The Apple AirPods Pro is Apple’s response to the rise in noise canceling true wireless earbuds. The California-based company redesigned its famed earbuds to provide a more stable fit while retaining beloved features like hands-free Siri access and streamlined use among iOS devices. While it’s a great pick for iPhone users, we’re looking at how the AirPods Pro compares to Sony’s best true wireless earphones: the Sony WF-1000XM3 which have top-end noise canceling, a secure fit, and effective touch controls. Let’s find out which is better: the Apple AirPods Pro or the Sony WF-1000XM3.
Editor’s note: this Apple AirPods Pro vs. Sony WF-1000XM3 article was updated on June 25, 2020, to address Apple Spatial Audio and answer questions in the FAQ about Sony 360 Reality Audio, and how to update the Sony WF-1000XM3 firmware.
Fit and hardware
Let’s start by judging each book by its cover; the AirPods Pro sport a signature Apple aesthetic, including clean lines, no buttons, and an all-white paint job. The Sony earbuds, on the other hand, take a more elegant approach with an all-black exterior and copper accents. Each unit is made of plastic from the earbuds to the cases, so material quality is about the same. However, the Apple AirPods Pro has an IPX4 rating and can officially withstand your sweat-filled workouts. Unfortunately, if the Sony WF-1000XM3 experiences water damage, you’re out of luck and unable to file for a replacement under the product warranty.
If you intend to workout with your noise canceling earbuds, get the AirPods Pro instead of the Sony WF-1000XM3.
Apple’s redesign of the AirPods means they now have dedicated nozzles that actually seal to the ear, the sole reason noise canceling functionality works with the AirPods Pro. The ear tips aren’t quite as angled as those found on the Sony earbuds, but Apple went above and beyond in engineering the attachment mechanism for its silicone sleeves. Rather than sliding each ear tip on top of a plastic nozzle, as you do with virtually all other earbuds, each AirPods Pro ‘bud has a divot encircling the nozzle. Here, you snap the silicone collar of each ear tip into the divot, which prevents it from accidentally sliding off.
While this is a nifty design, we appreciate Sony’s comprehensive array of provided ear tips which vary in size, density, and material. Apple takes a different approach by providing just the standard three ear tip sizes, which is fine for most, but some outliers may have trouble finding a comfortable and proper fit.
Both sets of earbuds support touch-sensitive controls, but operation is markedly different. The Apple AirPods Pro take a unique approach with their force-sensitive stems to register short and long squeezes. These can be remapped by opening your iPhone’s Bluetooth menu, selecting the “i” icon next to the Apple AirPods Pro, and following the subsequent prompts to customize functionality. Sony’s earbuds sport circular, glossy touch panels that require a myriad of tap combinations to control playback or toggle listening modes. These settings can also be remapped via the Sony | Headphones Connect app.
Both noise canceling units support automatic ear detection, facilitated by proximity sensors. Removing one earbud for either set automatically pauses playback, while reinserting it resumes playback. The key difference is how the AirPods Pro limit this to iOS devices, while the Sony WF-1000XM3 automatic ear detection works across platforms.
The AirPods Pro case supports wireless charging
If you’re a fan of wireless charging and already own a few Qi wireless charging mats, then you may be enticed by the wireless charging case included with the Apple AirPods Pro. Sony’s true wireless earbuds are constrained to USB-C charging. If you don’t care for wireless charging capabilities, then you’re limited to Lightning cables for the AirPods Pro. While this feature likely isn’t a make-or-break one for most consumers, it is a way for Apple to stand out from the crowd.
Build and fit is arguably the most subjective category, so you’re likely to feel differently than our conclusion today. While the Apple AirPod Pro has an IPX4 rating and includes a wireless charging case, we’re giving this to the Sony earbuds for their triple-contact point design, more natural on-board controls, and greater variety of ear tips.
Winner: Sony WF-1000XM3
The Apple AirPods Pro has great microphone quality and runs circles around most of its competitors, thanks to an array of sensors and accelerometers stuffed within the housings. Voice reproduction follows a slightly more neutral frequency response than Sony’s earbuds, which bodes well for all vocal ranges. Beam-forming microphones work in tandem with a speech-detecting accelerometer works in tandem filter out ambient noise. This lets the AirPods Pro really hone in on your voice while transmitting it across cell towers.
Apple AirPods Pro microphone demo:
Sony WF-1000XM3 microphone demo:
Now, just because the AirPods Pro microphone system is premium, doesn’t preclude the Sony WF-1000XM3 array from being great, too. Quite the contrary, because Sony also does a great job with voice recording and transmission. However, it isn’t quite as effective at combating background noise, and it can sometimes suffer from the proximity effect among bassier users. You can hear it in the above samples; notice how Adam’s voice doesn’t boom, whereas mine does. Ultimately, both are better than a standard smartphone microphone—not to mention more convenient—but the Apple AirPods Pro microphone edges out Sony’s.
