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Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM3: which are better?

What Hi-Fi? 02/03/2021 What Hi-Fi?
a white bowl on a table: Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM3: which are better? © Provided by What Hi-Fi? Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM3: which are better?

If you fancy a pair of true wireless earbuds, your options probably include the Apple AirPods Pro – the premium AirPods with active noise-cancelling tech. They make a lot of sense if you own a recent iPhone, such as the iPhone 12, 12 Pro Max or 12 Mini, or a slightly older model like the iPhone 11, 11 Pro, or 11 Pro Max.

But they're not the only game in town. And when it comes to wireless earbuds, the competition has never been fiercer. We've tested a plethora of models over the years, and while all have their own unique strengths and weaknesses, we've found the Sony WF-1000XM3 particularly impressive.

Sony's range-topping buds offer advanced noise-cancelling tech and deliver superb sound quality. So the big question is, should you go for the Apple or Sony earbuds? In a battle of the AirPods Pro or WF-1000XM3, which are best in terms of sound, fit and features? 

On this page, we'll delve into the detail to help you pick the right model for your needs and budget. Think both are too expensive? You'll find plenty of wireless models in our round-up of best cheap headphones. And you can always bag a bargain with our guide to the best wireless earbuds deals around.

But now on with the head to head!

Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM3: price

The Apple AirPods Pro launched in October 2019 for £249/$249/AU$399, while the Sonys arrived on the scene in July of the same year and cost £220/$230/AU$349.

You'll see both models fluctuate in price throughout the year, especially around the time of Amazon Prime Day and Black Friday, with the Sonys tending to receive the bigger discounts. You'll find the current best prices for both pairs of headphones below.

*Winner: Sony WF-1000XM3*

Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM3: noise-cancelling

The Sony WF-1000XM3s were one of the first pairs of true wireless buds to boast active noise-cancelling tech. At the heart of each earpiece lies a Sony QN1e HD noise-cancelling processor – it's virtually identical to the chip found in the Award-winning Sony WH-1000XM3 over-ear headphones and it's extremely effective. 

While these buds can’t match the performance of a proper pair of over-ear noise-cancelling headphones, it’s difficult not to be impressed. 

The newer Apple AirPods Pro also feature cutting-edge active noise-cancelling tech. Apple claims it's continuously adjusted 200 times per second to ensure maximum efficiency. In our test, noises such as a train are almost completely eradicated, while less predictable sounds such as office chatter are reduced to a whisper. 

Both buds have a 'transparency' mode, which allows sound in from the outside world – handy when jogging or cycling. And both achieve a fine balance between your music and the environment. 

Overall, Apple's noise-cancelling tech does its job well, but we did think it affects the timing and rhythmic ability of the buds too much. So this round goes to Sony.

 *Winner: Sony WF-1000XM3*

Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM3: battery life

This area is key for any wireless earbuds. The added convenience isn't much use if the buds don't last a decent length of time. 

The AirPods Pro are good for 4.5 hours of battery life, plus another 19 hours from the included wireless charging case. Switch off noise-cancelling and the buds stretch to five hours playback per charge. 

Sony's WF-1000XM3 are the clear winners when it comes to battery life. You get six hours of playback as standard, while the case has enough power for an extra three charges, giving a total of 24 hours when using Bluetooth and noise-cancelling together. Turn off the noise-cancelling and the battery life jumps to eight hours, with the case bumping it up to an impressive total of 32 hours.

Caught short? Both buds offer fast-charging. Ten minutes of charging breathes 90 minutes of life into the Sonys, but the AirPod Pros are even better in a hurry. Just five minutes of charging returns an hour of playback. Still, it's not quite enough to swing the round for Apple.

 *Winner: Sony WF-1000XM3*

Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM3: sound quality

Apple has certainly stepped up its audio game with the launch of the AirPods Pro. The midrange is where these buds shine, with plenty of detail and no hint of brightness. Rich and full, they're the best-sounding AirPods earbuds to date... but they're no match for the WF-1000MX3.

Despite being older than the AirPods, the Sony WF-1000XM3 buds put together all the ingredients required to create a wonderfully musical sound. 

Instruments sound natural, believable and expressive. The headphones display a fantastic rhythmic quality and produce an impressive amount of quality bass. Honestly, the WF-1000XM3 are the best-sounding wireless earbuds at this kind of money.

*Winner: Sony WF-1000XM3*

Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM3: comfort and fit

As with any headphones, comfort is king – the last thing you want is a painfully pressurised and uncomfortable fit.

The Pros are the first AirPods to offer a customisable fit with silicone tips in three sizes. Apple will even help you find the best fit thanks to the built-in 'Ear Tip Fit Test' which you can run once the headphones are in place.

Sony provides seven different sizes of earbud; four ‘hybrid silicone’ buds and three ‘triple-comfort’ buds, which feel slightly thicker than the standard ones. It’s a superb selection, and we find them a comfortable, balanced fit – snug without being too intrusive.

Finally, while neither of these buds are specifically aimed at sporty types, the AirPods Pro have an IPX4 rating which means they're sweat- and water-resistant. The Sonys offer no such rating.

*Winner: Draw*

Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM3: controls

The AirPods Pro are primarily designed to be voice-controlled via Siri (Apple's personal voice assistant). If you aren't keen on talking to yourself, Apple has included force sensors on both stems. You squeeze to switch noise-cancelling modes, skip tracks, pause music and answer calls. We found it a bit fiddly when jogging or cycling, though.

Neither earphones implement touch controls flawlessly, but Sony has done a decent job. Each bud has a control pad: the left one is for turning noise-cancelling on or off and engaging the transparency mode; the other one is for playback controls. Or, tap and hold to start a conversation with your virtual assistant of choice – Siri and Google Assistant are supported. 

In both cases, removing the buds automatically pauses what you’re playing. One thing worth noting: the Sonys can control the volume from your smartphone, while the AirPods Pros cannot. They require you to give a voice command to Siri or dig your phone out of your pocket.

*Winner: Sony WF-1000XM3*

Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM3: connectivity

Thanks to Apple's powerful H1 chip and Bluetooth 5.0, the AirPods Pro offer flawless wireless performance. We haven't experienced dropouts with the AirPods and find Apple's automatic pairing (insert an earphone and it instantly connects to your phone) to be predictably quick and responsive. 

The same goes for the Sonys, which boast a new Bluetooth chip that delivers a robust connection and improves communication between both the headphones and your music source. 

Unlike the Pros, the Sonys support NFC connectivity, which means they'll pair faster with an Android device than the non-NFC AirPods. On the flip-side, the AirPods Pro pair quicker with more recent models of iPhone.

*Winner: Draw*

Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM3: verdict

It's a close call. One the one hand, the Sonys outclass the AirPods for sound quality and battery life – plus they're cheaper. But the AirPods are slightly sleeker looking and offer very impressive noise-cancelling which gives the Sonys a real run for their money. If you own an iPhone or iPad, they could quite easily get your vote.

However, the Sonys offer much broader appeal and, in our eyes, better sound quality. They're still the best wireless earbuds we've heard at this price point. If you're still torn, check out our full reviews of the Apple AirPods Pro and Sony WF-1000MX3 to find out more.


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