The Sony WH-1000XM3's exterior boasts a soft-touch material. Very rarely will I say that a set of headphones is for “everyone,” but active noise cancelers that are comfortable and sound as good as the Sony WH-1000XM3 fall into that category. They perform well on commutes, flights, and just out on the town.
Sony WH-1000XM3 – Design
The Sony WH-1000XM3 are clearly descended from the 1000XM2 and the 1000X before them; the overall shape and look are the same. Any why not? The original was an elegant yet ergonomic design that looked and felt good. But there are a multitude of tweaks that you’ll miss at a glance.
The black version is a little darker (less grey) while the ‘Champagne Gold’ of the 1000XM2 is now ‘Platinum Silver’. The delicate Sony branding and the trim around the noise cancelling (NC) microphones have been coloured in, too. The black version has bronze accents – tasteful – while the silver version is appropriately a little more bling-bling with brass highlights.
There is also a more subtle profile. The headband bends more acutely and fits closer to the head. That’s to reduce the what Sony calls ‘the Mickey Mouse effect’, where the gap between head and headband makes you look a little silly.
The Sony WH-1000XM3 are more comfortable than their predecessors, and they stay that way for longer. I took them onto a two-hour flight and didn’t once feel the need to remove them. At one point I even fell asleep wearing them; the last time that happened, I was wearing the Bose QuietComfort 35 II.
This improved comfort comes from adjustments to padding and weight. The padding is thicker and the overall earcup footprint has had a 20% increase. The space for your ears is larger and deeper. The circumaural or ‘over-ear’ status of these headphones is unquestionable.
The weight of the headphones have dropped from 275g to 255g. A reduction in 20g might not sound like a lot, but the difference is noticeable if you hold up both old and new versions. Give it a few hours and your neck will thank you. This takes Sony further from the B&W PX (335g) and much closer to the Bose QuietComfort 35 II(234g).
The chassis remains primarily plastic. It’s a nicely finished and not tacky, but some will prefer the anodised aluminium and ballistic nylon of the B&W PX, or the leather of the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless. There’s also a smoother and quieter hinge, and the buttons (power/pairing and NC) are more solid.
The Sony WH-1000XM3 has faux leather on the headband and ear cushions. The textured plastic on the back of the ear cups has been swapped a smoother one with a rubbery finish – I’m told that’s to create less noise when they’re used.
This is the only design tweak I’m not so sure about. A textured finish is less likely to show light scratches and fingerprints, especially when you consider these surfaces are interactive (more on that below). Still, treat your headphones well and they’ll stay pretty – I’ve used these for about a week, going to and from work with them on my head or around my neck, and they look fine.
If you’re going to fling the headphones into a bag for travelling, I’d suggest using the supplied case. This has also been improved: the outside now has a tougher nylon finish and the inside finally has a compartment for cables.
Sony WH-1000XM3 – Features
The Sony WH-1000XM3 are the most feature-packed headphones I’ve tested. Well, the 1000XM2 were – and the 1000XM3 just builds on top of what was already an comprehensive offering.
I’ll start with the new stuff, and the most significant change: improved NC and audio performance. There’s a new chip inside, the snappily named HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1, and it boasts four times the signal processing performance over the old chip.
Most noise-cancelling headphones are built to steady, tackle low-frequency sounds such as plane or car engines. The QN1 chip is supposed to be better than its predecessor at handling mid to high, which means the Sony WH-1000XM3 theoretically do a better job of tackling voices and non-vehicular sounds.
The QN1 chip also benefits audio performance. It can handle 32-bit audio signal processing, and includes a DAC and an analogue amplifier on the chip. Sony tells me this leads to a higher signal-to-noise ratio and lower distortion. All the better to make the most of higher quality audio codecs, such as LDAC and aptX HD.
The Sony WH-1000XM3 also has a new charging system. Gone is the old micro-USB charging port, replaced with the new USB-C standard. That’s good because adopters of the latest Android smartphones will be able to pull double duty with just one charging cable. Although USB-C is a welcome addition, it appears this is just for charging – I couldn’t find a way to use it for music as you can on the B&W PX.
The Quick Charge feature has been drastically improved, too. Just 10 minutes of charging will yield five hours of battery life, as opposed to 70 minutes. A full charge from flat takes three hours, down from four. Battery life remains 30 hours with wireless and NC turned – an industry leading figure.
The automatic power-off feature, designed to save battery when no audio signal is detected, can now be adjusted. Sony’s Headphones Connect app lets you prolong the amount of time you have before the power cuts off. Those who just want the NC without listening to music can turn off the auto-off timer altogether. I can confirm this is great for napping on planes.
Finally for the new features, the left earcup has three extra microphones. These are dedicated to capturing your voice (for calls) and are separate from the microphones used for NC.
