Sony proves to be cutting edge, but Kef Mu3 and Beats Studio Buds stand out for a very personal and eclectic design. All have an active noise cancellation system
The new wireless earphones Sony WF-1000XM4, Kef Mu3 e Beats Studio Buds they are the expression of completely different design schools, however characterized by a common (and rare) stylistic eclecticism. The fourth generation Japanese model probably represents the technological vanguard of the entire sector. The English one is the first attempt at Kent Engineering & Foundry to enter a new segment rather far from high fidelity. Finally, the US model plays the card of coolness but giving up the chips of the parent company Apple. All have a active noise cancellation system (anc) and enclosures capable of increasing operational autonomy.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 are much more compact than the WF-1000XM3 launched in 2019. The lines are reminiscent of a sort of bongo or in any case a small percussion instrument. The adequate touch surface – large enough to also accommodate Schreck’s fingertip – proves to be functional for the management of every function. In addition, the ipx4 protection ensures a good resistance to sweat and water splashes. Beauty is certainly not their most exhilarating attribute.
The case, on the other hand, borders on perfection: the overall dimensions and the matt surface (anti-fingerprints) are ideal. The package includes three sizes of soft polyurethane rubber pads (instead of the classic silicone) that allow you to maximize the contact surface and comfort. As usual with wireless earphones, a good fit improves both noise cancellation and bass delivery, so it’s not a detail to be underestimated. Unfortunately, the main unit of the WF-1000XM4 has a design that could cause annoyance to those with small ears or to sportsmen during the summer season. The former could suffer from the encumbrances in the auricular basin; the latter cannot tolerate the heat emitted by this concentrate of technology.
The Kef Mu3 are very small but resemble hearing aids in their shapes. The glossy gray color seems to wink at the metal alloys, but in truth in combination with the shell case the effect is alienating. It seems to have stolen something from the set of Inseparable, David Cronenberg’s psyco-thriller film that dates back to 1988. The physical keys are functional and efficient, you just need to memorize the sequences to activate the playback options. For example, keeping the left pressed lowers the volume, while a click on the right activates the pause, two clicks skips the track, etc. The ipx5 protection ensures resistance to water jets and therefore to intense rain. The package includes three rubber pads and considered the small body size of the earphones it is easy to achieve both good positioning and satisfactory stability. Unlike the Sony model, their presence is less noticeable in the ears.
The Beats Studio Buds are similar in size to the Kefs but the shape is more bizarre. The reason is probably due to the fact that they integrate two large keys (with reduced excursion) reminiscent of those of Walkman historians. The soap case fits well and the bulk is still tolerable for jeans pockets. The protection is ipx4. The only flaw of these earphones is that if they are on a table – and not in the case – it is difficult to understand (without reading the lowercase letters) which is the right and which is the left. The three sizes of silicone rubber pads facilitate comfort and in the end it is possible to obtain a good stability.
When it comes to features and options, the Sony model is not only the most complete of this lot but of the entire true wireless sector. Obviously the touch or voice interaction provide the classic track management, noise cancellation, calls, volume, etc. But it is the Sony Headphones app (iOS and Android) that reveals all the potential. You can activate the wind noise reduction, enable the automatic conversation mode (when our voice is recognized, the playback pauses and the anc is deactivated), intervene on the equalizer, set the 360° Reality Audio, establish the bluetooth connection quality, set the DSEE Extreme, etc. Nothing is really missing and the GUI has also been significantly improved (it used to be a bit confusing). Overall it is difficult to criticize other than to acknowledge that there is still some work to be done on noise cancellation to steal the podium from Bose QuietComfort Earbuds. Autonomy, on the other hand, is almost record-breaking: about 8 hours with anc active and additional 16 hours provide from the case (with Qi wireless charging and usb-c).
The Kef Mu3s are limited to offering the management of tracks, volume, noise cancellation, calls and voice commands through the pressing the integrated keys. There are no options as there is no app available for now. The only major weakness seems to be the noise cancellation, which would probably require more advanced technology as it seems rather mild in the interventions. The autonomy in the best conditions is about 9 hours, while the contribution of the case (usb-c) is a further 15 hours.
