Review: Sony's WH-1000XM3 Headphones are the Best Noise-Canceling Cans You Can Get

Discussion in 'Guides, How Tos and Reviews' started by MacRumors, Mar 29, 2019.

  1. MacRumors macrumors bot

    MacRumors

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    #1
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    Sony threatened to topple the apple cart in 2016 when it unleashed its flagship MDR-1000X cans on a headphones market which up until then had been dominated by Bose in the premium travel-grade noise-canceling department.

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    Combining excellent wireless sound with active NC that made even QuietComfort fans sit up and take notice, Sony's awkwardly named headset proved that the Japanese company's extensive acoustic R&D had finally hit on a winner, giving rival NC headphone makers due cause for worry in the process.

    Unsurprisingly, Sony has sought to improve upon this winning formula in the intervening years, starting with another tongue-twisting rebrand of its flagship range (the inexplicably named WH-1000X series) and two follow-up models boasting incremental improvements, both of which have been well received.

    What's perhaps more surprising about these developments is Bose's lack of response to them, having released in that time only a tweaked version of its flagship QC35 cans with support for Google Assistant. Whether that's down to complete confidence in the quality of its existing noise-canceling smarts or just lack of innovation is a moot point, given that Sony's adaptive NC technology and sonic prowess has essentially overtaken the company, as these latest cans exemplify.

    The WHX-1000XM3's are essentially an upgrade to last year's 1000XM2's, featuring a series of minor improvements that Sony believes collectively justify a new model number. Let's take a look at them and see just how far the company's noise-canceling range has come.

    Design

    On the face of it, Sony's WH-1000XM3 headphones boast the same design signature of previous 1000X models. They're available in two understated colors - beige and black - and the ear cups swivel inwards so they pack up neatly in the supplied carry case. The only distinctive marks on the outside of each cup remain the minimal Sony logos and tiny microphone grilles, although they have picked up some neat brass-colored accents.

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    Sony WH-1000XM3 (left) beside original MDR-1000X headphones

    A closer look reveals more notable differences though. Gone is the exposed steel headband, which is now concealed between the adjustable slats under thicker, more comfortable padding than on previous models. The foam urethane ear pads are also slightly larger and cushier, and allow for a deeper ear space inside.

    The most obvious ergonomic shift to occur however is in terms of weight. The XM3's are 22 grams lighter than the XM2's (and 10 grams lighter than Bose's QC35 II's) which might not sound like much, but after wearing them for several hours straight it does make a real difference.

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    Sony WH-1000XM3 (left) beside original MDR-1000X headphones

    Like previous cans in the WH-1000X range, the two buttons on the left ear cup control power and noise-canceling/ambient sound features, making blind selection a lot easier than the indistinctive three-buttoned affair on the original MDR-1000X cans. As before, the power button can be quickly pressed for a battery level update, and a long press activates the pairing sequence, while software-based options let you change the function of the ambient sound/NC button (more on those later). Unfortunately, the blue LED next to the power button still continually flashes during operation, which can be vaguely annoying if you're wearing them in the dark.

    Sony has also switched up the connectivity in this model: The microUSB port on the right ear cup is gone, replaced with a more up-to-date USB-C connection (the charging cable terminates in USB-A). One thing that hasn't changed is Sony's love for gesture controls: The right ear cup has a touch-sensitive back that responds to taps and swipes to control music playback, skip tracks, change volume, and invoke your preferred virtual assistant. Like most modern headphone gesture pads, it can also be used to take calls. The good news is that the material Sony is now using to coat the pads is a little smoother, which makes the gestures in general a lot more responsive than models past, so kudos for that.

    Performance and Features

    As we mentioned at the start of this review, Sony pulled something special out of the bag when it released its MDR-1000X headphones, which boasted next-level noise cancelation previously only achieved by the likes of Bose. With the 1000XM3's, Sony has somehow done it again and made these cans four times more effective at damping down sounds from the outside world than the 1000XM2's. After plenty of testing, we can state that they consistently outperform Bose's flagship headphones when it comes to killing external noise in a range of environments and use cases.

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    This stepwise improvement is partly to do with the ambient sound controls being more flexible and a little smarter than previous models. Fire up the Sony Headphones Connect app and you can manually drag a slider that changes the degree of noise-cancelation, allowing you to select maximum isolation, wind noise reduction, or choose from among 20 levels of varying ambient attenuation. It's great for finding your ideal NC range while you're stationary, but you can also switch to adaptive sound control when you're on the move and the built-in QN1 processor will do just as good a job, automatically adjusting its corresponding inverted frequencies to block out whatever environmental sounds come your way.

