Business Technology

Sony’s Latest Noise-Cancelling Wireless WF-1000XM3 Earbuds Takes On Airpods

Sony WF-1000XM3

Its Game on! In the race for the best “true wireless” earbud, Sony has a new horse. Meet the Sony WF-1000XM3. (Not to be confused with the company’s over-ear flagship, the WH-1000XM3.)

Back in 2017, Sony’s inaugural pair of true wireless earbuds, the WF-1000X, didn’t stand out among the competition when they hit the market. They were plagued by some of the common stumbles of first-generation earbuds with no cable between them — connection dropouts, audio delay when watching video, and so-so battery life — and the promised noise cancellation failed to measure up to Sony’s popular 1000X headphone series.

But Sony is back. The new WF-1000XM3 earbuds, launching in August for $229.99, address many of my complaints about the original product. They fit better, look nicer, exhibit very little signal loss, and have improved battery life.

(If you’re wondering, there was never a WF-1000XM2. While Sony says it doesn’t discuss its product naming process, the obvious explanation is that it’s trying to keep parity with the 1000X headphone line, which is currently on M3. So we skipped right over M2. Okay, sure. Names mean nothing.)

The M3s have a much cleaner, more professional, and all-around sleeker look than their shiny predecessors. The Sony logo and microphone inlet are adorned with rose gold / copper accents, so these earbuds look at home when sitting next to the 1000XM3 headphones. Sony continues to supply plenty of ear tips to help you find the ideal fit. There are seven options in all, including the comfortable foam-like ones I’ve been using. The little nub / wing from the original WF-1000X that hooked into your ear’s concha is gone, but I haven’t missed it and find the M3s to fit securely without causing discomfort over time.

Each earbud has a circular area for touch controls: you adjust noise cancellation with the left earbud and audio playback with the right. Tapping the left earbud toggles between noise cancellation and ambient sound mode, which pipes in outside audio.

Sony has brought over the clever Quick Attention mode from its 1000X headphones: resting your finger over the left earbud temporarily activates ambient audio for however long you hold it there; once you let go, the noise cancellation comes right back. This is useful if you need to hear a plane announcement or quickly pay for something at the coffee shop.

On the right earbud, you get the standard music controls: tap once to pause / play, twice to skip to the next song, and three times to go back. Nowhere on the M3 earbuds will you find volume controls, so you’ll need to do that via your device or with your voice assistant of choice, which can be accessed by tapping and holding the right earbud’s touchpad.

Sony says it has improved the active noise cancellation on the M3s compared to the original WF-1000X, and I can attest to that. Whereas the first model felt like it offered little over the noise isolation you get with a good earbud seal, here the effect is definitely more pronounced and noticeable. I still don’t think it’s on par with full-size headphones; matching that level of NC seems like an extraordinary challenge. But what Sony has done here makes all the difference on a crowded subway train or busy city street. The company said that it added a second noise-canceling mic to each earbud, and Sony’s QN1e processor is also behind some of the improvements. It’s a world of difference from earbuds like the AirPods that let in your surroundings by design. Even the Powerbeats Pro allow more external noise to get between me and my music than I’d prefer.

Thanks to a new Bluetooth chipset inside, each of the two earbuds makes its own simultaneous connection to your phone. There’s no linked system where one earbud is at the mercy of the other, which was common among early true wireless earbuds. This means you can use either Sony M3 earbud by itself for listening to audio or making voice calls while the other is charging inside the case. It also drastically cuts down on audio lag when watching videos since there’s no longer that relay from one earbud to the other. It’s now to the point where any lip sync delay is unnoticeable.

Battery life is rated at six hours on a charge with noise cancellation enabled. If you turn it off, that extends to eight hours. The case holds enough extra juice to allow for a total of 24 hours of listening (after repeated top-offs) with the noise-canceling feature or 32 hours with it off. Sony says you can get 90 minutes of playback with a 10-minute charge over USB-C. (No, the M3s don’t include wireless charging.)

The charging case is rather nice, coming in at around the same height as Apple’s AirPods case but quite a bit wider. Still, I like how the earbuds snugly drop into place and are held in magnetically. There’s zero chance of putting these in the case and having one of them fail to charge, which is a frustration many have encountered with PowerBeats Pro. This is down to personal taste, but I also like Sony’s use of numerous lights (one on each earbud and the case itself) to clearly indicate charging status.

Related Reading: Beats Announces Powerbeats Pro Wireless Earphones With Apple H1 Chip

When the earbuds are paired — you can only pair to one device at a time — and in use, that hidden LED inside the earbuds will occasionally blink blue. It’s not something you’ll notice when wearing them, but others might. As with many other wireless earbuds these days, removing one of them will automatically pause audio until you put it back in your ear.

Many people have so far been happy with the sound from Sony’s M3s. But it should be noted that they have been using a preproduction sample over the last week or so. The Verge doesn’t review non-final hardware, so Sony is sending over a final pair of the M3 earbuds very soon, and they will be back with a review score and final thoughts before long. But with this unit, they’ve barely noticed any connection dropouts — even in trouble spots and intersections where true wireless earbuds can frequently struggle. That’s a big turnaround from Sony’s first try.

For codecs, Sony supports AAC and SBC on the M3s but not the company’s own higher-res LDAC. Nonetheless, Sony still claims you’ll be hearing top-notch sound thanks to “24-bit audio signal processing” and its “Digital Sound Enhancement Engine HX” upscaling for lossy music. I won’t weigh in on the technical jargon, but some early tests have been positive. Whether they are listening to The National, Carly Rae Jepsen, Jason Isbell, Maggie Rogers, or Lizzo, the M3s are proving plenty capable, with ample bass, good separation, and the ability to juggle genres without issue. We’ll hold a final sound verdict for the review.

Unfortunately, there’s one significant strike against the WF-1000XM3 earbuds: they’re not sweat or water-resistant. Bafflingly, Sony is going to market in the summer with a set of earbuds that aren’t technically cut out for exercise or coming with you on a run — or even if you just break a sweat on a hot day.

A Sony spokesperson noted that the team “did not hear any complaints from the previous model for breaking from using at the gym.” The original model also lacked an official water-resistance rating. But for $230, this is borderline unacceptable.

Sony’s 1000XM3 earbuds will face stiff competition out of the gate. For a little more money, there are the Powerbeats Pro and Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless. For a little less, you’ll find a wide field including second-gen AirPods, Jabra’s Elite 65ts, Galaxy Buds, and plenty of other choices. But if you can get over the lack of rated sweat resistance, I can definitely see the appeal of what Sony has come up with — especially for the frequent flyers among you.

About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende