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Sony WF-1000XM4 vs Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

Do you want to hear absolutely everything, or shut out the world?
April 15, 2022
A blended image of the Sony WF-1000XM4 and Apple AirPods (3rd generation).

If you want the best and the newest, Sony and Apple probably come to mind. Both have steadily updated their true wireless (TWS) earbuds arsenal in the last while, and both consistently rank on best lists. The question is which is better: Sony WF-1000XM4 or the Apple AirPods (3rd generation)? We have the answer.

Editor’s note: this article was updated on April 15, 2022, to include updated microphone demos, FAQ, and the Urbanista Lisbon in the alternatives.

Does the Sony WF-1000XM4 fits more securely than the Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?

A photo showing someone using the touch controls of the Sony WF-1000XM4.
A fully sealed ear is the first step to good noise cancelling.

In general, people stick to what they know when it comes to true wireless earphones. They cost enough that most people who bought AirPods haven’t necessarily sampled the competition. If your AirPods (2nd generation)  broke, it makes sense that you’d look at the new AirPods, but here’s what every other manufacturer has figured out: everyone’s ears are shaped differently. Sony, unlike Apple, ships the WF-1000XM4 with foam ear tips to accommodate each person’s unique anatomy. Apple’s one-and-done philosophy might work for other things, but the in-ear fit of the AirPods (3rd generation) isn’t one of them.

To be fair, the AirPods (3rd generation) fits more comfortably than its predecessor, but the fit is not nearly as secure as the WF-1000XM4. In addition, the unsealed design of the AirPods (3rd generation) likely means you’ll have to turn up the volume to drown out environmental noise.

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) rest against a potted plant.
The AirPods (3rd generation) brings a lot of the minor features that differentiate it from the AirPods Pro.

By contrast, the Sony app has a fit test to ensure your buds sit correctly. Apple problem solves in the other direction. Instead of ensuring your buds fit well for the best sound, Apple knows the fit is unsealed, so it includes Adaptive EQ to adjust the audio for a bad fit. That doesn’t necessarily help you if you’re running for the bus and your AirPods (3rd generation) earbud falls out though.

Both the AirPods (3rd gen) and Sony WF-1000XM4 are portable

A photo comparing the relative size of the Sony WF-1000XM3's case with the Sony WF-1000XM4's.
The new Sony WF-1000XM4 (right) has a much smaller case than that of the Sony WF-1000XM3 (left).

As for case design, do you like light mode or dark mode? The WF-1000XM4 ships in all black or warm silver. The case itself is pretty pocketable, with a notable footprint improvement over the previous, WF-1000XM3. Some of us still await the day Apple releases black AirPods, but until then the AirPods (3rd generation) only comes in that signature glossy Apple white. The case is plastic and solid-feeling enough. It looks like a narrower AirPods Pro case basically.

A hand pinches the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) charging case to display its plain white exterior and minimalist indentation.
The compact case easily fits in a small pocket or pouch.

The AirPods (3rd generation) case charges via lighting cable or wirelessly, and it will work with the same MagSafe charging mat that you use with your iPhone. You have to pay extra to get a MagSafe charger, but it’s just a magnetic Qi wireless charger, and you can use any regular Qi pad, too. Like a different flavor of the same sort of functionality, the WF-1000XM4 case charges with USB-C or wirelessly with a Qi pad. A wireless pad also has to be purchased separately.

Can you customize the Sony WF-1000XM4 and Apple AirPods (3rd gen) controls?

The Sony WF-1000XM4 on a wet, red bench, also with moisture on the earphones.
The large circles make it easy to find the right spot to enter commands.

The AirPods (3rd generation) uses the same stemmed control design as the AirPods Pro. Each earbud recognizes taps and squeezes on the stem. If you have an iOS device, you can customize the settings. If you don’t have an iOS device, you can’t customize the controls. A workaround might be getting a friend with an iPhone to set up your desired settings, and then pair it to your Android phone. By default, however, here are the controls:

Action (stems)Either earbud
One tap
Two taps
Skip forward
Three taps
Previous track
Press and hold
"Hey Siri"
Change volume, request directions, playback control, receive messages, and more

Meanwhile, the Sony WF-1000XM4 also registers touch controls, which you can edit in its app. In addition, it features auto pause/play in-ear detection. Holding your finger on the bud will activate the passthrough function if someone is talking to you. The Sony Headphones Connect app works on iOS and Android, so you don’t need to worry about accessing your settings if you buy a new phone.

