Price (RRP): $399.95
The Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds are unusual, and I mean that in a good way. The reason is in the name. They are true wireless, noise cancelling buds. Usually noise cancelling means earbuds which are tethered together by wire. But by dint of using the QN1e chip, Sony has managed to get all this, plus a long life, into the new buds.
Sony WF-1000XM3 Features
As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Sony likes to call all its eargear “headphones”. What most of us call “headphones” it calls “headband” models. Anyway, the Sony WF-1000XM3 buds are in the same family as the highly regarded Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones. “F” for wire Free, “H” for Headband.
The noise cancelling capability of the WH headphones is provided by the QN1 chip. The QN1e chip further miniaturises it and reduces energy consumption.
The Sony WF-1000XM3 buds conform to most of the norms for the breed. The buds are small and light. I’m on the road as I’m writing so I don’t have my own scales to hand, but I have no reason to dispute Sony’s 8.5 grams each specification. They most definitely aren’t aimed at the sports/active market, so they don’t come with wings or fins to lock them in place. Instead they rely on their overall shape and the friction of the tip to hold them in place.
Another point emphasising that they are not sports models: they have no IP rating, so use during majorly sweaty activities should be avoided.
The buds come with seven sets of tips. Three are “comfort” foam tips, while the other four are different sizes of silicone tips. I typically need the largest size of tips for a good fit for my ears and that was the case with the Sony WF-1000XM3 buds. The largest of the “comfort” tips was about the same size as the second largest silicone ones, so I couldn’t achieve satisfactory results with them. But the silicone ones worked fine.
Thanks to the low energy consumption, the Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds are rated at up to six hours operation on a charge. And that’s with the noise cancellation switched on. With it off the rating goes up to eight hours.
They snap into a rather stylish, and also relatively large, carry case/charge case. It holds sufficient charge to refill them twice. That means a total power-point-free period of up to 18 hours with noise cancellation and 24 hours without. Dropping the buds into the case for ten minutes gives them about 90 minutes of playback. A full charge of the buds take about an hour and a half.
The case weighs 77 grams. There are no dimensions stated on the Sony spec sheet and, again, travel means no ruler to hand. I’d estimate it’s about 80mm wide, 30mm deep and 60mm tall. The review unit was the black one with the bronze trim. The other version is off-white with platinum trim.
Now, there’s nothing unusual about buds coming with a case, nor even with them being held in place by magnets. But I must say that this worked more positively than most. The snap is audible, LED’s glow red to show that the electrical connections have been made. And that was with the largest tips installed. Not once did the proper charging connection fail to take place.
Control and noise reduction
Each of the buds has a touch-sensitive – it’s electrostatic, apparently – patch on its exposed portion. That’s how you control them. The default setting has the right one control play/pause (a single touch), answer or hang up calls (double tap), skip forwards (double tap) or skip backwards (triple tap). And the left one cycles through the listener’s interaction with the outside world.
The buds have three modes in that regard. One is noise cancellation. That works by capturing environmental sound, processing it, inverting the waveform and feeding it back into the audio signal at the correct level. That cancels much of the outside world. The Sony WF-1000XM3 buds seem to advance the art by employing two microphones. One on the outside works in the usual way. The cancellation signal can’t be based only on the noise hitting the headphones on the outside, but on what noise will make it through to the ears. With most systems the physical transmission of sound through the body of the earphones is based on a model.
But these earbuds have a second microphone on the inside, near the sound transducer. Precisely how that contributes to the function is unclear, but I can think of several ways. For example, it might improve the model by comparing it to reality. Nonetheless, Sony claims a marked improvement in noise reducing capability.
Tap the sensitive area of the left bud and noise cancellation switches off, while “ambient noise” mode switches on. This uses the microphones to pipe in sound from the outside world so that you can hear what’s going on around you, perhaps engage in conversation. The third mode switches that off and also leaves noise cancellation off.
The Sony WF-1000XM3 control app
The app connects to the buds and allows you to adjust EQ and bass level and reassign the control button functions. For example, you can reverse the functions of the left and right control, or you can assign to either one of the buttons the Google Assistant function. Tap it and Google will listen to your commands and questions.
As you can see, you’re going to have to make choices if you’re Google Assistant dependent.
The left button has another very useful function: tap and hold. Do that and the audio program mutes and the ambient sound mode switches on so that you can hear around you. Finger off and the previous state is resumed. That’s ideal for brief interactions with others.
There’s also an “Adaptive” mode, in which the buds switch on and off various functions according to the environment that it thinks you’re in.
If you change anything via the app, it sticks. For example, the DSP used for EQ is inside the buds. Change the EQ and you can pair the buds with an listen to a completely different device and the EQ will remain the same.
