Truly wireless in-ear headphones have only been in vogue for the last year or so, but we're starting to see some pretty excellent attempts pop up. B&O's E8s currently reign supreme in my heart, but Sony's new WF-1000X promises the same minute attention to sound quality -- with the addition of integrated noise cancelling. And the WF-1000X delivers on that promise; these are up there with the best of the best.
What Is It?
Sony's $399 WF-1000X is a pair of tiny truly wireless earphones that connect to each other entirely wirelessly, with a translucent antenna section at the front of each earbud promising better and more consistent connectivity than other truly wireless earbuds on the market -- which already have a reputation for imperfect Bluetooth. You can buy replacement earbuds, too, with Sony pegging their cost at around $150 each -- which includes some labor for a Sony service centre to pair the new 'bud with the old one.
The included charging carry case for the WF-1000X feels a bit like a cigarette case, with a pop-open lid that hinges out of the way to reveal the headphones securely locked inside. There's no magnetic docking like with Bang & Olufsen's new in-ears, but rather a clip system that locks each of the left and right WF-1000X buds in place and starts recharging it. The dark gunmetal grey variant is the one of the two to get, in my opinion, but Sony also sells a gold colour of the WF-1000X that looks a little more blingy.
What's It Good At?
For truly wireless headphones, the WF-1000X sound pretty great. That's a significant caveat, because there's still no truly wireless earphone that can hold a candle to a pair of larger over-the-ear headphones or a pair of wired in-ears when it comes to all-out bass or treble clarity. But the WF-1000X delivers punchy bass and clear and relatively detailed sound across its frequency range, with the advantage of a very minutely customisable equaliser in Sony's complementary Headphone app that lets you add a bit more treble or a bit more oomph to the bass. I wasn't disappointed with the WF-1000X's sound, and it's here that the addition of noise cancelling sets them apart -- because you do hear less ambient noise and that means you can keep volume levels lower overall.
The WF-1000X held a Bluetooth connection both between the earphones themselves and between earphones and smartphone better than just about any truly wireless pair of headphones I've tested, apart from Apple's still-peerless AirPods. The WF-1000X dropped out only a couple of times for a second at a time during my walk through the wirelessly-crowded city, and I only experienced a single momentary disconnect between right and left earbuds. If listening through a single ear sounds like something you'll be doing every now and then, the left earbud is the primary one with Sony's WF-1000X -- and I actually prefer that to the right for some entirely personal and subjective reason.
Sony's charging case for the WF-1000X is one of the longest I've come across for a pair of truly wireless headphones, but it's quite thin and slim -- and that makes it more easily pocketable and portable than, say, B&O or Jaybird's cases for their respective truly wireless 'buds. The WF-1000X case fits in my front jeans pocket alongside my wallet quite nicely, and it just works in the same way that the AirPods' case fits in that little coin pocket most jeans have. It doesn't use USB-C (oh, woe is me) but rather microUSB. You'll get another two full charges -- so six extra hours -- from the case, and it itself takes two hours to charge. It's a good balancing act between size, battery life and charging speed.
Sony also deserves praise for how well thought out its little accessory kit for the WF-1000X is. You get a spare pair of larger ear-wings, and three pairs each of silicon and foam ear-tips that should give you the best chance possible of fitting these tiny earbuds comfortably in your ear. Their design isn't as streamlined as some other in-ears I've tried, but these included extras go a long way towards making the WF-1000X versatile enough for a wide range of ears and listeners.
What's It Not Good At?
Battery life when you're running noise cancelling and listening to music on the WF-1000X is not incredible. You'll get three hours of music listening maximum whether you have noise cancellation on or off, although that number jumps to eight hours if you're just using the noise cancelling and not listening to anything. It takes 90 minutes to recharge the WF-1000X's pair of tiny batteries for another three hours of listening, too -- there's no fast charging option unfortunately beyond 15 minutes for 75 minutes of listening, so you'll have to wait for that 90 minutes to be up before you can listen again for the WF-1000X's rated lifespan. These are commuter earphones first and foremost, rather than something you can wear an entire day.
The fit and comfort is not bad, but definitely not up to the grade of the Beoplay E8's smoothly fluted design. Neither of those little replaceable silicon ear-wings don't do a great deal to hold the WF-1000X in my ears, and it's mainly choosing the right size of silicon (or Comply foam) ear-tips that will keep the WF-1000X in your ears. It certainly helps that they're light, though, at about seven grams each, and the translucent antenna section at the front of each earphone sits against the wearer's tragus o hold it slightly more securely.
It's both a minor complaint and a side effect of having such tiny batteries in each earphone, but the WF-1000X doesn't have the same excellent sound optimisation features that the world-beating WH-1000XM2 over-ear headphones do. You can't move the location of the sound in a virtual field around your head, you don't get automatic sound adjustment based on the air pressure -- good for frequent flyers -- and you don't get automatic noise cancellation adjustment when you're out walking or sitting on a train or at your office desk. These headphones are far more straightforward -- you have noise cancelling, ambient noise boosting, and that's it.
Should You Buy It?
At the moment, Sony's $399 WF-1000X is the only in-ear, truly wireless pair of headphones that has any kind of noise cancelling built in -- and while it's not incredibly powerful, it does reduce ambient noise by a moderate amount. If you're an everyday commuter, that should appeal to you -- because a lower ambient noise floor means you can keep your headphones quieter and better protect your hearing. Similarly, the ambient noise boost using those same microphones is good for night-time runners that want to keep an ear on their environments while out jogging on empty streets.
Outside of that middling but sometimes convenient noise cancelling, the WF-1000X actually sound pretty damn good as well -- like a good pair of headphones, and especially one with the $399.95 price tag these Sony in-ears carry with them, should. For battery-powered wireless earphones the WF-1000X sound great, roughly on par with the B&O Beoplay E8 that currently reign supreme. You're paying a lot for the privilege of completely wireless earphones that sound impressive, but these Sony specials deliver on their promise.