We can’t think of many pairs of headphones as eagerly anticipated as the Sony WF-1000XM3 true wireless earbuds. Their predecessors, the WF-1000X launched back in 2017, were a superior-sounding alternative to the distinctly average-sounding Apple AirPods of the time.
But two years is a long time in the tech world, and now there’s no shortage of options if you’re in the in-ear market looking for a pair of the best wireless headphones. Not only has Apple upped its game with new AirPods, it seems every manufacturer and its headphone-wearing dog wants a piece of the action.
That’s great news for the consumer though – features, sound quality and expectations are increasing all the time and manufacturers have to work extra hard to stand out from the crowd. Thankfully, the Sony WF-1000XM3s manage to do just that, and for all the right reasons.
Build and comfort
Sony has swerved the bullet-like appearance of some wireless in-ears such as the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1, and has also shied away from the hanging down teardrop designs favoured by the Apple AirPods and the RHA TrueConnect.
You can see a tiny strand of DNA from the original WF-1000Xs, but to all intents and purposes, the WF-1000XM3s are a brand new design. Not as bulky as the Bose Soundsport Free buds, but not quite as petite as the Melomania 1s, the Sonys lie somewhere in between. They are available in Black and Platinum Silver – a deliberate move by Sony to bring the finishes in line with those offered for their WH-1000XM3 over-ear siblings.
The outer section of each earpiece is smooth plastic with a small, glossy, circular patch on the surface of both left and right buds. These patches are actually touch sensitive control pads; the functions vary depending on the earpiece.
Sony has implemented a new ‘Tri-hold structure’ for the WF-1000XM3, which focuses on three key points in your ear to give the headphones better support. There is even a special high-friction rubber on the surface of the main chamber to help with stability.
Sony provides seven different sizes of earbud; four ‘hybrid silicone’ buds and three ‘triple-comfort’ buds, which feel slightly thicker than the standard ones. It’s a good selection, and more than you get with many rivals. The headphones enter the ear at a slight downward angle, you then have to twist them up to lock them in place. The intrusion is kept to a minimum, but you still feel nicely isolated.
Overall, we find them a comfortable, balanced fit – snug without being too intrusive. They’re not aimed specifically at sporty types and gym-goers, though you’ll no doubt see plenty of people wearing them there, but for less strenuous activities, such as whacking a few golf balls down at the local driving range, they'll be ideal.
At the heart of each earpiece lies a Sony QN1e HD noise-cancelling processor. It’s virtually identical to the chip found in the Award-winning Sony WH-1000XM3 over-ear headphones. Sony claims this chip delivers a 40 per cent increase in noise-cancelling quality, compared to the WF-1000X.
It uses 24-bit processing (the chip in the over-ears is 32-bit) and claims to bring greater efficiency to the headphones, allowing for better battery life. As is the case with the Sony over-ears, the chip acts not only as the noise-cancelling processor, but it also handles DAC and analogue amplification duties. The Sonys support SBC and AAC codecs, but there’s no aptX HD Bluetooth should you own a compatible smartphone.
Bluetooth version 5.0
aptX HD No
Battery life 6 hours (BT + ANC)
Battery life (charging case) 18 hours (BT + ANC)
Voice control Siri, Google Assistant
As is the norm with true wireless earbuds, the Sony WF-1000XM3s come with their own charging case. It’s quite chunky, compared to the compact cases that house the Apple AirPods or the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1s.
The case is narrower than the one for the outgoing WF-1000Xs, but marginally deeper and taller – no doubt partly due to the shape and size of the new earpieces. The top is hinged and coloured in copper, which looks particularly striking when combined with the black finish of our review sample.
Sony has made big strides with the WF-1000XM3s’ battery life. You get six hours of playback as standard, while the case has enough power for an extra three charges, giving a total of 24 hours when using Bluetooth and noise-cancelling together. If you’re caught short, just 10 minutes of charging time is enough to breathe 90 minutes of life into them.
Turn off the noise-cancelling and the battery life jumps to eight hours, with the case bumping it up to an impressive total of 32 hours. The Apple AirPods are five hours per charge (+19 from the case) while the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless are four hours (+8 from the case). Only the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 buds, with nine hours battery life from the buds themselves, plus four additional charges from the case, can raise the bar. But none of those models are noise-cancelling earbuds.
There’s no battery indicator on the case here, but the red LED light on the front blinks rapidly if it doesn’t have enough juice to fully charge the headphones.
The Sony Headphones Connect app has been around for a while but it gives a little more control over some of the functions of the WF-1000XM3s. You can see the battery level of each earpiece and the case, alter the built-in equalizer, enable Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant support and flip the functions of the touch controls – useful for any left-handers who feel more comfortable this way.
