The Sony WH1000XM2 are probably the most game-changing headphone on the market right now. For years there has been one company that has dominated other noise canceling headphones. Bose and their QC35 (Quiet Comfort) headphones have been the go-to product for anyone seeking to block out external noise and enjoy some peace and quiet. Go to any airport in the world and you are bound to find multiple people wearing these things on their head and there is a good reason why. Up until now, nothing has been a match for them. Sony tried once before with the good but ultimately flawed MDR-1000 but now they are back with something even better and by better, I mean even better than Bose.
There is a reason why the Sony WH-1000XM2 are now my everyday set of headphones and after a couple of months testing them its time to explain why I rate them so highly in this latest review.
Discloser: Sony did not send me the WH1000XM2 for review. They were purchased at full retail by myself from Amazon.
Packaging and Accessories
The Sony WH1000XM2 packaging is very typically Sony. They are more down to business and less sleek that some of their competitors but the good news is that its all very high quality and there is a tonne of information about the headphones on the box.
What you can see is that in the box you get everything you need and I am happy to report it's all of very high quality.
I like that they still give you an airline adapter jack (something that Bose no longer does with the QC35 II) and that the cable is a standard 3.5mm to 3.5mm male to male instead of using an obtuse 2.5mm input on the earcup.
The included case is very high quality and is surprisingly small and flat. Its a semi-hard shell case with good rigidity. It has a nice divider that helps keep the headphones from moving around when stored and that same divider also cleverly houses the airline adapter. On the back side of the case, there is a small pouch which I have found to really hand for storing my passport and ticket in when boarding the plane.
Build quality is excellent. Everything feels well put together and to an extent quite luxurious. You get a nice textured finish to the earphones that provides a nice tactile feel when using the touch controls. The headband is made of metal with similar plastic surrounds but it seems from most reports I have read that Sony has managed to fix the cracking issue that plagued the MDR-1000.
I have been using them for flights all around Europe over winter, most of the time without the case and I am happy to say they still look brand new. Swivel points feel robust and the headband can stretch to obscene angles without any hint that it would give way.
Side by side I still prefer the bose, those things are damn near indestructible, but then I have no fears about the longevity of the WH-1000 over the long term.
In my opinion, the Sony WH1000XM2 is a good looking set of headphones but they are definitely not a great looking set of headphones. Its really the only area I can criticize them and that is purely because the Bose QC35 are so sleek and stylish. The Sony looks a lot less fashionable and is somewhat bulkier with the earcups extending further off the head than their low profile competitors.
There is some respite though that the Sony, with increased adoption, actually seem to be growing in terms of being style iconic. In flying around Europe I have seen more and more businessmen using these and at times I actually find myself thinking they are actually quite an understated and desirable looking headphone.
Battery life is incredible. By far the best battery life of any ANC headphone I have ever tested. During regular usage and at what I would call normal listening levels I was able to get well over 25 hours of playback time when using Bluetooth and noise canceling.
The quick charge function is another big plus for these headphones as if you ever do run out of juice a 10-minute stint on the charger will yield a whopping 70 minutes of playback time.
Some people have pointed to the lack of inclusion of a USB-C port for charging as a negative. Sony has opted to remain with the tried and tested Micro-USB standard for its charging port. Quite honestly I couldn't care less I still use micro-USB daily and have plenty of cables lying around. While it's not an issue for the next couple of years I would expect them to move over to the C variant in future models.
The WH-1000XM2 is an incredibly comfortable set of headphones. The large earcups give enough space for my ears to sit unencumbered but those people who have bigger ears may find their ear touching the driver. The padding on the earpads is excellent and the headband is also well protected.
Clamping force is just about perfect. They do a great job of staying fixed on your head but at the same time do not create an uncomfortable build-up of pressure on the jaw like I get with the Bang & Olufsen H9 or Parrot Zik 3.0.
Something not often mentioned is the comfort when not in use. If like me you wear your headphones wrapped around your neck then you will be happy to know that the earcups do swivel to a flat position. This makes them far less obtrusive than something like the Sennheiser Momentum. It's a subtle point but one I think worthy of inclusion given how many people will be using these headphones whilst traveling and commuting.
