I recently got myself a pair of Sony WF-1000XM3 true wireless earbuds to replace my failing OnePlus Bullets Wireless 2 and I thought:
Why not start documenting my experiences with my gadgets?
So here goes my first review of my gadget repertoire.
Disclaimer: This review is NOT sponsored by Sony and I'm writing this review with a set that I bought out of my own pocket
The Sony WF-1000XM3 boasts market-leading active noise-cancellation (ANC) technology from none other than the Japanese company that's well known for their audio products since way back in the 20th century with their Walkman CD players.
It's their first true-wireless offering, continuing from their success in their noise-cancelling headphone lineup, the WH series and I got to say, that they've succeeded in the true-wireless earbuds market as well.
|Excellent ANC performance||No IP Rating|
|Great sound quality||Unintuitive call control profiles|
|Sleek design with attention to detail||No support for hi-fidelity codecs (aptX, aptX HD, LDAC)|
|Light-touch controls||Price remains rather inaccessible|
|Adaptive sound profiles|
|Google Assistant integration|
- Active noise-cancellation
- Ambient Sound mode to hear the environment through the earbuds
- Multiple noise-cancellation profiles
- In-app equalizer
- DSEE HX audio post-processing
- SBC/AAC codec support
- Support for Google Assistant and Alexa
- Single-earbud usage possible
- Pauses playback when earbuds are off
- Power off after a earbuds are taken off for some time
- Voice notifications on battery life
- Magnetic 3-pin charging case
- USB-C charging port
This is my first pair of true-wireless earbuds, and my second pair of stereo bluetooth earbuds with the first being the OnePlus Bullets Wireless 2. I have not been a fan of bluetooth earbuds due to the loss of fidelity from the compression applied to bluetooth audio, but convenience and the general market-wide loss of headphone jacks has since got the better of me.
The earbuds are available in two classic colors, Black, and White, I'm reviewing the black version only.
The black earbuds have a plastic body with a matte texture mostly except for the capacitive touch-sensitive control surface that has a premium gloss finish. The ANC microphone vent is located in the center of the earbud along with the Sony logo, adorned in a rose gold color.
Personally, I'm quite fond of this good old black-and-gold color scheme.
The proximity sensor on the underside of each earbud detects whether the earbuds are on or off. When the earbuds are powered on, a voice announces the following:
Battery, fully charged
A problem I have always faced with traditional bluetooth earphones is that voice announcements tend to start before I put them on. As a result, whenever I wish to know the charge level of my bluetooth earphones I always rush to put them on just to hear that voice.
Sony addresses this with a neat feature where they delay the voice announcements until the earbuds are put on, using the proximity sensor. With this feature, I am always confident that I will never miss those status updates and I can take my time to put on those earbuds.
Once again, the main color scheme here is a nice black and gold. The black part of the case has a rubbery soft-touch finish that is smooth when sliding your finger over, but grippy when held on to. The gold hinged cover is smooth and shines in the light slightly and diffusely despite appearing to be matte.
One thing to note is that despite the fact that the case looks like it has a flat bottom, in actual fact, it has a completely rounded bottom. Those who are expecting that the case will stand upright on your desk like myself, will be slightly disappointed here.
The gold cover of the case is magnetic, which snaps shut securely when closed. The cover is also lightly spring loaded, so when it is not within range of influence of the magnets, there will be a light upwards force resisting your fingers as you try to push it shut, as though the case itself wishes to be opened. This spring is so light that even the force of gravity is sufficient to pull the cover closed.
What's more delightful is that beyond a certain point of opening the case, it hits a small catch. If the cover is pushed beyond that catch, the cover enters a second catch where a second stronger spring takes over and holds the cover open in place.
Let's take a moment to admire the attention to detail that the Japanese have demonstrated here in this product.
In the home screen we have a quick overview of the state of the earbuds, with charge level indicators of each earbud as well as the case. The charge level indicator for the case is disabled by default and is an option you will need to enable when first using the app.
Charge level of the case is only an estimate as the case is not equipped to connect to your phone by bluetooth so the earbuds instead, report the last-known charge level of the case at the point when you remove the earbuds from it.
There's a navigation button for the Adaptive Sound Control submenu, as well as music playback status and controls.
Ambient Sound Control
Before touching on the Adaptive Sound Control submenu, I'll first introduce Sony's Ambient Sound Control. In short, Ambient Sound Control is Sony's marketing jargon for variable noise-cancelling/pass-through. When turned on, an adjustable knob allows you to vary between full noise-cancelling, wind noise reduction and 20 ambient sound levels.
Noise-cancelling does not perform well in windy environments where the winds directly buffet the ANC mic vents, interfering with the earbuds ability to detect and cancel the environmental sounds. Wind noise reduction mode compensates for this, albeit at the cost of reduced noise-cancelling capability. This mode is perfect for people who work in windy environments or when commuting by bicycle.