Editor’s note: Sony released firmware update 2.1.0 on January 13, 2020, which makes improvements to hands-free call quality. Previous firmware updates included Amazon Alexa support, on-board volume adjustments, connection quality improvements on iOS, and general stability improvements.
Winner: Apple AirPods Pro
Bluetooth codec support and connection quality
Both the Apple AirPods Pro and Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds support the AAC Bluetooth codec for high-quality streaming with iOS devices. This is supported by Android, but its performance is unpredictable to no fault of the codec. Rather, Android has yet to develop a universal way to stream over AAC as its an incredibly demanding wireless codec. To make up for the lack of aptX support in the Sony WF-1000XM3, Sony included a new QN1e chip and DSEE HX processing which work to facilitate 24-bit audio signal processing.
Android users don’t benefit from the AirPods Pro’s H1 chip, but all platforms benefit from Sony’s Q1ne chip and DSEE HX processing.
Alright, onto different matters: the Apple AirPods Pro integrates the company’s H1 chip, allowing for hands-free Siri access, snappy autoconnect and usage across iOS devices, and energy efficiency. These benefits aren’t afforded to Android users, however, we still reap the power-efficient perks of Bluetooth 5.0, no matter what device is selected.
Since Apple’s ecosystem remains a well guarded one, the company can optimize and streamline how its proprietary devices communicate. This means iPhone users enjoy unparalleled connection stability with the Apple AirPods Pro. To Android users’ dismay, this isn’t the case when using AirPods with Android smartphones. Although the Sony WF-1000XM3’s wireless performance is responsive, it can’t beat using the AirPods Pro with an Apple iPhone.
The AirPods Pro have better battery life
This category is the most straightforward and easiest to measure. As with every product review, we subjected each set of truly wireless earbuds to a constant 75dB(SPL) output and compared the results. A single charge of the Apple AirPods Pro supplies 5.1125 hours of playback with noise canceling on, while the Sony WF-1000XM3 supplies just 4.76 hours of playback with noise canceling on. Granted, both durations are impressive given how small the batteries are and how taxing ANC technology is, but the AirPods are the clear winner when it comes to standalone battery life.
Apple’s charging case also provides more on-the-go battery life, totaling to 24 hours of combined playback. The Sony WF-1000XM3 charging case provides an additional three charge cycles, totaling to approximately 19 hours of listening before needing to top up. Both units support quick charging to varying degrees: the AirPods Pro allots one hour of playtime from five minutes in the case, while the Sony earbuds grant 1.5 hours of listening from 10 minutes in the case. Again, Apple edges Sony out when it comes to fast charging capabilities.
Winner: Apple AirPods Pro
The Sony WF-1000XM3 has the best noise canceling
Although Apple made great improvements to the AirPods Pro design to create a cogent seal to the ear canal, they still can’t outperform the Sony WF-1000XM3. This makes sense as Sony’s WH-1000XM3 noise canceling headphones remain the best all-around pick for consumers.
In each chart above, the higher up the line, the more attenuated a certain frequency range is: when listening with the AirPods Pro, the noise canceling technology makes low-frequency noises about half as loud as they would be sans-ANC. High-frequency noises are made to be even quieter; you can cycle through listening modes (noise canceling, off, and transparency) by squeezing either earbud stem any number of times. Transparency mode is available on both sets of earbuds and lets you temporarily hear your surroundings. This is convenient when you need to hear your train stop.
Juxtaposing the Sony and Apple noise canceling true wireless earbuds charts clearly illustrates that while both are excellent noise cancelers in general, the Sony blocks out more. It has even better passive isolation properties which bolster ANC performance, hence why the WF-1000XM3 earbuds can attenuate extremely low (sub-60Hz) noises so they’re ¼ as loud as they would be without ANC processing. The earbuds also quiet higher frequency sounds with greater effectiveness as depicted by the inclined line from 3kHz and up.
Regardless of which earbuds you end up going with, noise canceling technology will protect you from self-inflicted hearing loss. When using non-noise canceling earbuds, you’re more likely to increase the volume so as to hear your music better to drown out noise around you. They also serve as an effective productivity tool for anyone adjusting to a work from home schedule. ANC blocks out the sound of your roommates’ conference calls as well as outside foot traffic. No matter what, both Sony and Apple’s earphones may make it easier for you to concentrate.
Winner: Sony WF-1000XM3 (by a hair)
Sony 360 Reality Audio vs Apple Spatial Audio
At WWDC 2020, Apple announced that iOS 14 will introduce Spatial Audio to the Apple AirPods Pro. This is Apple’s take on surround sound and places auditory cues around the listener in 3D space. It will fully support videos encoded for 5.1 and 7.1 audio, as well as Dolby Atmos. This is comparable to Sony 360 Reality Audio, which uses object-based spatial audio technology to recreate and place individual sounds around the listener. Certain music streaming services (e.g. Tidal) support this and even have curated playlists with the remastered tracks. Both technologies make for a more immersive sound, and are bound to improve your listening experience.
While all the bells and whistles are valuable and appreciated, at the end of the day these are audio products. Neither option comes cheap, so you should rest assured that what you’re investing in is going to sound good to your ears.
