Sony WF-1000XM3 review: The best truly wireless headphones?

I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with truly wireless in-ear headphones. There’s no denying how useful these devices are, but I just haven’t found one that I really liked. The ones I’ve tried usually either suffer from poor audio quality, poor battery life, or poor connectivity–sometimes all three. And, of course, it really doesn’t help that my ears are so picky when it comes to in-ear headphones because so many of them just don’t fit. But then I got to try Sony’s brand new WF-1000XM3 headphones, and let’s just say that they’re utterly incredible.

Now, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because Sony’s no stranger in the audio game and the WF-1000XM3 are their latest entry into the truly wireless headphone segment. But, they’re entering the market at a little bit of a disadvantage right now because truly wireless earbuds have been around for awhile. And a lot of smartphone makers, like Apple and Samsung, have their own variants that work well with their smartphones.

And working well with a smartphone or mobile device is crucial when it comes to something that’s all about portability because people are almost always going to use something like this with their smartphone. However, if you look at Sony’s current track record with smartphones, you can definitely see that they’re a little behind their competition. Which means they can’t leverage that convenience as a strength.

But the thing about the WF-1000XM3, besides having a longer and more complicated and more difficult to remember name, is that these have something none of those earbuds have. And that secret sauce is something called Active Noise Cancellation or ANC. Yes, that magical thing some headphones are able to do to almost entirely drown out loud ambient sounds.

Which is why I spent most of this review in a really noisy train somewhere in Japan, travelling from Shinjuku to Chichibu. Because Sony didn’t just want to tell me that their new headphones are good, they want to show me how good they are.

Now if you’re unfamiliar with what active noise cancellation is, it’s not the same as passive noise cancellation. Y’know, the kind of isolation you get just by getting a pair of headphones to fit tightly in or over your ears. Active Noise Cancellation actually sees the headphones pipe a specific second sound that’s designed to cancel out stuff like ambient noise. So, a good pair gets quiet, like really quiet.

This is possible on the WF-1000XM3 because it has Sony’s very own HD Noise Cancelling Processor called the QN1e. Working in tandem with a couple of microphones, the QN1e is able to detect the ambient noise in your surroundings, and then immediately cancel them out. Traditionally, this is a feature you’d find on large over-ear headphones, so the fact that Sony’s able to do this on something as small as the WF-1000XM3 is already very impressive. But what is truly spectacular is the quality of noise cancellation you’re able to get..

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For my money, the best ANC headphones in the market right now are Sony’s very own WH-1000XM3. And what really impressed me was how much of that experience the company was able to transfer over to a pair of headphones that are just a fraction of the size. The smaller WF headphones have pretty much the same noise cancellation profiles. You have the ambient sound mode that actually pipes in audio from the outside, then you can turn off ANC to save battery, and finally you have Noise Cancelling.

Turn it on and you get a kind of schwip sound almost like the noise is being sucked out of your ears. It’s like you’ve been transported into a different world and it’s absolutely unreal if you’ve never experienced ANC before.

But, of course, it doesn’t mean you’re completely isolated from all noise. ANC, as magical as it is, isn’t magic. It works best when your ambient sound is constant, so sudden loud noises don’t get blocked as well. And, as good as they are on the WF-1000XM3, I still don’t think they’re quite to the level of the larger WH-1000XM3.

Almost by design, these earbuds are already a step behind their over-ear brothers. I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten anything with in-ear headphones on before, but your chewing and slurping sounds really loud. Your own voice is also amplified, as is your walking and breathing. These are not problems you’ll have with over-ear headphones, but of course the trade-off is that over-ear cans are much bigger in size.

Still, the fact that they’re able to retain what I feel is about 80% of the ANC capabilities of the bigger headphones is truly an impressive feat. However, while ANC is cool and all, these are still first and foremost truly wireless earbuds, so it would be pointless if they sucked at being headphones.

Do they sound good?

Let’s start with audio quality. Now, don’t be mistaken, these aren’t designed to sound like in-ear monitors. When I asked Sony about how they tuned their headphones, their answer was that they wanted to give users the best enjoyment when listening to music.

Honestly, I think they sound great. So I’ve been using the Samsung Galaxy Buds for quite a while now and they’re basically my only in-ear truly wireless pair of headphones. And I’ve always thought they sounded quite lame, but I wasn’t prepared for just how lame they sounded compared to the WF-1000XM3.

