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AirPods finally has real competition

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Good noise cancelation • Fantastic sound quality • Seven pairs of included eartips • Long-lasting battery in buds and case

Huge charging case • No physical volume controls • Doesn’t connect to multiple devices at once

With noise cancelation and longer battery life, Sony’s WF-1000XM3 wireless earbuds are arguably better than Apple’s AirPods.

There’s no shortage of AirPods alternatives to choose from. Beats’ Powerbeats Pro and Samsung’s Galaxy Buds are two of the most popular options.

But as well-reviewed as they are, neither have noise cancelation. Sony’s unfortunately named “WF-1000XM3 Wireless Noise-Canceling Headphones” (can we get an easier to remember name?) do and sound way better than AirPods as a result.

The tradeoffs to superior sound quality, however, are price ($229 versus AirPods, which start at $159) and a large charging case.

If neither of these are deal-breakers for you, Sony’s WF-1000XM3 are easily the best true wireless earbuds released this year.

Deep fit in your ears

The WF-1000XM3 wireless earbuds look pretty handsome in black and copper accents.

The WF-1000XM3 wireless earbuds look pretty handsome in black and copper accents.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA / MASHABLE

Kudos to Sony for not making a blatant AirPods knockoff, complete with stems. The flat, oblong design of the WF-1000XM3, available in silver with gold accents or black with copper trims, is handsome and doesn’t attract much attention, which I really appreciate.

Head-on, the WF-1000XM3 still look a little goofy — something we just have to accept with true wireless earbuds — but at least they’re not chunky like the Bose SoundSport Free.

With in-ear tips, the Sony WF-1000XM3 buds fit better in most peoples' ears.

With in-ear tips, the Sony WF-1000XM3 buds fit better in most peoples’ ears.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA / MASHABLE

Each of the WF-1000XM3 earbuds comes with a touchpad and using them is pretty straightforward.

The left one is for switching between sound modes: regular, noise cancelation, ambient, and quick attention. And the right touchpad is for music controls: single-tap to play/pause, double-tap to skip to next track, and triple-tap to return to previous track. A tap-and-hold on the right touchpad activates your phone’s digital assistant — Google Assistant on Android and Siri on iPhone.

Each earbud has a touchpad for controls.

Each earbud has a touchpad for controls.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA / MASHABLE

For the most part, the touchpads are responsive. If I could add one thing to the earbuds, it would be volume controls. As it stands, the only way to control the volume is on your connected device.

I should also mention my first review unit was a dud and had a defective right touchpad that wouldn’t respond to a single-tap to play and pause music. Sony sent over a new replacement pair and they worked perfectly.

The touchpads also don’t play nice with wet or sweaty fingers. During runs, I noticed the touchpad controls were hit or miss. When my fingers were dry, the controls worked, but if they were sweaty, not so much. 

The angle acoustic housing fits better in your ears' concha bowls.

The angle acoustic housing fits better in your ears’ concha bowls.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA / MASHABLE

Design aside, the top complaint people have with AirPods is that they don’t fit well. Maybe the stems stick out or the buds fall out all the time. (Consider trying these AirPods upgrades.) Everyone’s ears are different so the fit naturally varies.

Compared to AirPods, the WF-1000XM3’s and their in-ear tips reach deeper into your ears for a snugger fit. Like the Beats Powerbeats Pro, Sony’s earbuds have an angled acoustic housing that sits better in your ears’ concha bowls.

In my tests, the WF-1000XM3’s stayed put in my ears and didn’t slip out during sweaty runs even though they’re not water or sweat resistant.

In addition to the default tips, the earbuds come with six additional pairs of ear tips.

In addition to the default tips, the earbuds come with six additional pairs of ear tips.

Image: zlata ivleva / mashable

Included in the box are two types of ear tips: silicone and foam, each in three sizes. I found myself preferring the foam tips for their better fit and sound isolation.

Superior sound with noise cancelation

They kind of look like old school Bluetooth headsets.

They kind of look like old school Bluetooth headsets.

Image: zlata ivleva / mashable

Anyone who uses AirPods knows they sound OK — good, but not stellar by any means. True wireless earbuds with in-ear designs like the Powerbeats Pro are better at keeping outside noise from seeping in, but they still let in some ambient sound.