The ambient sound levels allow you to hear the environment outside the earbuds at varying levels. In this setting, the earbuds record the environment and play them into your ears. You can adjust how much of the environment you'd like to hear through the earbuds with the 20 levels provided. Ambient sound mode is useful in situations such as when walking along the streets or crossing roads where it would be dangerous if the wearer were not to able to hear bicycle bells or car horns (or annoying electric scooter horns).
That said, note that the setting of any ambient sound level from 1 to 20 will implicitly turn off noise-cancelling.
Adaptive Sound Control
Adaptive Sound Control is a feature that allows automatic switching between 4 noise-cancelling profiles: Staying, Walking, Running, and Transport, depending on your current environment. The first 3 profiles use the accelerometers in the earbuds to detect the presence and magnitude of movement and Transport profile uses your current location to determine if you are on public transport.
Staying defaults to full noise-cancelling. Walking defaults to 60% ambient sound. Running defaults to 100% ambient sound. Transport defaults to full noise-cancelling, just like Staying, the only difference being that once Transport profile is activated, regardless of whether you are staying still, walking or running, the profile remains at Transport and does not switch.
All profiles are fully customizable, allowing you to set ambient sound levels or toggle noise-cancelling in every profile.
Additionally, the app also supports geofencing, where you register known locations in the app as well as the desired noise-cancellation and equalizer setting to switch to when entering the geofenced area.
Even if you decide not to bother with manually searching for and registering known locations, the app learns your frequented locations and allows you to tag some frequented location as known locations.
In the Sound tab, we see a toggle for Ambient Sound Control, the function of which was explained earlier. Tapping the chevron will expand the section revealing an adjustable knob for varying the ambient sound levels.
For the equalizer section, tapping on the chevron will reveal 12 presets: Off, Bright, Excited, Mellow, Relaxed, Vocal, Treble Boost, Bass Boost, Speech, Manual, Custom 1 and Custom 2. Each named preset is already preconfigured with defaults out of the factory, but they remain fully customizable should you want to, for example, change what Mellow sounds like.
Sound quality mode allows you to specify if you'd like to prioritize on connection stability or sound quality. This is a black box but I'd assume this setting changes the maximum bit rate of the connection between the phone and the earbuds, where lower maximum bitrates allow for a more stable connection.
The last setting on this screen is DSEE HX. DSEE HX stands for Digital Sound Enhancement Engine, another one of Sony's marketing jargons. It is basically Sony's proprietary audio post-processing algorithm, where the software digitally processes your audio data before playback in an attempt to restore sound quality and dynamic range of low-bitrate, compressed, lossy audio that's common in bluetooth-transmitted music.
The System tab allows you to set persistent settings that are saved on the earbuds themselves, and persist across devices. You can set settings like pausing playback on earbud removal, automatic power off after the earbuds are removed for a certain amount of time and language of the voice notification.
Touch sensor function
You can customize the action performed by interactions with the touch-sensitive control surfaces on each earbud. In my case I set the left earbud to Google Assistant and right earbud to toggling Ambient Sound Control. Ambient Sound Control toggling is a pretty nifty feature especially in my office which is noisy most of the time. With this setting, I can tap and hold the right earbud to temporarily turn off noise-cancelling and crank up the ambient sound level to maximum so that I can hear my colleagues talking to me.
Note that if Google Assistant is set to either of the earbuds, that earbud becomes the primary earbud that connects to the earphone. This means that single-earbud mode will not work on the other earbud. For example, in my case, Google Assistant is set to my left earbud, and if I wanted to use the right earbud only, it will not connect to the phone. Only the left earbud can be used in single-earbud mode.
Now for my experiences with the earbuds so far in the 1 month of usage.
I mainly stream music from Spotify at the high quality setting on my OnePlus 7 Pro, though I occasionally play some lossless tunes from my old FLAC library on Android. Compared to the OnePlus Bullets Wireless 2, the sound quality I got was quite a pleasant surprise.
I was able to distinguish some instruments that I've never managed to pick up before, likely owing to the active noise cancellation as well as the noise isolation from the good seal that the default rubber earbuds forms with my ear.
Vocals sound natural and the soundstage was decent. The earbuds seem to shine in acoustic songs with simple tunes and a quiet background where less than 3 instruments are playing at once such as Summertime Sadness (Acoustic Cover). However, in more complex songs such as Awake, the individual instruments are no longer rendered as well as they should and the song overall feels smudgy and mixed up.
For the bass heads out there, you'd be quite happy to hear that the bass is quite prominent in these earbuds without any intervention from the software equalizer. The bass though, in my opinion is just adequate, not particularly great, not particularly bad. While I really liked how the bass was punchy when coupled with the ANC, I found the bass to be lacking in the lower end. Then again, I may just be asking too much out of a pair of earbuds.
Overall, the listening experience that the Sony WF-1000XM3 offers was pleasant. I found that the ANC does contribute quite significantly to the music, with less external sounds, I was able to enjoy my music at lower volumes, especially those quieter tunes.
Phone calls were alright, on both cellular and over the internet with Zoom and Microsoft Teams. I can be heard clearly on the other side, or so I think, as I have stopped receiving complaints of not being clearly audible since I started using these earbuds.
