Hands-on review: The Sony WF-1000XM3 wireless earbuds
FYI, this story is more than a year old
The WF-1000XM3s are Sony’s second foray into the wireless earbud series, which started with the WF-1000X back in 2017. In two years, Sony refined its design - but did it come up with the perfect blend of form, fashion, and most importantly - sound?
Sony has been drowned out by the likes of Apple and Samsung and other competitors in the last couple of years. But if there’s a brand that is almost synonymous with audio, Sony has consistently been a staple of quality. Although the WF-1000XM3s came out last year, they’re still available for purchase - and there's a good reason why they're so popular. I’ll herein refer to them as the XM3s.
The box includes the earbuds, a stylish storage/charging case, a USB 3 to USB-C cable, and instructions. These black earbuds are a bit on the weighty side and have programmable touch sensors on each ear.
I needed to leave the earbuds in their charging case, and connect the case to a USB charging port for a few hours. The charging case will show a red LED whilst charging. Once they were ready to go, Bluetooth connection was painless on my Android device. There is also the option of pairing and connecting via NFC by touching a device on the NFC logo on the charging case. This method quickly switches Bluetooth on.
To connect to another Bluetooth device (for example another Smartphone or laptop), just leave the earbuds in the ears and keep your fingers on the touch sensors on both earpieces for about 7 seconds until you hear a command saying they’re in Bluetooth pairing mode. One of the downsides of slightly older tech like this is there is no capability for multipoint Bluetooth to connect to two devices at once, unlike some other brands currently available in 2020.
The Bluetooth range extended 10-15 metres from the front to the back of the house and out to the backyard. This range will vary depending on how many obstacles get in the way of the signal.
By default, touching the left sensor changes sound settings (ambient control, noise cancelling), while the right one navigates through the playlist (tap once to pause, twice to skip forward one track, and three times to skip back one track). These can be changed in the Sony Headphones app.
Battery life varies depending on how long noise cancelling stays on. Expect around 24 hours playback maximum, and it's easy to charge them up when they’re put back in the case. Plug the case in and charge for a few hours to bring everything up to 100%.
When I placed the earbuds and rotated them so they fit snugly in my ear, I found that they stayed in my ears while headbanging and they are deceptively comfortable, though they did come a wee bit loose after walking for 15 minutes - easily fixed with a few adjustments. Remember though, these are not sport headphones and the act of walking does produce a lot of vibration and movement.
But how do they sound?
I’m reasonably familiar with Sony’s noise cancelling features as they have rolled out over the last few years, and the XM3s did not disappoint. I like to ‘feel’ the bass, so I have a habit of cranking up the Clear Bass on just about everything. My test playlist included Skrillex, followed by dips into Depeche Mode, Shihad, Bach, Mogwai, Fur Patrol, and many others. No matter what music, podcasts or audiobooks I tried, I could not fault the audio playback. Even the Ghostbusters theme has great tones.
I also delved into various decade-based playlists, as well as online bass and hertz tests, as the XM3s boast a frequency response of 20Hz - 20,000Hz. These stats lived up to my own tests (although my hearing has admittedly been diminished by many concerts over the years).
When I walked into a headwind on one breezy day, I experienced very loud wind feedback, suggesting that my earbuds aren’t as snug as I thought. In previous years I used to travel a lot - various Sony earbuds and a movie or music did well to block the ambient roar of jet engines - unfortunately, these XM3s can’t be tested in such an environment in 2020. I did find that when I had music playing, the noise cancelling blocked traffic noise on a busy road quite well, but did little to block sound when no music was playing.
According to my obliging other half, there is a tiny bit of noise leakage - so other people in a quiet workspace may end up hearing your guilty music pleasures. You have been warned.
I’ve read a few criticisms from consumer reviews that the phone call audio isn’t great. I personally found no issues with call quality. Voices sounded just fine and didn’t cut out at all.
Sony Headphones app - an essential companion
The Headphones app is an immensely useful companion, available from Google Play and the App Store. I won’t say too much about the app basics, besides a quick list of what it can offer: charge levels for earbuds and sound settings like noise cancelling strength, and DSE HXX which essentially upscales lower-quality MP3 files. If that sounds like a lot of features, then my list has done its job.
There are two app features I want to highlight. The first is adaptive sound control, which can detect whether a person is walking around, running, on public transport, or quietly sitting down, optimising the audio for each situation. This can be turned on or off, as well as the best sound settings for each action (noise cancelling, ambient sound, etc). Another feature is the ability to use location data so that the XM3s learn the locations you go to most like the gym, the bus, work, or at home.
The second app feature is annoying: Notification and voice guide. Where this can get slightly irritating is when the app broadcasts ‘‘Blong’ sounds through the earbuds, briefly interrupting the music. These sounds can happen when you switch sound settings, or when the earbuds think you’ve switched from walking to sitting.
I was navigating my way down a steep incline when ‘blong’ - I had apparently switched into running mode. Last I checked, ‘blong’ wasn’t a lyric or part of a kickarse guitar riff in Weta’s Snapshot. Sure, there is the option to turn notification features off, but when I did I was not entirely sure whether I was using ambient sound control or noise cancelling. Doubtless, with practice, my ears will become attuned to the differences between them.
The WF-1000XM3s retail for about $350 as of August 2020, so if you’re keen for a pair of wireless earbuds that will produce fantastic sound, these are sure to please audiophiles and music lovers.