A lot of creatives work on the go and enjoy listening to music or watching movies while they are doing their work. A good pair of noise canceling headphones can make a big difference in giving you a quiet environment in which to be productive, and Sony may just have the best pair ever.
Back in the day, if you wanted good noise-canceling headphones, you generally went with Bose. However, in the last few years, more companies have sprung up, with Sony producing some fantastic options. In the meantime, active noise-canceling technology (as opposed to passive, which just means blocking sound via physical means) has come quite a long way as well. At first, it was decent at reducing constant, uniform background noise like an airplane engine, but things like background conversation generally came through. This made them useful for working on flights or on a train, but not so much for something like working in a coffee shop. And people who are sticklers for audio quality generally are not fans of Bose.
Nowadays, there are a lot of options for noise-canceling headphones, including Bose, Sony, Anker, 1More, Sennheiser, even Apple, and more. Sony's offering is on the more expensive side, but they also offer some of the best noise-canceling and audio quality out there and are very comfortable to wear.
Table of Contents
Click on any link in the list below to jump directly to that section of the review.
- Notable Features
- Setup and Connection
- Touch Controls
- Voice Assistant
- Audio Quality
- Noise Canceling Quality
- Calls and Microphone Quality
- Battery Life
- Should You Get the Sony WH-1000XM4?
- Earbuds or Over-the-Ear Headphones?
- Driver size: 1.57" (39.88 mm)
- Neodymium magnets and aluminum-coated drivers
- Frequency response: 4 Hz to 40 kHz
- Sensitivity: 101 dB at 1 kHz (passive), 105 dB at 1 kHz (active)
- Impedance: 16 ohms (passive), 47 ohms (active)
- Folding design
- Supported codecs: AAC, LDAC, SBC, aptX, aptX HD
- Bluetooth 4.2 with a range of 30 feet (9.1 m)
- 1/8"/3.5 mm wired connector
- USB-C charging port
- Battery life: 30 hours (Bluetooth and active noise-canceling), 38 hours (without noise-canceling), 200 hours (standby)
- Charging time: 3 hours
- Quick charging time: 10 minutes of charging for 5 hours of runtime
- Weight: 9 oz (255.15 g)
The third generation of Sony's over-the-ear cans contains some good improvements over the previous version. Using a USB-C cable allows for a more standardized and future-proof connection. The NFC chip allows you to pair it to your phone with just a tap if your device supports such capabilities. Comfort has been improved through the use of deeper earpads, and the difference is notable. This also helps with passive noise cancellation by providing a physical barrier that will help to keep noise out. The third generation also features a slimmer design and is lighter. In addition, the headband cushion is thicker, providing better comfort.
The third generation also features the new HD Noise Canceling QN1 processor, which Sony claims will offer four times the performance over its predecessor. In addition to blocking uniform sounds like plane engines, this version is specifically geared toward blocking out less uniform and far harder to manage sound, such as people conversing as they pass you on the street. This works in tandem with what Sony dubs as Dual Noise Sensor technology, which uses two microphones to capture ambient sound and cancel it. If you have not seen active noise canceling before, it works by measuring the ambient sound, then producing an identical wave that is 180 degrees out of phase with the first. When these waves combine, their respective peaks and troughs overlap, adding to a net-zero result and canceling the sound.
The QN1 processor not only works for noise-canceling but also offers 32-bit signal processing. Working in tandem with the DAC and 40mm driver units with Liquid Crystal Polymer diaphragms, the combination offers impressive sound quality with a low signal-to-noise ratio.
Sony also included what they call Adaptive Sound Control powered by SENSE ENGINE™.2. This recognizes various scenarios like being in a store or on a bus and adjusts the combination of noise-canceling and audio delivery to still allow you to hear things like announcements while still reducing unnecessary background noise. You can turn this off if you simply want top-level noise canceling at all times, or you can turn the noise canceling off entirely and use them as a normal pair of headphones.
Quick Attention Mode is another helpful feature. I wore earbuds around campus quite a bit (pre-COVID), but I also know a lot of people on campus, which meant every walk was a constant game of popping my earbuds out to say hello or have a quick conversation, then popping them back in. I am sure you have experienced this in plenty of situations — ordering coffee, for instance. It is a very first world thing for me to complain about, but I do find it very annoying. Quick Attention Mode solves this by taking advantage of the right earcup's touch functionality. Simply placing the palm of your hand on the earcup instantly drops the music volume and increases ambient sound and makes it easy to carry on a conversation without having to physically remove the headphones.
You can also customize power off behavior via the companion app (more on that later). You can, for example, tell the headphones to revert to noise cancellation mode instead of powering off entirely when not connected to a device, essentially turning the headphones into powerful earplugs. This is useful, for example, if you want to take a nap on a flight while also powering down your laptop to save its battery.
