With release the WH-1000 series of noise-cancelling headphones, Sony has secured a leading position in the market since early 2017. An updated version can be anticipated from the manufacturer almost every year. The latest to look forward to: the WH-1000XM3.
This new model looks like its predecessor, the WH-1000XM2, but comes in lighter at a mere 255 grams. The model convinces with its stable design, while the black and silver look is updated with beige, replacing previous gold accents. The basic audio receiver and driver technology remain almost identical, although these new headphones go one step further with a dedicated chip (the HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1) that delivers enhanced noise-reduction capabilities. In addition to its standard computing power, this new features promises even more intelligent isolation of background noise.
This new model improves upon the excessive functionality of its predecessor. First off, there’s an on/off switch on the left of the headphones themselves, which can also be used to initiate pairing. The second switch takes care of two key functions: noise cancelling and ambient sound. It can also be utilised for speech-activated virtual assistant features of a smartphone.
The right earpiece is dedicated to regular functions, such as music and call control that can be activated via a double tap. Meanwhile, volume control and skipping tracks can be controlled via vertical and horizontal swiping. Covering the earpiece with your hand also reduces the volume of the music and temporarily activates ambient sound.
You can also enjoy a whole host of additional functions via the use of the free “Headphones Connect” app, available for iOS and Android devices. Under “Ambient Sound Control”, you can adjust the level of ambient noise while at the same time enjoying regular noise-cancelling features.
If required, sound can be produced using a five-band equalizer and supplementary clear bass control for low frequencies. The model also retains several presets that add spatial sound effects to audio, along with the option of placing the sound source in a surrounding field at the side, or even behind the head.
After switching the model on, the WH-1000XM3 is ready to start and quickly connects with the last Bluetooth device it’s been paired to. When you slide these headphones on, you immediately notice how comfortable they are to wear. Artificial leather padding and an adjustable headband, along with rotating ear cups, ensure a good fit that remains comfortable for several hours at a time. The design allows the ear cups to be folded up when you’re done, allowing for compact storage within the soft case supplied. The earpiece sits tightly on the head but does not cause discomfort, making this model ideal when on the go. However, it is not ideal for wearing when exercising; the artificial leather is the headphone’s main downside as it may cause the wearer to sweat more quickly when compared to other materials.
The battery performance is remarkable, delivering up to 30 hours of music playback or 200 hours of standby time when the noise cancelling function is switched on. The device is also fully charged within 3 hours via the USB-C port connection, but there’s also a quick-charge mode available that dramatically slashes charging time to just a few minutes. With the use of an optional 1.5A adapter, a ten-minute charge will provide up to five hours of battery life.
Despite the positive features of the product, there are some key criticisms. For one, the gesture control of the device can be a little bit awkward. What’s more, many Bluetooth users have criticised the WH-1000XM3 for not being able to connect to multiple devices. This means that music playback needs to be interrupted to take a call, for example. Likewise, switching between audio sources is relatively slow.
Sony doesn’t disappoint when it comes to noise reduction. The active system present here is effective, adaptable and, within limits, intelligent. It currently occupies the top position in the market. In principle, the well-fitting design of this model already delivers sensible passive noise-reduction properties. If you then activate the additional features of these headphones, which are also available with wired operation, the measuring microphones and dedicated noise-reduction processor kick in. In the best case scenario, the WH-1000XMS achieves a perplexing level of silence in noisy environments, with only a slight intrusion of high-frequency noise. Theoretically, the system works at maximum efficiency when dealing with static and low-frequency noise.
However, such a degree of isolation is not always required. Ambient Sound Control can be used to adjust the ambient noise levels as required or to display them selectively using a touch function. Depending on the situation, this creates a sensible balance between isolation from and interaction with the environment. In addition to this, there’s a switchable filter option that restricts the transmission frequency of the human voice. In practice, however, the latter sounded too middle-heavy to me.
In general, Sony is using the WH-1000XM3 to enable better dampening of sounds such as voices. In fact, though, the possible degree of noise shielding is enormous. That being said, conversations in the near vicinity aren’t always inaudible. Surprisingly, sounds such as train announcements were usually recognisable as well.
Sony goes one step further to allow you to automatically switch between four configurable profiles via the Adaptive Sound Control function by measuring movements and air pressure, thus reacting to the environment in order to make changes. A real advantage of this new model is the ability to permanently enable noise cancellation without you having to play music, making these headphones an ideal resting aid when travelling without having to activate the standby function or switch them off.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the noise-cancellation properties have a catch and this is one that Sony shares with its competitors. The external microphones pick up direct wind with background noise.
Is the codec present or not?
A few explanatory words are needed on the topic of Bluetooth and codecs. To get the most from the WH-1000XM3, one should opt for the best sound quality, which is an option in the app, as otherwise inferior codecs are used (at least in the case of Android devices). In principle, the device tested supports the high-resolution LDAC codec from Sony, which offers bandwidths of up to 990 kbit/s and resolutions of up to 24 bit and 96 kHz. This, however, requires a compatible counterpart, which isn’t a simple ask when it comes to the smartphone sector. For example, iOS offers only the AAC codec instead of LDAC. Even with Android 8, this option was disabled on a Sony Xperia XA1 Plus. Instead, the aptX codec was used, which also switched to SBC when the equaliser was enabled. In theory, LDAC operation on Android 8 is possible, but this must be enabled by the manufacturer.
