Sony WH-1000XM3 Review - The Best Noise Cancelling Headphones 2019
Its getting very hard to keep up with the rate that Sony keeps putting out new products but at the same time after putting together this review of the Sony WH1000XM3 its even harder to criticize their headphones.
Just a few years ago it seemed that Bose would always be the first choice in Noise Cancelling headphones. Then with the release of the original WH-1000 Sony made people sit up and take notice they hadn’t yet bettered Bose but they were the only company offering a viable alternative.
The Sony WH-1000XM2 were released just over a year later and I bet the team at Bose started to seriously panic. Their market share just took a huge hit. In many ways the Sony WH1000-XM2 was the better headphone in regards to noise cancelling performance and sound quality yet it was still a hard to recommend one over the other thanks to Bose's superior styling and comfort.
Well Bose had better be ready to release something new, and they better do it fast. Sony has released the WH-1000XM3 Noise cancelling headphones and we cant find any case to recommend someone to buy the QC35ii over the XM3. The king is dead.... Long live the king.
What is new in the Sony WH-1000XM3
There are a lot of things that really make the Sony WH-1000XM3 better than all the other noise cancelling headphones on the market in 2019. The performance of the noise canceling, the sound quality, the styling and the features are just way better than any other companies offerings.
Lots has been added but for the most part it is refinement of the previous generations shortfalls that is most impressive. Some areas have seen marginal tweaks that have turned an already outstanding headphone into an unrivaled one.
The sound is the star of the show and we will delve deeper into the tuning later in this review but its the way they have made it sound so good that is of particular note.
The Sony WH-1000XM3 use analogue amplification inside the headphone as opposed to digital. This was never really possible in a portable headphone before due to restrictive concerns about weight and size. Sure it was a concept that was often banded about but no one had the ability to implement it in such a concise fashion.
It seems crazy that Sony have managed to cram all the noise cancelling tech, the batteries, the amplifier and even touch controls inside an even sleeker chassis.
The effect on sound is profound and for the first time we don’t have to use the phrase “They sound amazing for a noise canceling headphone”. No, they just outright sound great and have done away with a lot of the detrimental affects that ANC can have on sound quality.
Styling - Small refinements go a long way
The second area where the WH1000-xm3 take a massive step forward is in the aesthetics department. The Bose QC35 were always a handsome looking headphone on the head. Sleek and understated. The Sony WH-1000xm2 on the other hand were reasonably good looking in the hand but slightly bulky and awkward looking on the head.
The reason for this, we deduced in our review earlier last year, was the way the headband integrated with the earcups. They sat far of the head with a wide profile. The WH-1000XM3 address that issue by seating the headband closer to the head with a far sleeker low profile design.
The earcups also looks smaller when wearing and they have a far more gradiated drop off to the pads. Its not just about them being physically smaller but also about them being styled to match your head better.
The good thing for those who were fans of the previous headphones is that the Sony WH-1000xm3 retain that DNA but that they have just been refined. For example the new colorways look awesome and are very tastefully done. They look more premium than the Bose and I’m a huge fan of the new copper accents on the black model.
I am however still a big supporter of the Bose’s looks and its the one area where it comes out ahead of the WH-1000XM3 but its a far closer race now than it has ever been.
Build Quality - Built for travel
Build quality has improved leaps and bounds as Sony has upgraded its flagship noise canceling headphones. In the original Sony WH1000 review we like many other people experienced the all to common problem with a cracking headband. Whilst it didn’t really affect performance it wasn’t a good sign for the longevity of such an expensive headphone.
The WH-1000XM3 display nothing that weakness and during 3 months of testing for this review they still look brand new. I have had these headphones on over 30 flights and they even spent 30 days in bag strapped to my motorbike whilst running an off-road trip up the spine of the Andes in Peru (without the protective carry case). They have never skipped a beat and I just couldn’t imagine traveling without them.
The Earcups have a reasonably slim profile as mentioned above but they feel extremely robust and resilient to knocks and drops. The articulation points are also very well done and you can really get crazy bending the headband and they just ping right back in to position.
Earpads have also been holding up well and are showing no signs of wear but I will keep this review updated in the future and let you know how long it was before I eventually have to replace them.
Comfort - A close Second to the Bose QC35II
These are by far the most comfy set of noise canceling headphones that Sony has ever produced. The earcups are generously spaced and well padded and the headband is also very soft of the top of the head. I don’t have any issues at all with any of the WH-1000xm3’s contact points with my head. I find that the angle of the earcups also works very well with most people head shapes with its slightly rearward tilted cups limiting contact to the outer ear.