The headphones feature a modern design that looks classy in a variety of situations. They come in two options: black with bronze accents or silver with gold accents. The headband has a faux leather covering that looks good with the black plastic and bronze accents. The same faux leather covers the earcups and helps to complete the look. Each earcup has a microphone hole on it with a bronze oval around it that gives them an elegant look. The right earcup contains a hidden set of touch controls and the USB-C port for charging along with a small LED for indicating charge status.
Meanwhile, the left earcup contains a button for switching between noise cancellation and ambient noise mode (this can also be remapped to activate the Google, Alexa, or Siri voice assistant feature. Next to that is the power button with an LED indicator, and on the bottom of the earcup is the 1/8-inch input. One particularly nice feature is that if the battery dies, you can plug in a standard 1/8-inch cable to drive the headphones. Meanwhile, the buttons are placed logically and easy to find.
The headphones also come with a few accessories. The first is a hardshell case. The case is a gray and black two-tone with a bronze zipper that matches the headphone accents. It also features a mesh keeper on the bottom side. The headphones fold to fit into the case, with the left earcup rotating 90 degrees and swinging underneath the headband and the right earcup rotating 90 degrees as well. This allows the headphones to lay flat in the case and reduces their footprint as well, a nice touch for traveling, where space is at a premium. Inside the case is a divider that keeps the headphones secure to avoiding them bouncing around. There is also a diagram on the bottom of the case that shows how to properly fold the headphones and place them in the case along with a diagram of the touch control operations. It is a nice touch to have.
On the other side of the barrier are the accessories. A USB-A to USB-C cable is included for charging. I think it was a nice choice, as USB-C ports are not that common yet. Sony also includes an 1/8-inch male-to-male cable an airline adapter. Altogether, the case makes for a clean and well-organized setup that keeps everything in place and keeps you from losing those little pieces. The folding design also makes it a bit more portable, which is a nice touch considering over-the-ear headphones are typically not that small.
I am not an earbud guy. I know they are the most popular option right now, especially with Apple's AirPods in the ears of millions of people, but I have never found a pair of earbuds I could wear for more than an hour without experiencing pain either in my ear cartilage or canal. Even memory foam inserts eventually caused pain. Even over-the-ear headphones often cause pain in my ear cartilage from the pressure. The headband also often gives me a headache. I guess I just have a very sensitive head and ears.
That being said, the WH-1000XM3 headphones are the most comfortable I have ever used and the only headphones that have not caused any discomfort over an extended period of use. The generous padding in both the headband and the earcups provides plenty of cushion. Meanwhile, Sony balanced the clamping force of the headphones very well. They are very snug and stable on your ears — more than enough to walk or jog with without issue — but not so tight that they produce pain in your temples or the top of your head.
One issue you will run into with any set of over-the-ear headphones is breathability, as the cushioning forms a seal around your ears that traps heat and moisture. On hot days, I can definitely feel some heat and sweat underneath the headphones after a while, but that is to be expected. Sony did not design the headphones to be waterproof or sweat-proof, and it is a good idea to wipe off the ear cushions if they get sweaty to keep them from wearing down, but in practice, a little sweat does not seem to be a problem.
Setup is very straightforward. You hold the power button for a few extra seconds to enter Bluetooth pairing mode, after which connection is very straightforward and like any other Bluetooth device. Once you have done this, you can use the headphones right away, or you can pop into the Sony Connect app to tweak them to your liking (more on that in the app section).
The right earcup contains the touch controls for the device. These are great to have, as you can your phone in your pocket and control your music entirely from the headphones. I also think the swipe interface is a much better choice than buttons. I personally have a hard time finding and remembering the proper location of buttons on headphones, and I do not like in-line remotes because they tend to smack against my chest or pull on the headphones while I walk. The swipe interface eliminates both these problems. A forward swipe takes you to the next track, while a backward swipe rewinds. Swiping up and down controls volume, while a center press plays and pauses, answers calls, and controls access to your voice assistant. You can select which voice assistant you would like to use in the Sony Connect app.
You also instantly reduce music volume and increase ambient sound by cupping your right hand over the right earcup. This is a fantastically useful feature, as you can use it to catch things like announcements on an airplane without having to scramble to pause whatever is playing. It is also useful for having a quick conversation with someone, such as ordering a drink. There have been some complaints about the touch controls not working in cold weather, but I have no problems with them even in 10-degree weather. Speaking of cold weather, the headphones actually make for pretty decent earmuffs in the winter.
