Sony WH-1000XM3 Review – Best ANC Headphone 2020

Sony WH-1000XM3 Review – The Best Noise Cancelling Headphones 2020?

Sony WH-1000XM3

It’s getting tough 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 new Sony WH-1000XM3, it’s 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 was released just over a year later, and I bet the team at Bose started to panic. Their market share just took a huge hit. In many ways, Sony was the better headphone. Especially regarding noise-canceling performance and sound quality. Yet it was still 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-canceling headphones, and we can’t 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 Wireless Headphones

There are a lot of things that make the Sony WH-1000XM3 better than all the other noise-canceling headphones on the market in 2019. The performance of the noise-canceling, the sound quality, the styling, and the features are way better than any other companies offerings.

A lot has been added, but for the most part, it is the 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 its tuning later in this review.

The Sony WH-1000XM3 uses analog amplification inside the headphone as opposed to digital. Something that was never really possible in a portable headphone before due to restrictive concerns about weight and size. Sure it was a concept that was bandied about, but no one could implement it in such a concise fashion.

It seems crazy that Sony has managed to cram all the noise-canceling tech, the batteries, the amplifier, and even touch controls inside an even sleeker chassis.

The effect on the 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 outright sound great and have done away with a lot of the detrimental effects that ANC can have on sound quality.

 

Styling – Small refinements go a long way

The second area where the WH1000-xm3 takes a massive step forward is in the aesthetics department. The Bose QC35 was always a handsome looking headphone on the head. Sleek and understated. The Sony WH-1000xm2, on the other hand, was reasonably good looking in 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 from the head with a full profile. The WH-1000XM3 addresses that issue by seating the headband closer to the head with a far sleeker low profile design. 

The earcups also look smaller when wearing, and they have a far more graduated drop off to the pads. It’s 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 retains that DNA but that they have just been refined. For example, the new colorways look fantastic and are very tastefully done. They look more premium than the Bose, and I’m a massive fan of the unique 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 too common problem with a cracking headband. While it didn’t affect performance, it wasn’t a good sign for the longevity of such an expensive headphone.

The WH-1000XM3 displays nothing that weakness, and during three 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 a bag strapped to my motorbike. They have never skipped a beat, and I couldn’t imagine traveling without them.

The Earcups have a reasonably slim profile, as mentioned above, but they feel incredibly 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 ping right back into position.

The earpads have also been holding up well and are showing no signs of wear. 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 comfiest set of noise-canceling headphones that Sony has ever produced. The earcups roomy 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 works very well with most people’s head shapes. It has slightly rearward tilted cups limiting contact to the outer ear.

Weight is 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 feels like you don’t even have them on, whereas you have to wear Sony for 30 or so minutes before adjusting fully to them.

The good news is that Sony positively thrashes the Bose when it comes to pressure build-up when the ANC is turned on. It is something you want to consider when shopping for the best noise-canceling headphones in your budget. Pressure build-up can be annoying over time and also affects sound quality. Its a by-product of ANC tech and one that no other companies other than Sony have genuinely mitigated.

 

Accessories

Accessories are limited as you would expect in any full-size headphone, but what you do get is all excellent quality. Let’s start with the hard shell headphone case. Its a clam style design made to fit the Sony Wh1000-XM3 inside while taking up the least amount of space possible in your bag. I like this and think it’s well made and good looking yet understated.

The zippers are splash resistant, so water won’t just pour in if it gets wet. 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 two-pin headphone connectors on the armrest of a plane.

 

Functions

The functionality of the WH-1000XM3 is jaw-dropping and it is to date the most feature-rich headphone we have ever tested. I’ll get into it more in the areas below but let’s just make a simple list of what is on offer:

  • ANC (Active Noise Cancellation)
  • Bluetooth with APTX
  • Adaptive sound control
  • Ambient sound control
  • NFC pairing
  • 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
  • USB-C

 

Noise Cancelling Performance – Best in Class

Noise-canceling performance is second to none. I put them side by side vs. the Bose QC35II in several different scenarios, and the Sony WH-1000XM3 came out on top in all. Not only is the Sony better at canceling 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 run an optimizer that measures several factors, such as how you are wearing the headphones or the external pressure. It adjusts the XM3 to the perfect settings for your environment. I have to say this was one of my favorites about the headphones, and I found myself always using the optimizer when I was flying. We get up to cruising altitude where the pressure is around 0.8 bar runt the app and immediately notice a difference in the way the ANC was working.

Hands down the Sony are the best noise-canceling headphones for flying. Yet 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 canceling headphones when traveling. I guess I’m now ruined, but they 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 bother too much about them. I always feel awkward doing so, especially in public, so really, this isn’t too much of a selling point for me. In the future, it will be a life-changing area, but as for now, command programs such as Google Assistant, Siri, and Alex are not quite all that useful.