The WF-1000XM3’s are in a whole other league. With built-in noise cancelation tech — a tap on the left earbud’s touchpad turns it on — the earbuds instantly drown out almost all background noise so it’s just you and your music.

With noise cancelation, I noticed songs sounded warmer, bass felt deeper, and highs were brighter. There’s more clarity across all frequencies and I could hear the difference with and without it in noisy places like the streets and subway.

"What's that? I can't hear you because of the noise cancelation."

“What’s that? I can’t hear you because of the noise cancelation.”

Image: zlata ivleva / mashable

Now, the noise cancelation isn’t perfect. You can still hear some ambient noise, especially at volumes below 50 percent. But compared to AirPods or Galaxy Buds, where your music simply can’t overpower outside sounds unless you crank the volume up really high, the WF-1000XM3’s noise cancelation is as good as it gets on true wireless earbuds.

It’s not, however, as good as what you get from over-ear headphones with built-in noise cancelation, such as Sony’s own best-in-class WH-1000XM3 or Bose’s QC 35 II’s or new 700 cans. 

Despite the wireless earbuds using a newer version of Sony’s noise-cancelation processor, the QN1e, Sony’s over-ear noise-canceling headphones are better at blocking external noise because they use four microphones (versus two) to ingest more ambient sound and feed it through the chip to cancel it out.

Over-ear noise-canceling headphones also have additional sound isolation from the foam-padded cups that cover your whole ear, whereas earbuds don’t.

Two other big pluses for the WF-1000XM3: 1) There’s an ambient sound mode, which is good for when you do want to hear what’s happening around you, like when you’re biking, and 2) There’s a “Quick Attention Mode” that turns off noise cancelation when you cover the left earbud, which is useful for times when you don’t want to take the buds off.

Loads of battery life

Battery life is between 6-8 hours, and the case adds an extra 18-24 hours.

Battery life is between 6-8 hours, and the case adds an extra 18-24 hours.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA / MASHABLE

After comfort and sound quality, I was impressed with the WF-1000XM3’s long-lasting battery life. It varies based on what sound mode you have them set to. 

With noise cancelation turned on, the earbuds last up to 6 hours on a single charge. Turn noise cancelation off, though, and battery life shoots up to 8 hours of music playback.

Here’s how the WF-1000XM3’s battery life compares to the best true wireless earbuds:

The large charging case also adds an impressive number of extra charges:

  • WF-1000XM3 (with noise cancelation): 18 hours (3 charges)

  • WF-1000XM3 (without noise cancelation): 24 hours (4 charges)

  • AirPods: 19 hours (3.8 charges)

  • Galaxy Buds: 7 hours (1.2 charge)

  • Powerbeats Pro: 15 hours (1.7 charge)

Compared to my second-gen AirPods, which need to be popped back into their charging case by the middle of the day, the WF-1000XM3’s often lasted entire 9-5 workdays (without noise cancelation) before needing a recharge.

As excellent as the battery life is, the charging case is my least favorite thing about the WF-1000XM3. It’s huge — about twice the size of an AirPods case — and doesn’t fit in my pockets without bulging out. 

The Sony earbuds charging case is twice the size of AirPods.

The Sony earbuds charging case is twice the size of AirPods.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA / MASHABLE

The case size isn’t an issue if you stash it in a jacket pocket or purse, and you can make the argument that the Powerbeats Pro’s massive clamshell case is even worse, but that doesn’t change the fact Sony could have made the case smaller.

I’m sympathetic to the fact that the larger case also means more stored charges, but I would much rather have a slightly smaller case with maybe one less charge so that it fits in my jeans.

Everything AirPods aren’t — in a good way

The earbuds pop into the case via magnets.

The earbuds pop into the case via magnets.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA / MASHABLE

Sony may not be the consumer electronics king it was in the ’90s, but one thing it still knows how to make are class-leading headphones.

Like its WH-1000XM3 over-ear noise-cancelation headphones, the WF-1000XM3’s exceeded my expectations. They fit really well, sound amazing thanks to noise cancelation, and last seemingly forever. What more could you want from true wireless earbuds? 

Sure, the charging case is big, you can’t pair the earbuds to multiple devices like you can with AirPods, and they cost $70 more. But if you want one of the best-sounding true wireless earbuds around, you’ll have to gloss over these mostly minor drawbacks.

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