It has been nearly 5 months since I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing some over-ear closed-back headphones. And I think it’s about time.
Much like any other product that I review a lot of, I find myself gravitating toward one or two products as my “daily driver” products, if you want to call them that. Most tech bloggers and reviewers reserve that terminology for cell phones, but the concept ought apply in other places as well. For instance, when it comes to wireless bluetooth speakers, Sony’s SRS-XB31 is my current favorite, and gets more regular use than my Bose Mini Soundlink II; my primary computing device is a 15″ MacBook Pro with Touchbar (over Microsoft Surface Pro and Dell XPS options); and, when it comes to headphones I have been sticking with my B&O H4’s for over-ear entertainment. I’m fortunate enough to be able to enjoy a lot of options when it comes to technology.
So let’s talk about headphones, and specifically what we see happening in the personal audio market in late 2017 and early 2018. A lot of players are coming to the market, kind of like what happened with cell phones 2-3 years ago, where more and more the products you can get your hands on now are consistently decent. Gone are the days of not buying the best cell phone on the market (at the highest price tag) and having a crappy experience, and at least from the small subset of products I’ve interacted with in personal audio (speakers and headphones of all kinds) this holds true as well.
But also in 2017 and 2018, we’re seeing over, and over, and over again the price tags of generally-accepted “decent” headphones in the $200-$400 range, which is a little bit high for many average consumers. And that sucks, because these products are getting really good, even borderline great. The one nice thing is, $350 seems to be the cap for well-marketed consumer higher end products, and that’s not much different from a few years ago. So, there’s good and bad, and the goal of this is to see where in that spectrum this set of headphones sits.
Enter Sony’s WH-CH700N headphones, another aptly Sony moniker, a set of noise canceling over ear headphones coming in at $200, which is well below its biggest competitor (arguably), Bose’s QC35. And if you haven’t experienced the QC35’s, get on down to your local retailer and put a set of these things on your head, because it is a magical experience. In any case, everything about the CH700N’s (which shall henceforth be named “Sony’s”) seems to target the QC35’s, from the design cues in color, size and weight, outstanding battery life, and most importantly, noise cancelation.
Some more specifics on design; they come in black and blue, the former being a more standard, less flashy headphone look and certainly my preference. The left ear cup houses the power and noise cancelation button, along with a standard 3.5mm input jack and micro-USB for charging (broken record, I know, but I still don’t understand why these manufacturers can’t start including USB Type-C as standard); the right cup has controls for volume, play/pause/answer and back/next. The cups themselves are deep enough for my ears so that they don’t touch the cloth inner-speaker cover, and the ear cushions are thick and comfortable, covered with a leatherette material. The band is lightly padded and also covered in a leatherette material, and the construction as a whole is largely plastic. And speaking of plastic, these things weigh in at 8.47 ounces, which is a mere 2% heavier than the QC35’s.
So yeah, there’s only one player in this space–and that’s what Sony seems to be going after here, although you may be wondering how well they’re doing considering the big price difference.
Even at $200, I expect these headphones to do most things well (reference paragraphs 2-4 above). And the Cliff’s Notes version, they do. As I said, they’re light, and they also don’t clamp tightly at the jaw, so you can wear them all day long and remain mostly comfortable, unless you tend to get sweaty in over-ear headphones (the ear pads don’t breathe at all). Most notably for me, the battery life on these are rated at 35 hours, which is near the top of the list of currently-released headphones in early 2018…but again, compared to the QC35 II’s 20 hour battery, there seems to be something fishy going on here.
Exploring further, arguably most important–the sound. Much like the QC35’s, they don’t get particularly loud. And, much like the QC35’s, they have a sound profile that favors more natural sounds and play vocal, orchestral and live tracks well compared to pop, hip-hop, EDM or metal. These headphones seem to shine when it comes to mids and upper mids, and hold highs well at maximum volume without distortion. No, these aren’t your typical overly-bassy Sony headphones, which certainly have a place in the world for people like me. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get bassy.
Unlike the QC35’s, while these can provide a very good natural-sounding flat sound profile, the Sony’s aren’t limited to that; combining some of the Sony software within the Headphones app with pretty darn good engineering, these can put out enough bass to please a diverse group of listeners. These settings are customizable in the Sony app, which has a mixer and other settings to help tune the sound to your particular preference.
I really, really like these headphones, and in some cases think they outperform the QC35’s. So what’s the catch?
Noise canceling: it’s atrocious. It is not where these shine. Sure, they do a decent job muting some ambient noise, but it’s far from what I would call acceptable. My typical gauge for assessing the “goodness” of noise cancelation is how well it makes me motion sick. I’ll be honest, I didn’t even realize noise canceling was on for most of the time I was using them during the first week. Over time, I noticed some slight, subtle differences, but I found more variation in performance from app settings than I did the NC button on the left ear cup.
Another not-so-great aspect of the Sony’s is the build quality; while at first inspection they seem to emulate the QC35’s well, after further wear and use I found them to be a bit creaky when I would move my head or have a snack while wearing them. Creakiness when you’re listening to music or watching a movie is not great.
What was good–surprisingly so–is the battery. I fully expect 35 hours to be an attainable number; although I didn’t run the battery down from full charge, I did not need to charge them even with sporadic use in the first week. And, they support quick charge, which is a nice plus.
So in summary–decent design, light frame (although a little cheap feeling after some use), great battery life, comfortable, really great sound, good supporting app, and abysmal (let’s call it non-existent) noise canceling. At $200 these aren’t great wireless noise canceling headphones, because they’re not noise canceling headphones at all. But at $200, they are remarkably good wireless headphones, and check a lot of the boxes to be successful in that category; unfortunately, though, the product performance makes these a bit misleading, and disappointing.
I still recommend them, certainly not as noise canceling headphones, because they perform as well as they do in the other areas. And, Bose remains the king of noise cancelation.