So-called "true wireless" earbuds are the next feather in the cap of heavyweight headphone manufacturers. Specifically, the assumed aim is to create an experience that combines the luxury of high-quality personal audio with the portability and convenience of tiny, completely wireless earbuds. And right now, what's on every manufacturer's mind is: make something that's better than the Apple AirPods.
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Enter the WF-1000XM3, a true wireless version Sony's over-ear noise-canceling behemoths (the WH-1000XM3, our pick for Best Overall Noise-Canceling Headphone). These earbuds boldly demand you shell out over $200, with the promise of charging and pairing on par with Apple, the same lauded ANC as the WH-1000XM3, and the usual boasts about all-day battery life.
As it stands, I think the WF-1000XM3's are about on par with the AirPods in terms of their ease of use and connectivity, even if they're definitely bulkier and less minimalist/subtle overall. But where it really counts is sound quality, and that's where these Sony buds win out handily: they're simply some of the best headphones I've heard in a good long while.
If you've been craving true wireless's convenient portability but didn't want to settle for something with only average audio performance, the WF-1000XM3's should be on your radar.
Here's what you need to know about these headphones:
• Release date: August 17th, 2019
• Price: $229.99
• Type: True Wireless Earbuds
• Noise-Canceling: Active Noise Canceling (ANC)
• Battery Life: ~6 hours (earbuds), 18 hours (the case provides 3 full charges), 24 hours total
• Frequency Response over Bluetooth: 20 Hz–20 kHz
In our tests (using our in-lab Head and Torso Simulator), we found that the WF-1000XM3's output a max volume of around 95 dB, which is plenty loud for in-ear type headphones, and naturally dampen outside sound by 6.3 dB just by being in your ears. With ANC cranked up, they reduce ambient noise by about 16.6 dB, which is really solid for true wireless earbuds.
In the box, you get the charging case, the earbuds themselves, a USB-C charging cable, and no shortage of silicone covers for the earbuds themselves, helping ensure you get a perfect fit (or as perfect as possible).
The WF-1000XM3's sound great
There's a lot to get into regarding these Sony in-ears—their charging case, portability, the functionality in the Sony app, and so on—but for many consumers, the filigree that makes these headphones feel fancy and premium is only worth calling icing if the cake is good. In this case, the cake is sound quality, and the cake is very good indeed.
While one of my favorite things about the WF-1000XM3's is how easy it is to adjust the EQ within the app on the fly, even in their base "flat" setting, they sound magnificent.
After receiving our loan sample and bringing them home, I ended up waking up at 3AM randomly the next morning and decided I'd spend the time just laying in bed and listening to a lot of my favorite music.
I don't want to just out and say I cried a little when I first started listening to these, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't very moved by how things sounded. I listened to a bunch of my favorite old bands—Rush, Yes, Genesis (I like prog rock, OK?)—as well as my Spotify Premium mixes and playlists: everything from the recently deceased Joao Gilberto, to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, to lo-fi Nintendo music, chiptunes, and Final Fantasy soundtracks.
I ended up listening to music for three hours straight, including the entirety of Close to the Edge, and every bit of it was magnificent. I even heard bass lines within Yes' 20+ minute masterpiece that hadn't been very clear before.
These headphones sound as good or better than any pair I've personally owned.
I should have prefaced this tirade by pointing out that I typically don't enjoy in-ear style headphones. But to my ears, the WF-1000XM3's sound as good or better than any pair of headphones I've personally owned, which includes two limited edition ATH-M50X's, the lauded Sony MDR-7506 over-ears, and so on.
What I'm trying to say is that I'm a dyed-in-the-wool fan of audiophile-facing over-ear cans, but for the last several weeks I've been using the WF-1000XM3's almost daily instead of my beloved over-ears. They sound that good.
The whole experience feels polished
After their excellent sound quality, my next favorite thing about these headphones is how easy they are to use. I'm probably a bit awe-struck because I've never used truly wireless earbuds before, but the experience of listening to and charging the WF-1000XM3's feels like the next evolution in headphones.
For starters, Sony hasn't skimped on the materials here. The headphones themselves are a fetching combination of black and gold filigree, with clear left/right markings on each little bud (left is white, right is red, which should feel familiar to anyone used to analog audio setups). The USB-C charged case is equally fine, featuring soft black plastic and an attractive copper lid that snaps open and closed smoothly.
I've used Bluetooth headphones before, but never any that connected with the speed and efficacy of these in-ears from Sony. Within nanoseconds of activating my phone's Bluetooth, the headphones announce that they're connected.
Granted it's only a second or two faster than most Bluetooth headphones I've used, but the feeling of instantaneous connection definitely lends the WX-1000XM3's an air of luxury. This was one of our favorite things about the Apple Airpods, and it's good that Sony has the technology to keep up.
