While the audiophiles out there may scoff at the mere existence of a small, highly mobile, wireless ear bud that requires a special case just to charge it, there is no denying that truly wireless ear buds are becoming more and more popular with each passing month. No, Apple wasn’t the first to do it, not even the first to do it well, but man oh man did they do it well. And, we’ve seen the typical post-Apple-success market spike with truly wireless earbuds over the last several months, with more and more players coming into the space.
There is a natural tendency to harshly judge the first players to a space, namely Apple, which (regardless of how you truly feel about them) have been able to really drive the accessories market forward as a result of their products. Truly wireless ear buds are no different, as Apple (with their AirPods) have been wildly successful since release in a market that had previously seen novelty exposure at best. More frequently than on store shelves, another Kickstarter campaign for another truly wireless bud that was another of the first of its kind would find its way to your Facebook timeline—but alas, those products were months (or years) away if they ever hit market at all. The AirPods spent their first several weeks after release with limited or no availability, and since then audio manufacturers have been working on perfecting their own versions.
Enter Sony’s WF-1000X ear buds. My very first pair of over-ear headphones were Sony-branded, and I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for their products. More recently, I was disappointed when purchasing one of their small Bluetooth speakers, but nonetheless was excited about the WF-1000X’s and the Sense Engine technology that would allow me to adjust the noise canceling based upon my environment (as a side note—Bose’s ANC technology was a bit too much for me and made me motion-sick, so adjustable noise cancellation is a big deal).
Upon opening the Sony buds, the first thing I noticed was a lack of a premium packaging experience. But, at a price of $200–I expect a box that you’re more likely to keep than one you won’t mind throwing away. Nonetheless, the buds themselves are packed separate from the small charging case, and come with a variety of tips and a couple different sizes of fins to help with the ideal fit.
And speaking of fit—let’s talk about how Bose’s ear buds are the best (in my opinion) in terms of fit across the entire market of earbuds right now. I have tried dozens of manufacturers and products, and no one has really been able to consistently deliver what Bose does in terms of ear bud fit—both from a security and noise isolation perspective. And, at first glance, Sony’s buds weren’t going to change my opinion; they came with two sets of add-on fins that didn’t seem to be large enough for folks with bigger ears. The buds themselves are designed to fit snugly into the ear canal, but I always tend to have problems with wearing buds of that style for long periods without having to readjust them every couple of minutes. But, miraculously, Sony has put out the first (ever) fin that really holds this style bud in my ear. Serious kudos to Sony for developing such a simple tool for the job (it’s worth noting here that the fin is entirely optional, and if you have no issue at all with ear-canal style buds, I would expect these to be no different).
Something else that’s important here, perhaps even more important than the sound quality, is the Bluetooth performance, as there are no “wired” options for these buds. This, for me, was the biggest area of disappointment with Sony’s buds, as the onboard software doesn’t seem to be advanced enough to prevent the Bluetooth audio/video lag that we all remember from 3 or 4 years ago. As far as music-only performance is concerned, Bluetooth performed well without any skips, but as soon as I pulled up a YouTube or Netflix video, the lag was too much to bear and I had to switch to another set of headphones…and that very well could be a deal breaker for many buyers.
Next, on to Sony’s Sense Engine technology, which is supposed to be a great new way to customize your noise cancelling experience. Most noise-canceling headphones being released right now have some sort of customization to ANC, and the implementation with the WF-1000X’s is acceptable, but certainly not revolutionary, nor is it anything that sets them apart from the competition. Again, when it comes to ANC, Bose is the leader and that hasn’t changed. Honestly, with the fit being as good as it is, the noise isolation alone is adequate for some basic noise canceling, and honestly the ambient noise “bleeding” settings just pump more hissing into your ears than anything else.
Another key performance indicator for a good set of truly wireless ear buds is the battery life. Keeping in mind that sound settings (like a more bassy experience, or higher volumes) will impact battery life significantly, I was less than pleased with the battery life of the WF-1000X’s. Battery technology is hopefully on the brink of a major paradigm shift, but until that shift happens small earbuds will never house batteries large enough to give them great battery life. It is for that reason that manufacturers are including charging cases, which both help prevent loss as well as add some extra battery life. The buds themselves are advertised to push 3 hours of playback on a charge, and through my testing this is a pretty accurate number. The case, when fully topped off, should charge the buds completely twice—taking your listening time to around 8-9 hours total with some time charging between listening sessions.
And then there’s sound. Holy crap, the sound. I consider myself a wannabe audiophile—the kind of person that pays really close attention to the variations in headphones and ear buds, but doesn’t own a DAC and tends not to play with mixers. That said, the sound profile on these Sony WF-1000X buds is probably what I would consider the ideal profile for me: exaggerated bass (although not too much) with clear lows and less preference on quality in the highs. I found the low to be impressive considering the size of the drivers, the mids to be ideal for most users, and the highs to be less important than the other two but still clean enough so as not to be a distraction when listening. And, if you don’t like the particular profile that these have out of the box, you can download Sony’s Headphones app which allows for some preset mixer configurations that are remembered on your buds even if you change between devices (phone, tablet or laptop). The app hasn’t yet been ported for the iPad’s screen size or orientation, but I can get past that.
Another quick note; I did test a couple of calls with these in my ears and found that the other parties could hear me clearly without much background noise, even though I was outdoors on a windy day. In my opinion this is not a reason to buy these, necessarily, but definitely a value-add that you can take a call while you’re on the move without having to worry about whether or not the caller can hear you.
So the verdict is simple…if you’re doing shorter listening sessions that don’t require video synchronization, and you don’t need much by way of noise cancellation, but you still like a slightly heavier sound profile and want to go fully wireless—these should be right at the top of your list. Hands down, the sound quality on these obliterate Apple’s AirPods, for what that’s worth.
If, however, you’re looking for ear buds that you can use to listen to music AND watch movies, without additional software you may be frustrated in not being able to synchronize audio and video. In theory, this can be patched with firmware updates, but nonetheless something to be aware of.
All in all, for the price, these are a good addition to my collection, albeit a little disappointing that I can’t consistently use them for anything other than music and phone calls (yet).