Above are the key changes and additions enjoyed by the Sony WH-1000XM3; what follows are features that carry over from the 1000XM2 and the original 1000X. These continue to be used because they’re just great ideas – and well implemented too.
The back of the left ear cup has an NFC chip for rapid Bluetooth pairing; these headphones continue to use Bluetooth 4.2.The right ear cup has a touch-sensitive control pad. You swipe left and right to change tracks, up and down to change volume, and double-tap to play or pause. The touch pad is more responsive than on previous generations.
Hold your palm over the pad and you’ll activate the ‘Quick Attention’ mode, where your music is turned right down and the sounds of the outside world are let in. That’s ideal for a quick chat with the flight attendant or for hearing a train announcement, all without taking the headphones off.
By default the NC is turned to maximum but you can tweak this in the app. Even better, the headphones work with the motion sensors in your phone, and can offer different levels of NC depending on what you’re doing: sitting still, walking, running or commuting.
I’ve set the ‘walking’ option to 50% NC so I can have some situational awareness while going around town on foot (and not risk being run over). I want the full NC treatment on noisy trains, however. The automation works: soon after getting on a train, I hear the headphones go ‘ping’ and ramp up the silence.
There’s also a handy ‘Personal NC Optimizer’ function, which analyses the shape of your head and detects if you’re wearing glasses or if you have big hair. (Good for Colin Kaepernick, then.) The headphones cater the noise cancellation to you by playing a series of test tones and working out what’s going on around your ears.
I wear glasses half the time, which means half the time the headphones’ cushions don’t form a perfect seal around my ears. To my ears, the Optimizer does make a difference in improving the quality of noise cancellation.
The Optimizer is also said to factor in atmospheric pressure, but I’m not so sure about this one. Apparently changes in pressure can impact the effectiveness of noise cancellation.
I tried the Optimizer on the ground and the Headphones Connect app gave me a reading of 1.0 atm (standard atmosphere). When I tried it again at 35,000ft in the air, the reading dropped down to 0.8 atm. Clearly the headphones thought there was a difference, but I didn’t hear the NC behave any differently.
Sony WH-1000XM3 – noise-cancelling performance
The Sony WH-1000XM3’s noise cancellation is so good it feels a little supernatural. Whatever magic Sony has put into the QN1 chip, it absolutely works. There is no exaggeration in Sony’s claims of improved mid to high frequency handling.
I first tried the 1000XM3 on a busy trade show convention floor packed with journalists and engineers nattering away, and I compared them to the 1000XM2. The old ones were no slouch, but the newcomers are a clear improvement. The reduction in the volume of voices was remarkable.
That was mostly background noise, however, since I didn’t have anybody yapping away right next to me. The real test was when I took them onto a flight. With the headphones on, I could tell there were a couple of excited teenage girls speed-talking right behind me, but the NC greatly diminished their presence and made it much harder to pick out individual words.
The roaring plane engines probably helped with that, but I can’t be sure, since I couldn’t hear them either. Pretty good, I thought, until we landed and I stood up to find were not just two girls behind me – there was a whole class of them on a school trip. Basically, the Sony WH-1000XM3 managed to reduce about 20 noisy teens to two.
I took the test into the office to face a different set of audio challenges: the collective keyboard clattering and the HR-worthy comments my colleagues fling at one another. With the 1000XM3 on, I didn’t hear a word of it.
Finally, I put on the Sony WH-1000XM3 and stood by a busy roundabout, teeming with noisy London buses and taxis. Not one vehicle managed to interrupt my music, which I didn’t even have to set to loud. Oh, and wind noise – bane of every pair of NC headphones I’ve ever tested – is much less of an issue.
Sony WH-1000XM3 – audio performance
As for music playback, the addition of an analogue amplifier has also worked wonders. I was already a big fan of the 1000XM2, but the Sony WH-1000XM3 are clearly better. The first thing that hit me was that Sony has come up with a cleaner, firmer sound.
Instruments and vocals are all fuller and better defined. Everything they do comes across more clearly and deliberately. The bass department, in particular, is tighter and offers a greater sense of attack. There’s a real sense of vitality to the way Ry Cooder hammers the ivories in Buena Vista Social Club’s ‘Pueblo Nuevo’.
That’s not to say everything is hyperactive and strong – there’s delicacy and grace where necessary. These headphones have no problem shifting gears from System of a Down’s loud and obnoxious ‘Cigaro’ to Devendra Banhart’s sweet and low-key ‘Ballad of Keenan Milton’.
There’s also a greater sense of space. It’s a bigger, more open sound. Instruments have more room to breathe, rather than jostle for attention. Separation is better than ever, but it never goes so far as to be clinical or disjointed – various elements complement each other nicely.
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