Sony WH-1000XM3 full review
Sony’s 1000X series headphones have long held a reputation for industry-leading noise cancelling, and the WH-1000XM3 headphones serve as pretty phenomenal proof of that, improving again from the already excellent XM2 model.
Not many people are likely to be able to justify dropping over £300/$300 on a pair of headphones, but if any set should tempt you to, it’s probably these.
Price & availability
That might sound like a lot, but it’s right in line with a few key rivals like the Bose QC35 II or Microsoft’s more recent Surface Headphones. Essentially, if you want flagship noise-cancelling headphones, this is about how much you’ll have to pay.
More sound, less noise
Sony knocked it out of the park with the noise cancellation in 2017’s WH-1000XM2 headphones - the headphones I use every day - and so the biggest surprise with the newer model is how obvious it is that this is another step up.
Putting these on simply silences the rest of the world, filtering out almost all of the ambient noise around, whether that be office chatter or a thundering train. It’s actually so powerful that occasionally it feels like a bit too much: forget to queue up a new track and the silence between songs can be genuinely oppressive and uncomfortable.
The improvements come down to two things: a tighter physical fit and a new dedicated noise cancelling processor. The processor is clearly doing its job well, while the adjusted fit essentially just creates a tighter seal against outside noise. It does mean the XM3s are ever so slightly less comfortable than the XM2s over lengthy listening sessions, but don’t let that put you off: I’m still happy wearing them across a full day’s work or a transatlantic flight.
Sony isn’t just skating by on the strength of its noise cancelling either: the base sound quality underneath that is exceptional. The sound profile leans slightly towards the bassy end, but not overwhelmingly so - these aren’t Beats.
Mids and trebles are still capable of cutting through, and there’s a really impressive clarity to the soundscape - even without the noise cancelling enabled - with none of the muddiness you get from different parts of the sound profile running together.
If you find the full-on noise cancelling a bit much, Sony also offers Adaptive Sound Control: an optional mode that does its best to intelligently adjust the noise cancelling and let in ambient noise depending on your circumstances.
The system is based primarily on movement: if it thinks you’re sitting still because you’re in your office or on a bus then it ramps noise cancelling up, and if it thinks you’re walking it lets in more ambient sound to help you hear cars, bikes, and pedestrian crossings.
The detection works better than you might think, though it always takes ten seconds or so to adapt - probably a good call to help avoid it changing when it shouldn’t. You can also use the accompanying app to customise how much ambient noise is let in. I still prefer to just cancel all the noise, all the time, but the mode works well for the more safety-conscious out there.
The app also includes a few other customisable settings of varying levels of usefulness. There are a few different EQ presets along with a full equaliser; the option to set the direction of your audio, surround sound-style; and an atmospheric optimiser that detects the pressure to adjust the noise cancellation if you’re on a plane or maybe a submarine I guess?
Built to last
The other obvious improvement in the XM3s is build quality. I’ve only been using them for a week, admittedly, but these feel sturdier and more solid than the previous model - my XM2s have begun to creak ever so slightly from the strain of regular folding and unfolding.
The design is otherwise mostly familiar, though there are tiny tweaks. Available in black or silver, there are now small flashes of colour in the bronze Sony logo and microphone grilles. The finish on the outside of the cups is totally smooth - none of the mottled texture of previous models - and there’s now padding on the top of the band, for a more uniform look than before.
Buttons and ports are simple: there’s a power button that doubles for Bluetooth pairing (though there’s also an NFC pairing option), and a second button that lets you cycle between noise cancelling, ambient noise, and neither. Then there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack for wired audio, and USB-C for charging - a mercy for anyone who’s now fully committed to USB-C for their phone or laptop.
Other settings are handled through gesture controls on the touch-sensitive right earcup. Tap to play/pause, swipe up or down for volume, and left or right to change tracks. The controls are… fine. They’re probably the biggest flaw in the headset, carried over from the previous model: they work most of the time, but every now and then you’ll still skip a track when you meant to raise the volume, or have to tap a few times to get the music to pause properly, and it still feels like physical buttons would just be simpler.
As over-ear headphones these are obviously fairly bulky things, and while they fold up a little you won’t be slipping them into your pockets any time soon. Sony includes a fairly sturdy travel case with simple padding, sections for your various cable-y bits, and structuring to help stop the folded headphones from knocking about too much inside.
There’s also baked in support for both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, if you fancy chatting to your virtual assistant through your headphones. I still reckon that talking to your headphones is a bit of a niche usage case, but it’s there and it works well if that’s something you care about.
Finally, battery life: Sony promises the same 30 hours or so that the XM2s delivered, and that seems about right to us, even with noise cancelling switched on the whole time. So depending on your usage, you can probably expect at least a week’s usage between charges, and potentially a few.
Aside from slightly fiddly touch controls, there’s really very little to complain about here. The noise cancellation is still absolutely unmatched, and it’s backed up by audio that’s almost as good.
Sony has merely tinkered with the rest of the design, rather than transforming it, keeping the understated aesthetic that’s served it so well so far, and despite the tighter fit these are still plenty comfortable for long-term listening.
Throw in reliable Bluetooth connections, 30-hour battery life, and (joy of joys) USB-C charging, and these are basically the best wireless headphones around right now.