuds with a Windows laptop.
Apple’s walled garden approach can produce some performance benefits, like fast pairing, but that rigidity isn’t what I want from a pair of headphones. The Sony WF-1000XM4 is much more likely to remain as good as it can be, regardless of what it’s paired to.
The WF-1000XM4 could easily win on battery life
Going back to the grapevine, we haven’t heard anything about the longevity of the AirPods 3. It could feature some neat integration with the iPhone 12 MagSafe wireless charging tech, potentially letting you refuel the buds just by setting them on the back of the phone — but information on how long they’ll last is scarce.
Meanwhile, the leaked Sony WF-1000XM4 packaging sleeve gives the upcoming headphones’ battery life as 6 hours per charge, with up to 18 hours from the charging case. Again, this is one unconfirmed source, but that would mean the WF-1000XM4 beats at least the current AirPods by an extra hour per charge.
Could Apple improve this? It’s certainly possible, but development is also starting from a disadvantage. If the AirPods 2 only offers five hours per charge and the AirPods 3 is indeed more compact, Apple will need to find a way to get bigger cells in smaller buds while also keeping costs down.
By contrast, even if this packaging can’t be trusted, all Sony needs to do is avoid taking steps backward. The WF-1000XM3 is already rated for 6 hours per charge plus 18 from the case, so while it might be disappointing if the WF-1000XM4 doesn’t improve on those numbers, Sony still has a better platform to build on.
What’s more, those WF-1000XM3 figures? They’re with active noise cancelling (ANC) enabled. Assuming the WF-1000XM4’s stated lifespan is the same, improving on the AirPods (which doesn’t have ANC) will be even harder for Apple.
It’s up in the air right now whether the AirPods 3 will feature ANC. If it does, that would be a major feature improvement — albeit one that would only likely bring it to parity with the WF-1000XM4, while also making it considerably harder to match Sony’s buds on battery life.
The inclusion (or lack thereof) of ANC on these two buds would, fairly, raise the question of whether the Sony WF-1000XM4 is more of a potential AirPods Pro 2 rival than an AirPods 3 one. But most professional estimates tip the AirPods 3 for a much more imminent release than the AirPods Pro 2, and leaked packaging could be a sign that the WF-1000XM4 is close to launch as well.
So the AirPods 3 and the WF-1000XM4 will probably go head to head eventually, and right now I know which one I’m most looking forward to.
- More: Check out the best noise-cancelling headphones