Sony proves to be cutting edge, but Kef Mu3 and Beats Studio Buds stand out for their unique and eclectic design. All have an active noise cancellation system. The new Sony WF-1000XM4, Kef Mu3, and Beats Studio Buds wireless earphones express entirely different design schools characterized by a common (and rare) stylistic eclecticism. The fourth-generation model probably represents the technological avant-garde of the entire sector. All have an active noise cancellation system(anc) and enclosures to increase operational autonomy.
The Sony WF-1000XM4s are much more compact than the WF-1000XM3s launched in 2019. The lines are reminiscent of some bongo or a small percussion instrument. The adequate touch surface – large enough to accommodate Schreck’s fingertip – proves to be functional for managing every function. In addition, the ipx4 protection ensures excellent resistance to sweat and water splashes. Beauty is certainly not their most exhilarating attribute. On the other hand, the case borders on perfection: the dimensions and the opaque 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 noise cancellation and bass delivery, so it’s not a detail to be underestimated. Unfortunately, the central unit of the WF-1000XM4 has a design that could annoy those with small ears or athletes 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 metal alloys, but in fact, the effect is alienating in combination with the clamshell case. It seems to have stolen something from the set of Inseparables. The psycho-thriller film by David Cronenberg dates back to 1988. The physical keys are functional and efficient. You 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 starts the pause, two clicks skip the track, etc. The ipx5 protection ensures resistance to water jets and, therefore, to heavy rain. The package includes three rubber tips, and considering 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.
Beats Studio Buds
The Beats Studio Buds are similar to the Kefs, but the shape is more bizarre. The reason is probably that they integrate two large keys (with reduced excursion) reminiscent of those of the historic Walkman. 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 isn’t easy to understand (without reading the lowercase letters), which is the right and left. The three sizes of silicone rubber pads facilitate comfort, and in the end, it is possible to obtain good stability.
The Sony model is the most complete of this lot and the entire wireless sector when it comes to features and options. The touch or voice interaction provides classic track management, noise cancellation, calls, volume, etc. But it is the Sony Headphones app (iOS and Android) that reveals its full 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 missing, and the graphical interface has also been significantly improved (it was confusing before). Overall, it’s hard to criticize other than acknowledging that there is still some work to be done on noise cancellation to steal the podium from the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds. On the other hand, the autonomy is almost record-breaking: about 8 hours with an active and a further 12 hours provided by the case (with Qi wireless charging and USB-c).
The Kef Mu3 is limited to managing tracks, volume, noise cancellation, calls, and voice commands by 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 relatively mild in the interventions. The autonomy in the best conditions is about 9 hours, while the case (USB-c) contribution 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 full range. A peculiarity is undoubtedly the quick Bluetooth pairing with iOS and Android products: just open the case, and you’re done. Sony offers the same mode for Android and Windows 10 (Microsoft Swift Pair). Note that the Studio Buds are the first in the Beats line to support the find my device feature of iOS and Android. The maximum autonomy can reach about 8 hours, while the case (USB-c) adds 18 hours.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 is probably among the best wireless earphones on the market for the quality of music reproduction offered. They express the best with high-resolution formats: Spotify or Apple Music is fine, but you enter another dimension with platforms like Qobuz or Tidal. After that, the difference for 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, close your eyes to imagine a large stage with well-spaced instruments.
On the other hand, the guitar attack in the left channel and the subsequent stereo entry of the piano and violin have such 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 Lac; 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 remembers (remotely) that of studio monitors. Bass is present but without the depth of the Sony. 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. The final quality is undoubtedly very high, but Sony, Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, and Sennheiser 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 bit incontinent on the bass to go against the tastes of rap and hip hop fans. Listening is always pleasant, but there is some loss of detail compared to Sony and Kef, especially in the voice. As with the British model, the sound lacks some warmth. The supported codecs are Sbc and Aac, while the reference standard is Bluetooth 5.2.Spatial Audio present on Apple Music.
The Sony WF-1000XM4s are at the top of the market, and they play with models like Bose and Sennheiser for sound, so the high price is understandable. Difficult to spot a defect. Perhaps the design has some critical issues relating 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 brand’s appeal 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 of great value. The noise-canceling system is a bit weak. It is recommended for those who love a cold sound. The Beats Studio Buds are quite a 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 offers 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).
- Rating: 8.5
- Wired: Excellent audio quality, functional completeness, and autonomy
- Tired: Uncomfortable for small ears, questionable design and price
- Rating: 7.5
- Wired: Ease of use, good audio quality, and small size
- Tired: Lack of the app, undertone noise cancellation
Beats Studio Buds
- Rating: 7.5
- Wired: Style, quick pairing with iOS and Android, satisfactory audio quality.