Sony WF-1000XM3 wireless noise cancelling headphones review
Quick verdict: The Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones have astonishingly good sound and great battery life for a set of true wireless headphones.
- Great sound
- Long battery life
- 10-minute quick charge
- Quick attention feels awkward
- Large charging case
- No water resistance
When I reviewed Sony's over-ear WH-1000XM3 headphones a couple of years back, I was highly impressed with the overall package; Sony produced a good looking set of headphones with superb noise cancellation, great battery life and above all astonishingly good sound.
There's no doubt that the WH-1000XM3 headphones are great, but not everyone wants the mass of a full set of cans while they travel, or even just walk around. We live in an era of true wireless bud style headphones, and that's where the Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones come in.
That one letter change from H to F brings with it a score of miniaturisation features and comfort, although predictably the battery life isn't quite the match for the larger headphones.
- Solid build
- Comfortable in the ear
- large charging case
- No water resistance
The Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones aren't Sony's first attempt at wireless buds, but they're a nicely refined take on how to make in-ear devices that avoid most of the regular pitfalls of true wireless buds.
Some buds try to hide almost entirely within the ear but lose external microphone capability as a result. Others employ long stalks to keep microphone quality high, but look ungainly as a result, or leave you looking like you actually wanted a set of AirPods but couldn't quite afford them.
The Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones instead go down a middle route, with an elongated oval shape that only just makes it past most ears with a rubber-tipped bud hiding behind it. Sony provides a range of tip sizes within the box so it should be easy to find a well-fitting pair; for my purposes, the default buds worked extremely well so I never felt the need to change them out.
Like many true wireless buds, the Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones rely on a touch sensor on each side to control essential functions, and these mirror the features of the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones precisely.
The left bud controls ambient noise control and noise-cancelling features, while the right handles play/pause, call control and digital assistant features. Like the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones, you can customise these with the companion Sony Headphones app. I'm not a huge fan of touch controls in my ears – I always seem to end up double tapping or having missed taps when I quickly need to perform an action – but the Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones are no worse than any other pair I've tested in this regard.
The Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones recharge via a charging case that certainly looks the part of a premium device. It's also, and there's no polite way to put this, huge. It's going to look great on your nightstand when you travel, but equally it's going to bulk out your bag or make you look very suspicious if you try to stuff it into a pocket.
The one design feature that many true wireless buds include to appeal to the fitness crowd that you won't find on the Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones is any level of water resistance. They aren't rated for any sweat or water resistance at all, and that makes them a very poor choice if you're after a pair to accompany you when you hit the gym. Hopefully, that's a feature that Sony could pack into a future Sony WF-1000XM4 set.
- Audio quality is exceptional for buds
- Good noise cancellation
- Quick attention feels awkward
You can simply pair the Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones via Bluetooth as you would with any other true wireless headphones, but doing so you'll almost inevitably be asked to install Sony's Sony Headphones app for iOS or Android.
It's well worth installing because it unlocks a lot of additional functionality and tweaks to make the Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones work the way you want them to. Want the Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones to pause when you pull them from your ears? There's a toggle switch for that. Need to change the way the touch sensors work? That's within the app too, as well as a range of equaliser settings.
Speaking of the touch sensors, you can also quickly make external audio apparent to you by holding your finger over the sensor if you do want to hear someone. However, this doesn't always kick in quickly and frankly always looks and feels daft and rude when you do. It's substantially easier and more polite to just take the buds out if you need to chat to somebody.
Having used the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones extensively as my travel headphones, I was keen to use the Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones in a travel capacity to test out how well they worked on a plane. Had MWC 2020 actually happened, that's precisely what I would have done, but its cancellation left me grounded, so instead I had to use them on Sydney's public transport, as well as in my home office with fans running to simulate external noise.
I wasn't quite expecting the Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones to live up to the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones, simply because they lack the over-ear isolating effect of those full cans, but I was absolutely surprised by how well they managed to block out external noise. More than once I had to be tapped on the shoulder by family members to get my attention while testing out the Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones.
Sony also equips the Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones with what it calls Adaptive Sound Control. The idea here is that the external microphones, which also provide noise cancelling, measure the external noise factors and change settings on the fly to match your audio needs. It's not always super-precise if you do change audio environments rapidly, but again you can disable it if you find it annoying.
There's also the capability for what Sony calls "360 Reality Audio", which simulates noise from all sides to make your music sound more like it's a live performance. That involves taking a photo of your ears and using only a small range of supported apps – Deezer, nugs.net or Tidal – to make the most of it. The process of taking shots of your ears happens within the app itself and is then passed along to qualifying apps that can handle that kind of soundscape. I didn't spend that long using 360 Reality Audio, mostly because it's tied to subscription apps I don't typically use, but the feature is there if you want it.
As for actual audio quality, my expectations were high given Sony's audio pedigree in headphones, and the Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones absolutely did not disappoint.
Letting Hendrix rip with "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" gave very precise high notes their due without losing any of Jimi's vocal range or making it sound overproduced the way some headphones can. The more delicate piano chords in The Beatles "Let It Be" struck with amazing accuracy. Even the more produced sound of Billie Eilish's "Bad Guy" came through cleanly and enjoyably.
There's competition in this space with headphones such as Apple's AirPods Pro, but if audio quality is your primary consideration, the Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones should be at the absolute top of your list.
- Up to 24 hours of listening time with noise cancellation
- Up to 32 hours of listening time without noise cancellation
- 10-minute quick charge gives you up to 90 minutes of play time
The smaller bud style of the Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones doesn't allow them the exceptional 30+ hours of the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones, but this is where that larger battery charging case comes into its own. Standalone, you'll get around six or so hours of playback time, depending on your volume and use of features such as noise cancelling, but the case is good for another 3 full charges, giving you up to 24 hours in total before you'd need to seek out a USB-C compliant charger.
Sony provides a very short USB C cable in the box with the Sony WF-1000XM3, but no actual charger, however.
- A great sounding all-round pair of true wireless headphones
Should you buy it?
The Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones have astonishingly good sound and great battery life for a set of true wireless headphones. Their level of customisation means it's painless to set them up the way you'd like them to operate, and they look the part of true premium buds without just being another "hey, let's clone the AirPods" style set.
We liked them so much that these earphones were chosen as the top pick for most people as well as the top pick for noise cancelling in our guide to the best wireless earbuds.
Having said that, there's still room for improvement. They're not a good match for those who want true wireless buds to go out jogging because sweat ingress could be disastrous for them. The charging case is pretty bulky by true wireless standards, even if it does give you plenty of power to keep going. They're also in the premium price space, and if all you want is just that "no cords at all" feeling, there are plenty of more affordable alternatives.
However, if what you really want is superb audio quality, there's no question that you should save your pennies and pick up a pair.
Pricing and availability
- Price: RRP $319
- Where to buy: Amazon