Essentially, these headphones look nice, are made up of fine materials (even if the USB-C charging cable is a little on the short side if you're not plugging into a laptop), and work flawlessly, whether or not you have the Sony app open—but more on that in a bit. Lastly, you can only get about 20-25 feet of range before the Bluetooth starts to drop, so don't wander too far from your phone.
Battery life is not exactly what Sony says, but it's very darn close
If leaving home for your commute or a trip and realizing you forgot your headphones is annoying, remembering to bring them with you only to discover they're dead (or almost dead) can be infuriating. One of the biggest early issues with true wireless earbuds was how to get decent battery life out of them. Yes, you can charge them in the case, but you also have to keep the case charged, and it's no good if you end up doing more charging than listening.
Fortunately, the WF-1000XM3's seem to have solved this problem to some degree. The buds themselves still don't have all-day battery life—Sony claims six hours, which is fairly accurate. I found my buds dying a little under six hours, more like five or five and a half, depending on how often I changed the EQ settings in the app and how often the dynamic active noise canceling was switching settings.
All in all you're getting 15-20 hours of use out of these buds before you need to charge the case.
You're not just getting five-ish hours of battery life, however, assuming you've got the case with you. Like with all true wireless earbuds, popping the WF-1000XM3's into their small charging case restores their battery life. After fully draining them yesterday, I started charging them at around 10:15AM from totally dead, and they were back to full in about an hour and a half.
So as long as you stow them when you've got time, it's extremely easy to keep them charged. The case itself charges them to full just about three times before it also needs recharging, so all in all you're getting 15-20 hours of use out of these buds before you need to charge the case. That ain't bad at all.
The app works flawlessly, too
You can connect to the WF-1000XM3's without opening up the Sony app, but you do need to use it to customize the buds to your liking—and there's a lot to do here.
At a glance, the app tells you when you are or aren't connected, the individual battery level of each bud, which Adaptive Sound Control mode is active, the EQ setting, what's playing, and so on. It's a robust experience that, in my weeks of using these headphones, never malfunctioned or misled me.
That said, it does take a bit of tinkering to get things exactly how you want them, and setting things just to your liking will probably take a few days, if not longer. Once you've played around with different levels of noise reduction and set the buttons up to do what you want, though, you'll be right at home. Personally, I turned both the left/right buttons off, and turned ambient noise reduction all the way up to maximum. Was it ham-fisted? Sure. But it worked for me.
One relief, to me anyway, is that you don't have to always open/run the Sony app to connect to the headphones from your phone or laptop. You can open it up to check the battery level or adjust the EQ whenever you like, but once you get it set up the way you want, the settings hold true without rebooting the app.
Noise-canceling to rival the big boys
One of the biggest selling points of Sony's new true wireless earbuds is the noise canceling. You might be familiar with Sony's WH-1000XM3, the over-ear version of these which recently took our #1 spot for Best Noise Canceling Headphones. The WF-1000XM3's aren't quite as good as their over-ear big brother, but they come pretty darn close.
The WF-10000XM3's aren't quite as good as their over-ear big brother, but they come pretty darn close.
I used the noise canceling functions in a ton of situations. Not only did I use it regularly for my commute to/from Reviewed's office in Cambridge (meaning while walking, on the bus, and on the train), but I used them during a move down to Philadelphia (and managed to only briefly lose the headphones and charging cable on separate occasions). The WF-1000XM3's didn't block everything, but for true wireless earbuds they definitely get the job done.
The ambient sensing—which basically attempts to ascertain what you are doing and adjust the buds' noise canceling respectively—works pretty well overall. It knows when I am sitting, walking, and even has a "commuting" setting, though the first time I took the bus it took almost 20 or so minutes to finally figure out that I wasn't alternating running at super-human speeds and standing stock still.
The only issue with the setting is that when it changes to accommodate what it thinks is a new activity, the music cuts out, and you hear the oceanic wooshing of the noise canceling adjusting for a second while it picks a new mode. When I was packing up my bedroom a couple weeks ago, I was regularly switching between sitting/staying and moving about, and it got a little annoying at times.
Overall, however, the noise canceling and ambient sensing are great. It's a boon, as they could be worse and I'd still think the WF-1000XM3's were worth it due to their excellent sound quality.
Don't lose the case or you're up a creek
This is a pretty standard thing to be aware of for true wireless earbuds in general, but you should be aware that if you lose the charging case (which is pretty big/hard to lose in my opinion), you're going to be out of luck. While Sony might eventually put a replacement case on the market. it's not available yet. Since the only way to charge the headphones themselves is via the proprietary case, if you lose it, your headphones will eventually drain of battery and be totally dead.