The WF-1000XM3 have a very full and rich sound to them that indeed makes music listening fun. The bass line is front-and-centre without being overwhelming and that does a lot to make things sound fun. They have that Sony sound signature to them in a way that makes them sound a lot like the larger WH-1000XM3.

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But, y’know, I wouldn’t call myself an audiophile, I just know what I like and what I don’t, and I think a lot of you will like how these sound too.

Of course, with in-ear headphones, the important thing with getting the full experience is ensuring you get a good fit. I was probably the most nervous about this aspect because if they didn’t fit, I wouldn’t be able to review them.

But, you can really tell that these are high-end headphones simply by the number of ear tips they include in the box. You get four pairs of silicone tips of varying sizes and three pairs of foam tips to boot. Thankfully, after a little fiddling, I finally got a tight seal with the largest silicone tip. I really appreciate it when manufacturers go to these additional lengths to make sure everyone gets a good fit, so kudos.

That being said, there is one aspect about the ergonomics of these in-ear headphones that I don’t enjoy. The headphones have a little bit of an L shape to them and when I wear them securely, the little corner of the L actually pinches the small protruding part of my ear that Google tells me is called the tragus.

I didn’t notice the pinching at all while I was wearing them, but the moment I took them off after a couple of hours, my ears were actually really sore. And that’s a shame, because for the most part these earbuds are really comfortable. But again, not all ears are the same shape, so you may never encounter this problem.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to connectivity and battery life.

Connectivity and battery life

Sony’s WF-1000XM3 headphones take a little bit of a different approach when it comes to Bluetooth connectivity. Rather than connecting to one bud then relaying the sound, the Sony headphones transmit audio to both earbuds simultaneously, which they say helps reduce latency–another common problem with Bluetooth buds.

I was a little sceptical at first, but I have to say that connection was very solid throughout my testing. Sony lets you switch between two modes in their smartphone app, allowing you to prioritise either sound quality or a stable connection. In my experience, sound quality works well if you’re not moving through an area with a lot of wireless signals, like in my train ride. But when I was walking through town, I had to switch to prioritising a stable connection otherwise the audio would cut out very frequently.

In general, though, I really didn’t have much to complain about when it comes to connectivity. It hardly ever cut out for me when I prioritised a stable connection, but the audio quality still sounded fine to my ears.

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Plus, when I was watching videos on my smartphone, I didn’t really experience any noticeable delay between the visuals happening on screen and the audio I was listening to. There was only once when the earbuds were a touch slower, but simply resetting the connection fixed it for me. I’d say that when it comes to latency, Sony really held up their end of the bargain.

Unfortunately, I can’t really say the same about battery life. Sony quotes up to six hours of life on a single charge with ANC turned on, but in my experience, I was getting a lot closer to five hours than six. It’s still pretty darn good if you consider that other earbuds of this kind get about the same amount of playtime without ANC. One unique thing I noticed about the WF-1000XM3 is that the buds don’t run out of battery at the same rate. And, if one side runs out earlier, you can still listen to the other side which is neat.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Sony WF-1000XM3. I think they sound great, they’re well built, and they’ve got some of the best active noise cancellation I’ve heard on any pair of headphones. I also grew to like the way they look, and how securely they fit into my ears despite not featuring any wing tips or straps. I tried to shake them off with intense head banging, but ultimately was unable to.

Of course, it’s not perfect. I think the case is also a little too big to not feature wireless charging, and If you were hoping to wear them in the rain, you might want to reconsider because these don’t come with any IP or splash rating. I did wear them in a drizzle in Tokyo once and they turned out fine, but I can’t recommend you do the same.

But, at the end of the day, I think the biggest thing that will give people pause when considering these headphones is the price tag: RM949. That’s a lot of money for a pair of headphones, especially ones like these. The Samsung Galaxy Buds, for example are almost half the price, and even Apple’s AirPods are cheaper. But none of those have noise cancellation, so how important is that to you? If that’s really important to you then this is truly a one-of-a-kind product and it’s a one of a kind product that really, really works.

And that’s not something you can say every day. Sure, they’re quite a lot more expensive but that extra cost isn’t for nothing. It’s not like a badge tax or anything like that. You’re paying more because these do more, and when you look at it that way, I think it makes these worth it.

Photography by Rory Lee on the Sony A6400.