(Pocket-lint) - Since it entered the noise-cancelling headphones arena a few years ago, Sony has not only become one of the top players in the sector, it has refined and improved its technologies greatly.
The significant enhancements it included in its WH-1000XM3 wireless over-ears ensured they won the headphones category in the Pocket-lint Awards in 2018. Now it's following suit with a radical update to its true wireless earbuds from the same family: the Sony WF-1000XM3.
We've tested them in several key areas of use, including crowded tourist spots in Budapest, on packed commuter transport, in a room of chatting people, and on a two-and-a-half hour flight. That allowed us to get a good feel for how they perform in everyday use and more. We have to say, we're impressed. Very impressed indeed.
That's because, as well as a few tweaks to battery life, latency and connectivity, the M3s offer new and greatly improved noise-cancellation skills over the two-year-old original WF-1000X buds. They are also more comfortable to wear and sit in the ear better, as long as you select the right earpieces. In short, while we thought the 2017 originals had promise, the 1000XM3 realise it.
Design and fit
- Matte plastic and metal build on both buds and case
- Weight: Approximately 8.5g per bud
- 4x silicone & 3x foam tips included
- Completely wire-free design
- Touchpanels on each ear
Design wise, the WF-1000XM3 in-ear buds are neat, light and compact. Where their predecessors had loops to keep them firmly in your ears, the M3 rely on the eartips and weight balance. If inserted properly, these in-ears stay in place well and feel comfortable.
These aren't designed for work-outs or running - there is no IPX rating for sweat- or splash-resistance - but finding the right fit is still essential. That's because, not only can you experience some discomfort or pain over a prolonged period if you have the wrongly sized tips shoved into your ear canals (as with most in-ear headphones), part of the new adaptive noise-cancellation (ANC) tech depends on it.
Noise isolation is necessary to get the best ANC performance, and that only comes from ensuring the buds are firmly placed in each ear. You might need to use trial and error to find the right tip for each ear, from the seven sizes/material types on offer, but you'll soon know when you do - bass response will improve and external ambience will reduce.
The buds are well built and feel premium, as does the charging case. Available in black or silver, the case is finished in the same matte plastic as the buds - but with an aluminium lid and interior magnets to snap the headphones securely in place. It is perhaps a larger case than some rivals' offerings, but we still comfortably managed to carry it around in a trouser pocket.
Each bud also comes with a metal circle on the outside, which is there for touch controls. Each - left and right - offers different touch functions, with taps on the right-hand bud generally controlling audio output (play, pause, skip) and the left-hand one giving you access to different audio features: namely, noise-cancelling and ambient sound control. There are also long-tap options, to pick up a call and access Siri or Google Assistant (depending on your phone).
Proximity sensors are included on each earbud too, which will ensure that they are powered off when not in use and even turn off the touch panel when they aren't in your ears. You can remove just one of them while continuing to use the other, for a phone conversation or to listen to audio while the other ear is free.
- USB-C on case for charging (cable included)
- Bluetooth 5.0, NFC
- Simultaneous Bluetooth transmission
- iOS and Android compatible
Improved connectivity is one of the main enhancements to be found in the WF-1000XM3. As well as optimised antennas that provide a more stable Bluetooth connection to your phone than the previous generation, each of the earbuds now connect independently. That means latency is greatly reduced in comparison to many rivals, as most true wireless headphones rely on a left-to-right relay for a signal.
Usually, the left earbud receives the audio then relays it to the right earpiece. The Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones use simultaneous Bluetooth transmission technology, which means each bud receives the audio at the same time.
Not only does this further improve stability, it reduces power consumption, as the left-hand bud doesn't have to transmit digital audio, only receive. The advanced Bluetooth 5.0 standard utilised also reduces drop-out and, as we initially found, makes them easier to pair with an iPhone or Android device.
We did struggle when we tried to pair them with an additional device after the first set-up, but soon realised that if you tap-and-hold on the touch panel of both buds at the same time, it will enter pairing mode again after seven seconds. Then it was a doddle. Guess we should have read the instructions more carefully.
Those with Android phones can also use NFC to pair, which definitely makes things easier still.
New chipset and ANC spec
- New QN1e noise-cancelling processor
- Dual noise sensor on each bud
Brand new chips drive both audio performance and the adaptive noise-cancelling talents of the WF-1000XM3.
The latter is controlled by the proprietary QN1e noise-cancelling processor - one of which is housed in each earpiece. It's an adapted version of the same chip found in the WH-1000XM3 over-ears and sports similar digital noise-cancelling algorithms, DAC (digital-to-analogue converter) and analogue amplification.
