For those who know me, it is certainly no mystery that I spend a lot of time reviewing personal audio products. I’ve written before about how the market space has exploded over the last several years, and even more recently remarked that it is getting harder and harder to find bad headphones and bad speakers. That’s of course not to say bad headphones and bad speakers don’t exist, especially at budget prices, but just like smart phones there are plenty of manufacturers that are succeeding in developing budget options for those people who really enjoy a good audio experience.
And just like in the smartphone market, you still have the big players, like Bose, Sony, and Beats, who continue to sell products at the top end of most peoples’ comfort zones. Some number of years ago, when Bose’s QC line of over-the-ear headphones hit the market, people balked at the $350 price tag; I am no stranger to spending top dollar for flagship products, my recently acquired iPhone X S Max is a testament to that.
I’ve also had discussions recently with friends about the nature of audiophiles, and what they expect out of a great pair of headphones. I remember remarking that the Bose QC35s are an all-around great pair of headphones, even for those folks who are really picky about what they hear; the response to that was that true audio files would have a serious problem with my statement. But what we have to remember is that Sony and Bose and Beats aren’t marketing toward audiophiles; but they are doing a great job converting more amateur listeners of music and watchers of movies into people that can tell the difference between good and bad when it comes to audio quality. My wife, who has on many occasions shared her discontent with my obsession over headphones and speakers, is a great example of that; she has been using my Sennheiser 598 SEs for the last couple of months.
I once bought and returned a pair of Bose QC35s when they were originally released; the active noise canceling was a little bit too much for me to handle. Still, I’ve wanted to get back into that space and test out some great noise canceling headphones even though the negative pressure makes me motion sick. So, I jumped at the the opportunity to review the Sony WH-1000X M3 wireless headphones,
First and foremost, it’s important to note that these headphones are a direct competitor to the Bose QC35s, and the finished product is definitely something to get excited about. The build is a largely plastic one, with soft and supple ear cups as well as a nice headband pad along the top. The design is minimalist at best, with only two buttons on the left ear cup (one for controlling power and one for controlling noise cancellation functions). There is an auxiliary input jack on the left ear cup as well, and the headphones can be used without power in the event that your battery runs out. The right ear cup sports a single USB type C port, and while I will get more into this later, the right ear cup is touch sensitive with an array of additional controls. The headband is extremely flexible, and the matte black design that is carried throughout the entire pair of headphones is extremely pleasing to the eyes. There is a mic on each ear cup as well. The ear cups turn inward and the headphones fold and collapse so that they can be easily stored in the provided carrying case. The carrying case has room to also store the USB charging cable, an auxiliary input cord and an airplane headphone adapter which are all included. While the included auxiliary cable was not of a particularly high quality, it will definitely do the trick since you’re going to be using these wirelessly most of the time. The carrying case itself is a clamshell style case providing protection for the headphones and has a soft fabric on the inside to protect the headphones from scrathes; it’s a full zippered enclosure with a mesh pocket on the back for carrying additional cables if you prefer. The case itself on the outside has a dark denim look which is also pleasing to the eyes.
In terms of comfort, the Sony WH-1000X M3s feel as nice as they look. Weighing in at just over 250 grams, they’re extremely lightweight but still provide great flexibility and comfort during wear; even during long sessions of listening there is no wearing fatigue along the top of the head or at the jawline. And, because the design allows the ear cups to be folded inward, they are extremely comfortable to wear around the neck if you’re not using them. I will admit, they can get a little warm, but that’s nothing new for over-ear headphones; I would not pick these as great headphones to wear at the gym, but in a more relaxed setting they are extremely comfortable.
The packaging touts a 30-hour battery, which of course is going to be different based on your volume and noise canceling adjustments, and I found that the battery does last well over 20 hours during my testing under normal use. They are also quick charge capable, providing five hours of playback time with only a 10-minute charge. I also want to point out how excited I am that these headphones charge with the USB Type-C cable and not micro USB like so many other headphones that are still being released today. Sadly, they only have Bluetooth version 4.2, and not version 5 like some other flagship headphones.
In terms of performance, and in short, these are the first over-ear headphones that I think truly give the Bose QC35s a run for their money. The sound profile right out-of-the-box is very flat, and is probably intended to be that way. The headphones allow you to toggle between active noise canceling, noise pass-through, and passive noise canceling with no modification to your audio. For the purpose of this review, audio quality was assessed with no active noise cancellation.
I am no stranger to Sony’s line of extra bass products, which certainly accomplish providing a great audio experience with fantastic bass; it’s clear that Sony has brought some of that technology into the WH-1000X M3s, as the low-end capabilities of these headphones strike a nice balance between bass lover and acoustic appreciation. The mids offer exactly what you would expect, and in some cases, this is where these headphones shine most. Vocal and acoustic tracks have an almost live feeling, sometimes even raw. Sony also does a great job with the highs on these headphones, where even at 100% volume there is no crass separation in cymbal crashes and other high-frequency sounds.
The performance of these headphones out of the box, though, is only enhanced by the Sony companion app available for iOS and Android. Among all of the products that I’ve reviewed and all of the companion apps that go with them, Sony’s Headphone Connect app continues to provide among the best user experience and simplest interface. The app allows you access to a basic equalizer, as well as adjustments for soundstage and noise canceling options. Settings adjusted within the app take place real-time on the headphones, and are stored so you don’t have to reset them every time you power them on.
As I mentioned before, one of the great features of these headphones is the touch-sensitive controls located on the right ear cup. A swipe up or a swipe down on the ear cup will adjust the volume, while swipes forward and back allow for track seek and track skip. Double tapping the right ear cup will play or pause your music as well as answer phone calls, and covering the right ear cup with your palm will lower music volume and let through ambient noise; this can be especially helpful in a busy office environment with frequent interruptions.
There’s really only one thing that I don’t like about these headphones, and that is how warm my ears get if I’m doing even the most basic physical task like folding laundry. That is by no means a deal-breaker, though, because all over-ear headphones that provide great passive noise cancellation like the WH-1000X M3s have that same characteristic, including Bose’s QC35s.
At a retail price of $350, these are by no means cheap, but there are cases where you get what you pay for and this is one of them. Now, whether or not it’s appropriate that high-end consumer headphones (not audiophile studio headphones) are commonly sold between $300 and $400, compared to the competition the Sony headphones hold up well. Between great battery life, quick charge capability, the great minimalist design, USB Type-C, and a super comfortable wearing experience, there’s no reason to think that anybody would be disappointed with these headphones.