by kbing

They were plagued by some of the common stumbles of first-generation earbuds with no cable between them — connection dropouts, audio delay when watching video, and so-so battery life — and the promised noise cancellation failed to measure up to Sony’s popular 1000X headphone series.

But Sony In-Ear Monitors is back. The new WF-1000XM3 earbuds, launching in August for $229.99, address many of my complaints about the original product. They fit better, look nicer, exhibit very little signal loss, and have improved battery life. And this time, the noise cancellation is a true standout feature that differentiates them from the field.

(If you’re wondering, there was never a WF-1000XM2. While Sony says it doesn’t discuss its product naming process, the obvious explanation is that it’s trying to keep parity with the 1000X headphone line, which is currently on M3. So we skipped right over M2. Okay, sure. Names mean nothing.

The M3s have a much cleaner, more professional, and all-around sleeker look than their shiny predecessors. The Sony logo and microphone inlet are adorned with rose gold / copper accents, so these earbuds look at home when sitting next to the 1000XM3 headphones. (There’s also a gray color option, but black is the clear winner to my eyes.) Sony continues to supply plenty of ear tips to help you find the ideal fit. There are seven options in all, including the comfortable foam-like ones I’ve been using. The little nub / wing from the original WF-1000X that hooked into your ear’s concha is gone, but I haven’t missed it and find the M3s to fit securely without causing discomfort over time. In a clever design move, Sony put an extra-grippy finish on the bottom section of the earbud that rests in your ear, and this helps keep everything even more snug.

Each earbud has a circular area for touch controls: you adjust noise cancellation with the left earbud and audio playback with the right. Tapping the left earbud toggles between noise cancellation and ambient sound mode, which pipes in outside audio for situations where you do need to hear what’s going on around you.

Sony has brought over the clever Quick Attention mode from its 1000X headphones: resting your finger over the left earbud temporarily pauses your music and activates ambient audio for however long you hold it there; once you let go, the noise cancellation comes right back and audio playback resumes. This is useful if you need to hear a plane announcement or quickly pay for something at the coffee shop.

On the right earbud, you get the standard music controls: tap once to pause / play, twice to skip to the next song, and three times to go back. Or you can tap and hold to access Siri or Google Assistant. Like

other headphones, the M3 earbuds offer a deeper (and optional) level of Google Assistant integration, including the ability to have your important notifications automatically read aloud as they come in.

Nowhere on the M3 earbuds will you find volume controls, however, so you’ll need to do that from the device itself or with your voice assistant of choice. You can customize some options and adjust EQ using Sony In-Ear Monitors companion mobile app, but most people will probably never bother, and they won’t be missing much.

Sony says it has improved the active noise cancellation on the M3s compared to the original WF-1000X, and I can attest to that. Whereas the first model felt like it offered little over the noise isolation you get with a good earbud seal, here, the effect is definitely more pronounced and noticeable. It’s not quite on par with Sony’s headphones, but I think that just comes down to limitations of the earbud form factor. Larger cans that completely cover your ears give Sony a lot more to work with, and matching that level of NC at this tiny size seems like a real challenge.

Even so, what Sony delivers here makes all the difference on a crowded subway train, busy city street, or the office. If no audio is playing, you’ll still hear your noisy co-workers. But once music starts, everything fades away. Sony told me it added a second noise-canceling mic to each earbud, and the company’s QN1e processor is also behind some of the improvements. It’s a world of difference from earbuds like the AirPods that let in your surroundings by design. Even the Powerbeats Pro allow more external noise to get between me and my music than I’d prefer.

Thanks to a new Bluetooth chipset inside, each of the two earbuds makes its own simultaneous connection to your phone. There’s no linked system where one earbud is at the mercy of the other, which was common among early true wireless earbuds. This means you can use either Sony M3 earbud by itself for listening to audio or making voice calls while the other is charging inside the case. It also drastically cuts down on audio lag when watching videos since there’s no longer that relay from one earbud to the other. It’s now to the point where any lip sync delay is unnoticeable. I tested this across my iPhone XS, Pixel 3A XL, and laptop. In basically all cases, the audio lag was gone, and in the few instances where it did pop up, restarting a video was enough to line things back up.

This simultaneous Bluetooth connection also leads to both the left and right earbuds individually reporting their battery level and connection status aloud when you first put them in. This seemed a little strange to me at first, but I got used to it.