Weight is actually not bad, especially considering how much they have managed to put inside the headphones but the Bose QC35II noise canceling headphone still have the edge in this area. The Bose sometimes feel like you dont even have them on where as you have to wear the Sony for 30 or so minutes before adjusting fully to them.
The good news is that the Sony positively thrash the Bose when it comes to pressure build up when the ANC is turned on. This is definitely something you want to consider when shopping for the best noise cancelling headphones in your budget. Pressure build up can be annoying over time and also affects the sound quality. Its a by product of ANC tech and one that no other companies other than Sony have truly mitigated.
Accessories are limited as you would expect in any full size headphone but what you do get is all excellent quality. Lets start with the hard shell headphone case. Its a clam style design made to fit the Sony Wh1000-XM3 inside whilst taking up the least amount of space possible in your bag. I really like this and think its well made and good looking yet understated.
The zippers are splash resistant so water wont just pour in if it gets wet and there is a small pouch on the back where i found it handy to put my passport and when boarding a flight and stowing my bag in the overhead lockers.
You also get a charging cable that is thankfully now USB-C, a cable to use them wired to a 3.5mm headphone jack and a flight adapter that allows you to connect your headphones to those annoying 2 pin headphone connectors on the armrest of a plane.
The functionality of the WH-1000XM3 is jaw dropping and it is to date the most feature rich headphone we have ever tested. Ill get into it more in the areas below but lets just make a simple list of what is on offer:
ANC (Active Noise Cancellation)
Bluetooth with APTX
Adaptive sound control
Ambient sound control
Google Assistant support
Upcoming support for Amazon Alexa
Quick charge (5 hours playback from 10 minute charge)
Custom sound profiles
Pressure and ANC optimization
Touch control earcups
Noise Cancelling Performance - Best in Class
Noise cancelling performance is second to none. I put them side by side vs the Bose QC35II in a number of different scenarios and the Sony WH-1000XM3 came out on top in every one. Not only is the Sony better at cancelling out more unwanted sound it also manages to do that without that annoying pressure build up we talked about earlier.
When used with the Sony smartphone app you can also run an optimizer which measures a number of factors like how you are wearing the headphones on the external pressure and adjusts the XM3 to the perfect settings for your environment. I have to say this was one of my favorite about the headphones and I found myself always using the optimizer when I was flying. I would wait uniting we get up to cruising altitude where the pressure is around 0.8 bar runt the app and immediately notice a difference in the was the ANC was working.
Hands down they are the Sony are the best noise cancelling headphones for flying but they also work well on buses, trains and environments where there is a lot of constant noise pollution like libraries and offices.
Simply put I find it extremely hard to go back to using non noise cancelling headphones when travelling I guess I’m now ruined but they really do make a noticeable difference in how refreshed you feel when you arrive at your destination.
Voice Commands & Call Quality
Voice commands work but I am yet to really bother to much about them. I always feel awkward doing so, especially in public so really this isn’t to much of a selling point for me. In the future it will definetley be a life changing area but as for now command programs such as Google assistant, Siri and Alex are not quite all that usefull.
Call quality was excellent throughout this review but it felt funny talking with headphones on. A sort of disconection from real sound. The good news is everyone who I asked said that my voice was coming through crisp and clear.
The WH-1000XM3 touch controls are the best in the business yet I still occasionally find myself missing swipes. You get the typical tap to pause/play, swipe forward and back to skip and swipe up and down to control the volume.
The only one that caused me occasional bother was the volume control and that is due to the angle the earcups sit on the head. Its instinctive to swipe directly upwards but you should actually swipe up on the line of the earcups meaning that up is not always up. Not a big deal but something I noticed on more that one occasion throughout the review process.
The stand out feature on the right ear cup is the amazing cover to pause. When you cover that right earcup with your palm it drops down the playback stops the ANC and allows the world to come flooding back in. If you fly and your own a set of Sony WH series headphones you already love this feature. For those who don’t you soon will.
Announcements made by the pilot? Questions from the stewardess? Cover the cup and you can hear without the fumble for the pause button.
Blootooth range was excellent and I was ble to extend well over 100ft with clear line of sight. The signal was also able to work in my house between walls albeit with reduced range. During the entirity of the Sony WH-1000XM3 review I never experienced any drop outs or lost connections so as a whole I consider the performance of the bluetooth excellent.
Connecting was also a breeze and this was tested on a Google Pixel 3, Iphone XS and Microsoft surface book. You can connect to the headphones either by the regular pairing mode of long pressing the power button and searching for the unit using your phone. Quicker though your can just use the in built NFC functionality if your phone comes equiped and quickly touch to pair the headphones and phone.
