(Pocket-lint) - The original Sony MDR-1000X blew us away back in 2016. Those over-ears quickly became our preferred headphones, they won awards and awards and awards, they created a buzz that saw talk of noise-cancelling headphones shift from Bose to Sony.
When Sony announced that it was turning the 1000X into a family of three - including the in-ear wireless WF-1000X and in-ear wired WI-1000X - we weren't sure how the changes to the 1000X for its Mark II version would work out.
But having used the new yet familiar WH-1000XM2 for a week, we have no doubt they are among the finest noise-cancelling headphones that money can buy. Here's why.
Quality design doesn't depend on plastics
- Folding with travel case
- Premium finish with leather ear cup coverings
- Design follows original model
- Weigh 275g
If you spot a pair of 1000XM2 in the wild, then you've got keen eyes because these headphones look almost the same as the original 1000X.
There's a slight change here and there: the updated badge name on the headband in Sony's normal style, as well as white Sony branding rather than black.
The colour also shifts from the serious black of the original to a black that edges closer towards gunmetal grey, which is slightly more contemporary.
There's also a change in the texture of the leather than adorns the earcups: it's now more textured than the original. Again, it's a subtle difference that results in a pair of headphones that look, feel and wear just as well as the 1000X - which is a great thing.
Beyond aesthetics, the WH-1000XM2 offer plenty of adjustability in the headband to get a good fit. The earcups completely enclose the ear, with plenty of soft leather padding to ensure they're comfortable for long periods of wear.
Although the design doesn't depend on plastic, there is still plastic in the mix to hold everything together. But these Sony cans don't look like a cheap plastic pair of headphones like some rivals do.
Being able to easily fold these headphones into the included zippered case is also great for travelling. You don't want everything else in your bag potentially damaging your £300 headphones, plus it saves on space.
Also included is a 3.5mm cable and dual aircraft adapter if you're unfortunate enough to be on an older aircraft, making the 1000XM2 clearly targeted at the traveller.
There are also touch controls on the right-hand ear exterior. Placing your palm over it will mute the sound so you can order coffee without having to press pause. You can swipe through tracks, swipe to change the volume or tap to pause. It's all very clever.
Clever noise-cancellation and ambient modes make these headphones
- Active noise-cancellation (ANC)
- Ambient sound modes
- Great voice detection option
The original 1000X owe its reputation as the best noise-cancelling headphones thanks to clever smart active noise-cancelling, providing different modes suitable for different scenarios.
To briefly recap: the 1000X headphones start by tuning themselves to your ears and to the ambient sound levels (the sound that surrounds you). It uses microphones inside and outside the earcups to detect sound levels and create the cancellation profile for you when you're wearing them and then adjust this to cancel out external noise (hence "active").
It then adds atmospheric pressure into the mixture as this changes the sound delivery from the drivers in the headphones. At ground level the performance from speakers is different to the pressurised cabin of an aircraft and this detection helps negate the sound differences you might hear.
It also allows certain sounds to pass through, hence smart active noise-cancellation, which is where things get extra clever. The idea is to let a certain amount of ambient sound through when you need it, so you can be a little more aware of your surroundings - something that's really handy when walking down the road or when sitting in an airport waiting for your flight to be called.
For the Mark II model there's a slight tweak to how all this technology works, but the core offering is fundamentally the same. By removing one of the buttons and combining the noise-cancellation and ambient sound modes into the same button, it simplifies the approach. The original headphones needed each mode to be manually triggered by pressing the ambient sound button and cycling through "none", "ambient sounds" and "voice". In the M2 model, these modes can be controlled automatically thanks to the new app - which we'll talk about in a second.
The noise-cancellation remains as good as it was before. We love that you can tune these headphones with a press of a button to suit your surroundings - at home you might want different settings to train travel and so on. It's terrifically effective too, cancelling out background noise that some other models won't manage. We've tried these headphones against the latest from Bose and Beats, and we're convinced that Sony is the most effective.
While we've not had the chance to travel long-haul with these new headphones yet, we've taken 12-hour flights with the predecessor, wearing the headphones practically all the way and enjoying the wonderful delivery of music without disturbance. This is their forte.
There's only one real problem with the arrangement of the active noise-cancellation on the 1000XM2: the exterior mic is exposed, so it really can't deal with wind or passing air, which results in a little "roar" or "tear". On the streets outside, or when getting onto an escalator on the London Underground with all that air rushing past, the resulting sound can be irksome. But this happens to most active noise-cancelling headphones, so it's not Sony specific.
Sony Headphones app enables the automatic switching
- Detects move via smartphone motion
- Automates the whole process
- EQ control and more in app
The app itself is part of the MX1000M2's new offering. It doesn't work with the old MX1000 headphones, only with the new, plus the WI-1000X and the WF-1000X. This app essentially breaks down the features we talked about above and gives you app-based control - and then a whole load more.
This means rather than having to press a button to calibrate the headphones, you can do it from the app and see what's happening. You can also change the equaliser for the headphones to suit your preferences - maybe you want more bass, or more treble - as well as change the balance of the sound positioning. Want the music to sound as though it's coming from in front or behind you? You can do that.
The app also shows you the codec you're using (which geeks will love), so you can open the app and see you're using aptX (we tried with an aptX HD phone and it still only said aptX). The aim of showing the codec is because you have two connection options: one for quality and one for stability.
