Coming in as a disruptor, the Sony WH-1000X series of headphones have been giving sleepless nights to the competition (read Bose) ever since the first generation showed up in 2016. Now in v3.0, it promises to up the stakes even further.
Design - Still premium
Few consumer electronic battles have been this bloody but Sony isn’t taking any prisoners this time. For its third generation, the 1000X wireless active noise-cancelling headphones have upped their game to become even more comfortable, hugely improved battery life and ironing out some chinks in its sonic armour. Put them on your ears and the snug urethane foam pads instantly isolate you from the outside world passively. Sure, they do get a bit warm under the hot and muggy Mumbai sky but indoors, there is nothing to fault here. The build quality still feels premium and the headband has the right amount of resistance without digging into your skull. Aesthetically, the copper-finished Sony logos on either side look fittingly upmarket and even the plastic used on the ear cups is of very high-quality and they also retain their touch surface for basic controls like volume, track change, play/pause and waking up voice assistants.
A sonic marvel
The sound quality of the WH-1000X while using Active Noise Cancellation was one of its biggest strengths. In M3 form, the QN1 Noise-cancelling processor offers roughly four times the performance, claims Sony and additionally it also packs in a 32-bit DAC. The new 40mm liquid crystal polymer drivers are an evolution of the earlier designs but along with the S-Master HX amplifier and LDAC streaming-over-Bluetooth tech, it sounds like a huge leap forward, especially when streaming Hi-Res audio files. LDAC allows for nearly three times the bandwidth of regular Bluetooth, approaching CD-quality sound and Eva Cassidy’s Ain’t No Sunshine sounded as good as any wireless audio device would let you hear it, keeping the acoustic guitar crisp and detailed and her voice never too sibilant to take away from the atmosphere of the recording space which is kept intact, thanks to the reverb cues.
It sounds like how a great pair of audiophile headphones should, with or without ANC. Compared to the competition, it didn’t change the tonality and harmonics of the musical structure beyond recognition and with the M3, Sony has almost eliminated any ill-effects of using heavy DSP algorithms.
The partnering Sony Headphone Connect app allows you to dial in how much ambient sound you want trickling in and even lets you focus on only voice, cutting out everything else intelligently. The Adaptive Sound Control can also detect whether you’re sitting, walking, running or outdoors in public transport and can, as you’d expect, adapt the level of ambient to music mix intelligently. Regardless of whether you choose full noise cancelling or maximum level of ambient sound, the sonic signature never changes. When the Curtain Falls from new-age rockers Greta Van Fleet is a powerfully performed track where the entire band is on full throttle and the separation between the Robert Plant-ish vocals and the percussive hook of the track is delicately maintained. Sony wisely adds a bit of a bass boost and also widens the image a little bit so the presentation is never forward-sounding or bright.
Alternatively, on a few jazz tracks like Jeff Goldblum’s My Baby Just Cares For Me, I had to get into the EQ settings and reduce the level of the ClearBass control significantly to maintain the right tonal balance without the low-end wanting to cannibalise the rest of the frequency spectrum. The app also offers different acoustic spaces like Concert Hall, Arena, Club and Outdoor Stage to choose from if you want to get experimental but these never sound convincing or elegant after a few seconds into a song. Perhaps solo performances may stand to benefit from this, adding a touch of echo and space to the presentation, simulating a live performance in an indoor venue.
But on most tracks, with EQ off and the Ambient Sound at half mast, the WH-1000X M3 is the most enjoyable headphone i’ve heard in a long time, ANC or otherwise. It manages to err on the right side of entertaining without being too inaccurate to alienate audiophiles. Back that with noise cancellation levels that are truly an engineering marvel and it makes for another winner in the 1000X’s legacy. We had a Bose QC35 II on hand for comparison and while its accompanying app has a cleaner UI, the sound is brittle and lacking in verve compared to the Sony.
Comfort wise, while the Bose feels a bit airier and lighter around the ears, upon longer wear times, it’s actually the Sony that again wins for snugness and softness. Convenience features like putting your hand on the right ear cup to quickly revert to full ambient sound is a boon in office or airplane environs too.
You don’t have to bother taking the headphones off or re-setting your hair, whichever seems more of a chore to you! The touch controls on the right ear cup work well but they are prone to wrong gestures sometimes and there is a slight delay in their reaction time but nothing that should dissuade you from its other stellar qualities.
Sony claims the battery life has gone up by 50% to around 30hrs now and while I haven’t been able to confirm this claim yet, I’m glad that they have switched to a USB-C charging port that also is compatible with fast-charging if you a compatible charger. A 10min charge will power you for up to five hours, making travel/time anxiety a thing of the past.
It can even be set-up to switch off automatically after a prescribed time after it doesn’t sense a music signal starting from 5mins. For long haul flights or daily commutes in the train or bus, it would be hard to top the sonic and NC performance of the 1000XM3.
They work great across musical genres and even your phone calls will get a boost with HD-Voice. If there was something I didn’t enjoy was its propensity to make your ears sweat easily when you’re outdoors under the sun.
Although, weight has been reduced over the previous gen by 20gms and comfort is even better, guess you can’t dial out the sun with all the tech on-board the WH-1000XM3! But keep wiping away the essential oils and you will have a travel partner for a long time!