Noise-canceling shootout: Apple AirPods Pro vs. Sony WF-1000XM3

Noise-canceling shootout: AirPods Pro are packed with audio innovation to deliver superior sound and an immersive noise-canceling experience.
AirPods Pro are packed with audio innovation to deliver superior sound and an immersive noise-canceling experience.

It’s an active noise-canceling shootout between two ANC titans: Apple’s AirPods Pro versus Sony’s WF-1000XM3!

Alex Bracetti for Tom’s Guide:

Apple’s first foray into active noise cancellation is also noteworthy. The two-mic noise-cancelling system is a solid performer that blocks about 85% of ambient sound, which is way more than you can ask for from any Apple buds. They’ll help with hushing chatty Uber drivers and garbage trucks coming down pothole-filled streets. A jackhammer or police sirens will serve as distractions. It’s still really good, but Sony has more ANC horsepower underneath the hood to warrant better results…

The AirPods Pro are also quality-sounding buds. Not as great as the WF-1000xM3, but their sound profile is a notable upgrade from the AirPods II. Boomy records like Gang Starr’s “Hit Man” sound energetic and carry lows surprisingly well; that bass line knocks hard, especially at high volume…

Winner: AirPods Pro
The AirPods Pro have the best overall performance in their class. Therefore, they’re considered the better investment for those who want solid audio and noise cancelling, along with all of the iOS perks programmed into the H1 chip. The ergonomic design and pinch controls enhance the user experience for the better. Also, the disparity in ANC performance isn’t that far off, meaning you’ll get some really good noise neutralization out of these cordless buds.

MacDailyNews Take: For users of Apple devices, Apple’s HI chip in AirPods Pro makes this into even more of a no-brainer because everything is just so seamless and fast vs. non-H1 Bluetooth earphones. AirPods Pro offer a truly magical setup experience: Just by opening the charging case near an iOS or iPadOS device and giving it a simple tap, AirPods Pro are immediately paired to all the devices signed into a user’s iCloud account, including iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch, Apple TV and iPod touch. It’s just too easy vs. futzing with other Bluetooth earphones.

14 Comments

    1. Short answer: Nope.

      Complete answer: To an audiophile, active noise cancelling is not for true Hi Fi listening, it’s a crutch for those who insist they must listen to their stuff in noisy environments.

      Wireless airbuds are portable electronics, objectively not achieving the performance of the best true hi-fi products. Hi-fi being a moving target, as you know. Of course that doesn’t stop companies from trying to claim their microscopic portables are “high fidelity” and better each year, but investigate past the marketing and you will quickly see that the best Hi Fi headphones seal over the ear, are much more structurally substantial than in-ear pods, and are not limited by miniscule batteries or wireless protocols — and you don’t throw them away when the battery reaches end of life. You can do much better with wired headphones from Sennheiser, Grado, Shure, B&W, or other Sony products if you truly cared about sound quality.

      Even when a respected audio maker goes wireless to go after the high-tech consumer friendly market fashion du jour, they clam up when asked to directly compare wired versus wireless models. Wireless products are reviewed by computer and fashion mags first and foremost. Seldom are objective measures taken, and almost never are wired and wireless directly compared. To do so would reveal a distinct step in audio fidelity between the classes at any given price point. Audiophiles rich and poor who care about top sound quality choose the wired solution, because when equating products at similar price points, it is almost always superior in quality and critical listening usability. Perhaps you tolerate the delays and latency and syncing and clumsy controls and software issues and Siri chat with wireless stuff. An audiophile would rather have superior sound, no fluff. That doesn’t mean wireless gear is all junk — there are indeed some excellent home hi fi stuff. Wireless professional audio has been a godsend to live performance. But they are an order of magnitude or two more expensive than earpods and they really only “solve” one thing: where to route the wires.

      But we digress. Let’s pretend these urban commute fashion-first disposable earwear products are high fidelity. Did you read the review??? If you absolutely must pay the premium to have a wireless earbud, the Sony is less expensive, superior sound, better noise cancelling, almost twice the battery life, etc. Tom’s Hardware gave the Airpods the “win” by a single point based largely on 3 subjective areas unrelated to performance — Siri, which is practically useless to most people, Comfort, which is dependent on your ears, the elongated shape wasn’t to the reviewer’s personal liking, and Controls, which by the way suck on all wireless headphones. The distinct in-line controls on many/most wired headphones are simple, intuitive, and just work. What a concept.

      “Sony has Apple beat in the audio department with better active noise cancellation and sound; they really do a phenomenal job of filtering out unwanted noises. The WF-1000xM3 also has more meaningful features like an adjustable ambient-listening mode and customizable EQ.” That sounds like relatively better hi fi, if that’s what you care about.

