Sounds Like the Future

Sony WH-1000XM3 Review: The Best Noise-Canceling Headphones for Cross-Country Flights


September 27, 2018 Reviews By Photo by Chase Pellerin
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The Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones are the company’s flagship noise-canceling products, which were released mid-2018 and carry high expectations. They are the next generation models to Sony’s WH-1000XM2, which we had previously picked as the best noise-canceling headphones, even beating out the Bose QC35 II. Even though they share a striking resemblance to their predecessor, Sony claims that the WH-1000XM3 are better in almost every way. They feature a new chipset – Sony’s HD noise-cancelling QN1 processor – that gives them four times the noise canceling ability of the 1000XM2, according to Sony. They supposedly sound better. And the WH-1000XM3 feel updated to 2018 standards with the inclusion of USB-C charging and the ability to quick charge – 10 minutes of charging fuels up to five hours of additional playtime. The Sony WH-1000XM3 cost just under $350, which is exactly what the Sony WH-1000XM2 had previously been going for.

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The Good: The active noise-canceling ability and audio quality are the Sony WH-1000XM3’s two standout features. Simply put, you won’t find headphones better at noise-cancellation; while the audio sounds accurate and spacious, it’s also completely customization thanks to a fairly intuitive app. The Sony WH-1000XM3 are the best noise-isolating headphones that I’ve ever tested, too – put them on, even without noise canceling turned on, and you’ll barely hear anything. The design of the Sony WH-1000XM3 has been tweaked so that they’re a little more comfortable than the WH-1000XM2: the new model has slightly softer earpads and a more form-fitting headband. The long battery life, quick charging and ability to charge with the same charger as my MacBook Pro – all these are modern conveniences that make traveling a little easier.

Who They’re For: Anybody looking for the best noise-canceling headphones of 2018 – these are absolutely the best. And if you have a bunch of other new gadgets, most of which will charge via USB-C, then these headphones will add a level of simplicity when it comes to charging cords you need.

Watch Out For: Besides being fairly expensive – though they’re still not the most expensive noise-canceling headphones you can buy – the Sony WH-1000XM3 have the potential to feel too complicated for some people. The app allows you to adjust the sound signature in almost too many ways, although most people will probably decide on one setting and never touch the app again (or just never mess with the app at all). This app lets you play around with the levels of ambient noise, too — though it’s cool, this level of “tweaking” can be a rabbit hole.

Like the Sony WH-1000XM2, the Sony WH-1000XM3 also have swipe gestures on the right earcup, enabling you to play/pause, skip tracks and even access your smartphone’s virtual assistant by touching the right earcup. Sony says that it has made these swipe gestures more accurate and easier to use, but I couldn’t tell that much of a difference. And let’s be honest: swipe gestures aren’t for everybody.

Alternatives: The two alternatives that also offer excellent sound quality and noise cancellation are the Sony WH-1000XM3’s predecessor, the Sony WH-1000XM2, and its main rival, the Bose QC35 II. Both are decently cheaper, at around $300 than the brand-new Sony WH-1000XM3.

Review: Noise-canceling headphones are really designed for people in noisy environments, such as planes, buses or in office settings, and so that’s exactly how I tested the Sony WH-1000XM3. I took them on a recent trip to Seattle with me – about a five-hour flight from New York – and listened to the headphones nearly the whole time. I also listened to them for the past week in and around the office and commuting on the train. Bottom line: the Sony WH-1000XM3 are just impressive, and almost scary-good at blocking at the noise.

I can’t confirm Sony’s claim that the Sony WH-1000XM3 are four times better at noise-canceling than the Sony WH-1000XM2 – those previous models were (and still are) damn good noise-canceling headphones – but the new models are definite upgrades in the noise-cancellation department. It starts with their passive noise-isolating, as the earcups on the Sony WH-1000XM3 are nicer and create a much tighter seal on your ear. This seal is so effective that even when no music is playing and the headphones are turned off, they’re still really good and blocking at the noise.