Heat build up was not bad but it has to be said that in this regard the Bose QC35 has the Sony beaten. In fact, directly comparing the two in terms of comfort the Bose are hands down winners. In my opinion, the Bose QC35 are the comfiest earphones ever made but that in no way makes the WH1000-XM2 uncomfortable. In their own right they are excellent but Bose does still remain the best in this area due to its lightweight and angled drivers that allow better heat dispersion.
Isolation & Noise Cancelling Performance
Isolation without the noise canceling turned on is just average. The is simply nothing special about their isolation properties when used without ANC. In fact, sound leakage on these headphones is actually quite pronounced. We did a few tests during this review and found that in a quiet room, with volume levels set a little above 60% then the person sitting opposite me was able to hear that music was playing. This won't be noticeable in most situations but its a good way to get your partner to give you a punch in the shoulder while you try watching Netflix in the bed whilst she sleeps next to you.
With ANC turned on the WH-1000XM2 really show what they are all about and I am just going to say it right now. They are the best noise canceling headphones ever made, hands down. Going side by side with the Bose the sony are streaks ahead in how they perform noise cancellation. The strength of what they are able to block out is incredible and makes traveling by bus or by plane far more enjoyable.
Of course, just like with all other ANC headphones the noise reduction only really works with a consistent noise like engines. Traveling on a short haul flight is just much more pleasant and it's quite amazing how much less stressed I felt when getting off at the other side. However, it used on a long haul flight completely changes the way you fly. Honestly, I don't think I will ever get on a long haul flight without these in the future.
The reason they perform so well is evident If you dip into the Sony headphone app. Here you will find a calibration tool that will automatically scan a bunch of variables and reset the sound to your preference. For example when on the ground, I am usually at around 1bar atmosphere. When in the air due to elevation and compensatory cabin pressure headphone will sound different than when on the ground. The Sony app takes all these factors into account and adjusts the headphones sound and ANC to match the environment.
This isn't just a gimmick either, the effects of running the calibration tool when at altitude saw a marked improvement in sound quality, noise cancelation strength and most importantly it completely removed that built up pressure feeling you get in other ANC headphones.
Adaptive Sound is cool but I rarely use it
So the WH-1000XM2 has a clever trick up its sleeve where if you choose the setting in the app the headphones will try to best determine the environment you are using them in and adjust the level of ambient sound accordingly. To me, it's a neat trick but honestly its something I would rarely use. If I am going to be using noise canceling headphones I would say that 99% of the time I am just going to leave it running.
I can, however, see the use in this if you are someone who spends a lot of time walking around built-up areas and cities but I just didn't find any situation where I would have this setting enabled.
The Sony Smart Headphone App
The first time I saw a solid implementation of a headphone app was when I reviewed the Fiil Diva Pro. Sony though has taken things to the next level and have developed an app that is far more than a gimmick. It is a great piece of software and elevates the headphones to a level that the competition just can't match.
You can adapt the sound in many different ways from positioning where the music is coming from. The type of environment (Arena, club etc). You also get a 5 point custom EQ with the ability to control the clear bass settings as well. It essentially means you get to listen to your music the way you want.
Another thing you find in the App is the noise canceling optimizer. By selecting and pressing the start button the headphone will run a quick test of your environment and atmospheric conditions and dial in the noise canceling appropriately. I found I ended up using this every flight and it helped make a big difference in not only the ANC's effectiveness but more markedly it completely eliminated the build up of pressure you feel on almost every other nois cancelling headphone.
Touch Controls and One Really Cool Feature
A big step up that sony have over bose is the touch controls. Other headphones like those from parrot and B&O have their own integrated touch controls but the Sony WH-1000XM2 have the best I have ever used. Ultimately responsive, very intuitive and with also one really cool extra trick up its sleeve.
The right earcup operates as a control center of sorts and there are plenty of features at hand:
Swipe Up or Down to control volume
Swipe back and forth to skip a track
Tap the center to pause/resume playback or to take a call
Cover the entire earcup to allow the outside world in
The speed and simplicity with which the Sony perform these functions just make the QC35 button system seem annoying and antiquated. After a few hours with them, I knew there would be no going back to the old way of doing things.
