(Pocket-lint) - At some point in the past five years, Bose took control of noise-cancelling in headphones, becoming the de facto brand you'd see when walking down the aisle of an aircraft. Sony, it seems, doesn't like this, and for the third year in a row has pushed out a version of the 1000X, looking to knock the crown from the incumbent's head.
When this headphone range was first launched in 2016, the noise-cancelling was remarkable, a huge step forward in actively combatting exterior noise; perfectly appealing for those on long flights who just want to relax and enjoy their music and movies undisturbed.
The 1000X in their 'M3' or Mark 3 guise, up the ante once again. Here's why they're among the very best over-ear headphones with noise-cancelling that you can buy.
A quality design tweak
- More premium
- New texture and finish
- USB Type-charging
To look at, the 1000X in its latest guise is very much the same as before: over-ears that fold into the included hard case, with reasonable padding across the headband and nice soft padding on the ear cups.
There are actually a lot of changes from the previous two versions of these headphones, with the padding now extending over the exterior of the headband, so there's no longer a metal band visible across the top. That extends to giving a slightly higher-quality look around the headband adjusters, something you want from a premium-priced pair of headphones.
The exterior finish of the cups is different too, losing the leather look for a soft-touch matte finish in either black or silver (the silver being more of a stone colour, really).
The cups are a slightly different shape, too, reflecting a new layout of exterior mics around them and, importantly, the introduction of a USB Type-C port - which means you can easily charge these headphones with the same cable you likely use to charge your Android phone.
In addition to Bluetooth, the Sony 1000XM3 also offer a 3.5mm cable attachment, so you can still listen when the battery runs flat, or if you really want a wired connection. Yes, you can still use noise-cancelling when using the wire, but without a Bluetooth connection you miss out on some of the advanced features that the Sony Headphones Connect app (iTunes or Google Play) offers.
Let's talk about noise cancelling
- Active noise-cancelling (ANC)
- Adaptive noise cancelling
- Personal optimisation
Sony's noise-cancelling system wowed when it first appeared in the 1000X and still continues to impress. It's certainly one of the best systems you'll find in ANC headphones right now, offering a number of technologies.
The first of which is personalised optimisation. At any point, you can long press on the noise-cancelling button and these headphones will tune to your ears and to the environment to give you a personalised setup. That's great when they first arrive or when you step onto an aircraft for a long flight - and it does make a difference for the better to the overall sound.
Like all noise-cancelling headphones, the 1000XM3 actively monitor exterior noise and cancel it out. It's especially effective against things like the hiss of aircraft, air-conditioning or traffic noise, but with good isolation provided by the earcups, the 1000XM3 generally tackle all exterior noise - leaving you in a blissful cocoon of tranquillity.
That's great when you are flying, because you can just use the noise-cancellation to get a little respite from the rest of the environmental noise - regardless of whether you're actually listening to music or not.
For those who do fly, the M3 headphones carry with them a piece of technology introduced in the previous M2 version: an atmospheric pressure sensor. This will detect and tune so that the sound you hear remains accurate to avoid the distortion that happens at higher altitudes. Sadly, if you're one of those people who always seems to be waiting for their ears to pop, there's nothing these headphones can do to help you with that.
The new 1000XM3 have more processing power (from the so-called HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1) than the previous headphones, so they can be more aggressive with that noise-cancellation effect. That means the M3 is, in many regards, the leader of the pack when it comes to noise-cancellation; another step forward in performance and functions from the previous edition, but not so drastically that you'd need to replace your existing 1000X with a new pair.
Comfortable for extended wear, adaptable profiles
- Sony Headphone Connect app
- Gesture support for controls
One of the introductions with the 1000X M2 was adaptive noise-cancelling profiles - and not just the ability to manually switch from noise-cancelling to ambient. Working with the smartphone companion app, motion is detected and the mode can be switched automatically to suit the situation.
When sitting at home you might want blissful silence, but when walking along the street you might want a little ambient noise coming in so you're not totally cut off - you want to hear the bus that's otherwise going to drive into you.
The app will switch between "staying" (basically sitting), walking, running and transport. Let's just say from the off that we can't seriously see anyone running in these headphones - they're too big, too expensive and you'd sweat like a demon (if you want some decent noise-cancelling headphones for sport, try the Libratone Track+).