The Sony Headphone Control App
The headphone control app is a key component to the Sony WH-1000XM3’s functionality. Inside you have a whole range of options that allow you to control and tweak your final listening experience.
Sound quality is excellent and the WH-1000XM3 are by some margin the best sounding noise cancelling headphones we have heard to date.
However we can go a step further and say they are also an extremely good set of wireless headphones as well. We make a point of this because it is common knowledge for some time that ANC tech can really have a punishing effect on fidelity.
A big part of that is to do with the pressure chamber feeling that we have talked about a lot in this review. In doing away with that Sony allow these headphones to compete on a more level playing field with other top Bluetooth headphones that don’t use noise cancellation.
I wont pretend that this is in any way an audiophile grade headphone but this is aimed at a consumer mass market and not a niche audience and as such it is tuned appropriately. You get a warm presentation with smooth clean midrange, rolled off highs and elevated low end. This is a very versatile tuning profile that is know to work well with the majority of popular music genres. I really liked it and I thought my music sounded rather good.
A massive consideration that people overlook when talking about sound of certain audiophile focused headphones like this is the reduction of environmental noise. Yes your open back Audeze LCD-2 are going to thoroughly hammer the Sony Wh-1000XM3 when it comes to sound quality but they wont sound so good when your hearing engines hum and people chattering. Removing the background noise essentially is a massive part of getting a cleaner sound and that should not be forgotten.
Soundstage is of medium stature and there is a bit more width than depth to the sound. Its bigger than the Bose that’s for sure and if you get the App set up just right with the staging they can sound very grand when paired with the right track. That said for the most part I preferred to leave this on the stock setting although it is fun to play around with on different songs;
Imaging is just average which is to be expected for a headphone at this price point. Instruments define themselves well but do lack the refinement that sound focused headphones offer.
Vocals are certainly a good showing here. Both male and female vocals are given plenty of space and clarity to shine and the added warmth across the presentation tends to aid this. I found that male vocals in particular had a good tones and weigh behind them and that female vocals were complemented by the smooth presentation of the highs.
Mids are smooth and warm with stringed instruments just about carrying enough weight. Again the warmth of the tuning really helps out here and if you listen to a lot of rock, pop or hip hop these headphones should serve your well.
Low end is enhanced and has a certain dominance over the presentation as a whole. It can has both a good rumble and speed of attack and only minimal bleed into the lower midrange was observed.
Comparisons and Alternatives to the Sony WH-1000XM3
Bose QC35II vs Sony WH1000XM3 -
The obvious competitor for the crown in the noise cancelling world is the Bose QC35 and when compared head to head with Sony’s WH-1000XM3 the QC35 are starting to look very long in the tooth. Bose hasn’t changed much or added much to its headphones over the years and its starting to show as Sony flexes its might in innovation and execution. The Bose are still an excellent headphone and in my opinion the still have the edge in both style and comfort. Everything else though I have to give props to the Sony.
Sony WH-1000XM2 vs Sony WH-1000XM3
With the introduction of the XM3 the outgoing XM2 model can be found with heavily discounted prices online. So I wouldn’t rule out purchasing it if money is of concern. I have had mine since the first week of launch and they have been a tremendous workhorse of a headphone for me. I place them on equal footing with the Bose QC35II. The XM3 is without a doubt the better headphone in every way but the XM2 are no slouch and offer tremendous value at current prices.
Pros and Cons
Feature rich App enhances the experience
Useful Touch control
Excellent battery life and quick charge
Excellent sound quality
The best Noise Canceling headphones you can buy in 2019
Bose still has the edge in comfort and possibly styling (matter of taste)
Conclusion - Sony WH-1000XM3 Review
The WH-1000XM3 doesnt reinvent Sony’s noise cancelling flagship headphones but it refines it to a point where it is close to perfection. The have taken the majority of the complaints I had about the XM-2 and improved on the previous experience. I am more than happy to recommend this headphone to anyone who puts noise cancellation as a priority.
As I said they aren’t an audiophile headphone but they are a very very good sounding headphone especially considering the previous obstacles companies have had in match sound quality and ANC technology.
As a complete package this is a headphone that is extremely hard to criticize and you can see this in the review (I wan’t paid or contacted by Sony to write the review btw). Its feature packed, well built, sounds good, looks good and blocks out unwanted noise like nothing else. For someone who travels as much as me this is the perfect headphone right now. Its the most used out of all my 100+ headphones I own and that probably speaks volumes.
A great headphone, pricey but IMHO well worth it. Its the gold standard right now so I’m looking forward to seeing what Bose fires back with in 2019.