Left budRight bud
One tap
Left bud
Mute/ANC/Ambient sound
Right bud
Two taps
Left bud
Right bud
Track forward/answer call
Three taps
Left bud
Right bud
Track backward
Long press
Left bud
Right bud
Smart assistant

Does both the AirPods (3rd generation) and Sony WF-1000XM3 have 3D sound?

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) paired with your iOS device can try to spatialize audio that isn’t specifically mixed for Dolby Atmos and it works pretty well. This spatialized audio doesn’t sound as good as anything mixed for surround sound by an engineer, because it’s basically just an algorithm. Nevertheless, it’s still a fun new way to listen to music. To be clear spatial audio involves an engineer mixing for Dolby Atmos (or 5.1/7.1-channel tracks), while spatialized audio is an algorithm producing the effect on any source, even mono tracks.

A hand holds a Apple AirPods (3rd generation) earbud by the stem to reveal the open-type fit and embedded sensors with the open case in the background.
You don’t get any ear tips to adjust your fit.

While the Sony WF-1000XM4 has its own 3D surround trickery, Sony 360 Reality Audio, it only works on sources specifically mastered for it. In this way, it’s pretty similar to how Apple spatial audio works, only it doesn’t use Dolby Atmos. Currently, this Sony 360 Reality Audio feature only has support on TidalDeezerAmazon Music Unlimited, and nugs. Apple’s spatial audio solely works on Amazon Music Unlimited and Apple Music. A key difference between spatial audio and Sony 360 Reality Audio is that while both provide surround sound, spatial audio additionally has a head tracking function. This is particularly immersive if you listen to live recordings, but if you don’t, it can feel gimmicky pretty quickly.

Does the Sony WF-1000XM4 or Apple AirPods (3rd generation) have a better battery?

A photo showing the Sony WF-1000XM4 in its case, with the lid open.
You get two extra charges with the WF-1000XM4 case.

Smartly, the AirPods (3rd generation) case optimizes performance around your habits (iOS and iPadOS only), sometimes not charging the buds above 80% to preserve long-term battery life if it learns you tend to just put it in for a couple of minutes. Impressively, you get four additional charges for the earbuds, totaling over 30 hours. Fully charged the AirPods (3rd generation) yields 6 hours and 21 minutes.

Meanwhile, the Sony WF-1000XM4 has superior battery life in the buds. It can last about 7 hours and 43 minutes per charge—that’s with active noise cancelling on. Additionally, the case offers at least two more charges, resulting in just under 24 hours of playtime. So, you get less total listening time, but the buds carry a longer-lasting battery. Keep in mind that if you turn off ANC the WF-1000XM4 lasts even longer than the figure from our objective testing. Both sets have fast charging resulting in an hour of audio from five minutes in the case.

Do you get more software features with the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) than the Sony WF-1000XM4?

A hand holds the AirPods (3rd generation) in the right ear while touching the force sensor stem.
Squeeze the stems of the AirPods (3rd generation) to trigger commands.

In the iOS and iPadOS Settings apps, you can access all the settings for the AirPods (3rd generation). Only Apple users can access things like firmware updates, or use hands-free Siri, and spatial audio. In Settings, you can customize your controls, and toggle spatialized audio and head tracking features. You can also set which AirPods earbud is the default microphone. When you buy the AirPods (3rd generation) a lot of what you get is in the software. Now, if you own an Android device you cannot do any of these things, because Apple has not extended support across OS platforms.

For the Sony WF-1000XM4, you’ll want to download the Sony Headphones Connect app. It works on iOS and Android. There you can adjust your desired ANC level, turn on ambient mode, update your buds, and adjust the EQ. It also has Adaptive Sound which basically just switches between ambient and ANC modes depending on your environment. In-app codec switching is possible and you can toggle speak-to-chat as well.

The Sony WF-1000XM4 has more codec options, but for Apple users, it doesn’t matter

A hand holds a Apple AirPods (3rd generation) case with the earbuds in place and embedded sensors in view.
Pop open the case to begin automatically pairing with your Apple device.

With an H1 chip, connecting to iOS is a breeze with Apple AirPods (3rd generation). Open the case near your iPhone and a card pops up prompting you to connect. It only supports SBC and AAC Bluetooth codecs, which is unsurprising because AAC is all you really need for an iPhone. On Android, you’re better off trying SBC, due to the unreliable results from AAC. To connect to Android you open the case and press the button on the back of the charging case. From there it’s basically like any other Bluetooth headset. AirPods (3rd generation) uses Bluetooth 5.0, so there’s zero chance of future LC3 codec support.