A lot of you have asked about mic quality. When you call someone with the M3s, they’ll definitely be able to tell that you’re using earbuds, but no one I spoke to complained about difficulty hearing me or making out what I was saying. Noise cancellation is still active during calls, which helps you hear the person on the other end better. And Sony says it’s doing a bit of optimization to isolate your voice from the environment. It’s not a revelation, and I think AirPods might still edge out the M3s here, but you won’t be pulling out your hair (or the earbuds) whenever you need to use the phone. Just know that Sony still doesn’t let you pair to two devices at once. So if you’re listening to music or watching something on your laptop and a call comes in, you’ll have to pop the buds out instead of just seamlessly answering it. Sony, please figure this out for the eventual M4 model.

Battery life is rated at six hours on a charge with noise cancellation enabled. If you turn it off, that extends to eight hours. Both of those numbers are on the high end for true wireless earbuds. The case holds enough extra juice to allow for a total of 24 hours of listening (after repeated top-offs) with the noise-canceling feature or 32 hours with it off. Sony says you can get 90 minutes of playback with a 10-minute charge over USB-C. Unfortunately, the M3s don’t include wireless charging.

The charging case is rather nice, coming in at around the same height as Apple’s AirPods case but nearly twice as wide. Still, I like how the earbuds snugly drop into place and are held in magnetically. There’s zero chance of putting these in the case and having one of them fail to charge, which is a frustration I’ve encountered with my PowerBeats Pro. This is down to personal taste, but I also like Sony’s use of numerous lights (one on each earbud and the case itself) to clearly indicate charging status. Side note: the case also includes NFC support for simplified pairing with Android phones.

When the earbuds are paired and in use, that hidden LED inside the earbuds will occasionally blink blue. It’s not something you’ll notice when wearing them, but others might. As with many other wireless earbuds these days, removing one of them will automatically pause audio until you put it back in your ear.

So far, I’ve been happy with the sound from Sony’s M3s. I spent a week with a preproduction unit and the last few days using final production earbuds. Through all of that time, I’ve barely noticed any connection dropouts — even in trouble spots and intersections where true wireless earbuds can frequently struggle. That’s a big turnaround from Sony’s first try.

For codecs, Sony supports AAC and SBC on the M3s but not apt-X or the company’s own higher-res LDAC. That might disappoint you audio nerds out there, but Sony still insists you’ll be hearing top-notch sound thanks to “24-bit audio signal processing” and its “Digital Sound Enhancement Engine HX” upscaling for lossy music. I won’t weigh in on the technical jargon, but my tests have been positive. Whether I’m listening to The National, Carly Rae Jepsen, Jason Isbell, Maggie Rogers, or Lizzo, the M3s are proving plenty capable, with ample bass, good separation, and the ability to juggle genres without issue.

The soundstage isn’t quite as wide or engrossing as what you’d get from the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless earbuds or Master & Dynamic MW07s. (Both of those cost more than the Sonys, mind you.) But the M3s easily best the AirPods, Jabras, and Samsung Galaxy Buds of the world. For me, they’re neck and neck with the Powerbeats Pro as some of my favorite-sounding wireless earbuds yet. And the blissful noise cancellation definitely wins Sony some points over the competition.

Unfortunately, there’s one significant strike against the WF-1000XM3 earbuds: they’re not sweat or water-resistant. Bafflingly, Sony is going to market in the summer with a set of earbuds that aren’t technically cut out for exercise or coming with you on a run — or even if you just break a sweat on a hot day. A Sony spokesperson noted that the team “did not hear any complaints from the previous model for breaking from using at the gym.” The original model also lacked an official water-resistance rating. But for $230, I find this to be borderline unacceptable.

Sony’s 1000XM3 earbuds will face stiff competition out of the gate. For a little more money, there are the Powerbeats Pro and Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless. For a little less, you’ll find a wide field including second-gen AirPods, Jabra’s Elite 65ts, Galaxy Buds, and plenty of other choices. But if you can get over the lack of rated sweat resistance, it’s easy to see the appeal of what Sony has come up with. It’s you and your music without disturbances or distractions. Not even Bose has come up with noise-canceling true wireless buds yet — those are due sometime next year. So Sony can lay claim to a crucial feature that Apple, Samsung, and others still aren’t offering in this form factor.

The more I think about it, the M3s are such an improvement over Sony’s first true wireless earbuds that the decision to skip a model number actually seems appropriate. And if Sony can address sweat resistance and multi-device pairing for the next version, it won’t be far off from perfection.

Update July 10th, 10AM ET: Initially a first-impressions preview, this article has been updated with a review score, video, and more takeaways from using the WF-1000XM3s after additional time spent with a final production unit of the earbuds.


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