    As before, the headphones make low-frequency sounds like jet engines and traffic swiftly melt away, but Sony has also improved its proprietary chip in this model to attenuate high-frequency sounds like voices. That doesn't mean you won't hear when someone shouts at you from the other side of the room, but it does make short work of background chatter in a busy coffee shop. On the flip side, the Focus on Voice feature is much better than its earlier incarnation. It aims to let you hear in on important announcements - when you're waiting to be called to a boarding gate, say - while still allowing you to enjoy your music in relative quiet. The old Voice mode had patchy performance and often failed to filter out other ambient sounds, but the WH-1000MX3's are much more discriminating in this regard.

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    The QN1 chip doesn't just excel at controlled NC either. Sony has also thrown in an onboard DAC and an analog amplifier, along with 32-bit audio signal processing and support for reproducing the full range of frequencies up to 40 kHz. Those smarts allow the cans to consistently deliver a higher signal-to-noise ratio and lower distortion, and allowed me to enjoy clear, crisp audio in all of the supported AAC (iPhone), aptX/aptX HD (Mac/Android), SBC (everything) and LDAC wireless codecs. The mid-range remains wonderfully balanced and the highs sparkle on instrumental tracks, while a powerful yet controlled bass provides a solid foundation.

    You'd be forgiven for thinking all the tech in these cans would inevitably be a power drain, but Sony impresses by eking out 30 hours of wired/wireless battery life on a single charge, and you can get five hours' worth of charge after just 10 minutes connected to a power outlet with the optional AC adapter (as opposed to 70 minutes on the WH-1000XM2's). That gave me oodles of time to play with the additional app features, including the sound position controls that let you change the perceived directional source of your audio, not to mention the welcome surround sound modes and EQ sliders.

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    Digging deeper into the software controls, it's now possible to adjust the automatic power-off feature, which is activated when no audio signal is detected. You can even turn it off, which is super-convenient if you just want to have NC active without listening to audio. You can also optionally change the function of the NC/ambient button on the left ear cup to activate Google Assistant, Siri, and (most recently added) Alexa. It's a neat way to quickly ask general queries, but it also means you can use your virtual assistant of choice to play music and skip tracks on the fly.

    Happily, Sony has also carried over all its popular features from previous models. The left ear cup still includes an NFC chip for fast pairing with compatible devices, while Sony's unique innovation in the NC space lives on: Hidden inside both ear cups are the same microphones that Sony's "personal NC Optimizer" uses to sample ambient noise and cancel out a wider range of sounds with corresponding inverted frequencies. Hold down the NC button, and the headphone speakers emit a series of tones that bounce back and forth between the mics to analyze the shape of your head, work out whether you have big hair, wear glasses, and so on.

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    Sony has actually tweaked the optimizer in this model to include atmospheric pressure, and I found it to work better during flights. This was easy to test thanks to another feature unique to the company's Sense Engine, called "Quick Attention." Cup your fingers over the right ear cup and the volume instantly lowers to let in the outside world - bring your hand back down and the music returns to its prior volume. It's genuinely useful for situations in which you'd usually have to take off the headphones - like when a flight attendant offers you refreshments.

    As with previous models, the WH-1000XM3's pack one of the strongest Bluetooth connections I've come across in headphones, and consistently retain a connection in areas where rival Bluetooth headsets regularly falter. By default, the headphones automatically select the highest quality Bluetooth protocol available, but you can still manually switch the priority between most stable connection and highest audio quality, which is now done in the iOS app.

    Before we wrap up, it's worth noting that, inexplicably, Sony's 1000X range still doesn't support dynamic switching between audio sources. Bose's QC35's have no trouble pairing with two devices and automatically switching between them based on which one is transmitting an audio signal, so it's baffling that the 1000XM3's lack this ability, and in our Bluetooth saturated age, it's hard to overstate just how convenient the feature is. Having to manually disconnect the 1000XM3's from your iPhone so that you can connect to your Mac and vice versa just feels clunky, yet Sony's cans had no trouble auto-pairing with the last known device whenever I turned them on.

    Bottom Line

    Sony's ability to continue improving its WH-1000X series of wireless headphones is largely thanks to its dedicated acoustics research, which currently leaves rival makers of premium noise-canceling cans with much work to do to get anywhere near the same quality.