But the Sony's other modes work well. There's still something of a harsh switch from one mode to the other, as though the headphones want to make the point of changing mode rather than just doing it in the background. You might control these things manually, which you can do through the app, or you can just press the NC/Ambient button on the headphones to switch between noise-cancelling mode and ambient mode where background noise is let through.
As with any tech, there's the potential to confuse. We found on one occasion the app what forcing the headphones into ambient mode, despite ambient mode not being selected. Restarting the phone fixed this, most likely because the app wasn't working properly.
There are also gestures to control your music with swipes on the right-hand earcup, which we prefer to using buttons. There's also the popular mute gesture when you put your hand to your ear, which will let voice through while muting your music - perfect for ad hoc conversations, ordering coffee and so on.
Sound quality and performance
- 40mm drivers with liquid crystal polymer diaphragms
- LDAC, aptX HD, DSEE HX
- 30 hours battery, 4 hours charging
With Sony dabbing technology into these headphones with a heavy brush, it's no surprise to find there's a lot more customisation available through the app (none of which can be accessed through the headphones themselves). These cans support LDAC for higher rate data transfer (as long as the phone supports it), aptX HD, and Sony's audio upscaling technology, DSEE HX, which attempts to digitally enhance your music.
Without fiddling with anything that Sony offers, we've found the 1000X to have a nice balanced music delivery; there's plenty of detail, there's the ability to deliver crisp and punchy bass, while the isolation helps widen the soundstage for an immersive listening experience.
When using noise-cancellation, the skill of the headphones is enhanced as they don't have to compete with that exterior noise: turning the music down doesn't see external noise flooding in, but turn the volume up and you'll find that there's some sound leaking out - so on a packed train, it's easy to disturb those next to you.
But diving into the app, Sony offers a lot more tweaking. You can change the sound profile, you can add effects, you can change the direction the sound appears to be coming from (why?), as well as get access to basic equaliser (EQ) functions. So there's plenty to help you get the sound you want, as well as the cancellation you want. The results are fantastic.
Sony claims around 30 hours of battery life, which is an improvement and generally competes with the best out there. That will get you to Australia without needing to charge, assuming you're flying rather than walking. Charging does take some time, though, at the four hour mark (there's no quick-charging, which is a shame as this is USB-C), but hopefully you won't need to charge too often. Battery status is reported with a quick press of the power button, which can be helpful.
Google Assistant stumbles
One of options with these Sony headphones is Google Assistant voice control. To enable it you'll have to change the function of the noise-cancellation button so that it triggers Assistant instead.
Our experience is that it's probably not worth doing that: not only does that mean control of the noise-cancelling mode is only available in the app, but the Google Assistant experience isn't very good.
Press-and-hold the GA button to talk and that gives you an echoy experience as you listen to yourself talking. Google then may or may not reply. Often we found a delay - that was too long - before Google would chime up. Or sometimes we'd get no response at all, just a ghostly silence. Sometimes the music would stop, then resume, then Google would talk over the top.
We tested it on a couple of different Android phones and it never really worked smoothly, so you're probably best ignoring Google Assistant integration and leaving that button controlling ANC - which is really what these headphones are all about.
Each iteration of the Sony 1000X headphones tweaks and changes the experience to deliver some of the most aggressive noise-cancellation that you'll find on a set of headphones. There's no avoiding that the Sony WH-1000XM3 is expensive, but you're paying for a premium set of headphones that will cut extraneous noise out of your life.
Even without the noise-cancellation, these are great sounding cans. Arguably there are options that sound just as good or better for less cash - if you don't have a need for ANC, anyway.
But if you spend a lot of your time sitting on noisy trains or plane, or find yourself always turning up the volume to counteract background noise, then the latest version of the 1000X come highly recommended.
These over-ears are among the very best noise-cancelling headphones money can buy and worth every penny for that peace.
Alternatives to consider
Bose QuietComfort 35 II
There's no denying that Bose isn't taking this lying down. The QC35 II is an excellent pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Where Sony seems to be leaning towards technology and features, Bose just delivers on the noise-cancelling promise with aplomb.
B&O BeoPlay H9i
If music quality if what you're after - and you're happy to pay a little more - then the B&O H9i offer a little more quality for a little more money. They're not quite as potent as the Sony when it comes to noise-cancelling, but they might suit you better if travel is less frequent for you.