Kirk or Picard. Coca Cola or Pepsi. Coal or gas barbecues. Some choices just divide opinions.
In the audio world, it’s neckband headphones. Some people love the extra stability and longer battery life you get over a pair of in-ears, others think only pets should wear collars.
Sony has made that argument a little easier with the WI-1000X, its first set of neckband buds to come with noise cancelling. And seeing how the over-ear MDR-1000X is one of our favourite sets of cans, anything smaller with the same sound-deadening tech looks like a winner to us.
DESIGN & BUILD
Is the neckband the most comfortable thing in the world? Not exactly - but the WI-1000X easily has the edge over rival Bose’s QuietComfort 30.
There’s not much flex in the band itself, but the memory foam padding that sits around the back of your neck is soft enough to leave in place all day and not get painful. It simply feels a lot more premium than the Bose.
The earbuds themselves dangle down from the band, with tiny grooves to stow the cables when you’re not listening to music. A handful of different rubber ear tips come in the box, so you should have no trouble finding a decent fit.
Buttons on the band let you pause music, change volume, pair to a phone, and turn the thing on and off. You don’t get dedicated buttons for skipping tracks, but longer presses are a fine alternative.
FEATURES & NOISE CANCELLING
Sony and Bose have been trading blows over who has the best noise-cancelling cans for a few years now, and although the WI-1000X aren’t exactly a knockout blow, they’re the next best thing. A swift uppercut, if you like.
Their ability to strip out background sound is superb, drowning out the sound of jet engines, commuter trains and office chatter without forcing you to up the volume to eardrum-piercing levels. Sure, there’s a slight hiss when noise cancelling is active and you’re not playing any music (something you won’t find on either Bose or Sony’s over-ear headphones) but it’s a trivial issue. Pop some tunes on and it disappears.
Noise cancelling isn’t just “one and done” on the WI-1000X. There are three different types: ‘ambient’, which lets in a little bit of noise from outside (handy when running, if you don’t fancy getting run over), while ‘noise cancelling’ strips out droning background sounds like plane engines, air conditioners and the general drone of office life.
The third setting, ‘Atmospheric Pressure Optimiser’, is supposed to adjust for lower air pressure when you’re flying, reading from a sensor built into the neckband. Not that it made any difference on a recent transatlantic flight: even at 33,000ft, it still registered 1.0 atmospheres of pressure.
Finally, Sony’s Headphones Connect app gives you an ‘adaptive’ sound setting, which adjusts how much noise gets deleted based on how much you’re moving. It’s a bit flakey, though, somehow changing levels when we were sitting completely still.
If you’re listening with noise-cancelling switched on, expect the battery to run dry in around 10 hours. Without, you can eke out about three or four more hours, but you’ll have to accept a bit of the outside world leaking into your music.
Luckily, Sony includes a microUSB to 3.5mm adaptor in the box, so you can keep listening even once you’re out of juice - or listen to a device without Bluetooth, like a Nintendo Switch.
The other neat extra is aptX HD Bluetooth, which can stream higher quality 24bit/48kHz audio - handy if you’ve got a compatible smartphone or dedicated music player. Right now that includes Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro, the LG V30, OnePlus 5T and naturally, Sony’s own Xperia XZ1.
It won’t come as a surprise that the WI-1000X delivers Sony’s signature sound, full of punchy, vibrant audio. When listening over aptX HD, it retains an impressive level of detail, hitting high notes with precision.
Dynamics are top-notch, keeping plenty of distance between loud and quiet sounds. James Blake’s Retrograde has real depth, with the background harmonies not lost amongst the lead vocal and melancholy synths.
Better yet, there real texture to the low-end, rather than bass that hits you in one big chunk. Calyx & Teebee’s uncompromising d&b banger Immortal shows clear separation between the bass and sub-bass that you just don’t see on inferior earphones.
Tonally, the WI-1000X sits towards the warm side of the spectrum, but only slightly - it doesn’t dilute the mesmerising strings of Hans Zimmer’s Planet Earth II Suite. These are probably as close to audiophile-pleasing as neckband headphones get right now.
Sony WI-1000X VERDICT
Completely cutting the cord is great and all, but not at the expense of battery life. Truly wireless in-ears can get you through a short commute, but they’ll be deader than a dial-up modem before you’ve even reached the mid-way point of a long haul flight.
The WI-1000X is a fantastic mid-way point, untethering you from your smartphone but finding room in the neckband for a significantly bigger battery. You haven’t got to worry about losing an earbud with these, either.
They sound fantastic, arguably more so than Sony’s own WF-1000X in-ears, do an excellent job at silencing the outside world, and don’t dominate your head like a pair of over- or on-ear cans might. Frequent flyers that don’t like full-size headphones should absolutely pick up a pair.