      This subjective review of a class of consumer products aimed primarily at well-heeled gadget buyers does nothing to quantify S/N ratios, THD, frequency range and response, etc. In other words, as a typical subjective consumer electronic review MDN cherry picks to hype all things Apple, it provides more opinions than facts. As you knew when you called on me to respond…

      At some point you’ll have to admit that Apple isn’t anywhere near the top end in most of the products they make. There was a time when Apple offered a wide range of products from low price to very high end. Cook ended that. Cook uses the Apple name and marketing power to convince everyone that their fashionable consumer solutions are good enough technically to stand toe to toe with all competitors. They don’t. Apple (or rather, its Chinese suppliers) makes high volume disposables that you can buy anywhere, at premium prices, that are updated only sporadically. They aren’t technically superior in Hi Fi or in most objective critical/pro performance measures. Cook certainly doesn’t keep prices appropriate for the performance. It’s fine if you feel spending a premium to get the Apple branded disposable product is best for you. But for quite some time I have become thoroughly disenchanted with Cook’s charade.

      Some would say that when you’re on the go, earplugs and a good book may be the best use of your time and money. You will never get a great audio experience on the run in acoustically messy environments. So it’s better to invest your money in a true hi fi system at home or in live performance venues where the experience can be magical instead of highly compromised “legit options” backed by the usual Apple fanboy hype.

  1. WF-1000 XM3? Come on! IPod Pro wins by name alone; Engineers in other companies should not be trusted to name consumer products. This name is for engineers.

    1. “Trinitron” was a winner way back in the ’60s (great tech too). “Walkman” ditto. Marketing Hall of Fame material.

      But Sony’s model number names for nearly all of their current products are bizarrely terrible, and the product names not memorable.

      1. They’d have been better off calling it the WTF MX 1000’s….

        Frickin fools. The Japs have been losing it compared to the Koreans and Chinese.

        I mean, Headman sounds a bit suss, Soundman less so but isn’t iconic. Naming stuff feels like it should be easier but clearly it isn’t.

      2. It’s not just names. Sony have lost their way with product quality too since those days.

        I’ve had loads of Sony gear over the years and some of their recent products have been shockingly bad. In years gone bye, Sony consistently manufactured great products for consumers and professionals.

  2. I agree about what happened to most of their products in audio, video, and computing.

    They kept trying to do but failing to do what Apple has been able to do: create proprietary standards and building a strong and loyal market for them.

    The tide really turned during the VHS/Betamax wars. Near the end, like Apple they started to license their standard, but weren’t bailed out by the return of a genius prodigal like Apple was.

    They kept trying with things like MiniDiscs (MDs), memory sticks, an mp.3 music file competitor, and quite a few more, but none gained real traction.

    They even had an MS-DOS competitor early on.

    More recently, their phones have always been marketing also-rans.

    Leaving them competitive and at least a little associated with prestige mostly in headphones and earbuds.

    And of course in a related market with the marketably-named PlayStation.

    Notably, though, they have been very successful in the very different arena where people used to never think of Sony, and where their Alpha range of larger sensor, exchangeable lens cameras has more than made Canon and Nikon take notice.

    If I was still shooting at more than a hobbyist level I would strongly consider buying one.

    PS: Random thought. Talk about making the mid high end photographic industry stand up and take notice, does anyone think Apple might ever decide to take on the prosumer and lower end Pro photographer market with an Apple. cam??

    1. I thought they might make a camera back when iPhone was young. A little Bluetooth-equipped SLR camera head, that just sends raw images straight to the iOS camera roll. As an SLR, it would be compatible with a host of macro and zoom lenses and filters. But they didn’t do it then, and the case for it is a whole lot weaker now that the iPhone’s built-in camera tech is so incredibly much better than it was 13 years ago. Not to mention the wealth of photo apps.

      So I wouldn’t hold my breath on this one.

      By the way, Apple made cameras before iPhone. Remember the 1994 QuickTake? Or the iSight webcam? Good times.

  3. I’ve got to tell you, more people should be talking about the fact that the ANC for AirPods Pro has gotten worse with recent firmware updates. Those updates get installed automatically, and without notice. They have improved overall quality, but significantly reduced the ANC performance. It used to be that ANC blocked out nearby conversations to a level where, if no audio was playing, you could tell someone was talking, but blocked enough that you could not understand them. Now, if no audio is playing, you can actually carry on a conversation.

    I’m hoping for another firmware update before my 10+ flight next week. My wife bought the AirPods Pro after checking out their ANC in anticipation of the long flight, and she is pretty mad that Apple has reduced the ANC without any warning and hopefully unintentionally.

    There should be more news about this regression. Many of the early reviews were with older firmware versions, and so the reviews gave ANC ratings that are no longer true for existing users or new purchasers. Very frustrating. I hope Apple fixes it soon.

    1. I just got mine and that explains a lot. Thanks! I’m not happy with them so far and actually prefer the original model for various reasons. Currently, disappointed. Hoping, I learn to love them…!

      1. I returned the AirPods Pro that I purchased – no matter which way I inserted them, or which of the three tip sizes I used, they just hurt my ears too much. Hoping AirPods Pro 2 solves this problem

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