    The customizable and adaptive NC smarts prove Sony's tech has come on in leaps and bounds since the original MDR-1000X model, while improvements in battery life and sound quality make for a well-rounded listening experience. If the company can just take a leaf out of Bose's book and add dynamic device switching in the next version, they'll be virtually untouchable for a long while to come.

    Pros
    [*]Best noise canceling in the business
    [*]Exceptional sound in both wired and wireless modes
    [*]Superb battery life
    [*]Improved design and touch controls
    Cons
    [*]Lacks dynamic audio device switching
    [*]Flashing operating LED can be annoying

    How to Buy

    The Sony WH-1000MX3 headphones come in beige or black, cost $349.99, and can be ordered via the Sony website or on Amazon.
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    Note: Sony supplied the WH-1000MX3's to MacRumors for the purposes of this review. No other compensation was received.

    Article Link: Review: Sony's WH-1000XM3 Headphones are the Best Noise-Canceling Cans You Can Get
     
  2. dan9700 macrumors 68030

    dan9700

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  3. keysofanxiety macrumors G3

    keysofanxiety

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    Nov 23, 2011
    #3
    I’d love to try the WH-1000MX3 (doesn’t quite roll off the tongue) as I’ve heard great reviews about it.

    Sony headphones sound brilliant. Their MDR 7506s are still used in studios today and offer a great balanced dynamic range for mixing, yet they’re nearly 3 decades old. Plus they’re so well priced.
     
  4. -Maxim- macrumors regular

    Joined:
    Sep 8, 2011
    #4
    I love my 1000X from 2016 and got the XM3 for my wife last fall. I am a bit jealous of hers since they're softer around the ear and the noise canceling is slightly better. Oh well, not enough of a reason to retire my 1st gen, though.
    Look out for deals for the XM3 - they're sometimes sold for around 249€.
     
  5. WilliamG macrumors G3

    Joined:
    Mar 29, 2008
    Location:
    Seattle
    #5
    While this Sony does indeed have better noise canceling than the Bose QC35, comfort-wise the Bose wins hands down, especially on longer flights.

    I don’t think there’s a clear winner overall. If Sony can up the comfort and make multi-device connections a thing, it would be a no-brainer in favor of Sony.
     
  6. Relentless Power macrumors Penryn

    Relentless Power

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    #6
    A Couple of things worth noting:

    1.) Sony only provides a “1 foot” long cable to charge the headphones. They did not include an actual charger, just a USB-C cable, (which isn’t a major set back). The short cable length is rather inexcusable, when there’s no reason they could not have provided a longer charging cord for $350 headphones.

    2.) And you can only connect to one device at a time, which There is no support for multiple device pairing, which you have to ‘Re-sync’ every time.
     
  7. izyreal macrumors regular

    Joined:
    Sep 26, 2012
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    USA
    #7
    Having owned both, I have to say that I agree with this article. The Sony headphones are better. Most people would be happy with either.
     
  8. LastStarfighter macrumors member

    LastStarfighter

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    UK
    #8
    Just last week I made the choice between these and the Bose QC35 II. I ended up buying the Bose.

    Having had a nice range of other Bose produts I just have faith in their ability to be reliable, solid, with great sound quality. I'm not overly concerned with which one has a little better or different noise cancelation and I don't want to have to tweak any EQs when listening to different kinds of music which Bose always seems to handle well with their dynamic EQ they seem to build in to everything.

    I know, I know, some people love that freedom to tweak their sound in all different ways but I'm mainly using these on flights when I just want to put them on and listen to music, without playing with settings.

    The Bose app and multi-device connection is great. It just makes me laugh when I think about the H1 chip in the airpods being able to switch between inputs faster.... Okay that chip might be a revolutionary thing but Bose has had a different way for a while now that's even faster to switch between inputs....it doesn't, it's connected to them all and just plays whichever one plays sound through the headphones. My Speaker, my SoundSport Free (Bose's airpod equivilent) and the QC35's all have it.
     
  9. CristianM macrumors member

    CristianM

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    Aug 4, 2015
    #9
    I remember trying the previous model from Sony and while the quality is great, they are not nearly as comfortable as my QC35s, which I can wear for hours with no problem.
     
