The noise-cancelling WF-1000X feel every bit like a first-generation product, but they do sound good
I’m rather envious of people who have the right ears for Apple’s AirPods. Right now, they remain the best truly wireless earbuds you can buy. But they fit me a little too loosely, which leaves two options: I can try workaround hacks to make them stay in better, or I can buy ear wings that I’d have to constantly take off and reattach because they don’t fit in the charging case. Rather than settling on one of those fixes, I’ve instead been trying the competition in hopes of finding something else satisfactory. Do I expect anything to match the instant pairing with an iPhone that I’d get from AirPods? No. But as long as there’s a contender that sounds good, has a reliable connection, similar battery life, and feels comfortable and secure in my ears, that’s enough to sell me on it.
So when Sony announced its own pair of truly wireless earbuds with noise cancellation (something the AirPods and other truly wireless buds don’t offer), I had reason to get excited. It seemed like a better value proposition that a built-in translation feature I’d rarely use. The $199 price was also appealing. That’s more expensive than AirPods but still lower than alternatives from Bose and Bragi.
But I wish I hadn’t gotten my hopes up. Despite checking off the comfortable fit and good sound boxes, these Sonys don’t have the rock-solid connection I’d like and have a shorter battery life than what’s already out there. And the headlining feature, active noise cancellation, didn’t perform to my expectations.
Sony has done a decent job making these earbuds look relatively normal and discreet when you’re wearing them. They don’t stick too far out of your ears when they’re in, and they’re very comfortable. I felt none of the ear fatigue and light soreness I’ve experienced with the Bose SoundSport Free earbuds I recently bought. They come in either black or gold, and both have a translucent section of casing that’s meant to help maintain a good connection. Sony includes 7 different earbud tips to choose between in the box: four are silicone sets (SS, S, M, L), and the other three are foam-like (S, M, L). Oddly, despite the generous selection, none of them created a perfectly snug fit for me. There was definitely a seal — noise isolation was excellent — and they were never in danger of coming loose or falling out. But you might find yourself giving them a slight push back in every so often. And the wing that’s supposed to lock into your ear for added security was too small for me. There are two sizes of those, but both were effectively useless. As always, your own fit and comfort may differ. On the bottom of each bud is a single button; the left one powers the earbuds on or off and toggles between the various noise-cancelling modes (on, ambient noise, off).
I have two critiques on the design. First, I feel like Sony went a little silly with the lights on these. When in pairing mode, the left earbud blinks between red and blue like a police siren or some kind of laser tag accessory. And when connected to your device, the left earbud blinks blue every few seconds. What’s the point of that if they’re in my ears? Who is it helping? I never found any way of turning it off. It’s also disappointing to me that these earbuds aren’t water or sweat resistant. I wore them out in the rain one night and they survived just fine, but the lack of any proper certification might immediately disqualify the Sonys for many people who want a single set of earbuds to cover their fitness routine. Most other workout headphones are rated IPX4. That doesn’t seem like too much of an ask.
The metal charging case looks like an elongated pill when looking at it from the top. Since it’s fairly slim, it’s still what I’d consider pocketable, but not to the same degree as Apple’s dental floss AirPods case. Annoyingly, there’s no way of checking the charge level from the outside of the case. I really like that Bose has 5 lights that indicate battery life with the push of a button, but Sony doesn’t offer that same convenience.
If you flip open the top, the earbuds light up red while charging and turn off when fully juiced. Same for the single, circular LED next to the Micro USB port on the back of the case: red when everything’s charging, and off when full. Seating the earbuds in the case requires some attention since you need to make sure they’re fully snapped into place and you hear a click to confirm as much. It’s possible to drop them in without making the connection required to charge, which would be very annoying if you didn’t notice.
When they’re in your ears, the WF-1000X deliver better sound than I expected from their tiny 6mm drivers. It’s crisp with a nice, balanced soundstage that does a good job spreading the intricacies of your music across the left and right channels. Like my colleague Sean O’Kane, I think Bose leads everyone in sound quality, but Sony has done a perfectly fine job for everyday listening. If you’re a bass-head, you might be underwhelmed with the low end out of the box. But Sony’s mobile app lets you enable a “bass boost” mode that gives these as good of a deep growl and thumping bass as any other truly wireless buds on the market.