I've also read other reviewers complain that the large, copper-topped charging case isn't "pocketable," but I find it to be just fine. Granted, it's summer and I'm mostly wearing comfortably-fitting shorts—it might feel a bit bulky in something tighter like slacks or jeans. But this is definitely a nitpick, as nitpicks go.
Speaking of losing things based on their size, the included USB-C cable is pretty easy to misplace. I brought the WF-1000XM3's with me during a move, however, so I was kind of asking for this, but I lost the charging cable for about a day. It's only about seven inches long, so make sure you keep track of it.
You're gonna know this one's in your ear
While I really feel like the WF-1000XM3's look and sound amazing, the feel of wearing them—and how they look compared to other, more subtle true wireless earbuds—is a different matter.
Not for nothing, Sony has stuffed a ton of technology into these wireless buds. You've got ambient active ANC adjusting on the fly to your movement, great sound that can be channeled through a ton of EQ pre-sets (as well as custom and manual presets), proprietary charging and Bluetooth/NFC, and so on. It kind of shows.
I'm not talking about the fit of the buds, of course. The default silicone covers seem to work perfectly for me, though admittedly my ears do get a little sore after a few hours of listening/taking the WF-1000XM3's in and out of my ears, so maybe a smaller sleeve is in order. But the whole earbud itself—the way it sticks out of your ear and juts towards your mouth like a sleek Bluetooth headset circa 2010—is simply not very subtle.
On one hand, you're less likely to have people walk up and start talking to you because they haven't noticed you have headphones in (though if they do, you can also use the "Ambient Listening" function to listen pretty seamlessly). But if you're looking for something that isn't quite so pronounced, you may want to shop around other true wireless buds.
Are you sure you need all this tech?
At $60 more than their leading competitor, the Apple Airpods, the WF-1000XM3's need to deliver the goods—and they really do. These headphones look great, work efficiently, and sound excellent. I personally think they're worth every penny for someone who really needs exactly this product. But you've got to ask yourself: do you, punk?
The truth is, you can't get this kind of sound fidelity for under $100, and it's a lot of what you're paying for. But you're also paying for the sheer amount of tech that's stuffed into both buds: Bluetooth, NFC, AAC compatibility, customizable left/right touch buttons with up to triple tapping, and so on. The buds guess, fairly accurately, when you're standing still, walking, running, or even commuting. Sony has done a lot to make sure your two hundred bucks feels well spent.
However, if you're just looking for a basic true wireless experience, you may not need something quite this premium. If you've been waiting for an audiophile true wireless option, the WF-1000XM3's are great, but for everyone else, they might be a bit much.
Sorry gym rats, the WF-1000XM3 might not work out
Something a few folks have complained about, and I don't entirely blame them, is that for all the fancy tech here, there's no attempt to make the WDF-1000XM3's waterproof or sweatproof, so you probably shouldn't throw them in your gym bag.
Granted, for true wireless earbuds these things are not the subtlest/smallest of options and might not be ideal workout companions anyway, but even if you wanted to, you probably shouldn't. There's already a lot of value here for the things Sony has included, but $220 is nothing to sneeze at, and it would be nice if the WF-1000XM3's had at least addressed in some way that human beings sweat.
Yes—if you want a premium true wireless experience
I'm no mega-expert when it comes to evaluating sound quality, but I am certain that (at present), the Sony WF-1000XM3 true wireless earbuds are the best I've personally heard. Yes, $220 is pricy, but you're getting excellent design, awesome sound quality, respectable battery life, and great noise canceling.
Are these for everyone? Probably not. They're pricy, fancy, sometimes finicky, and won't work at the gym. These aren't workhorse headphones by any means, and they're too expensive for anyone who isn't sure they definitely want really good sound to complement the convenience of true wireless. If you want something a little more affordable, check out some of the other true wireless earbuds we've tested.
However, these are a whole-sale improvement upon the first generation model, and are an excellent product overall. If you've been hankering for Sony's excellent sound quality and design, but were wary of the first model's poor battery life and connectivity issues, look no further. The WF-1000XM3 are a triumph for Sony in regards to fixing those issues, and they sound marvelous.
Lee has been Reviewed's point person for most television and home theater products since 2012. Lee received Level II certification in TV calibration from the Imaging Science Foundation in 2013. As Editor of the Home Theater vertical, Lee oversees reviews of TVs, monitors, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers. He also reviews headphones, and has a background in music performance.
Julia is the Senior Scientist at Reviewed, which means that she oversees (and continually updates) the testing of products in Reviewed's core categories such as televisions, washing machines, refrigerators, and more. She also determines the testing methods and standards for Reviewed's "The Best Right Now" articles.
We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.