We tested the Sony WH-1000XM2 with a Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and had no connection problems at all, even with the higher quality settings. However, some devices might struggle and, in that case, the stability option will be there for you.
All this is just fluff really, because the app's biggest function is to enable the automatic mode switching that these headphones offer to make them different to the older version. It all works thanks to the accelerometer in your phone. The app detects what your phone is doing and how you're moving and then it changes the noise-cancellation mode of the headphones to suit the activity you're involved with.
There are four modes - staying, walking, running, transit - each offering a different balance of ambient noise and cancellation to give you the best result.
The idea is that you can be sitting on a train with complete noise-cancellation, enjoying the blissful silence. When you get off, the headphones will switch to walking, letting through some more ambient noise so you don't get run over by a bin lorry when you go to cross the road. It works, too, recognising what you're doing and making those changes accordingly.
You can also customise the different modes, so if you don't want ambient noise when you're sitting at your desk at work, you can change that. Perhaps you want voice to still be let through so you can tell when someone is talking to you. That's all customisable through the app.
Auto mode switching has a bit of a problem
The problem is that it's not a very smooth transition from one mode to the next. It's a rather clunky switching process that first stops your music, chimes to confirm a change in mode, then lets in all the background noise, then applies the new mode's profile, before resuming the music.
The process takes about a second or so and it's a bit of a rude awakening when you're blasted with outside noise to then have the new profile swing in - along with the customary change in pressure sensation that you'll feel in your ears.
Why it doesn't just play the music continuously, give a chime in the headset or a vibration on your phone and keep going, we don't know. Ultimately, the process needs to be improved and refined, otherwise it will probably just end up being turned off (which you can also do in the app).
The result is that if you're a stop-start commuter - walk to the station, jump on the tube, walk a little more, get on a bus, walk a bit, arrive at your desk - then you'll move through these changes a number of times, which gets irksome. If you're just moving from airport lounge to 10-hour flight, it doesn't matter as much - but then neither does pressing a button to change the mode as you did before.
Sony WH-1000XM2 performance is excellent
- 30 hours battery life
- 4 hour recharge
We've talked a lot about how smart these headphones are, but let's draw things in by talking about the actual audio performance.
The 30 hours of use in Bluetooth with noise-cancellation means great battery life, needing four hours to recharge the internal battery via Micro-USB.
There are 40mm drivers for each ear and the sound performance is very much as it was for the original model. That means it's excellent, delivering a wonderful robustness to the sound. There's more volume than you'll likely ever need, too, but thanks to the very efficient noise-cancellation you won't need the volume up high to down out external noise.
There is some sound leakage, however, and if you're merrily enjoying your favourite tunes at a high volume then people around you will be able to hear some of that. That's not uncommon on headphones and very much depends on just how loud you want them to be.
Bass is solid but not overly dominant, meaning there's plenty of space for the full sound spectrum to come through. Sony has packed DSEE HX into these headphones with the aim of upscaling your compressed music formats and aiming to get you closer to Hi-Res Audio quality. Naturally, these headphones also support Hi-Res music formats like LDAC and we've mentioned aptX HD already.
The connection is primarily all about Bluetooth, the format more and more manufacturers are using given the increasing absence of 3.5mm in phones. But the 1000XM2 also work with a 3.5mm cable - yay - and also with no power in passive mode. We'd stick with Bluetooth however: it's what they were designed for and how they work best.
Should I buy the MDR-1000X or WH-1000XM2?
With the original 1000X looking the same, wearing the same and very much sounding the same, the original MX1000X is very tempting if you can it cheaper than the Mark II.
The newer model, however, offers longer battery life - about 25 per cent longer - as well as having that app connection. Even if you opt to avoid the automatic mode switching, the controls the app offers mean you're getting more from these headphones. Ultimately, it's price vs latest functions.
In the WH-1000XM2, Sony has created perhaps the best noise-cancelling over-ear headphones that we've ever tested. Having put in a strong performance in the original guise, the second coming delivers a repeat performance - with a little extra.
The M2 adds features, giving more control thanks to the app, as well as automatic switching of noise-cancellation modes. However, we feel that auto-switching could be a smoother process - although this mode and can be deactivated, with a simple poke of a button making things happen manually instead.
Yes, the price is high, but the performance makes it worth it. Perhaps your biggest decision will be whether to buy the latest and greatest or the original model. And while there's solid rivalry from the likes of the Bose QuietComfort 35 and the Beats Studio 3 Wireless, we'd take the Sony 1000XM2 every day of the week.
Alternatives to consider
Beats Studio 3 Wireless
With Beats now being in the Apple stable, it's easy to see how iPhone users might lean towards the Studio 3 Wireless, thanks to the W1 chip for really easy pairing across your Apple devices. With distinctive Beats bass, these Bluetooth headphones offer active noise cancellation - although we don't think it's as skilled as Sony's - and a lovely long battery life.
Read the full review: Beats Studio 3 Wireless
Bose QuietComfort 35
Bose's response to the 1000X is the QC35, tugging the wires out of its popular noise-cancelling headphones and moving to Bluetooth. The build quality and looks don't quite reflect the quality of these headphones, while its rivals look more expensive, but that not the case when it comes to sound quality. Given a more natural sound, they won't hit those bass notes like the Beats will.
Read the full review: Bose QuietComfort 35