Turn the noise-cancellation on and the Sony WH-1000XM3 are simply fantastic. On my flights, they blocked out everything. The loud, continuous hum of the plane’s engine. The small dog whining a few rows behind me. And the flight attendants asking if I wanted peanuts or small pretzels. Everything. The only sounds I could hear – just a little – were the frequent ping of the pilot announcing that turbulence was in our future. Also, there’s very little sound bleed, which should appease your neighbors and make you less insecure about blasting Underoath.

Another thing that stands out on the Sony WH-1000XM3, even after listening to them for just a little, is their sound quality. They just sound good. A criticism could be that they naturally sound a little bass-heavy, but so many noise-canceling headphones do that, and because the sound is so adjustable (again, because of the app) you can tweak the bass however you want. Also, the ability of the Sony WH-1000XM3 to handle midrange and high-frequencies is just great and makes the soundstage of the tracks feel that much grander. In Marc Henney’s in-depth review for Rtings.com, he wrote, “the mid-range performance is excellent. The entire range shows a well-balanced and even response, which is important for the accurate reproduction of vocals and lead instruments.”

Aside from the sound quality and the noise-canceling, the other key change that really makes the Sony WH-1000XM3 feel different is the addition of a USB-C charging port. The fact that I can charge the headphones with the same charger I’ve been using on my MacBook Pro and the Galaxy Note 9 that I’ve been testing instantly makes the Sony WH-1000XM3 feel like a better travel companion. Yes, the ability to quick charge is convenient, but because their battery life is so great – well over 20 hours – it wasn’t something I really noticed.

As mentioned above, there are few things to nitpick at with the Sony WH-1000XM3. If you didn’t like the way the Sony WH-1000XM2 fit on your ears, you probably won’t like these either. Even though they are comfortable, the moderately tight fit of the earbuds will take its toll (at least it did for me) and you’ll probably experience some ear fatigue. They run warm, too, as many other over-ear headphones also do. The swipe controls can be a little sensitive; I would occasionally skip tracks or pause the music when I touched and adjusted the headphones.

Verdict: The Sony WH-1000XM3s are a solid step above the Sony WH-1000XM2s, which had previously had been our pick for “best overall noise-canceling headphones” in terms of sound quality and noise-canceling ability. The design and feel are pretty identical to their predecessor, admittedly, and they still aren’t quite as lightweight or as comfortable as the Bose QC35 II. However, if noise-canceling ability and sound quality are must-haves, no other headphones pack a better one-two combo than the Sony WH-1000XM3. Throw in their advanced features, sound customization and ability to charge via USB-C (which very few headphones actually do), and these headphones feel as close to the future as you can get.

What Others Are Saying:

• “As for music playback, the addition of an analog 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’.” — Ced Yuen, Trusted Reviews

• “So, that being said, unless you’re a style-savvy frequent traveler in need of the most comfortable and best-looking headphones or someone stuck in a crowded office who needs to make the occasional phone call, you should probably save some money by picking up the Sony WH-1000XM2 – they’re nearly as good and now even less than they were before thanks to a recent price drop. ” — Nick Pino and Becca Caddy, TechRadar

• “The Sony WH-1000XM3 are great headphones for commute and travel and a decent option for most use cases. They have an excellent battery life, great wireless range, and one of the best noise canceling that we’ve measured so far. They also have a sleek new design that’s a bit more comfortable than the previous models. They isolate a bit more and leak less than the often compared Bose QuietComfort 35 II, and they have more customizable features. However, they’re not quite as comfortable as the Bose, and their default sound can be a bit too bass-heavy for some, but on the upside, you can EQ them via the app.” — Marc Henney , Sam Vafaei and Yannick Khong, RTINGS.com

Key Specs

Driver: 1.57-inch dome
Frequency response: 4 Hz-40,000 Hz
Battery Life: 30 hours
Charge: USB-C
App: Headphones Connect (iOS, Android)

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