Related: Don’t use AirPods with Android

The Sony WF-1000XM4 comes with extra codec support comparatively. First off it uses Bluetooth 5.2, so you could conceivably get LE Audio and the LC3 codec in the future. Besides that, standard SBC, common AAC, and the high-bitrate LDAC all gain support. iPhone users will still choose AAC, but LDAC, while not high resolution because of inconsistent transfer rate, offers better audio than SBC or AAC for Android. Basically, which is better remains highly dependent on your smartphone, but they all work just fine.

The Sony WF-1000XM4 has superior noise cancelling

The memory foam tips of the Sony WF-1000XM4.
The polyurethane foam ear tips of the Sony WF-1000XM4 make for an easy fit every time.

If you wondered about noise cancelling on the Sony WF-1000XM4 versus Apple AirPods (3rd generation) it’s a bit like asking what keeps intruders out better: a castle with a moat and barricading, or an open door. It’s kind of unfair. Point blank, the Sony WF-1000XM4 boasts utterly superior isolation and ANC.

That’s not the whole story, however, because the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) has looked at this a bit sideways. What would ordinarily get called poor design—a totally unsealed fit—Apple has chosen to rework as a feature. Sure, you get passthrough with the Sony earbuds to hear your environment if you want, but with an unsealed AirPods earbud, you can directly hear your environment. While ANC helps you keep your volume low by removing the need to compensate for auditory masking ruining your audio, Apple gave the AirPods (3rd generation) Adaptive EQ and designed it more like a tiny speaker to compensate for the loss of audio quality from not sealing to your ear canals.

Does that make the AirPods (3rd generation) better? Not really, but it’s nice to know Apple tried to make up for the historically poor performance in this area to improve the sound as a result of auditory masking. With that said, you still have to crank the volume of the AirPods (3rd generation) to cover up environmental noise. In any case, Sony wins this one because using earbuds with good isolation and ANC can actually save your hearing.

The Sony WF-1000XM4 sounds better, but the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) is better than you might expect

Ordinarily, we’d look at the completely unsealed fit of a product like the AirPods (3rd generation) and say, zero isolation plus environmental noise equals loss of bass and unsafe volume levels to compensate for auditory masking. This still holds true for most earbuds, but Apple has adjusted the driver and added Adaptive EQ to mitigate the predictable loss of bass. You’ll still have to combat auditory masking, but you don’t lose sub-bass past around 50Hz. To be honest, not much happens below 50Hz, though it looks dramatic on a chart.

Chart showing a comparison of Apple AirPods (3rd generation) against Sony WF-1000XM4, as compared to house curve.
In cyan, you can see the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) frequency response. The yellow dash represents the Sony WF-1000XM4, and finally, the SoundGuys house curve is shown in pink.

Compared to our target curve, the Sony WF-1000XM4 supplies fairly accurate audio, save for the slight exaggeration in bass and under-emphasis in high frequencies. The AirPods (3rd generation) is more closely aligned to our curve (though it both under and over-emphasizes) in the highs and in the mids. That roll off in the 50Hz range prevents the AirPods (3rd generation) from beating out the WF-1000XM4.

What’s more interesting is that the Sony WF-1000XM4 allows you to customize your EQ, which the AirPods (3rd generation) cannot do. So while the WF-1000XM4 reproduces treble too quietly by default, you can use the Sony Headphones Connect app and just turn up the 2500Hz and above range. If you like some other kind of frequency response, it can do that too.

If you despise tinkering with your earbuds, both sets sound pretty good. Again, the AirPods (3rd generation) follows our ideal where it matters most. With that said, the lack of flexibility with no equalizer and a purposely unsealed fit that encourages most people to turn up the volume to unsafe levels means it’s not quite as good. The AirPods (3rd generation) definitely sounds better than we expected based on fit, but the WF-1000XM4 has predictably good sound reproduction at safe volumes with the flexibility of app support to make it even better.

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone sounds very good for true wireless earbuds

A masculine person wears the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) against a blue background.
You get a pretty decent mic on the AirPods (3rd generation).

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone sometimes sounds great. It sort of depends on your paired device. You could say about the same for the WF-1000XM4. Both reject off-axis noise reasonably well. Perhaps the AirPods (3rd generation) edges ahead by sounding somewhat more accurate than the WF-1000XM4. The AirPods (3rd generation) is quite good at rejecting noise, while the WF-1000XM4 might let some environmental sounds through.

What do you think?

Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone demo (Ideal):

Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone demo (Street):

Sony WF-1000XM4 microphone demo (Ideal):

Sony WF-1000XM4 microphone demo (Office):

Which sample sounds better?

560 votes

Should you buy the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) or the Apple AirPods Pro?

A photo of the Sony WF-1000XM4's case open, revealing the earphones sitting within.
It’s not cheap, but it sure looks good.

