For a very short time, Sony’s superb WF-1000XM3 true wireless earbuds stood alone atop a crowded mountain of earbuds. With active noise cancellation, superb sound quality, and long battery life, they have a collection of features that have made them hard to beat at any price.
But innovation and change in the insanely competitive personal audio space are measured in weeks, not years, and not long after the WF-1000XM3 made their debut, Apple’s AirPods Pro arrived, once again changing the landscape. With long-awaited IPX4 sweat- and water-resistance and surprisingly good noise-canceling and sound quality, they don’t just resemble the Sonys in price but in features too.
Has Sony finally met its match in the true wireless earbud space? Let’s break it down and see which product comes out on top.
Sony’s WF-1000XM3 wowed us from the start with their sound quality. In typical Sony style, these buds exhibit great clarity and excellent definition at both the high and low ends of the frequency scale. With Sony’s DSEE HX engine, they perform miracles with low-quality MP3 files and audio streams, making every source of music enjoyable. Better yet, the Sony Headphone Connect app gives you a wide variety of EQ tweaks in case the defaults just don’t cut it for you.
What really surprised us, however, was how close Apple’s AirPods Pro managed to come in terms of unseating the Sonys from their sound quality perch. Given how uninspiring AirPods are when it comes to this category, it was somewhat shocking to pop the Pros into our ears and discover that Apple can make terrific-sounding earbuds. Some of that is due to the true in-ear design that blocks out external sounds, but we should also give credit to Apple’s adaptive EQ for its role in tuning the overall sound experience.
The AirPods Pro sound fantastic, yes, but the WF-1000XM3 still have the edge. With a richer, fuller performance, we think most people will prefer the Sonys.
Winner: Sony WF-1000XM3
If we were surprised by the AirPods Pro’s performance when it comes to sound quality, we were downright shocked at how well they performed on calls. It’s one of those times when you just don’t know how much better something can be until you compare it, and Apple proved that compared to the Sony WF-1000XM3, the AirPods Pro are better buds for making calls. Voices come through more clearly, but almost more importantly, the Pros did a better job at blocking competing sounds in noisy environments like city streets.
Winner: Apple AirPods Pro
The theme of surprises continues in this category. Sony has been refining the art and science of active noise cancellation (ANC) for years, and its ANC headphones have only had one true competitor: Bose. So when Sony debuted the WF-1000XM3 as the very first true wireless earbuds to offer the feature — with the kind of superb performance we’d been hoping for — we figured that once again, the company’s first real competition in this space would come from Bose. We were wrong.
Apple may not be steeped in ANC like Sony, but you’d never know it. The AirPods Pro do a stellar job of masking outside sounds, and their transparency feature, while not adjustable, does just as good a job at letting those sounds in while still feeling natural.
But which ones are better? Our editors were split. Some favored Sony’s approach, while others felt that Apple delivered better cancellation. The bottom line is, either way, you’ll be getting great ANC, and Apple users don’t need to worry that they’re giving anything up by choosing the AirPods Pro.
After how challenging subjective comparisons like sound quality proved to be in this matchup, it was a relief to look at something as numbers-driven as battery life. It’s not even close.
Sony’s WF-1000XM3 can go 6 hours between charges and offer 24 hours of charge in total with their charging case — and that’s with ANC turned on. Turn it off, and those numbers jump to 8 and 30. The quick-charge system means 10 minutes in the case will get you 90 minutes in your ear.
The AirPods Pro get 4.5 hours between charges and 24 hours total with their charging case. It only improves by half an hour if you turn off ANC and transparency mode. Still, the quick-charge system is very satisfactory, with one hour of playtime after 5 minutes in the case.
Winner: Sony WF-1000XM3
In the grand scheme of things, something like convenience may seem like an afterthought, but it shouldn’t be. True wireless earbuds are meant to be constant companions, going with you everywhere. It’s important to know what they’re like to use under daily circumstances.
The Sony WF-1000XM3 are a bit on the bulky side. It doesn’t impact their comfort or their ability to stay put, but it does mean that their charging case is correspondingly bulky. Sony does a good job of making the charging case elegant with its Duracell-like, copper-colored flip-top lid, but it’s going to take up a fair bit of room in your purse or pocket. Despite its excellent battery life, when it comes time to charge the case, you’ll need to use a USB cable as there’s no wireless charging option.
The earbuds themselves are easy to use, with responsive touch controls. They’re even better since a November 26 firmware release gave them the ability to control volume, something they couldn’t do previously and which the AirPods Pro still can’t do. However, those touch controls don’t work if you’re wearing gloves — something to consider if you live within winter’s grasp.
Finally, although we’ve never heard of any problems, the Sonys are not IPX-rated for any kind of sweat, water, or dust resistance.
The AirPods Pro are even smaller than the AirPods, with a shorter stem. They still possess that iconic white golf-tee look, but in a more compact package. Smaller buds means a smaller charging case ,and the AirPods Pro have one of the smallest around. Shorter and narrower than the AirPods case, it takes up hardly any room at all. It’s got an easy-open flip-top lid, and you can charge it with a Lightning cable or wirelessly using a Qi charging mat.
The AirPods Pro controls are slightly easier to use because you squeeze rather than tap the stems. As long as you’re wearing thin gloves, they’re also easier to use in cold weather. If you’re an iPhone user, there’s the added convenience of summoning Siri hands-free, something the WF-1000XM3 can’t do with any voice assistant.
Then there’s the IPX4 rating. It’s not a ton of protection, but it will give peace of mind when working out, or when giving the earbuds a cleaning.
All in all, the AirPods Pro are easier to live with.
Winner: Apple AirPods Pro
Though sale prices will obviously have an effect on what you ultimately pay to own these products, their regular prices are what dictates just how low they can go. Sony’s WF-1000XM3 are regularly $230, while Apple’s AirPods Pro normally sell for $249. That isn’t a big difference, especially if you’re an iPhone user who can benefit from the AirPods Pro’s iOS-specific features. Still, the Sony buds offer a better price.
Winner: Sony WF-1000XM3
With prices and features that are incredibly similar, picking a winner is far harder than we thought — a testament to Apple’s amazing strides in the true wireless earbud space. Because of this, we’re going to hedge just a little. If you’re an Apple user, buy the AirPods Pro. They’re a bit more expensive, but if you were already considering the AirPods with a wireless charging case, the extra $50 is more than worth it. You won’t be disappointed.
For everyone else — and in particular, people who need long-lasting battery life — the Sony WF-1000XM3 remain our top recommendation. They may not be as tiny as the AirPods Pro, but we think you’ll forget about that once you pop them in your ears and revel in their amazing sound.
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