Since launching last year, Sony’s WH-1000XM3 headphones have been near-universally praised as one of the most effective pairs of noise-cancelling headphones on the market. Now, the Japanese giant hopes to translate that success to a true wireless design with the launch of the WF-1000XM3.
The new totally wireless earphones are up for pre-order at various retailers beginning on Friday and will become available to purchase sometime in August. They’re priced at $ 230.
Trying to make true wireless ANC work
Sony’s elevator pitch with the WF-1000XM3 is to mix the active noise cancellation (ANC) technology of the over-ear WH-1000XM3 headphones—which, in our previous testing, has come out slightly ahead of long-time market leader Bose in terms of pure noise cancelling strength—with the cord-free design of Apple’s AirPods, which have seemingly skyrocketed in popularity in recent years and helped increase the demand for the true wireless form factor as a whole.
This is not Sony’s first stab at noise-cancelling true wireless headphones: the company has given it a go with the also awkwardly named WF-1000X and WF-SP700N in the past, but those earphones were met with generally middling reviews from users and critics alike.
The company has reworked some of the internals here, however, in an attempt to fix complaints with those devices. There are now four microphones allocated for active noise-cancelling, for instance, up from the two used before. The earphones also utilize a new chip dubbed the “HD Noise Cancelling QN1e.” A Sony representative described that as a variant of the QN1 chip that helped supply the ANC of the WH-1000XM3 over-ears but is more power-efficient for the WF model’s smaller form factor.
Beyond that, Sony says it’s using a new Bluetooth chip—the company wouldn’t specify which one when asked—and a “new optimized antenna structure” to keep connection quality steady. Both of the WF-1000XM3’s earbuds connect to a source device simultaneously as well, instead of the more fickle method of having one earbud connect and “bounce” its signal to the other. The whole thing connects over Bluetooth 5.
Each earbud also contains its own battery unit—together, Sony rates the WF-1000XM3’s battery at six hours with noise-cancelling activated and eight hours without. Like most truly wireless headphones, though, the new pair comes with a charging case—using that, the company says you’ll get up to 24 hours of juice with noise cancelling on before needing a charging cable and up to 32 hours with ANC off. When it does come time to refill, the battery case charges over USB Type-C, and Sony says the earbuds have a quick-charge feature—a 10-minute charge will result in 90 minutes of playback time.
To hold all of this, the WF-1000XM3 is somewhat bulkier than something like Apple’s AirPods, with a more horizontally elongated shape. They use a sealed in-ear design, with a number of eartip options in the box, which should grant them a more universally secure fit and greater bass depth than an unsealed pair like the AirPods, which rest on the ear a bit more loosely.
There are next to no physical controls on the earbuds themselves. Instead, the WF-1000XM3s have a couple of touch panels for controlling playback, taking a phone call, activating ANC, addressing a voice assistant, and so on. Some users have complained that the touch controls on the bigger WH-1000XM3 can be finicky, particularly in less than ideal weather, so reliability here could be an area to look out for when the earphones hit retail. There’s also no built-in way to adjust volume.
Audio, latency, and other features
As for audio quality, Sony says the new Q1Ne chip supports 24-bit audio signal processing with a DAC and amplifier. That is technically a step down from the 32-bit processing of the WH model’s Q1N chip, but the difference there is effectively meaningless when it comes to audio playback. (The benefits of 24-bit audio are practically nonexistent in playback to the human ear as it is.)
Slightly more notable is that the WF-1000XM3 only supports the SBC and AAC Bluetooth codecs, according to a Sony rep, not the higher-quality aptX, aptX HD, or Sony’s own LDAC technology. This doesn’t mean the earphones will sound mediocre, and I noticed no glaring issues with them during a very brief listening session in New York City last week. There’s an inherent loss in audio quality with most totally wireless Bluetooth headphones, and iOS doesn’t support the latter three formats in the first place. But it could give audio enthusiasts some pause. A Sony rep told me the company aimed to achieve a “balanced” sound signature with the new pair instead of one explicitly geared toward enhanced bass or treble. Either way, we’ll have to use them more extensively before making any judgments.
AAC is known to have latency issues with Android devices, but Sony says lessening latency was a key focus with the new earphones. A brief video demo did indeed suggest that the WF-1000XM3 performs well in this regard, but again, it’s hard to say how successful it is until we use the earphones in areas that are less receptive to Bluetooth connections than a near-empty conference room.
Other features of note include an auto-pause feature that stops playback whenever you remove an earbud, a “Quick Attention” mode that lets in more ambient sound if you want to hear something without taking out the earbuds, Google Fast Pair and NFC support for quicker device pairing, and the ability to adjust ANC levels within Sony’s companion app. Sony is promising improved stereo sound and background noise suppression when taking calls as well. One thing that’s not here, though, is any formal sweat- or water-resistance, which seems hard to stomach for small set of earphones that cost this much.
At $ 230, the WF-1000XM3 earbuds are certainly not cheap. We’ll have to wait to see if their sound and noise-cancelling tech justifies that price—during my brief demo, the ANC came off as effective, but there’s really no way to tell how strong it is until we’re able to test it in a variety of environments. Regardless, nobody has really nailed noise cancelling in a true wireless form factor just yet, and Sony’s ANC pedigree is as good as anyone’s. We’ll see if the WF-1000XM3 earbuds can live up to the reputation of their over-ear sibling next month.
Listing image by Sony