  10. Nuvi macrumors 65816

    Joined:
    Feb 7, 2008
    #10
    My thoughts exactly. Bose QC’s are extremely comfortable. On flights I wear them even when not listening to anything. All that jarring engine noise is gone and there is no irritating pressure from the cans. On Sony NC headphones I’m constantly reminded about the cans due to the pressure around my ears. I also find it annoying that they only connect to one device at a time. With Bose you can have two devices connected which makes switching devices as smooth as it can be. However, Sony has made serious advancements in NC tech so I’m not surprised by their excellent audio quality. Also Bose seems to be overpriced. Materials are no better than on Sony’s and audio quality seems to be inferior. Bose needs to innovate and reconsider their pricing if they want to stay relevant in the future.
     
  11. SgtPepper12, Mar 29, 2019
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2019

    SgtPepper12 macrumors 6502a

    SgtPepper12

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    #11
    I own the XM2s and tried the XM3s and while Sony undoubtedly made improvements to the noise cancelling, that is not the game changer I thought it would be. Plus, I thought the build quality overall degraded quite a bit. The XM2s feel much more solid to me. Also, I personally think the reddish design elements on the XM3 look atrocious. No idea why they thought that was a good idea. Anyway, here are some annoyances with the headphones that to my knowledge persist with the XM3s (inform me if Sony actually managed to solve one of these problems):
    • The touch controls. I guess it is sometimes useful, but for the most part it's not. It's absolutely annoying and 95% of the time I activate it, it's not on purpose. Imagine listening to a long track, you lean your head over to the right for whatever reason and my shoulder (even with a T-shirt on, it doesn't matter!) touches the touch sensitive part of the headphones. It beeps and the touch control decides that I want to skip over to the next track. This really happened to me and not just once. Sony, just give us an option to deactivate it.
    • The voice. It's one thing that it very slowly announces what is going to happen or what has just happened, and another thing that it actually ceases playback in that time. So in case you are listening to an audiobook or podcast, you are going to lose some content. The solution is again very simple: Sony, just give us an option to deactivate it!
    • Slow controls. Everything just kind of takes its sweet time. You want to turn off noise cancelling? Okay, press the corresponding button, that will activate ambient sound. After the lady in the headphones finished the announcement, you can press the button a second time and will hear that indeed you turned off noise cancelling. That can take 5 seconds or so. That's just too much, especially as during that time you will not be able to listen to music.
    As negative as this may sound, apart from these points the headphones are amazing. Considering you can often get the XM2s for more than 100 bucks less than the XM3s, I would probably go with the XM2s for the time being.
     
  12. LastStarfighter, Mar 29, 2019
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2019

    LastStarfighter macrumors member

    LastStarfighter

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    #12
    The thing no one talks about with these NC headphones is that you also have to be able to convince the flight attendants that they’re actually wired headphones on many flights. They don’t like Bluetooth headphones due to supposed interference. I’ve done like 10 flights in Jan-Feb this year and only on the very last flight did one flight attendant complain about me using my SoundSport Free earbuds. It’s not easy to convince them that those are wired as they’re completely wireless like AirPods so I bought a set of headphones, choosing between these and the Bose.

    Both these Sony and Bose options have optional cables, I don’t know what the Sony does, but if you plug in the wired audio cable to the Bose it turns off Bluetooth so if you want to make it look like it’s wired you need to use a longer USB charging cable and tuck that into your coat or pocket. The USB charging cable that comes with the Bose is too short for that.
     
  13. NPC Compliant macrumors newbie

    NPC Compliant

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    #13
    I was under the impression that that shortfall had been improved with the m3.
     
  14. bitardo macrumors newbie

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    Jun 27, 2018
    #14
    The review somehow seems just too cheerfully positive.

    Anyway, I was also considering between the previous-gen Sonys (MDR-1000something) and the Bose QC35II. The Sonys deliver considerably more bass and overall oomph than the Bose. The Bose seemed more comfortable to wear, had better-balanced sound for what I normally listen to and were clearly superior to the Sonys in terms of noise cancellation.

    Overall, I went with the Bose, even though I mostly prefer Sony for personal audio (I had a cassette Walkman, a Discman, two mp3 players (one being with their OpenMagicGate DRM and one without), and a waterproof Walkman that I use to this day).