That cover the cup feature, by the way, is a stroke of genius and works incredibly well. To pause your music and to play in the outside sound all you need to do is cover the right earcup with your hand. The headphones will then play in the external sound through the earcups. At first, this might seem like a gimmick but its seriously brilliant.
I notice myself using it more than I thought I would in situations like flight announcements and flight information. The one thing I still can't bring myself to use it for is when speaking to someone. Like when an air stewardess leans over to ask what I want to drink it just seems rude not to offer the courtesy of removing your headphones whilst someone is speaking to you.
Its not touch though and the left earcup has a couple of small hardware buttons that control the headphones power and pairing functions as well as a quick control to turn the ANC to on, off or ambient.
Sound Quality - At last a truly good sounding ANC headphone
By far the biggest advantage of the Sony WH-1000XM2 has over every other noise canceling headphone on the market is its sound quality. Noise canceling headphones have in the past suffered from really poor sound quality. Things have been getting better with the latest generation models hitting the market but the WH-1000 are the first ones that I truly like the sound of.
The best way I can describe it is this Bose were always great all-round headphones but the boomy low end and relatively lifeless performance meant that I used them for comfort and ANC. If those two features were not of upmost importance I would never reach for them. They don't sound bad per se but they don't sound great.
The Sony, on the other hand, is a very, very good sounding headphone when used wireless and a great sounding one when wired (Relative to price). Dollar for Dollar they can throw down with any other portable headphone at this price point and they sound great with Music, Podcasts and Audiobooks.
Tuning is very distinctly Sony with a fairly good soundstage, ability to achieve an enjoyably weighty low end yet retaining composure and clarity right through the mids and into the highs. Almost any genre of music works well with them with default settings and the ability to adjust the clearbass and EQ settings to your preference only further enhances the listening experience.
Detail retrival is excellent, yet as expected they are no match for dedicated home hifi headphones in this price range like the Hifiman HE400, Monoprice Monolith and Meze Audio 99 Classics.
Competition - Sony WH1000XM2 vs Bose QC35 vs Bang & Olufsen H9
Of course, there are a lot of headphones in the sub $400 range that I could compare the Sony with but I'm sure most people want to know how they stack up against other noise canceling headphones. Well in my mind its pretty simple, the sony is the best and they are by quite a significant margin.
I will have the Bower and Wilkinson ANC headphones in for review soon and will update this article accordingly but for now, let's start with the Bang & Olufsen H9. Simply put the Sony have them beat in every single department apart from perhaps styling, and that is highly subjective. Whether its the touch controls, sound, or comfort the Sony WH-1000XM2 are just better and then you take into account the premium price of the H9 and this one seems like a no brainer. Sony wins hands Down.
Now of course, the biggest competitor of Sony is going to be the Bose QC 35 II a headphone I have used (Gen 1 & 2) for a couple of years. I didn't expect to be choosing the WH-1000XM2 over them but they're now just too much of a benefit for me to ignore them.
Advantages of Sony WH-1000XM2 over Bose Quietcomfort 35 II-
Far superior sound
Truly useful touch controls
Cover to hear
Ldac & Codecs
Headphone control App
Significantly better ANC
Advantages of Bose over Sony
Marginally better build quality
Significantly better comfort (Bose are, to me, the gold standard for comfortable headphones)
The build quality thing is really close. The WH-1000M2 seem to have addressed the headband cracking issue from the version 1 and everything feels very solid. The Bose are made from a really tough feeling composite that from personal experience I know is able to take a beating.
Comfort again must be put into context. I will say it again the Bose QC35 are more comfortable than any other headphone I have ever tested. The Sony is up there with the rest of them. What this means in practice is that your ears may get a little hotter a little sooner but neither of them can be considered uncomfortable.
Conclusion - Currently the best all round headphones on the market today.
Best all round headphone? Yup. I think we are getting to the point where wireless headphones are now almost essential. I am simply sick of using a damm dongle every time I want to change my headphones between my laptop and phone. Then noise cancelling has grown far past a gimmick and sony is the first company (yes that includes Bose) to make something that really limits the effects of ANC on sound quality. I still think the QC35 are the better looking and more comfortable but that is marginal and with everything else they have jumped streaks ahead of Bose who seem to be standing still with their pants around their ankles.
The price is steep but the versatility of these headphones means that they are always the first ones I reach for when I walk through the door.