The end result of all of this is that there’s more to uncover about these headphones than what I could actively test. You shouldn’t rely on product data alone but should research in advance as to whether or not the existing player you intend to use supports LDAC. Finally, it should be noted that Sony also supports SBC, AAC, aptX and aptX HD in addition to LDAC, but not the aptX LL/Adaptive codecs. These latter codecs are recommended for the near perfect playback of sound in movies.
In terms of sound, the WH-1000 models set the bar high. The combination of high-quality drivers (40 mm drivers with liquid crystal polymer diaphragms, copper voice coil and neodymium magnet), good tuning and efficient noise cancelling is outright impressive. As with all Bluetooth headphones, you have to accept a certain noise level, but any music completely overshadows this.
The sound is equally balanced, rich in detail, powerful and, when required, very loud. The listener enjoys a tight bass that has a distinct tonality, clearly delivering even the lowest of tones and providing it with plenty of thrust, all in all without degrading the overall sound. The midrange spectrum is clear, even with voices of high speech intelligibility, and without colouration. The WH-1000XM3 is also full of details in the treble range and without any distracting harshness. It sounds harmonious but has a generally warm tuning. Personally, I would have liked some additional transparency here.
Panning, spatial imaging and dynamics are also at a high level across the board. The WH-1000XM3 provides a clearly located, stable stereo stage that also reliably tracks movements. A remarkable performance level ensures these headphones are suitable for all genres. Especially when used out on the go, these headphones demonstrate their full strength. By effectively blocking ambient noise, the WH-1000XM3 creates an impressive signal-to-noise ratio as the basis for music playback. As such, it possible to enjoy music anywhere without the worry of interference.
In particular, the quiet dynamic ranges of classical orchestral compositions cannot be perceived in a speeding train very well – unless wearing a pair of these .
at the same time, one has to admit that the WH-1000M3 was not designed explicitly for the audiophile. When you compare it to an available model in the next price range up such as the Sennheiser HD 660 S, you have to accept cutbacks on neutrality, transparency, attention to detail, bass stability and three-dimensionality. In general, at least with the codecs tested, there is a sound difference when compared to high-quality wired solutions. While the bass is a bit too powerful and outshines the mid-range, this is pure nitpicking. The tone control is very effective and allows an adaptation to the listener’s personal taste, which can be stored in several presets. The fact that the codec can suddenly be reverted to its original setting when doing this, however, disqualifies the function for the more demanding user. In regards to sound control, I would have wished for more precision, especially in terms of the bass.
Once again, I could not make sense of the spatial sound function. A harmonious three-dimensionality is part of every good recording. On the other hand, bad recordings do not benefit from this addition. Neither do I see the need for placing the audio source in a surround field on the side or even behind the head.
Finally, the switchable automatic sound improvement (DSEE HX) remains a mystery to me. With different file formats, the effect remained completely inaudible – at least under AAC with different MP3s, FLACs and other formats.
I also had a good impression of the voice quality during telephone calls. My conversation partners were always clearly understandable in terms of quality, with the headphones naturally interacting to the level fo the environment thanks to the external microphones.
Year after year, Sony continues to evolve its flagship over-ear headphones and their noise-cancelling properties. The WH-1000MX3 is an impressive piece of technology that convinces in both sound and wearing comfort, with both underpinning the reason why this Japanese manufacturer leads the field in regards to noise suppression. The functionality is also comprehensive, while the ease of use is elegant. At the same time, there are a few drawbacks here and there. With the WH-1000MX3, however, you can indulge yourself with a piece of technological luxury that’s bound to find many enthusiasts singing its praises, particularly when used out and about. While the jump in functionality of noise cancellation and operation (via app) between first model MDR-1000X and the WH-1000XM2 was significant, the changes between the latter and this third version are less noticeable. Nevertheless, the new, dedicated processor offers a bit more performance in noise cancellation and the possibility to use it without music playback – all at the same price.
- Ear couplingOver-ear
- Transducer principledynamic
- Frequency response (headphones)4 - 40.000 Hz
- Impedancewith cable: 47,75 ohms
- Sound pressure level (SPL)108,23 dB
- Pressure averaged from big and small head498,5 g
- Weight with cable269 g
- Weight without cable254 g
- Cable length115 cm
What's in the box
- Cable with mini jack (1.2m)
- USB-C charging cable
- Flight adapter
- Travel case
- Available in black and silver
- BT version: 4.2
- BT profiles: A2DP, AVRCP, HFP, HSP
- BT codecs: SBC, AAC5, LDAC, aptX, aptX HD
- Operating time:
- Connection with a BT device:
• Playback time: 30 hours (NC ON), 22 hours (Ambient aware ON), 38 hours (NC OFF)
• Communication time: 24 hours (NC ON), 18 hours (Ambient aware ON), 30 hours (NC OFF)
• Standby time: 30 hours (NC ON), 22 hours (Ambient aware ON), max. 200 hours (NC OFF)
- Connected with analogue cable & NC ON: 36 hours
- Charging time: 3 hours