Unbelievably Sony took almost a year to bring its flagship in-ear TWS headphones to India so it seems rather pointless to opine on them after 2983736 other reviewers have already put their thoughts out there. But nevertheless, this is my first exposure to these much talked about legends and having used the WH-1000XM3 extensively, I was also keen on what Sony’s accomplished engineers could do shrinking it to pocketable size.
Speaking of which, the WF-1000XM3 features a miniaturised version of the QN1 chip used in the WH-1000XM3, dubbed the QN1e in this case and it also works as a 24-bit DAC.
Sony’s bulkier case might suggest a massive battery life for the charging case but in reality, it’s par for the course, at 18hrs or three charges besides the 6hrs stored on the earbuds themselves. It’s not as pocketable as the AirPods Pro for example, but as awkward as the Sennheiser Momentum TW2’s and that might only be a problem if your wardrobe consists of leather pants. Build quality is typical Sony, with great quality plastics and a satisfying click to the copper-coloured lid. LEDs on the case and both L/R earbuds provide visual cues to being powered on, but actual charge level can only be heard via the audio cue when you put them on or through the Headphones Connect app. The fit, even with the Tri-hold structure isn’t easy to get right in the first go.
Since they’re moulded more aggressively than the competition, it’s not as easily identifiable in the dark either, so you will have to turn on the lights to differentiate between the left and right earbuds. It doesn’t help that they manage to fit upside down too or in the wrong ear as well. Pro tip...ensure you master the “feel” before trying them on in pitch darkness! To make the seal easier once you do have them on, Sony generously packs in six pairs of ear tips in the silicon and foam variety, depending on your preference. Overall though, the AirPods Pro are just easier to wear and the Sennheiser Momentum TW2 are a better fit, for my ears at least.
It’s an app thing
Like the WH series, the WF-1000XM3 too relies heavily on the partnering app since it is one of the most full-featured apps out there. Barring the built-in ambient sounds, the Headphones Connect app gives you control over everything - EQ, ClearBass, Adaptive Sound Control, Ambient Sound pass-through level, functions for the touch sensors on each of the earbuds and of course, incoming sound format, charge levels for both buds and case in clear, percentage terms. The app also helps with the initial set-up where it scans your L/R ears and optimises how 360 Reality Audio should sound specific to your head shape. HRTF (Head Related Transfer Function) is the basis for all spatial audio formats delivered via headphones so it’s a critical step if you want to unlock this hidden level of performance from the WF-1000XM3.
Currently, in India, Nugs.net is the only music streaming service that delivers this experience but having tried its premium ‘Hi-Fi’ tier service, the experience is less than stellar in terms of music selection or even delivery. A handful of live concerts on the fringes of obscurity and some Jazz and Pop classics from the 60’s and 70’s is all you get. Sure, Billy Joel’s Piano Man does sound more open with a much wider soundstage but the fidelity itself isn’t any better than its stereo recording and in fact, on Dead and Company’s Drums solo piece, it actually sounded worse as far as the timbre of the drums is concerned, even though the “live” feel of the recording was reproduced more convincingly than a conventional stereo audio format. The lack of body in the sound takes away from the immersiveness even though the actual projection is much wider than a regular stereo image. This isn't to say the technology or format isn't great, but the current limitations are more to do with delivery, content choice and perhaps the mastering process for streaming.
Straight up stereo
ANC is its strongest point and thankfully, it rightfully wears the crown with a performance that is better than both Apple and Sennheiser’s offerings. Between ambient sound on, off and ANC on, the strongest bass was in fact delivered in ANC on mode. It’s also one of the few ANC headphones where the tonality or timbre of instruments doesn’t change dramatically even though the level of ANC is rather aggressive. Sitting right in front of a pedestal fan and these eliminate most of the whirring, but they can’t seal your ears off the wind chuffing. But this is an extreme situation and for most commutes, these beat everything else on the market right now. Sony had it right on the WH-1000XM3 and here too, the naturalness comes to fore. The 6mm drivers have been massaged to churn out as much detail as possible along with Sony’s on-board processing and as the final fine-tuning option, the EQ allows for a lot of personalisation to get the kind of sound you like. On Slow Drive by Moon Panda, the strong bass line is perfectly judged against the loungey vocals without overpowering each other or turning into an incoherent mess. There is sparkle at the top end but not to the point where it starts coming across as sibilant or hurtful. Stereo separation along with imaging is strong, especially on We’re All Free by Yumi Matsutouya with its atmospheric production and layered mix, the WF-1000XM3 lets every track and instrument have its own moment in a well-judged presentation that makes for extended listening sessions. Chocolate Samurai by Fantastic Negrito is delivered with power and gusto that will have your feet tapping and your thumb heading for the volume-up button. Their balanced sonic signature goes a long way in making them easy to recommend for all kinds of music.
They don’t support AptX or LDAC but instead insist on Sony’s own DSEE HX algorithm that aims to infuse new life into compressed recordings, but the jury’s still out on its effectiveness. Eventually, when it comes to the last iota of refinement and smoothness, the Sennheiser Momentum TW2 still edge these Sony’s, but they don’t have a skill set as wide as the Sony, so you have to decide what you value more - features and unbeatable ANC or audiophile-grade sound quality. Like is the norm, the Sony also offers support for Alexa, Google or Siri but then go the extra mile by offering dual-mic noise-cancellation using both feed-forward and feedback to increase the efficacy of its ANC and even with voice calls, this works great!
The Adaptive Sound control is great if you want to just get through your day without taking manual control of ANC but I doubt if anyone would agree with Sony’s own predictions all the time. It’s still great tech and works well if you’re in and out of office spaces a lot.
With so many expectations, the WF-1000XM3’s deliver on most counts. For travel, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more effective solution and with their ability to preserve the sonic integrity of the music without muddling it with noise-cancelling compression is truly astounding. They’re also cheaper than both its primary competitors but more than similarly featured Jabra and RHAs, which it trumps easily.
For sheer portability, the AirPods Pro are still hard to beat and with the promise of spatial audio support by next month, they might be back in the ring for more fight. In outright detail and resolution, the Sennheiser Momentum TW2 outshine the Sony WF-1000XM3 but where the Sony makes up ground in being the best of everything at a price that doesn’t pinch as hard - industry’s best ANC in this size, sound quality that is pretty close to the best, decent battery life and every feature a traveller would want.