The Sony WH-1000XM3 has become a consumer audio mainstay since its 2018 release, but have since been usurped by the WH-1000XM4. Let’s see how Sony’s flagship noise-cancelling headset holds up against newer releases and if it’s worth getting in 2020.
Update, April 16, 2021: This review was updated to include an updated ANC chart for the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 , and information about Apple AirPods Max alternatives.
Who are the Sony WH-1000XM3 for?
- Office and remote workers. Pretty much everyone can find a use case for a great pair of active noise cancelling headphones whether you’re a student or CEO.
- Commuters. If you tend to spend a lot of your time commuting on public transportation, these will help you drown out the annoying sounds of the people around you.
- Frequent flyers. Due to the great noise cancelling in the lower frequencies, the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones do a good job at blocking the low rumble of the airplane.
What is it like to use the Sony WH-1000XM3?
The Sony WH-1000XM3 isn’t much different than the previous WH-1000XM2, but when you look a little deeper some key improvements become apparent. For one, the ear pads on the WH-1000XM3 have more depth to them, which allows for a slightly more comfortable fit. If the last model fit a little too snug for comfort, then the newer model should be right up your alley. Another important update is the addition of a USB-C charging port, which future-proofs these headphones for much longer than the previous microUSB model. While it’s hard to justify upgrading to these if you already have a pair of the WH-1000XM2, anyone who is in the market for headphones should have these on their “have to try” list.
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While the new Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 might have a sleeker design, the Sony WH-1000XM3 are still not an outdated pair of headphones. They have a fairly classic headphone design that won’t look out of date anytime soon and even then, who cares? The Sony MDR-7506 headphones are still one of my personal favorite pair of over-ears to date and they were released decades ago. One thing that was nice about using the Sony WH-1000XM3 is that you rarely ever have to reach for your phone in order to control music playback.
The touch-sensitive ear cups let you swipe left or right to skip between tracks, or up and down in order to adjust volume. Tapping will pause or play your music, and if you download the Sony Headphones app then long-pressing the button on the side will activate your phone’s personal assistant. You can now also use the app to set that to Amazon Alexa if that’s your assistant of choice. Another useful feature is the ability to hear the world around you by cupping your hand over the right ear cup. This will use active noise cancelling microphones to let outside sounds pass through the headphones instead of them being actively cancelled. I found this to be super helpful while listening to announcements on the subway without needing to completely take off my headphones or pause the music.
How are these headphones built?
For anyone who used the previous Sony WH-1000XM2, there’s nothing new that will surprise you about the WH-1000XM3. These are basically the same headphones aside from the aforementioned ear cups and USB-C charging. There are also new buttons that have a bit more click to them, which means you’re not left wondering whether or not you pressed the button hard enough.
Battery life is also fantastic on the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones. Our sibling site SoundGuys runs every pair of headphones through the same battery test, which is to play music at a constant output of 75dB until the battery runs dry. That specific output was chosen because it’s the level that most people should choose for listening safely.
Read also: The best Sony headphones you can buy
At 75dB, the Sony WH-1000XM3 lasted 24 hours of constant music playback — with active noise cancelling turned on. You can easily grab a few more hours of playback if you turn it off. Or, you can plug in the included audio cable to save battery by skipping Bluetooth when you listen with active noise cancelling.
Do the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 or Sony WH-1000XM3 have better noise cancelling?
Let’s cut straight to the chase. If you’re reading this you should know that there are another pair of dominant ANC headphones worth consideration: the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. So which one is better? The answer is that the Sony WH-1000XM3 is still the better pick, but this is the part where we show our work.
The graphs above show more or less how much noise both pairs of headphones can cancel. The way to read these graphs is easy if you go by the colors. The higher the peaks (green and blue), the quieter those particular notes are. You can immediately tell that while the Bose headphones have a higher peak or two, the overall trend of the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones has more green and blue. This is especially true in the lower frequencies (between 100-1000Hz) where the Sony WH-1000M3 headphones do a better job at cancelling low rumbles and the ambient noises around you.
What about against the older Bose QuietComfort 35 II?
Don’t worry, we went through all the main differences between the Sony WH-1000XM3 and Bose QuietComfort 35 II in this video as well!
Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Shure AONIC 50: which is better?
According to SoundGuys’ Shure AONIC 50 vs Sony WH-1000XM3 breakdown, the former is the better noise-cancelling headset for listeners who fly or commute by train regularly. Why? The AONIC 50 does a better job of attenuating sub-bass frequencies that the WH-1000XM3 can’t touch. That said, for standard ambiance like office chit-chat and such, the Sony WH-1000XM3 will perform better. It depends on your general usage and what you prioritize.