But don’t buy them for the active noise cancellation. Sony is neck and neck with Bose at active noise cancellation; our resident headphone guru Vlad actually prefers Sony’s over ear WH-1000XM2 headphones to the popular Bose QuietComfort 35s. But something got lost in the transition to these earbuds. The WF-1000X earbuds just aren’t able to erase your noisy surroundings — bustling city streets, subway cars, or airplane cabins — to nearly the same, impressive extent as Sony’s full-size headphones. The underlying active noise cancellation technology might be similar, but it’s just not as good in this form factor.
The best way to think of it is as an extra layer of silence on top of the usual muted background you’d experience from earbuds that make a good seal in your ear. It’s there and might remove some of the hum from your commute, but won’t give you the private, quiet bubble you might be expecting. It’s just a step above regular noise isolation. If you’re a frequent flyer, you’re much better off with the headphones. With Sony’s app, you can choose to have the earbuds filter in voices around you if you want to hear people at the office or on your running route. But these lack a feature from the larger headphones that I love; the WH1000XM2 can sample your environment and adjust and optimize the noise cancelling effect for wherever you might be. The wireless buds can’t do that.
Battery life is not a strength of these earbuds either and is one area where Sony is clearly trailing the competition. The buds can last 3 hours on a charge, and I generally found that to be accurate. A couple times it felt like they ran out of juice sooner. The built-in voice that announces remaining charge isn’t very specific and only tells you whether the battery level is high, medium, or low. Percentages would be nice. Either way, 3 hours is a couple hours short of the pack; Apple, Bose, Samsung, and Bragi all deliver better longevity. Sony’s case has enough capacity to cover “about” two extra charges for a total of 9 hours of listening (with breaks in between for charging). But again, that’s a lower number than what others are already hitting.
In daily use, these numbers mean you might find yourself recharging the WF-1000X in the middle of the day, whereas competing products should last most people through a few hours of listening to Spotify at work. It takes around an hour and a half for the earbuds to fully top off while in the case, and 3 hours to charge the case. Sony says you can get about 70 minutes worth of music playback after charging the case for 15 minutes.
Connection reliability has varied depending on the device. In a mobile scenario, which is where I imagine these will get the most use, the Sony earbuds have been mostly fine. Paired to my iPhone X, they generally maintain a strong connection and only hiccup (briefly) if I turn my head to the furthest extreme. You can easily cause an interruption on purpose by cupping your hand over either ear, but in general the “body blocking” that plagued early wireless buds isn’t an problem. Still, there are times where I’ll run into issues on random New York City blocks where the right earbud periodically drops out for a second or two and comes back in. In the worst cases, that would happen repeatedly. Even during regular use, there can be weird bugs. Sometimes the right earbud just fails to power on alongside the left one when you pull them out of the case, so you’ve got to press the button on bottom to get everything working.
My laptop was a different story, and with me seated at my desk, the earbuds constantly struggled to the point where I just gave up trying. Cutouts were much more frequent, and sound would often ping-pong back and forth between the left and right buds. It wasn’t pleasant. Sony’s companion app has a setting that lets you toggle the priority between either sound quality or connection stability, but that didn’t seem to help at all.
Sony’s earbuds also experience significant audio delay/lag when you’re watching videos. That’s because of the way they connect to one another: the left earbud is the “master” and receives the audio, and then it passes it over to the right earbud. Keeping both in sync requires some coordination, which results in latency. This is never really noticeable when you’re playing music, but it’s plainly obvious when trying to watch Netflix or YouTube, where voices are at least a second behind mouths moving. So just like the Bose SoundSport Free, the Sonys aren’t a great pick if you watch a lot of video on the go — even though they seem to work without lag at random moments or if you’re just using the left earbud with the other in the charging case. But who wants to listen to videos like that? (Phone call audio is routed through the left earbud only to prevent any awkward delay. Same goes for responses from Siri or Google Assistant.)
My takeaway after a few weeks of using Sony’s first truly wireless earbuds is that the company didn’t quite fit all the pieces together to make this a great product. It turns out these earbuds are not my ideal option B for AirPods, nor does the relatively weak noise cancellation do enough to be a selling point. For $199, you’re probably better off with Samsung’s Gear Icon (2018), which offer significantly longer listening time. It’s disappointing to add Sony to the list of companies that didn’t nail truly wireless earbuds on the very first try like Apple managed to. If you’re interested in ditching all wires and AirPods happen to fit you well, there’s still no better option. For me and others who aren’t so lucky, the search rolls on.
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