One thing that you might want to take note is that both earbuds switch to an entirely different set of controls once you are on a phone call.
When making outgoings calls
- Tap twice quickly to cancel the call
- Hold to switch between headset, speakerphone or mobile phone audio outputs
When receiving incoming calls
- Tap twice quickly to answer the call
- Hold to reject the call
When the call is in progress
- Tap twice quickly to end the call
- Hold to switch between headset, speakerphone or mobile phone audio outputs
This is one aspect that I feel has room for improvement, the varying controls depending on the multitude of states the earbuds may be in. Oftentimes I find myself struggling to end a current call, spending a second or two guessing the state of the earbuds and then trying to recall what the taps do in the current state.
In traditional bluetooth headsets, there is a dedicated answer/hang up button which actuate on a simple press.
On these earbuds, however, the touch-sensitive control surfaces are quite sensitive, making it really easy to accidentally trigger an action when attempting to remove the earbuds. Thus it made sense for Sony to design them such that they do not trigger actions on first touch, but that also makes the interaction rather unintuitive to people who are used to typical bluetooth headsets.
Noise cancellation performance has been fantastic for me. I live in an apartment that faces a rather busy road with bus stops nearby, and to top things off, I'm about 3km away from the nearest military air base. Because of my location, noise has been a major pain point for me when I'm trying to concentrate on work or relax in my room.
To give you some perspective of the cacophony that I hear during a typical evening, I have recorded a 1-minute sound clip of the sounds I hear from outside the window just to the right of my desk. Sounds featured include buses departing, some birds chirping, and most prominently, a fighter jet passing at low altitude.
I have really short attention spans and noise is more disruptive for me than the average person, so let's say:
Silence is much more golden to me
With these earbuds on, my environment sounds something like this:
Do note that your mileage may vary depending on how well the tips fit your ear canal. For me the default tips fit me quite well, isolating most of the external sounds, with ANC attenuating what's left of the ambient sounds that manage to pass through the earbuds.
The earbuds were relatively comfortable and I did not experience significant discomfort when wearing them for long periods of times. They were rather light as well, weighing at about 85g per piece, so they don't create much strain on your ears.
Though there was once when I did feel some pain on the tragus of my right ear after wearing them for 5 hours straight, on subsequent prolonged usage, that pain went away, leading me to think it was likely due to my pushing the earbuds too strongly into my ears.
To be honest, these earbuds were so comfortable there were even times when I wore these earbuds to sleep just for the noise-cancelling to maintain some semblance of silence in ears. I typically don't toss and turn much if at all in my sleep, so I don't recommend trying this if you're an 'active sleeper'.
Battery life is decent, I was able to squeeze out around 5.5 hours of music playback before depleting the battery. In my experience, this battery life just covers my usage in a typical work day including time spent commuting, with lunch time spent charging the earbuds.
The case is capable of providing 3 full charges to the pair of earbuds. Another neat feature to highlight is that the earbuds support quick charging where 10 minutes of charging provides 90 minutes of play time, so if you're ever caught with your pants down, you'll be back in action in no time.
When fully drained, the earbuds take 1.5hrs to fully charge and the case takes 3.5 hours to fully charge. For me, those numbers are reasonable considering that I typically charge the earbuds over the 1 hour lunch break, and I leave the case charging overnight on alternate days.
The Sony WF-1000XM3 retails online for S$349 or US$229 on on Sony Singapore and Sony US respectively at the time of writing, though you can typically snag one at local departmental stores at prices around S$319 and below.
For an earbud, in my opinion it is rather steep, and did give me significant pause before I finally caved and bought a set. But when you consider its ANC capabilities, this earbud is quite reasonably priced given that the only other true-wireless earbud with ANC is the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 which costs a whopping S$449 or US$299.95.
The Sony WF-1000XM3 has been a great pair of true wireless earbuds so far. The form factor is small enough to be inconspicuous on my ears, and the noise-cancelling performance has exceeded my expectations. Touch controls are generally intuitive and easy to operate without having to put pressure on my ears which some earbuds like the Creative Outlier series do with their clunky buttons.
Even though the earbuds are jam packed with features, I found myself not really using the adaptive sound profiles as I don't keep my earphones on when I move around. Besides, I found the profile switching a little jarring and at times surprising so I kept the earbuds at full noise-cancelling mode.
That said, the biggest bummer for me was the lack of an IP rating, which means that I'll have to buy a separate pair of earbuds with an IP rating just for workouts. I was also slightly disappointed at the lack of aptX or even LDAC (Sony's own lossless codec) support, given that I do listen to lossless/high-bitrate tracks, but then again if you're into high-fidelity audio you won't be looking for a pair of bluetooth earbuds in the first place, so I don't see this as a big disadvantage.
Overall, the Sony WF-1000XM3 has been my best purchase in recent times. Despite the slightly steep price, my experience has led me to feel that it was worth every cent. It comes as no surprise then, that it is now one of the top few offerings in the true wireless earbuds space.