Sony's Connect App is quite powerful, a pleasant surprise from the throwaway apps a lot of other companies put out. When you register the headphones in the app, Alexa will automatically ask if you want to use it with the headphones if you have it installed on your phone. Next, you will be asked about location-based Adaptive Sound Control. This feature keeps track of locations you frequent and the sound environment in them and automatically switches the mode of the headphones for the optimal listening experience. You will also be given the option to set up 360 Reality Audio, which simulates a 360-degree sound field. It is a pretty neat effect, you will need to subscribe to either 360 by Deezer, nugs.net, or Tidal to use it. Personally, I am perfectly happy with my normal music subscriptions delivered in stereo.
After that, you are taken to the app's dashboard, which displays connection status and battery percentage. From there, you get very granular control over a variety of settings. You can control the level of Ambient Sound Control (how much ambient noise is let through by the noise canceling). There is also a "focus on voice" setting that will reduce things like traffic noise but still allow voices through.
Next is the Noise Canceling Optimizer. This takes about 15 seconds and runs automatically by checking how you are wearing the headphones and the surrounding atmospheric pressure to create the best possible noise canceling. It worked impressively well in practice; I noticed an improvement on the already great noise canceling after I ran it.
Next is Sound Position Control, which lets you change the perceived source of the sound from a variety of positions in front, the side of, and behind you. While this is not something I would normally use, it is there and useful for a few situations.
Next is Surround VPT (Virtualphones Technology) adjustment. This allows you to simulate different locations, including an arena, club, outdoor stage, and concert hall. Below this is the equalizer. This is useful as the headphones come with a bit of a bass bias, no doubt tuned for popular taste, but if you prefer a flatter response that is truer to the mixing of a song, you can compensate for this. There are several presets, along with a five-band graphic equalizer if you want to take more granular control. Unfortunately, with only five bands (400, 1k, 2.5k, 6.3k, and 16k), it is not particularly useful. A 10-band or 20-band option would be much more useful for those who want to carefully sculpt the frequency response of the headphones. Sony also includes a "Clear Bass" slider, which promises to increase the bass without distortion at high volumes.
Next is the 360 Reality Audio setup (if you did not complete it initially). This allows you to take pictures of your ears that Sony will analyze server-side and use to optimize 360 audio. It is a neat effect, but as mentioned, is limited to more niche apps.
Below that is Sound Quality Mode, which allows you to prioritize sound quality or connection stability. However, I never had any stability issues while prioritizing sound quality, so I left it at that setting at all times. You can also enable DSEE HX, which upscales compressed audio, and use the app to update the headphones' firmware. Lastly, you can change the function of the NC/Ambient key and set the power-off time.
Altogether, the app is well made and offers plenty of fine control, but you can also set it and forget it if you just want to use the headphones without thinking about them.
You have the option of using Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri with the headphones, so pretty much all users will be covered. I had no problem using both Alexa and Siri with the headphones.
Frequency response is very good, particularly when you opt for a flatter EQ. Bass response is generally pretty accurate, though it is a bit too loud. The headphones also maintain excellent clarity in the lower end instead of turning the bass into a muddled mess, a nice change from most bass-heavy audio devices. The low bass in Spring Rounds from The Rite of Spring (8:34 here) show excellent clarity, allowing space for the wide range of instruments on each downbeat (bass, cello, bassoon, contrabassoon, and bass drum) to all be heard — not an easy thing to do in lower frequencies. Anyone who enjoys EDM or any other bass-heavy genre will be pleased by the emphasis on bass without loss of clarity, while those who prefer a flatter response curve will still be happy with the clarity in the bass.
The mid-range is absolutely stellar. Listening to Under the Bridge from Blood Sugar Sex Magik shows off the headphones' impressive response. The album is mixed very dryly, leaving little space for a poor audio response to hide. The Hendrix-esque guitar work from John Frusciante features intricate broken chords and articulations, and the headphones do a fantastic job of bringing out the riffs is a very immediate way, with each pick stroke clearly heard. Meanwhile, Kiedis' vocals sound live and intimate, helping to enhance the song's mood. This is great for listeners of pretty much any genre, as it means vocals and lead instruments will have good clarity and space.
Treble response is not quite as excellent as the mid-range, but it is still very good. Acoustic instruments show good detail, indicative of good response in the upper harmonics, though they and vocals sometimes trade a bit of brilliance for warmth, indicating a dip in the low-to-mid treble range. This will likely not bother the majority of listeners, but if you prefer a bit of a shimmer to your music, you may want to compensate by kicking up the high end of the EQ a bit, though not too much, as things will start sounding a bit artificial.
Altogether, sound quality is quite excellent. Frequency response is very good to excellent across the range, while the headphones present a wide soundstage with excellent clarity that helps to differentiate various sounds and give recordings the room they need.