This ought to be a pretty easy decision for most folks, simply because both true wireless earbuds are quite different. For one thing, the Sony WF-1000XM4 costs more than the AirPods (3rd generation), so if price matters, the AirPods (3rd generation) is going to make more sense. (Don’t purchase those AirPods so fast though, there are still plenty of other earbuds to consider.) Those who own an Android device will find few reasons to choose the AirPods (3rd generation) as it misses out on the vast majority of its features from spatial audio to basic custom controls. iPhone users gain spatial audio, H1 chip functionality, and a decent sound with the AirPods (3rd generation). However, if noise cancelling or isolation sit high on your list of priorities, the Sony WF-1000XM4 is the obvious pick.

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) true wireless earbuds in the open charging case against a white background.
Apple AirPods (3rd generation)
All prices listed in USD unless otherwise specified. Prices may change over time, and vary by region. Unfortunately, we cannot list Amazon prices on the site, as they vary greatly by currency.

If you can achieve a good fit from the AirPods (3rd generation) you can take it to the gym with its IPX4 rating for sweat protection. With that in mind, the superior fit of the WF-1000XM4 and the same IP rating make it a more reliable choice for workouts. The Sony Headphones Connect app is available for iOS and Android, so ask yourself if the fast device switching afforded by the H1 chip and the spatialized audio are enough to sway iPhone users to pick the AirPods (3rd generation). If not, pick the WF-1000XM4, because you can still get surround sound with the Sony 360 Reality Audio, and more app flexibility regardless of your device.

The Sony WF-1000XM4 noise-cancelling true wireless earbuds in black against a white background.
Sony WF-1000XM4
All prices listed in USD unless otherwise specified. Prices may change over time, and vary by region. Unfortunately, we cannot list Amazon prices on the site, as they vary greatly by currency.

Android users have an easier choice. Because you miss out on the majority of the features of the AirPods (3rd generation), you might as well pick the Sony WF-1000XM4, or something else.

What are some alternatives?

A picture of the AirPods Pro earbud with the silicone sleeve removed to reveal the nozzle.
The AirPods Pro silicone sleeve pops into a divot surrounding the nozzle, which ensures a more stable connection between the pieces.

Here’s an easy one: if you want the best AirPods, choose the AirPods Pro. It will stay in your ears better with ANC, and it shares most of the same features as the AirPods (3rd generation). This statement only applies to iOS users though, because again, Apple has basically bars Android from the full AirPods experience.

If you just want something that looks like AirPods, but either don’t care about surround sound, or you use Android and can’t access those AirPod features anyway, try the TCL MOVEAUDIO S600. It looks like an Apple clone, comes with some ANC, and has a good frequency response. It runs for $100 USD or less to boot.

Man holding up the open charging case for the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro.
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro takes the best features from all of the previous Galaxy Buds generations.

Admittedly, the WF-1000XM4 pretty well beats out every other TWS earbud’s ANC, but at a dear price. If surround sound and ANC are both requirements and you’ve got a Samsung, try the Galaxy Buds Pro or the more affordable Galaxy Buds 2. It doesn’t have as in-depth an equalizer, using presets instead of a functional EQ slider, but it has good ANC and uses 360 Audio based on Dolby Atmos. It works similarly to what Sony offers for less, and you can read all about how it compares to the AirPods (3rd generation) here.

What if you don’t want active noise cancelling?

Here’s an outlier: if you want an unsealed fit because you like being aware of your surroundings (and dislike transparency modes), but don’t care about all the Apple extras, try the Urbanista Lisbon. It’s very inexpensive and combines a stabilizer with an unsealed fit, which is a smart way to keep the buds in your ears without sealing your ears completely.

The Sennheiser CX Plus True Wireless sits on a table in front of a window.
The Sennheiser CX Plus is a great all-around pair of true wireless earbuds.

Finally, if ANC isn’t a priority, consider the Sennheiser CX True Wireless, at $129 USD. The sound quality is good, as is fit. It sports the aptX codec for better quality audio on Android devices than AAC or SBC (which it also has). The market remains crowded, but for the millionth time, don’t buy AirPods for Android devices.

Frequently asked questions about Sony WF-1000XM4 vs Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

No, none of the Apple AirPods support Bluetooth multipoint. However, you can take advantage of automatic device switching between Apple hardware under the same iCloud account. This means when you’re listening to music on your iPhone and start playing a video on your MacBook, the AirPods (3rd generation) will stop playing from your phone and immediately switch to the laptop’s audio output.

No, surprisingly for an expensive flagship set of true wireless earbuds Sony did not imbue the WF-1000XM4 with multipoint.