The main difference between the two is that the larger headphones have 32-bit audio signal processing, while the one used in the true wireless earphones uses 24-bit processing. In all honesty, it's hard to tell the difference at times. What's important is that these earbuds have a superb audio signature than sounds clean and fresh, with hefty bass response, especially considering the small form-factor.
As with their larger over-ear cousin, the ANC tech on offer is adaptive, which means it will automatically adjust depending on your surroundings. These buds know when you are walking, standing or travelling and choose the best ambient sound control for the circumstance. You can also turn it off or override it for full-on noise cancellation regardless of your location - which is extra handy for sleep on planes, perhaps.
This can be actioned through tapping the left ear or through the Sony Headphone Control app for iOS and Android. It gives you this and many other options, including a digital equaliser (EQ) for different soundstages.
The final new piece in the ANC jigsaw is the addition of dual noise sensor technology. Each earpiece has two microphones that listen out for ambient sounds - one feed-forward and one feed-back. These ensure all errant, external sound is caught regardless of source direction.
- Up to 6 hours battery life with ANC on
- Up to 8 hours battery life with ANC off
- Charging case holds three additional charges
- Quick charge: 10 minutes in the case, equals 90 minutes playback
The problem with many true wireless headphones is that they can struggle to remain charged for prolonged periods. After all, they are relatively tiny and you can only fit a certain size of battery cell inside.
The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless and B&O Beoplay E8 equivalents boast just four hours of battery life, for example, with a couple more charges stored in their respective cases. And, that's without ANC.
The Sony WF-1000XM3 are claimed to last for up to six hours on a single charge with ANC switched on. And the battery case has three more charges stored inside, equalling up to 24 hours of total usage if you use adaptive noise-cancellation at all times.
With ANC off, you can reach up to eight hours of use, with the case extending that up to 32 hours.
The case also sports quick-charging abilities, so you can get up to 90 minutes of playback into the buds in just 10 minutes of them sitting in the case.
We haven't been able to test this fully yet - mainly because in all of our testing, wandering around, plane flight and other real-world wearing, we're yet to run out of power in the case. Still, all that galavanting around added up to approaching the six hour mark and without any battery issues. It's impressive, that's for sure.
- 6mm neodymium dome drivers
- 20Hz - 20,000Hz (44.1kHz Sampling) frequency response
- DSEE HX digital sound enhancement engine
- Works with Sony Headphone Control app
Now we get to the crunch and this is, perhaps, the most important bit: how do these Sony in-ears sound?
We do have to quickly run through a couple of caveats first. For starters, there is no Hi-Res Audio support, no aptX Bluetooth compatibility (which you will get in the Libratone Track Air+ for, oddly, even less cash). There is Sony's DSEE HX digital sound enhancement engine on board, that makes the most of low bitrate audio files, but if you're after something that will play high bitrate, lossless material, these aren't the buds for you.
But, to be honest, considering these are true wireless headphones we doubt you'll ever care. We certainly don't.
The audio performance in every scenario we've tried them in is exemplary. With both music and video playback, we found ourselves totally lost in the experience - so much so that we had to remember our surroundings when walking down a street. With ANC on, the world is simply blotted out.
One of our listening tracks of choice - While My Guitar Gently Weeps from the recently remastered version of The Beatles' White Album - sounded crisp and clear, with depth and impact, as if we were totally alone rather than trying to avoid traffic when crossing a busy street.
Another, Liam Gallagher's Wall of Glass, was deep and involving, irrespective of the packed, noisy town square we were stood in.
Our only slight quibble was when travelling back to the UK, watching Netflix show Jessica Jones on an iPad mini. The earbuds don't quite block the noise of the interior of a plane as effectively as modern over-ears. But then, these are not explicitly designed for that, rather more for commuter journeys. And, even that being said, we could still hear every word of dialogue clearly and the bass thump during action sequences was tangible.
Sony took two years to improve on its first ANC-sporting true wireless earbuds and that time was clearly well spent.
Just about everything has been enhanced in this updated generation. The WF-1000XM3 offers class-leading adaptive noise-cancellation tech for their size and purpose, while maintaining the excellent audio performance the company's range has become known for.
Yes, there are a couple of caveats in the lack of splash resistance and aptX support, but these in-ears are designed to provide superlative sound during a commute or stroll, rather than jog or weight-lifting session. And, for that, these wire-frees have few parallels.
Sony isn't the only maker to market with true wireless headphones with ANC - we recently also tested the Libratone Track Air+ in-ears - but the WF series has a style, swagger and musicality that's hard to beat.
The Sony WF-1000XM3 wire-free in-ears will go on sale from 8 August 2019.
Libratone Track Air+
These little birds aren't just great rivals to the Sony, the asking price is also a chunk less - yet without needing to forego any of the features or quality in the process. There's even aptX compatibility for great quality over-the-air audio. These are great wireless in-ears at an unbeatable price.