There are other things to consider between the headsets, too: Sony’s microphone is better at combating background noise. For wireless sound quality, the Shure AONIC 50 is the better pick because it supports everything Sony’s headphones do, plus aptX Low Latency. What’s more, the default sound signature is more neutral-leaning, meaning audio is more accurately reproduced by the Shure AONIC 50. That said, the Sony WH-1000XM3 are more affordable and ultimately the more reasonable, high-value option for most listeners.
How’s the sound quality of the Sony WH-1000XM3?
If your primary concern is sound quality, then the Sony WH-1000XM3 won’t disappoint. Just like the previous model, these sound great. Not only doe they have a subtle emphasis on the low end that will make most consumers happy, they also use Sony’s own LDAC Bluetooth codec which has some of the highest data streaming rates in the game.
However, that should be taken with a grain of salt because once you reach the 660 or 990kbps modes the connection becomes worse. Even the streaming at 330kbps is less stable than the default SBC connection that all audio Bluetooth devices use. Still, that’s only once you get nitpicky, because in general use these headphones encounter very few issues. It’s probably best to keep the setting at 660kbps, as you’ll get a good connection and good enough sound quality as well. Besides, even the 660kbps setting exceeds human hearing.
Bass, mids, and treble
Bass is heavily emphasized in the LDAC and default SBC modes, but you can change this by using Sony’s app if you wish. However, you may elect to keep things as they are to really feel the bass in recordings that underplay it a bit. You may find that engine noise masks a bit of the bassline and bongo thumps to the one and only recognized version of September.
Mids take a bit of a backseat to the bass if you use the stock LDAC connection without swapping off to equalize your music. You may want to turn the bass down a bit if you’re jamming out to old Queen records.
How’s the microphone quality on the Sony WH-1000XM3?
Despite not having a microphone positioned near your mouth, the Sony WH-1000XM3 has a pretty good microphone. The important bits of a voice are different for everyone, but tend to lie around 100-3000Hz. As you can see from the graph, the emphasis is fairly flat (close to 0dB emphasis) throughout the entire frequency range. That means that your voice won’t be altered too much by the microphone when you speak to someone on the phone, which is good for anyone who takes a lot of phone calls.
Sony WH-1000XM3 microphone demo:
Should you buy the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones?
This may sound like a cop-out, but the truth is it depends on what you prioritize in a headset. While the WH-1000XM3s are as good as it gets when it comes to all-round performance for ANC headphones right now, they’re also expensive even when on promotion. If you’re on a budget, you can get 70% of the way there by saving $100 and picking up the Sony WH-XB900N instead. The best doesn’t come cheap, and if you have the budget for the WH-1000XM3 then you won’t be disappointed. The upgrade to USB-C and the deeper ear cups is what makes these a must-have.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 are the latest and greatest
The Sony WH-1000XM4 features more advanced noise-cancelling technology and integrates AI features. You can take advantage of the speak-to-chat functionality, so long as you aren’t bothered by its over-sensitivity. Sony finally integrated Bluetooth multipoint connectivity into the WH-1000XM4, but its usage is limited. When testing, I could only stream simultaneously from two devices over the AAC, rather than LDAC, Bluetooth codec. Interestingly, Sony dropped aptX support in its latest model, but that shouldn’t be a huge disappointment since Android users can still stream over LDAC or enjoy wired audio.
Listeners who love everything about the WH-1000XM3, but wish the sound signature was less bass-heavy should consider these. You sacrifice about four hours of battery life when upgrading from the third-generation to the fourth-generation model, but this isn’t a huge deal due to fast-charge functionality. Just 10 minutes of connection to the provided USB-C cable yields five hours of playback, which is enough to get you through a cross-country flight.
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The Sennheiser PXC 550-II are very compact
Sennheiser’s noise-cancelling headphones feature ergonomically shaped ear cups and a lightweight design. The noise-cancelling performance can’t quite keep pace with Sony’s flagship headset, but it’s good enough to get you through most commutes, and can certainly quiet your surroundings in a noisy coffee shop.
Microphone quality is very good, and the array effectively combats unwanted background noise. Your voice is the only thing that’s relayed to your speaking partner. Unfortunately, the PXC 550-II charge via microUSB, rather than USB-C, but they can often be found for less than $200 USD, making them a steal.