Sony WF-1000XM3 noise-canceling earbuds: Do they live up to the hype?

There's been a lot of hype surrounding Sony's WF-1000XM3 noise-canceling earbuds, and lots of comparisons being made to Apple's AirPods Pro. Do they live up to the hype?

Unless you've been living under a rock or in a cave somewhere, you've likely seen a few reviews for Sony's new WF-1000XM3 noise-canceling earbuds. And many of those reviews have been comparing the WF-1000XM3 to Apple's AirPods Pro.

The hype was such that I had to see if the actual product really was that good.

So, I got my hands on a set.

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OK, so build quality oozes premium feel. The packaging is nice but not too over the top for something that's going to end up in the recycling in short order. There's the usual pile of instructions in a variety of languages that no one has time to read and a much shorter quick start guide that covers all the basics.

On freeing the case from the packaging, the first thing that struck me is how enormous the earbud storage case is. It's more like a charger or a power bank than a case for a set of earbuds. You might think that this is because of the 24 hours of run time the package offers, but the Soundcore Liberty 2 Pro (my current favorite earbuds) is smaller and yet offers a total playtime of 32 hours.

Speaking of charging, the case charges uses USB-C and takes a few hours to charge fully. Popping the earbuds in the case for 10 minutes gives them a charge that's good for 90 minutes of playback. Unlike some setups, the case cannot be wirelessly charged.

As is the case with earbuds these days, the WF-1000XM3 (yeah, about that name -- it sucks) comes with a handful of different ear tips for you to choose from. I recommend spending a little time testing here to get the best, most comfortable fit possible.

From a hardware point of view, the WF-1000XM3 earbuds are big and rely on the rubber ear tip to stay plugged in your ear (unlike other designs that use little earwings that fit into the curly bit of your ear). While they are quite comfortable, they are big -- too big in my experience to stay in your ears if you vigorously shake your head about, like perhaps at the gym. However, since there's no water-resistance or sweat-resistance rating from Sony for the WF-1000M3, I probably wouldn't use these $228 earbuds in the gym anyway.

However, that lack of a water-resistance rating makes me a little uncomfortable using them in the outdoors, where rain and puddles exist.

Pairing is simple -- very simple on Android since it uses NFC -- and overall, the sound quality is good. I'm not really the best person to talk about audio since I'm usually happy with the audio quality of trash headphones and earbuds, so I'll let you do your own research on this.

However, my experience, backed up by the reviews that I'd read, suggests that the audio quality of these is overall excellent, with noise-canceling doing its thing quite well. The touchpad on the side of each earbud takes some getting used to, a problem which is confounded by the poor app (more on this in a moment).

However, I do have two rather big audio issues.

The first is that I experienced an occasional weird and rather painful feedback squeal, which I assume is down to the noise-canceling feature. I tried the earbuds on a number of platforms, and this seemed to be more of a problem on iOS than Android, but it seems to be a feature of the earbuds and not something I did wrong. I'm using the most up-to-date apps and software update, and so I'm assuming that this is some quirk of the system. All I can say about it is that it was annoying, painful, uncomfortable, and put me off using them.

Another issue is call quality. It's terrible. I've had $10 headphones that do a better job of call quality. I find it hard to imagine that this feature was tested and OKed by Sony. Plenty of other reviews corroborate this, and there are endless complaints on Sony's own support forums, so it's not a quirk unite to my pair of earbuds.

If you are going to want to be making calls with your earbuds, these are not the earbuds for you.

Then there's Sony's Headphones app. Speaking specifically of the iOS app, which I've used the most. It's a mess. A total mess. Some features are clear and straightforward, others vague, or downright mysterious. I'm not a huge fan of apps to control headphones and earbuds at the best of times, but this is one of the worst examples. You can run the headphones without the app, but the app unlocks settings and features.

And my brief experience with the Android app suggests that it is no better.

And since you're spending over $200 on a pair of earbuds, these are features you've paid for.

Overall, I like the Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds for playback. The noise-canceling is great, albeit for the occasional weird feedback squeal, which I'm still trying to pin down. Battery life is good, but the case is of a size that makes it inconvenient to carry.

Taking and making calls with the Sony WF-1000XM3 is, frankly, a dreadful and frustrating experience.  

The app experience is also just plain awful.

So, bottom line, do the Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds live up to the hype? Well…

If your priority is noise-canceling and audio quality, the Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds are an excellent choice. But the problem is that they trip up over their own shoelaces when it comes to the quality of the microphone pickup, app, and general size and bulk of the carry case.

For those in the Apple ecosystem, I still think that the AirPods or AirPods Pro are a no-brainer in terms of features, performance, and overall usability and user experience. For the money, I'd expect the WF-1000XM3 earbuds to offer a far better experience, and they don't, and that's disappointing. Noise-canceling aside, the Soundcore Liberty 2 Pro does an overall better job, offer better battery life, vastly superior call experience, are sweat-resistant and rated for IPX4, and are only $149.

I really wanted to like the Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds, but alas, the embodiment did not live up to the hype.

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