Call quality was excellent throughout this review, but it felt funny talking with headphones on — a sort of disconnection from the real sound. The good news is everyone who I asked said that my voice was coming through crisp and clear.

 

Touch Controls

The WH-1000XM3 touch controls are the best in the business, yet I still occasionally find myself missing swipes. You get the regular 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. It’s instinctive to swipe directly upwards, but you should swipe up on the line of the earcups meaning that up is not always up. Not too big a deal yet something I did notice on more that one occasion in the review process.

The stand out feature on the right ear cup is the fantastic cover to pause. When you cover that right earcup using your palm, it drops down the playback stops the ANC and allows the world to come flooding back in. If you fly and you 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.

 

Bluetooth Range

Bluetooth range was excellent, and I was able to extend well over 100ft with a clear line of sight. The signal was also able to work in my house between walls, albeit with a reduced range. During the entirety of the Sony WH-1000XM3 review, I never experienced any dropouts 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 through, you can utilize the inbuilt NFC functionality if your phone comes equipped and quickly touch to pair the headphones and phone.

The Sony Headphone Control App

The headphone control app is a critical component of Sony WH-1000XM3’s functionality. Inside, you have a whole range of options that allow you to control and tweak your ultimate listening experience.

 

Sound Quality

Sound quality is excellent, and the WH-1000XM3 is by some margin the best sounding noise-canceling headphones we have heard to date.

However, we can go a step further and say they are also an excellent set of wireless headphones as well. We make a point of this because it is common knowledge for some time that ANC tech can have a punishing effect on fidelity.

A big part of that is the pressure chamber feeling we have talked about a lot in this review. In doing away with that, Sony allows these headphones to compete on a more level playing field with other top Bluetooth headphones that don’t use noise cancellation.

I won’t pretend that this is in any way an audiophile-grade headphone. This is aimed at a mass consumer market and not a niche audience, and as such, it is tuned appropriately. You get a warm presentation with the smooth, clean midrange, rolled off highs, and elevated low end. This is a very versatile tuning profile that is known to work well with the majority of popular music genres. I liked it, and I thought my music sounded rather good.

A massive consideration that people overlook when talking about the sound of certain audiophile focused headphones like this is the reduction of environmental noise. Yes, your open back Audeze LCD-2 is going to thoroughly hammer the Sony Wh-1000XM3 when it comes to sound quality. They won’t sound so good when your hearing engines hum and people chattering. Removing the background noise is a massive part of getting a cleaner sound, and that should not be forgotten.

The soundstage is of medium stature, and there is a bit more width than depth to the sound. It’s more significant 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 pleasant tone and the smooth presentation of the highs complemented weight behind them and that female vocal.

Mids are smooth and warm with stringed instruments just about carrying enough weight. Again the warmth of the tuning helps out here, and if you listen to a lot of rock, pop, or hip hop, these headphones should serve your well.

The low end is enhanced and has a certain dominance over the presentation as a whole. It can have 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 WH-1000XM3 –

  • The obvious competitor for the crown in the noise-canceling 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. It’s starting to show as Sony flexes its might in innovation and execution. The Bose is still an excellent headphone, and in my opinion, they still have the edge in both style and comfort. Everything else though I have to give props to 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 is no slouch and offers tremendous value at current prices.

     

Summary

Pros:

  • 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

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Bose still has the edge in comfort and possibly styling (matter of taste)

 

Conclusion – Sony WH-1000XM3 Review

The WH-1000XM3 doesn’t reinvent Sony’s noise-canceling flagship headphones, but it refines it to a point where it is close to perfection. They 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. 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. 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. It’s the most used out of all the 100+ headphones I own, and that probably speaks volumes.

A great headphone that is pricey but IMHO well worth it. Its the gold standard right now, so I’m looking forward to seeing what Bose fires back within 2019.

Official Sony WH-1000XM3 Website


It has been almost a year since we published this review of the Sony WH-1000XM3, and I can honestly say that these are the best wireless headphones I have ever used. Every time I get on a flight, these are with me, and it makes me wonder how I ever listened to non-ANC headphones while traveling.

The Headphones themselves look as good as new and have had no software bugs that I have found. Sony is decent at keeping the app updated, and I don’t see any failures in the future.


 

 

Audiophile Onhttp://www.audiophileon.com
Audiophile On is a website dedicated to high-end audio products. With over 15 years as a reviewer, all articles are hand-written by one person to allow the comparison of products. Headphones, earphones, speakers, amplifiers, or DAC's we cover here.

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