Just like the noise canceling section, we have charts to break down objective data. The ones above illustrate the frequency responses of sets pairs of earbuds. The closer a line hugs the dotted 0dB SPL mark, the more accurate music reproduction sounds. Let’s look at the Sony earbuds first: bass frequencies are elevated most with some emphasis to midrange notes. This low-end boost is what gives your songs that extra oomph. It’s by no means neutral but this response, and the AirPods which we’ll see in a moment, plays well to popular music genres such as pop, hip-hop, and rap. If you’re into electronic music, you may want even more bass to your sound, in which case, this can be adjusted via the Sony | Headphones Connect app.
Relate: Best true wireless earbuds
Okay, onto the Apple AirPods Pro which also emphasizes low frequencies, but not to the same degree as Sony’s earbuds. What’s more, upper midrange and treble frequencies receive a generous 10dB emphasis, making them twice as loud as your midrange frequencies (200-1500Hz).
All of these numbers are hard to contextualize, so how this plays out in your music is that harmonic resonances from string instruments, for example, will sound approximately twice as loud as run-of-the-mill male and female vocals. This can make you notice certain detail in your music that went previously undetected but may be annoying to those looking for a more neutral sound.
On the whole, vocals sound really good with either headset. If you want a boomier sound, get the Sony earbuds and if you want more accurate vocals and to be able to perceive more detail from high notes, get the AirPods Pro. This comes down to personal preference, but our objective measurements award the Sony (9.5 sound quality rating) a higher score, giving them a slight 0.3 point edge over the AirPods (9.2 sound quality rating).
Winner: Sony WF-1000XM3
Unlike our Apple AirPods Pro vs. AirPods (2019) head-to-head, the winner isn’t mopping the floor with the runner up. Ultimately, it wholly depends on what you prioritize when picking out true wireless earbuds.
If you’re like me, you may prefer the look and design of the Sony earbuds to Apple’s. Plus, Sony’s earbuds are about $20 cheaper than the Apple AirPods Pro, so you could save a few bucks and get the new Popeyes chicken sandwich a few times over. Also, Android users don’t get the same connection strength benefits from the H1 chip as Android users do. So, if you don’t have an iPhone, the decision to get the Sony WF-1000XM3 is made even easier.
In all fairness, if you’re already beholden to all things Apple, then the new AirPods Pro makes the most sense: the H1 chip makes it easy to swap between iOS devices, while AAC codec support allows for high-quality, lag-free audio streaming. No matter which pair you get, you’re bound to be happy as both sets of earbuds are among the best of the competition.
If neither headset scratched the itch, consider the Google Pixel Buds (2020)
The new Google Pixel Buds (2020) are among the smartest true wireless earphones available: these support direct voice access to Google Assistant, have a brilliant microphone system that rivals the Apple AirPods and AirPods Pro, and has the best charging case we’ve used yet. Google ensures water-resistance by way of the IPX4 rating, and onboard touch-gesture controls are easy to operate and understand. It’s curious how the Pixel Buds (2020) omit aptX support, instead supporting just AAC and SBC Bluetooth codecs but this can be forgiven since the Pixel Buds aren’t billed as studio-oriented earphones.
Forgo expense altogether with these options
Then there’s the third option; maybe you realized neither pick meets your needs, or the features aren’t worth the cost. If that’s the case, there are plenty of great AirPods Pro alternatives and cheap true wireless earbuds.
We’re quick to recommend the $79 Creative Outlier Air for its USB-C charging, extended battery life, engaging sound, high-quality codec support and more. If you’re an iPhone user who wants an even more secure fit and better battery life than the AirPods Pro offer, look into the Beats Powerbeats Pro. While these earbuds forgo noise canceling capabilities, they fit well and are just as sensor-packed as the AirPods (2019). Beats’ totally wireless earbuds cost the same as the AirPods Pro, though; so it may not only be worth it for athletes.
Frequently Asked Questions
Sony 360 Reality Audio is the company's approach to object-based spatial audio technology. Like what 3D does to movies, 360 Reality Audio is intended to give the listener an immersive audio experience, making it sound like you're at a live concert. This feature is available on the WF-1000XM3, and is compatible with apps such as Tidal, Deezer, and Nugs.
You can update your earbud's firmware using the Sony Headphones Connect app, available for both Android and iOS. With your earbuds connected to your device, a notification should appear within the app, letting you know if and when firmware updates are available. It's a good idea to check for updates frequently to ensure your earbuds are operating at peak performance.
When an update is available, the AirPods Pro and AirPods will automatically install an update. This requires them to be paired with an iOS device; in other words, you can't update the AirPods Pro firmware with an Android device. To do that, you must connect the AirPods Pro to an iOS device to complete the update. Only then may you use it with the Android device. Apple doesn't make it obvious that an update is happening, so the only way to know if a firmware update has occurred is by visiting settings > general > about. From there, scroll down until you see AirPods Pro and check the firmware code. As of March 5, 2020, the most recent firmware version is 2C54.