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Sony WF-1000XM3 wireless headphones review

We find out how these new portable, noise-cancelling buds sound, feel and perform.

Sony WF-1000XM3 wireless headphones
Last updated: 24 July 2019

CHOICE verdict

Whether you’re listening to mellow beats or blaring heaving metal, the WF-1000XM3 sound quality is so good, they can handle just about anything you throw at them. For years, Sony has been obsessed with cranking up the bass in its consumer products, but these headphones reel it in to give the dynamics plenty of room to breathe and shine through. Bluetooth connectivity is consistent, noise cancellation does a very good job considering the headphones’ size, and six-hour battery life (with an additional 18 hours in the case, which acts as a charger) will keep you covered during a day out. But while they’re comfortable to wear, the lack of sweat resistance means they can be prone to damage during exercise.

Price: $399
Contact: www.sony.com.au

Sony's first stab at making truly wireless earbuds resulted in a product that was a bit of a mixed bag, but now it seems like the company has learned from past mistakes. The recently released WF-1000XM3s, which also feature noise cancelling, improve on last year's WF-SP700Ns in almost every respect, and can even outdo some of the competition, such as Apple's Airpods. But most importantly, these earbuds sound good, very good.

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Tech specs

The WF-1000XM3s can connect to any Bluetooth enabled device for wireless audio playback. They're jam packed with features that claim to take audio quality a step above their predecessors:

  • 24-bit audio signal processing.
  • Proprietary upscaling software called Digital Sound Enhancement Engine HX (DSEE HX) to improve compressed audio quality.
  • A dedicated Bluetooth signal for each bud, to reduce dropout.
  • Noise-cancellation.
  • Latency correction to fix lip sync when watching videos.

It all sounds fancy, but at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is whether these headphones sound good. Fortunately, they do.

Sweet sound quality

Traditionally, Sony's consumer headphones have been a bit too heavy on the bass, which muddies up the sound and leads to muffled, flat dynamics. But the company's recent output, including the WF-1000XM3s, have finally reeled the low-end in, and the results are fantastic.

  • There's plenty of warmth, definition and separation in the sound, with broad dynamics, decent punch and clarity despite the small-sized drivers.
  • Hip-hop holds onto its distinct low-end rumble; dance and electronica delivers that energetic, heart-pumping punch and 80s metal guitars clearly scream through the high end with no hint of distortion.
  • Symphonies soar, and delicate acoustic guitar gently reverberates through your ears with each distinct pluck.

They're not quite perfect however. Ironically, Sony may have pulled the bass back a little too much, as some really punchy low-end can lose its warmth and become a tad harsh or sharp. Also full-on, multi-layered music – and wall-of-sound production in particular – can flatten out a bit and retrench some elements while the equaliser works out what to do. But these issues aren't consistent.

Keeping a Bluetooth connection 

Connection is consistently solid once it's established, with very limited dropouts, even in busy areas. Latency reduction also works well. Lip sync occasionally slips out of whack when watching YouTube and Netflix videos for example, but it usually corrects itself pretty quickly.

However:

  • Establishing the initial Bluetooth connection can be hit and miss. Sometimes it works flawlessly, whereas other times you'll wait for a while or have to reset Bluetooth on your phone to get things going.
  • While the XM3s support SBC and AAC Bluetooth (version 5), Sony hasn't included any version of aptX. This is disappointing to see in such a high-quality pair of headphones, as aptX puts less compression on the audio which improves quality
  • It's not clear how DSEE HX compensates for Bluetooth compression, on top of lossless codecs, from a technical perspective. There's no real explanation given. Plus, the headphones sound good with it turned on or off regardless.
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Nailing noise cancellation

Noise cancellation does a decent job without compromising audio quality, which is quite impressive when you consider the size of the XM3s. 

  • Total noise cancellation cuts out the general murmur of a busy office, dims jet engines on a flight and reduces old, noisy, gas-guzzling trucks to a gentle, electric vehicle hum.
  • A second ambient mode pipes in most of your surroundings, albeit at a lower volume.
  • These are useful from a safety standpoint, as you'll likely wear these out and about where you need to have some audible awareness of the world around you.

Battery life and build

One charge will get you six hours of listening time, which you can stretch a bit further if you turn off noise-cancelling. The case has a built-in battery as well, which holds up to three extra charges for a total of 24 hours listening time before you need to plug it in via USB-C. It even includes a quick charge function that can pump an hour and a half of life into the buds in about ten minutes.

Cramming that much juice into the buds is an impressive feat, and six hours is just enough to cover a day or evening's worth of on-and-off listening. This means you can get away with leaving the carry case at home if your headphones are fully charged.

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Look and feel

Almost every aspect of the WF-1000XM3s feels thought out. The buds and carry case share a similarly sleek, modern design, and each feels solid and well-built. The cradles also include small magnets that hold them in place, and not only does this keep them safe and sound, it ensures that the charge pins line up correctly, so they always charge (which was not the case with the WF-SP700Ns).

There are six tips made up of different sizes and materials in the box, to help you find the best fit for your ear canal.

  • We found the headphones to be comfortable, and while they required occasional adjustment while walking, they didn't become uncomfortable or fall out after prolonged use (an hour or so).
  • Though they stayed in place while walking and jogging, they did come loose with more strenuous activities such as hard running, running up and down stairs and jumping (e.g. star jumps).
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Tap and play controls

Each bud has a set of inbuilt controls that you can access by tapping the circular pad on the side:

  • The left bud is used to switch between noise cancellation and ambient mode, or turn these settings off all together.
  • The right bud is used to control and skip songs, answer calls and activate Siri/Google Assistant.
  • Audio automatically pauses when you take one or both of the headphones out.
  • When you tap and hold the left bud, it activates quick attention mode. This turns the volume right down until you release, so you can temporarily focus on things like conversations, train announcements or any surrounding sounds that seem important.
  • You can also use them to make phone calls with the built-in mic. The quality isn't perfect, but they're good enough to maintain a clear signal.

Touch controls can be a bit sensitive at times. It's easy to bump the right bud and turn your music back on, or activate your digital assistant, when you're holding the headphones or putting them in your pocket, for example. 

Android and iOS users can install an app which opens up a range of controls such as ambient sound controls and equalisation settings, but it's not available on computers. Focus on voice does a decent if somewhat inconsistent job, and the equaliser makes small improvements to sound quality. Adaptive sound control is a nifty idea on paper, but it has a tendency to go into overdrive and change far too often.

No sweat protection

For all their improvements over the WF-SP700N headphones, as well as the competition, the XM3s have one glaring omission – they aren't designed for sweat resistance. This is obviously an issue for anyone who wants to wear the XM3s while working out, but it also means that these headphones aren't technically protected from the damage of a hot day.

Sony's decision here just comes off as an attempt at pushing fitness-oriented folks to buy two pairs of headphones – the sweat-resistant SP700Ns for exercise, and the XM3s for day-to-day listening. They may not be aimed at marathon runners, but the average person should be able to wear these in the middle of summer without having to worry about their sweaty head breaking the buds.

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