(Pocket-lint) - Love them or hate them, it looks like neckband earphones are here to stay. Sony has launched a couple of pairs already, but it hadn't released a truly high-end pair.
Then came the WI-1000MX. On paper, these neckband-design earphones promise a lot, but do they deliver in real life everyday use?
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As is standard for many neckband designs, the Sony earphones are horseshoe-shaped; thinning towards the top of the arch, with thicker portions covered in plastic towards the ends which house the internal components and play home to the external controls.
One thing must be said for the WI-100X's design: Sony has made great use of a variety of materials. The back of the collar's exterior is a thin, curved strip of aluminium, which also acts as the supporting structure to ensure it's both strong yet pliable. In other words, it keeps its shape, but it's also easy to put on and take off.
Inside the collar there's a soft padding covering the arch that sits on the back of the neck, making it comfortable to wear for long periods. The Sony isn't as light and "invisible" as V-Moda's Forza Metallo Wireless, but they're well balanced and don't shift around much at all. That's to say you can feel that you're wearing them, a little, but they're not inconvenient in the slightest and are very easy to ignore. It would be nice if they were a little more flexible, if only so they felt a bit better fitted.
Controlling audio - either playing, pausing, skipping or adjusting the volume - is a key element in use. In this case we can't help but feel Sony got things a little wrong. The buttons aren't intuitively positioned or easy to press.
Traditionally, in virtually every pair of earphones, ever, the volume buttons are placed in a trio along with the play/pause button. Usually, the play/pause button is in the middle and the volume button is below it, with the volume up button above. With the WI-1000X, the play button is right at the end of the left side of the neckband. About a finger's width up is the volume up button, with the volume down button right above it, while the power/pairing button further up the band. It took some playing around to learn which button did what. Eventually we got the hang of it, but using controls on a headphone shouldn't require any learning curve at all.
As for ear comfort, Sony ensures your needs are catered for by shipping six extra pairs of ear tips in different sizes. Three are the usual silicone, while three look and feel a little more like memory foam. They're more textured, making them a little grippier.
Regardless of which tip we chose during testing, it was never perfectly comfortable in the ear, and - although they never did fall out - we did have that unusual feel like they would, even though they were secure and snug. A strange sensation indeed.
On the whole, the WI-1000X look like a proper, premium pair of high-end in-ears. The combination of materials added to the dark and greyscale colour scheme on our review unit was a winner. Despite the oddly placed buttons and comfort not being 100 per cent on point, there's very little to criticise here.
Features and noise-cancelling
- Adaptive noise-cancelling
- Manual ambient noise selector
- Atmospheric pressure optimisation
- Google Assistant coming in later update
Like its siblings - the WF-1000X and WH-1000XM2 - the collar-based WI-1000X has many smart features built in. As well as being choc-full of audio customisation options, the way it processes ambient noise is versatile.
There's adaptive noise-cancelling with atmospheric pressure optimising (for when you're on a plane). Then there's smart listening, which detects your activity and adjusts the ambient sound control accordingly. If you're walking, it lets you hear what's going on around you; if you're travelling, it cuts out all of the background noise; if you're waiting it'll let through announcements (like train station announcements) but reduce other noises.
There's a slight issue with this mode's implementation, however, as we said of the WH over-ear model: every time we moved into a new environment during testing the headphones beep to prior to making ambient noise adjustments, which is more distracting than just keeping the plain old noise-cancelling on.
As well as the automatic, adaptive mode, there's a manual control to adjust how much external noise you want to let through. The slider to alter this has twenty positions as well as a "voice focus" option to emphasise talking being audible - we'd go from not being able to hear talking at all, to being able to pick up the kids playing together in another room. In busier environments like a busy tube station, maxed out settings won't completely kill the noise, rather take out a decent amount of it.
Just to add to the features further, Sony has announced that in the future an update will upgrade the headphones, bringing with it Google Assistant, making the WI-1000X even smarter with the voice-controlled assistant. Great.
