It took me a while before I could get a review unit of the Sony WH-1000XM3. I have been hearing so many positive word-of-mouth comments about the 1000XM3 that I already know the headphones are great. So I timed my review period with my Thailand vacation so that I can test it on board the plane.
Design and Operations
Consumers familiar with Sony MDR_1000X or WH1000X M2 active noise-cancelling headphones should be very familiar with this Mark 3 version. Sony opts to retain most of the design elements while improving bits here and there. For instance, the earcups have evolved from smooth leather to coarser leather and now matt plastic. The top headband is also wrapped in leather (instead of a metal band) and the operating buttons are protruding pill-shaped. The hard case retains the same shape but is now in fabric, and in my opinion, while it reduces the premium executive feel, it makes the product more hardy for the road.
The operations are largely unchanged. The right earcup is a touchpad to swipe the fingers in 4 directions: up-down to adjust volume, left-right to change tracks, double tap to play-pause. Cup the earcups to active “Quick Attention” which turns on ambient sound instantly for quick conversations. The companion Sony Headphones Connect smartphone app lets you personalise the sound like EQ, adjust ambient sound level, enable manage headphone settings, and update firmware.
To check battery life, just tap the power button any time. When music is playing, it will interrupt to play the voice prompt. This is one annoyance when using the headphone, just like all earlier versions. The voice prompts are too lengthy and disrupts my music for too long. The WH-1000XM3 charges with the new USB-C cable, and lasts 30 hours per charge.
The WH-1000XM3 active noise cancelling is spectacular and finally can match the Bose QC35. With ANC, the overall ambient noise is dropped significantly to insignificant levels. The only sound you could discern is the high frequency chatter of people and cutlery, but these are relegated to a very soft muffled layer, much like what a sound engineer would do when editing a live performance scene. For keen-eared listeners, you can still hear soft recording details, as if these are part of the audio track you are listening to.
Given the noise cancellation is very strong, some people might experience discomfort when wearing without any music due to extreme ear pressure. For that, you might want to enable ambient sound, and you may select the level from the smartphone app. The ambient sound is quite subtle and does not sound too artificially bumped. When music is played, you cannot really discern the sound and cannot carry a conversation, so it’s just there to give some sense of awareness.
The great thing is that even without any digital noise cancelling, the passive noise isolation on this over-ear headphones is already better than most headphones. You can simply wear them without any power or music and it will offer some quiet moments.
Having testing all previous versions of the 1000X headphones, the current version is definitely the best. The sound is less laid back, more forward, more exciting. The audio quality is clean and delivers the Sony’s signature sound of firm bass and clear treble. The lows are not too bloated, while the highs are clear and sparkling yet not too harsh. Still, there are hints of uncontrolled sibilance on some poorly mastered tracks, and the midrange is not forward enough to discern some musical details. Still, the WH1000XM3 is thoroughly enjoyable for commuting and lounging, especially with the ANC enabled, I can immerse myself in Classical music with all the soft passages without cranking up the volume. On the plane, I have never experienced such clear movie-audio experience when I plugged the headphones directly into the audio port of the in-flight entertainment system.
When comparing the Bose QC35, I feel that the Sony 1000XM3 is in every way a better headphones. The difference in ANC has become very marginal, and both are supremely great. However, 1000XM3 has far more features and with a more premium buijld, which makes it a better buy in my view.
Even if you might dispute whether the active noise cancelling is better than Bose, one thing is for sure: the number of features in WH-1000XM3 makes it without a doubt the best headphones for travel. Its noise-cancelling engine works spectacularly, they are comfortable to wear, the Quick Attention feature is very useful, and the audio quality is addictive. If you are a frequent flyer, do yourself a favour and get one. It is worth the bliss and your ears will thank you for that.
Sony WH-1000XM3 retails at S$549. This year-end season, look around for in-store offers.