Another way in which the Sony WF-1000XM3 earphones differ from the norm is their method of Bluetooth communication. With most buds, one of them connects to the phone and passes through the music to its companion bud. With these ones, both connect to the phone. You can use either bud for hands-free and just let the other charge.
Before getting to anything else, let’s consider the noise cancellation. Does it work?
The answer is, yes, very much so. Very effectively. With the silicone tips snuggly fitted in my ears, there was already fairly good passive noise isolation. The active cancellation on top of that provided noise reduction at least as good as any over-ear headphones I’ve used.
Like any of them, it’s not perfect. Nothing is. But it cuts away the midrange where most of the noise energy is exhibited. Music which I had to turn up too loud with many other earphones can be played at a more moderate level with perfect clarity.
I tried these earphones on a train, on a plane and in an automobile, and they did the job very nicely.
I had the opportunity to ask Sony’s engineers whether they were able to share a graph showing the effect of the noise reduction by frequency. But it seems that such details remain confidential.
The touch controls were fairly easy to use and quite reliable. I confess, I was unable to master the triple-tap. Sometimes I could get it to work, but most times my tapping cadence was wrong, or something.
Listening to the Sony WF-1000XM3 earphones
Just as important as effective noise cancellation is sound quality. On this front the Sony WF-1000XM3 earphones were in the very highest tier of performance. In short, they sounded great. On genre after genre they delivered music with a dynamic liveliness that marks high quality head and ear gear. Every element of the music was easily distinguished, apart from the very deepest bass. Instruments could be picked out. Coherence was maintained in the most complex of musical passages, and throughout it all percussion pierced through with being constrained by the driver. That in particular is something that many buds are weak on.
All of which goes to show that it’s not necessarily how big a driver is but how well it does its job. Sony used 6mm drivers to keep the size down, but you wouldn’t guess that from the full bass. That bass certainly covered bass drums effectively. It faded only when it came to some really deep bass synth passages.
I was so impressed with the sound that I phrased my question to the Sony engineers about driver choice in terms of what distinguishes the driver from lesser ones. They responded that a large part of the choice was based on driver sensitivity. That explains its dynamic responsiveness. They also agreed with my suggestion – I think – that the output is EQ’d to provide the kind of sound they wanted.
The default tonal balance was a little brighter than is my preference, but that was easily tweaked in the app. I just knocked one decibel off in the 2.5kHz band, set the 6.3kHz band 2dB down, pushed up the 400 hertz slider by 1dB and added +2 to the “Clear Bass” setting. The result: nice.
There was one significant weakness in the performance of the Sony WF-1000XM3 earphones. And for that weakness I blame Europe. You see, much of my digital music started life on CDs, and they are CDs I’ve been collecting since the early 1980s. These days most music is “normalised”, and even dynamically compressed somewhat so as to play back at a high average level. But that wasn’t the case in those days. Quite a few of my CDs peak at several decibels below the full scale available in digital audio. Their average level is much, much lower.
Now the Europeans, intent on protecting the hearing of the kiddies above all, have introduced stringent rules regarding the maximum levels that headphones should produce. And they are based on certain assumptions about music levels. The net effect is that they limit not only the maximum level that headphones are allowed to produce, but the maximum gain that they can apply to the signal.
Sony is a good corporate citizen, so it complies with the laws of the various lands. And for an international product such as the Sony WF-1000XM3 earphones, that ends up being the most restrictive international standard. That is, Europe.
I have something more than 60GB of music on my phone. And on a number of occasions I stopped playing what was there and streaming the remastered version from Spotify instead in order to listen at a satisfying level.
A commenter notes that this review didn’t initially address the issue of latency. That is, the delay between the audio signal being produced in the device and it being reproduced in the earphones.
That’s a hard thing to assess in earbuds. I will note that Sony says that the QN1e chip reduces latency. I’ve been looking at latency issues for years, and have found that it is very difficult to assess unless the delay is well over a hundred milliseconds.
To try to get some kind of handle on it, I installed a metronome app on my phone and tried comparing several sets of Bluetooth ear gear with the phone’s built-in speaker. I could not tell any difference between the Sony buds and the speaker, nor between it and the current Bose noise reducing headphones. The sound of the metronome aligned as close to perfectly with the visual indicator as I could perceive. My sense that it may have been a little more perfect with noise cancellation switched off, but since we’re right at the limits of perception, that could well be my imagination.
And all that depends on the latency, if any, in the phone’s display. If it’s delayed, then a close match between sound and picture could be indicative of greater delay.
That quibble aside – it really only matters if your music collection comes from older CDs – I think everyone would be impressed with the Sony WF-1000XM3 in-ear buds. They sound first class, do a great on the noise cancellation and have a very long battery life. And they look really good.
Sony’s site for this product is here.