Sony’s Noise-Cancelling True Wireless Earbuds Challenge AirPods

Sony WF-1000X-M3 Wireless Earbuds Credit: Sony
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Although we’ve been hearing rumours for a while that Apple is working on active noise cancellation (ANC) for its next-generation AirPods, it looks like Sony has just beaten them to the punch, while also providing us with some insights into ways in which Apple may choose to implement the feature on the AirPods themselves.

Sony’s new WF-1000XM3 earbuds, expected to launch next month, are actually the company’s second attempt at producing a pair of “true wireless” earbuds that also offer noise cancellation. While the original 2017-era WF-1000X originally promised noise cancellation, the feature was so flawed that it wasn’t even worthy of the name, especially considering the high standards that Sony had set with its actual headphones.

By all reports now, however, the WF-1000XM3 are successfully delivering on active noise cancellation, both proving that it can be done, and showing us what it looks like on a pair of true wireless earbuds. In this case, Sony now uses two noise-cancelling microphones in each earbud, and leverages its own proprietary QN1e chip to process the ambient noise and remove it from the audio playing through the earphones themselves.

One thing that is notable, however, is that enabling active noise cancellation on the Sony earbuds actually cuts the battery life by a quarter, reducing it from eight hours down to six. While this isn’t surprising — reduced battery life when using ANC is true of all of the noise cancelling headphones we’ve seen — the smaller batteries required by true wireless earbuds present more of a challenge here.

Apple’s Plans for AirPods with ANC

Of course, we don’t know for certain what Apple is up to — the company is almost always tight-lipped about what it’s working on behind the scenes, but we’ve seen several rumours suggesting that more new AirPods are coming later this year, including next-generation “AirPods 3” along with a higher-end “AirPods Pro.”

According to these reports, one of the features that Apple has been working on is a way to incorporate active noise cancellatoin into next-gen AirPods, which are also expected to feature a new design. This last point would almost be required if the company were going to tackle ANC, of course, since the current AirPods let ambient sound leak in like an open window — there’s no point in offering active noise cancellation when the headphones themselves can’t prevent outside noise in the first place. Apple’s Beats-branded Powerbeats Pro offer better passive noise isolation, but we’ve heard no indications about Apple’s plans to update those anytime soon.

While ANC has long been a feature of full-size headphones, the technical challenges that Apple faces are the same as the ones that Sony is having to overcome; ANC on Sony’s first true wireless earbuds was basically non-existent, and even the new WF-1000XM3 don’t appear to offer noise cancellation that’s up to the same standard as the company’s on-ear headphones, although most who have tried the earbuds still tag it as very impressive for what it is.

Knowing Apple, however, there’s no doubt the company wants to do even better, both in terms of the quality of the ANC feature as well as its impact on battery life. While Apple’s existing H1 chip is already remarkably power-efficient, it will have to push it even more if it wants to produce quality ANC that won’t detract from the user experience, as well as following Sony’s example of adding additional microphones for better ambient noise capture and processing.

With rumours of both AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro being in the works, it’s unclear whether noise cancellation will be reserved as a “Pro” feature, with the AirPods 3 being a more iterative update, but with Apple reportedly working on other features such as health monitoring, it’s quite possible ANC could come to all new AirPods, while the “Pro” would distinguish itself by including things like heartbeat sensors.

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