The buds are larger than many competitors, looking decidedly earpiece-like, but the wide body means they sit very securely in your ear without feeling weighty (they’re 8.5g each).
The big touch pad on each bud is much easier to hit than on some other models, giving you access to music and call controls (though weirdly not volume), smart assistant summoning for Google Assistant or Siri and of course active noise cancellation.
This is the best ANC I’ve experienced outside of a full-sized set of over-ear headphones, completely removing the sound of a noisy bus even when my music was below 50 per cent volume. You can use Sony’s app to choose between 20 levels of cancelling if total silence is not for you, or with a tap of your ear you can switch to ambient sound mode to let outside noise in.
As with the larger headphones you can also hold your finger to your ear to temporarily let sound in, which is great for hearing announcements or if you need to talk to someone, and there’s a special “wind noise reduction” setting that lessens the noise cancelling but is a necessity to keep gusty noise out of your ears on billowy days.
You can set the buds to change modes automatically — i.e. noise cancelling when you’re on a train, ambient sound when you’re walking on the street — and it works well, but I wish the wind noise reduction could kick in automatically too.
Using the correct tips for your ears is essential to getting a good seal and allowing noise cancelling, so I was pleased to see the WF-1000XM3 come with four sets of regular rubbery tips and three sets of squishy foamy tips. If you want Comply you’ll have to buy them separately.
Of course using these buds isn’t exactly like using the full headphones, especially when it comes to music. You won’t be getting a high-bandwidth LDAC Bluetooth connection, or a big bass response, so the sound is certainly less immersive.
That said Sony has done all it can to make sure the audio is still excellent among true wireless buds, with its EQ presets and DSEE HX upscaling system meaning the WF-1000XM3’s tiny 6mm drivers pumped out much better sound than my AirPods. Plus each bud receives its own Bluetooth data, which helps with the latency issues some buds experience when watching videos. It also means you can use either bud on its own if you like.
True wireless earbuds also come with their own advantages over big headphones of course, including the ability to stash them away without having to carry a backpack, or being able to slip them in and out without messing up your hair (the buds automatically pause and start the music when you do this).
The buds themselves have a six hour battery life with noise cancelling on (eight with it off), and the case charges them three times for a total of 24 hours of ANC listening per charge. If the buds are totally dead you can stick them in the case for 10 minutes and get 90 minutes of battery life, which is something of a commute-saver. The case itself takes a bit more than three hours to fully charge over USB-C.
Overall, if you’re looking for noise cancelling and don’t want big headband-style cans, these are the best earbuds on the market right now. Audio and call quality is also excellent among true wireless sets, if not up there with what a full set of headphones can do, and the high quality of the build and case makes these a fine pocketable alternative to Sony’s popular over-ears.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.