I’ve let a few friends try Sony’s newest flagship active noise-cancelling headphones, and the first thing they comment on is just how eerily quiet the world gets.
Right now, as I write this, there’s a construction crew ripping up the concrete outside my apartment. They’ve been at it for more than a week, and it’s made it difficult to concentrate. With Sony’s ANC on and my window open, the loud commotion is flattened to a light hum. With the window closed, I have trouble telling if they’re still at it out there.
No pair of headphones can cancel all sound (you always hear something faint if it’s loud), but the Sony WH1000XM3s got me really close to noise cancelling nirvana.
I’ve worn the 1000XM3s on trains, planes, busses, subways, and while walking around many a loud city street. They suppress the ruckus so well I sometimes forget where I am if I shut my eyes. The noise cancelling is on-par with the standard-bearing Bose QC35 II headphones— and even better in some circumstances.
They’re so effective I actually found myself sometimes turning the noise cancelling off if I was walking around because I felt so detached from reality. Sony has a few features to combat this. You can toggle the noise cancelling with a button on the left earcup to toggle ANC, but there’s an even easier way to do it: just cup the right earcup with your palm and you’ll suddenly hear all the ambient sounds around you, amplified so you can hear the next stop announcement or that strange noise down the hall with ease. Panasonic’s wireless headphones had this feature as well, but few others do. It’s creative, and after a while, becomes second nature.
Sony credits the improved noise-hushing to its new QN1 processing chip, which cancels out more background sounds while preserving audio quality. The chip also uses a pair of microphones to detect and eliminate ambient noise in real time.
Whatever’s going on in that chip, it’s working. The audio quality is stunning, and these cans are Hi-Res certified to boot. Peers like the Bose QC35s have a well-balanced, non-offensive flat sound to them; the 1000XM3s are far more dynamic. They bring music to life in a way that noise cancellers usually can’t, with a roomy soundstage. They pack a good punch of bass, crystal clear mid-range, and especially sharp treble all while cutting out the sounds around you.
Lately, I’ve been enjoying Paul McCartney’s new album Egypt Station. The piano and guitar work on ballads like I Don’t Know sound especially lovely through these headphones. If you’re a tinkerer, Sony’s Headphone app lets you add surround effects, choose between equalizer presets, or save a custom EQ profile yourself. You can also alter the position of the audio if you want it to sound like it’s coming from a particular direction—I prefer the defaults.
U Can Touch This
Generally, wearing these Sonys is a delightful experience. They’re over-ears, so they’ll get hot if you try and work out with them, but outside of that, they have a light, firm fit and leather-like padding that’s more plush than their predecessors (Sony’s 1000XM2). The power and digital assistant button (It works with Siri or Google Assistant, and you can assign it to be the ANC toggle as well), are also easier to distinguish than the older version.
There are touch controls in the right earcup, which take some practice. It took me a few days to get used to double tapping to pause, swiping up and down for volume, and left or right to switch tracks. Once I did, it the headphones seem to behave and register what I’m doing reliably. Touch controls are never free from those moments of frustration, especially if you’re in a hurry and mess up, but they usually get the job done, hassle free.
Charging is also hasslefree because of the included USB-C cable. It can give you enough power for 5 hours of play in 10 minutes, but you may not need a top up all that often. I’ve only charged my pair a few times, thanks to the 30 hours of battery life. If you turn noise cancelling off, you can stretch it to nearly 40 hours. Few competing headphones can hold a charge this long, and I have really noticed how little have to worry about it.
No headphones are perfect, and neither are Sony’s. I was disappointed that the 1000XM3s don’t filter your voice well for calls, despite a few extra microphones dedicated to the task. They’re OK at best, but callers have complained that I sound like I’m far away from the mic—one caller said it sounded like I was underwater when I took a call outside.
They also don’t auto pause if you take them off your ears, and the earcups don’t twist in a way that relieves pressure on your neck when you take them off—like many headphones, they feel like you’re wearing a constrictive brace. This is a shame, since much cheaper headphones like the Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 or Voyager 8200 do all three of these things well, and sound excellent, too.
When it came down to it, the incredible music quality, premium noise cancelling, and solid battery life sold me. I avoided taking phone calls with them and put up with the neck hugging, but I never stopped using them. They sound outstanding and I find myself using the ear cupping gesture to enable ambient noise anytime I’m out and about.
If you already own a pair of Bose, you don’t need to switch. But if you’ve never owned a pair of nice noise cancelling headphones, the Sony WH1000XM3s are a great pick and easily worth every penny.