We’d recommend making sure the Sound Quality Mode is set to prioritise sound quality instead of Bluetooth connection. We’d also experiment with the DSEE HX sound processor, which can be switched on or off. We prefer to have the extra sparkle music seems to have with it switched on, although we did find that battery life takes an extra hit with this turned on.
It’s rare to find a pair of headphones that implement touch controls flawlessly, but Sony has done a decent job. The target for your finger on each earpiece is quite small, and we find that holding the earpiece with forefinger and thumb and tapping with your index finger is a good technique.
Out of the box, the left control pad is for turning noise cancelling on or off (it’s on as default) and engaging the Ambient Sound mode, which allows in a bit more outside noise. Tap and hold to engage the Quick Attention feature, allowing you to hold a conversation without having to pause your music or take them out.
The right pad is for playback controls. Single tap to play/pause, a double tap skips forward and triple hit skips back. Tap and hold to start a conversation with your virtual assistant of choice – Siri and Google Assistant are supported. Alternatively, removing one of the earpieces automatically pauses what you’re playing. Place it back in your ear and you’ll pick up where you left off.
The controls take a little time to get used to, particularly as there’s a small target for your fingers to aim for, but thankfully you don’t have to tap the pad right in the middle to get a reaction.
In November 2019, Sony released a firmware update that now allows you to control volume through the touchpads. You just need to go into the Headphones Connect app to enable this feature and assign the function to an earbud.
Play Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car and the Sony WF-1000XM3 wireless buds put together all the ingredients required to create a wonderfully musical sound. Instruments sound natural, believable and just as expressive and captivating as her emotive vocal.
There’s subtlety in spades as the bass notes of the track rise and fall in intensity. As the drum kit explodes into life for each chorus, the Sonys aren’t afraid to deliver each thwack with power and poise. This kind of dynamic dexterity is hard to communicate in big on-ear headphones, never mind small in-ear designs.
Switch to The XX’s I Dare You and the WF-1000XM3s immediately lock into a rhythmic groove and show an impressive turn of pace. The track flows along effortlessly. Bass is weighty and wholesome, but punchy and agile too. Vocals are prominent, but don’t over power. There’s a real sense of musicality and balance.
Rock out with The Amazon’s End Of Wonder and the Sonys roll up their sleeves, delivering crisp drums, tight, textured riffs from the bass and electric guitars and an expressive vocal. The headphones follow the sway and swagger of the track and carve out the guitar solo with expert precision. You get a real feel for the intensity and focus of each deliberate pluck.
We flit back and forth between the new model and the original WF-1000Xs and the new model sounds clearer, more open, dynamic and detailed. The level of transparency judged nicely too – poor recordings aren’t dressed up, but better than average tracks really sing.
Part of the credit has to go the noise cancelling on the WF-1000XM3s. It’s clearly a step up and even without music playing you can hear the headphones cancelling out more background noise. They can’t match a proper pair of over-ear noise-cancelling headphones but it’s difficult not to be impressed with what Sony has managed to do with such small earbuds.
In an attempt to further enhance your listening experience, Sony has introduced a new Bluetooth chip for these in-ears and also altered how the headphones communicate both with each other and with your music source. Sony claims the audio should arrive at both earpieces simultaneously, making for a more robust connection, and also minimising the possibility of any audio delay and lip-sync issues when watching video. In fact, Sony claims a 75 per cent reduction in latency compared to the WF1000Xs.
We try the Sonys with a mixture of content from Netflix, BBC iPlayer and YouTube. We find no lip-sync issues with Top Gear as the headphones capture the excitable twangs of comedy duo Paddy and Freddie. It’s the same with Netflix as we play a couple of excerpts from the Umbrella Academy series. We experience a tiny audio delay when watching one YouTube clip, but with so many potential reasons for that, we’re willing to give the Sonys the benefit of the doubt.
Call quality is good, given the mics are on the earpieces and quite a distance from your mouth, and you can answer calls by tapping on either earpiece. A pair of wired earbuds with an in-line mic will give greater control over how you’re being heard, and how much outside noise you allow through, but it’s hard to be too critical.
Sony has really pulled something special out of the bag with the WF-1000XM3s. They sound excellent, battery life is up there with the best and they are one of the only pairs on the market to pack in active noise-cancelling and execute it so well.
The touch controls take a bit of getting used to, and it would be nice to support aptX HD Bluetooth, but apart from that, you simply can't get a more musical and engaging performance from a pair of true wireless earbuds. We’re well and truly smitten.
- Sound 5
- Comfort 5
- Build 5