- 9mm dynamic drivers
- Hi-Res Audio support
- DSEE HX audio upscaling
- LDAC streaming
For those with compatible devices and audio files, the WI-1000X is compatible with Hi-Res Audio. For those who don't, it has DSEE HC audio upscaling to make non Hi-Res audio sound as close to Hi-Res as possible, by restoring detail lost in compression. It also has LDAC, which transmits three times the amount of data than plain old Bluetooth.
Along with its many other features, the app has an equaliser which allows you to either select one of a handful of preset audio profiles or manually create your own using the sliders. We chose the bass-boosting profile, to get the feel for how it affected the profile, bass was indeed boosted to a healthy level, filling out the back of the audio track and adding that immersive feel, without muddying the sound at all. Subtle details remain clear and discernable.While all that looks impressive on paper, it's in listening that you get the feel for how impressive these Sony in-ears are. Whether you're a bass lover, someone who wants completely neutral and flat sound, or you like to play songs with a big emphasis on the vocals - you can make these earphones work for you.
Listening to the Foo Fighters and feeling like we could feel the bass drum pedal strike the bass drum skin was a joy - and with definition, and not just a wooly bang. Similarly, the quality extends to every aspect, whether backing vocalists, third guitar, or just the ride cymbal bell in the chorus - it's all super clear.
Another specific example would be a song like "Everything Now" by Arcade Fire, which has a lively intro with piano, plenty of bass and drums, yet we could still clearly hear the very subtle rhythmic click of the wooden block in the background. The same is true in the chorus. It's just brilliant and so enjoyable.
The app also provides even more customisable options, but many of them have a gimmick feel to them. For instance, you can change the audio to feel like you're listening to it in a large concert hall, or in an arena (for example). Doing so changes the balance and adds delay and reverb to varying degrees. What's more, you can even adjust where you want it to sound like the sound is coming from. You can choose to have it sound like it's playing at you from the front, left, right, or at the back.
There's no doubt then, that the WI-1000X are among the most versatile and best-sounding in-ears currently available on the market.
Performance and battery
- Bluetooth 4.1
- SBC, AAC, LDAC, aptX and aptX HD
- Up to 10 hours battery with ANC on
- Micro USB for charging
As you'd expect from a pair of headphones with LDAC, AAC, SBC and Qualcomm's aptX HD support, the wireless connection proved flawless. We tested using an iPhone 8 Plus, OnePlus 5T and Huawei Mate 10 to see if there was any difference between devices, but with each of them the connection was solid.
Similarly, the battery did fairly well given the performance of the earphones. Sony promises up to 10 hours playback with the noise-cancelling activated or 13 hours with the noise cancelling off. Of course, these battery stats are normally achieved in very controlled tests. In average day-to-day use your mileage could vary. In our usage, we'd suggest around eight to nine hours of play time.
To recharge the battery it's a case of plugging in by Micro-USB. Which is one design element that feels outdated. Whereas many competitor products now use Type-C, Sony has stuck with the previous-gen charging port.
Sony's earphone game is getting stronger by the year, with its latest wireless earphones being testimony to that improvement. The WI-1000X are, without doubt, among the best in-ears we've tested in a while.
Given how much technology is stuffed inside, how great they sound, how well they're made, and how versatile the ambient noise -ancelling is, the £260 price tag, while not small, is well worth it.
Sure, they could be a little lighter, they could last a little longer on a charge, and they could be a tad more comfortable to wear, but all that fades into insignificance once you start listening to music and adjust the sound to how you want it. As neckband earphones go you'll rarely find better than the Sony WI-1000X.
Alternatives to consider
Bose QuietControl 30
Like the Sony, the Bose earphones feature a neckband and noise-cancelling tech. They also have that quality Bose sound, which is full, detailed and crisp with plenty of emotion.
Read the full review: Bose QuietControl 30 review
V-Moda Forza Metallo Wireless
If you're after great sound, but without the need to fuss around with an app with a million choices for sound and noise-cancelling, the Forza Metallo Wireless are brilliant. They're light, almost invisible, and have an awesome, punchy bass-filled sound. They also cost considerably less than the Sony pair and are perhaps one of our favourite in-ear headphones ever.
Read the full review: V-Moda Forza Metallo Wireless review