Finally, the Beats Studio Buds provide the same functions and interaction modes as the Kef model, except for the volume control which can only be done via the smartphone or voice commands (Google Assistant or Siri). The noise canceling system is acceptable for the most common needs, but not at the top of the range. A peculiarity is undoubtedly bluetooth quick pairing with iOS and Android products: just open the case and the more is done. Sony offers the same mode for Android and for Windows 10 (Microsoft Swift Pair). Remember that the Studio Buds are the first in the Beats line to support the function find my device of iOS and Android. The maximum autonomy can reach about 8 hours, while the case (usb-c) adds 18 hours.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 are probably among the best wireless earphones on the market in relation to the quality of music reproduction offered. They express best with high-resolution formats – Spotify or Apple Music is fine, but with platforms like Qobuz o Tidal you enter another dimension. After that the difference with respect to less noble models is always felt; there is no need to bother an audiophile. For example with Everloving (Reprise Version) by Moby, who enjoys an orchestral and acoustic arrangement, just close your eyes to imagine a large stage with the instruments well spaced. On the other hand, the guitar attack in the left channel and the subsequent stereo entry of the piano and violin have such a cleanliness as to build a perfect climax for the advent and intensity of the Budapest Art Orchestra. Perhaps the only note can be made on the higher frequencies which sometimes tend to be ringing. The supported codecs are Sbc, Aac and the proprietary Ldac; Unfortunately, Qualcomm’s AptX is missing – now a benchmark in the Android world. The reference standard is bluetooth 5.2.
Kef focuses on details and a rendering that (remotely) recalls that of studio monitors. Bass is present but without the depth of the Sony. It lacks warmth and color, but it was probably a design choice because anyway with a track like Crawling Kingsnake of the Black Keys the quality remains intact. Simply the light that illuminates the piece tends to the cold. However, the balance is good, even with jazz or classical. The sound stage is always quite airy. No doubt the final quality is very high, but Sony, Bose, Bowers & Wilkins e Sennheiser they enjoy the advantage accumulated in recent years of design refinement. Finally, it should be emphasized that the supported codecs are the popular Sbc and Aac; the reference standard is bluetooth 5.0.
Beats models have historically always been a little bit incontinent on the bass to go against the tastes of rap and hip hop fans. The Studio Buds in this regard demonstrate greater control and even with a piece like Bad Guy by Billie Ellish manage to push without exaggerating. Listening is always pleasant but compared to Sony and Kef there is some loss of detail, especially in the voice. As with the English model the sound some heat is missing. Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams cymbals stand out a lot from other instruments with an Argentine tone that recalls more metal than South America. The supported codecs are Sbc and Aac, while the reference standard is bluetooth 5.2. This model is also compatible with tracks in Spatial Audio present on Apple Music.
The Sony WF-1000XM4s are the top of the market and they play with models like Bose and Sennheiser for sound, so the high price is understandable too. Difficult to spot a defect. Perhaps the design has some critical issues related to dimensions and appearance, but the evaluation in this sense is very personal. In summary it is a product for everyone: from the manager, to the student to the music lover. The Kef Mu3 model is a first for the company and in this sense the quality objective has been achieved. The appeal of the brand is perhaps not reflected much in the design and the lack of the app and options is perplexing.
However, the small size and ease of use are a great merit. The noise canceling system is a bit weak. Recommended for those who love a cold sound. The Beats Studio Buds are quite fashion and above all in step with the prevailing 80s style. They are aimed at a young audience who loves alternative products. The audio quality is satisfactory and in line with the competition that presides over the same price range. The ANC is also acceptable. To date, the only flaw is that it does not have the volume function combined with the keys, but it is not excluded that it will arrive in the future (as they admitted at the press conference).
Sony WF-1000XM4 (280 euro)
Wired: Excellent audio quality, functional completeness and autonomy
Tired: Uncomfortable for small ears, questionable design and price
Kef Mu3 (230 euro)
Wired: Ease of use, good audio quality and small size
Tired: Lack of the app, subdued noise cancellation
Beats Studio Buds (150 euro)
Wired: Style, quick pairing with iOS and Android, satisfying sound quality
Tired: Lack of volume control on the earphones and shapes that do not help positioning