    When looking for headphones, it's very important to prioritize your needs and to have a clear idea what you're going to be listening to. For example, before the Bose I had wired Sennheiser Momentums and while I loved the style (oh the questions and compliments that they get – I had two people off the street asking me about them and one friend offering me to buy them right off me :) ) and really enjoyed the detailed highs, but getting them to exhibit *anything* in the low range was a problem and required a separate, equalized sound source. So jazz and classical music sounded just awesome in the Sennheisers, but anything with a beat or bass line was just bland.
     
  15. JustinM80 macrumors member

    JustinM80

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    Feb 16, 2019
    #15
    The MDR 7506’s were released in Japan in 1975. Just some food for thought. So they are over 3 decades old. Get the facts :).
    --- Post Merged, Mar 29, 2019 ---
    The Bose app is terrible. What’s wrong with you? There is that third party app that turns the QCII’s into the garden of Eden though. But I won’t mention any names here today.
     
  16. Tomasulu macrumors newbie

    Tomasulu

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    Feb 13, 2015
    #16
    You don’t own the Sony then. I’ve this and the qc35 and the Sony is more comfortable. That said I don’t think the Sony is much better than the Bose. I find the sony’s Ac is too aggressive resulting in a stronger electronic hum than the Bose. It’s still overall a better anc headset though.
     
  17. JustinM80 macrumors member

    JustinM80

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    Feb 16, 2019
    #17
    Don’t say “stewardesses”! That’s like saying the N word. Make sure to say Flight Attendants.
    --- Post Merged, Mar 29, 2019 ---
    I also own both of these headphones and the 35’s are way more comfortable. Geez smoking that iiiisssshhhhtt I see.
     
  18. michael siccofield macrumors newbie

    michael siccofield

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    Aug 2, 2017
    #18
    I have XM2 version and listen audio for nearly 10 hours on a daily basis, I can easily say the sound quailty and NC is amazing. One and only drawback for me is the voice quailty when I’m on a phone call. Even if I’m just walking on a not really noisy street, other side on the line hears literally everything but my voice. I understand from the hands on videos that this hasn’t much changed at all with XM3. Hope Sony will fix it in XM4.
     
  19. JustinM80 macrumors member

    JustinM80

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    #19
    You actually still take phone calls? FaceTime Audio is the way to go.
     
  20. glowplug, Mar 29, 2019
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2019

    glowplug macrumors regular

    glowplug

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    #20
    25 years ago Bose was something special. Now it’s an empty shell coasting on a dissipating reputation.
     
  21. keysofanxiety macrumors G3

    keysofanxiety

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    #21
    Really? I thought they were released in 1991.
     
  22. JustinM80 macrumors member

    JustinM80

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    Feb 16, 2019
    #22
    That is far from true. I’m not a Bose loyalist by any means. But they still manufacture quality products. But Sony has been on the comeback trail for two years. Look at what they’ve accomplished. They now have the best cameras and lenses in business and almost amazing headphones. Anyways, I own these, QCII and the new B&O’s. I’m sorry to say this but the B&O’s are the greatest sounding headphones I’ve had in my life. The best part is, I didn’t even purchase them as they were a gift.
     
  23. TorontoSS macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Nov 9, 2009
    #23
    I think the important point in the article is that it's surprising that Bose hasn't done much as yet to update the QC35s.

    My household has both headphones. I think Bose has better build quality and yes comfort. But the Sony XM3's are actually very comfy as well but their build quality isn't the same. The sound I think is better on Sony's and the features are just so much better.

    My problem is that the features don't always "just work". The touch controls generally work for me, but sometimes the song skips if I just want higher volumes, etc. I also find that the automatic changes in noise cancelling (when in a train, vs when walking) don't change as quickly as they could. I wish it would just change right away, and it would free up that NC button for Google.

    That's the thing about Bose. They have limited features but they work. But they have fewer features and it's surprising they haven't upped their game as yet. My assumption is they'll have something out by the end of the year though.
     
  24. JustinM80 macrumors member

    JustinM80

    Joined:
    Feb 16, 2019
    #24
    Nope 1975 in Japan. Released in the US on May 14, 1976. Trust me I know my headphones. I own the second pair that was ever made. I even own the rare silver editions which go for over 5k on eBay.
    --- Post Merged, Mar 29, 2019 ---
    The QCIII’s aren’t slated for release until after CES next year. I think you should try some B&0’s. They are amazing. The NC is insane on them.
     
  25. tribeaumes macrumors newbie

    Joined:
    Feb 10, 2016
    #25
    I fly twice a week for work and I have never heard of flight attendants having issue with Bluetooth headphones.
     

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