Passive noise canceling quality is excellent, while the active noise canceling is astoundingly good. The earcups form a good physical seal that helps to reduce environmental noise a fair amount; in turn, this means you are unlikely to bother people nearby if you are listening to the headphones in a quiet place.
Active noise canceling is the real star of the show here, however. I can't really overstate just how good it is. It is actually a bit eerie and unnerving the first time you try it out. I had a bit of trouble walking at first because it felt so strange not to hear the sound of my own footsteps, as if the physical sensation I was feeling was disconnected from my body in some way.
As expected at this point, cancellation of uniform noise is top-notch. On a cross-country flight in which I was sitting next to an engine, the roar was reduced to an almost imperceptible background hum. Any sort of constant noise (traffic, transportation engines, etc.) is no match for the headphones.
But where they really shine is drowning out less predictable noise, something that is far harder for noise-canceling headphones to do proficiently. I can wear the headphones in the living room while my girlfriend watches TV, and dialogue and background music are cut down by about 95%. Walking down the sidewalk puts you in your own private world. The noise cancellation is so good that Sony allows you to turn it down in the app (more details on that in the app section) if it is just too much for you. Add in that the Personal NC Optimizer is designed to adjust itself based on head size, hair type, and whether you're wearing glasses, and the experience is even better. If you are purchasing these headphones to reduce environmental noise and to help you concentrate, it is hard to imagine you will be disappointed. It is worth noting that this does not just apply to listening to music or drowning out background noise to concentrate. Video editors, for example, can create a clean environment in which to mix sound and iron out levels wherever they are.
Making phone calls with the headphones is generally pretty good. The microphones do a decent job of rejecting background noise and picking up your voice, but not stellar, and callers will occasionally have trouble understanding you in noisier environments. Of course, the stellar audio quality means you will hear them perfectly well, though you will definitely sound like you are on a headset of some sort.
Battery life is stellar, offering 30 hours (Bluetooth and active noise-canceling), 38 hours (without noise-canceling), and 200 hours (standby). One advantage of over-the-ear headphones is that the increased physical footprint allows for a larger battery. This is great, as I, for one, am increasingly annoyed by the number of devices I have to make sure to charge every night lest I find them dead the next day. I can easily get through several days of usage with these headphones. That being said, just 10 minutes of charging offers 5 hours of battery life, so if, for example, you find yourself without any battery left before a flight or the like, a quick charge in the terminal should get you through just fine.
Sony recently released the WH-1000XM4 headphones, the fourth generation in the series. However, they are a very iterative upgrade, and I think most people would be happier saving their money and getting the third generation. The fourth generation's improvements include a slight tweak to the physical design, somewhat softer earcups (though they were already plenty comfortable), a wear sensor that can detect if the headphones are on your head and pause or start music accordingly, Precise Voice Pickup Technology (which improves voice quality on calls), Speak-to-Chat (which detects your voice and automatically pauses music and noise canceling), and the ability to connect to two different devices over Bluetooth simultaneously. Audio quality and noise-canceling have received minor software tweaks and improvements, though I doubt anyone would notice these in practice. Overall, unless you make a ton of calls with your headphones or just want the latest and greatest, I do not think the fourth generation is a necessary investment.
Sony also makes the WF-1000XM3, the earbud versions of the headphones. They are also quite excellent and may be the better choice for a lot of people who prefer in-ear solutions, but in trading for that portability, you are going to take hits in a few key areas. First, noise cancellation, while still very good, will not be as stellar as the over-the-ear cans simply due to the physics of the setup. Next, the soundstage will not be as wide, again due to the physical layout. Battery life takes a major hit as well, dropping to six hours with noise cancellation engaged, though the included case offers three additional charges (including quick-charging capabilities that give you 90 minutes for 10 minutes of charging), bringing the total to 24 hours, albeit with interruptions to top off. Still, for many people, those tradeoffs are worth the gains in portability and the comfort of earbuds. The other aspect worth mentioning is that the earbuds are typically about $100 cheaper than the over-the-ear versions.
The WH-1000XM3 headphones are an absolute joy to use and are sure to please some of the most discerning listeners while offering a fantastic combination of comfort, outstanding battery life, and truly stellar noise canceling that can help you focus or relax pretty much wherever you are. They are definitely on the high side of price, but I think they are well worth the cost.
What I Liked
- Very comfortable to wear even for extended periods of time
- Comes with durable case and all accessories
- Very long battery life with quick charge capabilities
- Excellent audio quality
- Stellar noise canceling
- Very good granular control and personalization options in app
- Touch controls and Quick Attention Mode are very good
- Reliable connection
- 1/8-inch connector
What I Didn't Like
- Graphic EQ is only five bands
- Call voice quality could be better
You can purchase the various versions of these headphones using the links below: