I’ll cut to the chase: I’ve reviewed a fair share of true wireless earbuds in my day, and the Sony WF-1000XM3 is an entirely new creature. In short – it brings the convenience of the AirPods, the portability of a pillbox, the noise-cancelling of Sony’s flagship wireless active noise-cancelling headphones WH-1000XM3 (almost), all at an incredible price point of SGD 349.
With a premium of S$50 over the Apple AirPods (SGD 299) and the Jabra Elite Active 65t (SGD 298), the WF-1000XM3 packs ANC tech ported over from the WH-1000XM3 in the form of a new HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1e that offers performance while maintaining battery efficiency.
Let’s find out if that’s up to scratch and if the WF-1000XM3 delivers an overall experience well worth that dough.
Form Factor & Build
As true wireless earphones come, the Sony WF-1000XM3 is large. But that’s entirely expected and still very impressive – Sony engineers have somehow managed to miniaturise their flagship noise-cancelling tech into such a tiny form-factor.
The charging case is a delightful oblong dental floss-type affair with a flattened lid that flips up along the long edge. It can be easily operated one-handed, although it still requires an awkward grip (think Italian hands) and the lid does not spring into place until it is 90 per cent of the way open.
That does diminish the visceral satisfaction of using the case, but not any more than the clap sound it makes when it closes – but I am most definitely nit-picking here. Just don’t expect the obsessive, tactile and auditory experience the AirPods deliver.
Suffice to say the hinge mechanism feels solid and robust without any give. The hinge itself is hidden inside a plastic enclosure, but as true wireless headphones come, the case of the WF-1000XM3 comes out pretty much on top, with a very pleasant soft-touch plastic on the body and a luxurious metallic plastic lid.
Within, the earphones themselves are a lot more regularly sized. Sony had gone off on its own riff with a single rounded outer shell and an offset inner that aims the nozzle straight into your ear canals. That’s a marked departure from current trends of stalks – a là AirPods and RHA Trueconnect, bullets – a là Sennheiser Momentum true wireless, or a mixture of both – like the Jabra Elite 65t earphones.
They’re slightly heavier than usual, but they won’t be an issue for intermediate lengths of usage. I dealt with them rather well for listening sessions of about five hours, but thereafter my ears started to ache and feel irritated. Fit and comfort are very subjective issues, though, but I personally wouldn’t look forward to having these continually inserted for anything approximating a transcontinental flight.
For fit, the WF-1000XM3 uses an all-new “tri-hold structure” to improve stability with a slightly heavier form-factor. I found it to be reasonably secure, although I would advise against engaging in high-impact sports with these on. Keeping them in also relies heavily on selecting the right ear tips.
On the outside, the earphones feature a single, glossy circular surface. Serving as touch-sensitive controls, these only detect taps, not swipes. No chance of volume control here, although users can customise what these perform within the Sony Headphones app.
The left pad toggles ANC modes between off, on and Ambient Sound modes. Like the WH-1000XM3, holding the left control pad activates the Quick Attention feature that attenuates the audio for a quick conversation. On the right, a single tap pauses and plays the music, double and triple taps advances and rewinds the tracks respectively. Holding it activates your choice of voice assistant.
Facing inwards is another glossy surface – that’s the proximity sensor that detects when you remove the WF-1000XM3, and pauses and plays your music accordingly. There doesn’t seem to be any gyroscopes or motion sensors working in tandem, and it was pretty easy to fool the earphones to resume playing music by blocking light from entering the sensors.
To help with the fit, Sony has included a wide selection of ear tips in the box. There’s three sizes of the more regular “hybrid silicone” ones, but they’ve also elected to supply another three sizes of thicker, more plush “triple comfort” ear tips.
Also in the box is a short USB A to USB C charging cable.
It’s easy. They work, and they work especially well in intended scenarios. Sony’s Japan media event showcased the performance of the WF-1000XM3 on a train and in general mid-to-long commute scenarios. For these, the WF-1000XM3 is an ideal option.
I found that on planes, trains and buses, the WF-1000XM3 was a significant step-up from in-ear earphones that offer passive noise isolation, and I wasn’t fazed by crying infants or even rowdy passengers.
The big issue: if you’re comfortable going in-ear, there are plenty of in-ear options that also work well to seal the deal passively, noise-wise. My favourite are Shure’s triple flange ear tips, and Comply’s foam tips – but they sit pretty deep into your ear canal, which the vast majority of users would have an issue with.
The “pressure” from Sony’s ANC, also experienced when using the WH-1000XM3 headphones, wasn’t an issue to me at all. I, however, know individuals who find that sort of pressure uncomfortable especially when exposed prolonged periods of time.
Now, for short intercity commutes that often involve short bouts of walking, the WF-1000XM3 suffers from a fair bit of thumping. As in-ear earphones go, this issue isn’t uncommon, but the ANC does accentuate some of the impact, which can be very disconcerting.
The WF-1000XM3 offers an in-app environment-sensing mode which automatically switches noise-cancelling levels. It works, but I didn’t fancy it. It is convenient, but I’d rather use the full extent of the noise-cancelling if I had paid for it.
While the WF-1000XM3 allows for ambient sound to be let through, the directionality isn’t well conveyed. I’d advise against on relying on the mode for situational awareness especially while commuting on foot, since I found myself looking the wrong way several times in traffic.
As Sony options come, the WF-1000XM3 boasts plenty of character and an overall fun listening experience.
The low end is filled with energy and is rendered accurately. The bassline on Bombay Bicycle Club’s Luna drives the song along with percussive detail where it might be otherwise lost in a deep rumble. Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car extends low almost to the limits of hearing, but retains plenty of texture.
The sound imaging is extremely well defined, with the gentle guitars strums low-key percussion on Friedemann’s Saitensprung sounding plenty spacious. The introduction of Eagle’s live performance of Hotel California rendered every single instrument in immaculate detail – from the hissing cabasas off to the right, the shakers to the left, and the cheering audience all around.
Soundstage, as with most in-ear earphones, is rather limited. No surprise here.
Both male and female vocals sound true to life across a variety of genres. Drake’s Gyalchester is gritty and expressive, Florence Welch’s lilt in Florence + The Machine’s Cosmic Love is intense and flighty. I think I made out rhythmic chains in the background of the track for the first time.
The WF-1000XM3 delivers six hours of battery life with noise cancelling on, with an additional three charges in the case bringing the total to a whopping 24 hours.
With ANC turned off, this turns to eight hours with a total of 32 hours paired with the case. Fast charging delivers 90 minutes of use in just 10 minutes of charging. There is a single LED indicator up front that flashes quickly when juice is running low.
For connectivity, the WF-1000XM3 offers 24-bit processing (compared to the 32-bit processing on the full-sized WH-1000XM3 headphones). There’s also SBC and AAC codec support, although it will not make the most of aptX HD-capable devices due to a lack of support.
Most of the earphone’s capabilities is accessible in-app, including a more precise battery level indicator, access to the on-board software equaliser, and adjustment to ANC strength.
The WF-1000XM3 earns its place amongst true wireless royalty. In a market ever-increasingly saturated, Sony has eked out a niche few other brands would consider.
Sure, the ANC isn’t groundbreaking, nor is it a step up from available active noise cancelling headphones. But packing it in such a pocketable package makes even minor commutes so much more bearable.
I’ve long been accustomed to lugging huge headphone hard cases in my carry-on for all my flights in the past few years. From Sony WH-1000XM3 to the Jabra Elite 85h, these were logistically challenging especially since I limit my cabin baggage to the rather compact Billingham Hadley Pro, and require a retinue of camera gear and personal gadgetry on these trips.
With the WF-1000XM3, I foresee its form factor outweighing my personal preference for circumaural, plush, comfortable headphones. It now slips neatly into a pocket – nevermind my baggage.