I’ve been debating investing in noise-cancelling headphones for a few months.
At present, all decent noise cancelling headphones are expensive. As in £250+ expensive. However, I work in a large open plan office. Each desk is about 120cm wide so I’m in close proximity to plenty of other people talking, laughing and basically being human. The upshot is that it’s very noisy. Much of the time I find that noise incredibly distracting. Noise-cancelling headphones seemed like a panacea to my concentration ~~excuses~~ woes.
To be clear, I convinced myself the significant expense was legitimate on the basis that anything that potentially allowed me to be more effective and productive was probably a decent investment. If they were useless there was always the generous Amazon return policy.
I finally took the leap and ordered a pair of Sony WH–1000XM3 headphones for £290 a couple of weeks back. What follows is my review of these headphones.
I had been to a couple of local stores to try the XM3’s out and compare them with the Bose Quite Comfort 35 IIs. They are both premium, over the ear, Bluetooth wireless noise-cancelling headphones. I wanted to try and evaluate physical comfort and sonic/noise-cancelling quality of each.
Physically, they both felt very comfortable to me; nothing seemed to stand out with either.
When it came to judging the sonic quality, I also found it pretty difficult to judge. I wasn’t convinced I was getting a good idea of what high-end noise cancelling headphones would do for me outside of the environment I intended to use them in.
Pairing was more intuitive on the Sony’s – so they got a nod for that. Although the Bose pairing method, where you need to slide a button forward to put them in pairing mode is also fine, once you know how.
The truth is I think I would have been just as happy with the Bose QC35 IIs as with the Sony XM3s. My only reasons to opt for the Sony models were the faster USB C charging, and the more dubious reason that a few other people sitting near me have Bose QC25 headphones and my contrary nature wouldn’t allow me to go with the same brand (if you are zigging, I’m zagging).
The truth is that buying either of them felt like a leap of faith.
In case you are unfamiliar with the WH–1000XM3 headphones, they are over the ear, Bluetooth wireless noise-cancelling headphones. They come with a nice semi-rigid carry case that includes a USB charger (USB A -> USB C) and a standard headphone cable with mini-jack connector.
Until this point I had been using a set of wired Sony MDR-V6, over the ear studio headphones in my day-to-day environment so my comparison is largely based against those.
Out of the box, I downloaded the Sony ‘Headphone Connect’ app from the App Store. I’m on iOS so can’t speak of the Android equivalent. I’ve been using version 4.1.1. As I understand it the App version number is the same as the firmware version of the headphones.
It’s worth pointing out that by many accounts the 4.1.1 version of the software has degraded noise cancellation performance: https://community.sony.co.uk/t5/portable-audio/bd-p/au_en_1
I don’t have a comparison of a different version yet so I don’t know if they would have been better before the update or not.
You connect to the headphones via Bluetooth in iOS and then open the Headphones Connect and connect to the headphones there too. For some reason (security?) the app can’t do the Bluetooth connection part for you. It’s also pretty temperamental with connecting again if you close the app and re-open it.
Sadly, there is no desktop equivalent of ‘Headphone Connect’ which I feel is a large oversight. For example, all the Equalizer settings are only changeable via the app so if you don’t have access to a smart phone these probably aren’t the headphones for you. I posted on the support forums about that here but doesn’t seem like there is any appetite to change that: https://community.sony.co.uk/t5/portable-audio/headphone-connect-app-for-os-x-check-settings-without-headphone/td-p/2573361
There are a bunch of settings you can play with the in the Headphone Connect app. The only ones I altered were the ‘Noise Cancelling Optimizer’, which I assume tweaks things based on the environment you are currently in. I also changed the Equalizer to the ‘Bright’ preset. This is a mere preference a preference thing. I listen to a lot of old-school hip-hop (Ice Cube, NWA, Cypress Hill, Wu-Tang etc – don’t judge) and this suited that style of music well for me. Whichever you opt for, once set the preset stays set on the headphones. The upshot being you can set them how you like them and then happily connect to a desktop machine and it retains your EQ preference.
Let’s get this out of the way early. The difference between ‘standard’ over the ear headphones and the noise-cancelling headphones is stark. At the outset I wasn’t convinced that removing the extra unwanted ambient noise around me would add up to much real-world difference. I was wrong. I have found it a major help in the concentration stakes. People can no longer merely stand close to get my attention or inadvertently distract me. Typically they need to tap me on the shoulder or I just don’t realise they are there.
I believe they are worth the significant outlay if you want to optimise your concentration in a distraction rich environment.
It is worth pointing out that they can feel a little weird when you first put them on as they somehow adjust pressure to aid in noise cancellation. After optimization the app told me mine were optimized to 1.0atm of pressure. I have no idea if that is good or bad. I’m not even sure that’s a healthy thing to be messing with! A couple of people who tried them said they felt a bit dizzy with them on. I wouldn’t go that far but it is a consideration. More sensitive people may find the pressure change more disconcerting.
With the noise cancellation question out of the way, let me tell you more about the features, pro’s and con’s.
There are touch controls on the right ear cup but I find them a bit of a gimmick. For example, you can cover the right ear-cup and it adjusts the volume and turns the noise-cancelling off, letting the ambient noise it. It works OK but when I went to listen to something beyond the headphones I find it easier to merely slip the headphones off, or momentarily lift an ear-cup. By the same token you can swipe up and down for volume and forwards and backwards for track navigation but in my environment I find it easier and more reliable to use the media control short-cuts on my keyboard. Obviously if you want noise-cancelling headphones for commuting these features will prove more useful.
The XM3s handle phone calls too with a built in microphone. So far I’ve no experience with them in this respect. Closest I got was when I was working with the Web Speech API and used them for voice input into a web form. They were fine in that situation but I’ll update here if and when I’ve made some phone/Skype calls with them.
Sound Quality and Codecs
I like the sound ‘signature’ of the Sony XM3s. I realise that endorsement is not very scientific but despite streaming over Bluetooth the quality far exceeds the studio headphones I had been using. I went back to the MDR-V6 model for a couple of tracks for comparison and they seemed laughably bad.
In terms of codes the Sony XM3s can handle SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD and LDAC. Of interest in Android land is aptX HD and in Apple land it would be AAC. For the uninitiated, the codec is the algorithm used when transmitting sound over Bluetooth. Bluetooth is limited when it comes to bandwidth so this can be a ‘big deal’.
I share a Spotify ‘Family’ account with a work colleague (again, don’t judge) and have the ‘High Quality streaming’ setting enabled. However, what that actually equates to in terms of the codec I’m getting into the headphones I don’t know. As the App is only Smartphone-based there is no way to tell what codec is being streamed from a desktop computer.
From a cursory back and forth with iTunes and Spotify on the Mac I can tell you with absolute certainty that iTunes sounds far ‘better’. A colleague who sits nearby who is versed in audio engineering tells me this is nothing to do with the codec so I’m unsure what to make of this phenomenon. Probably that I just need to move to iTunes!
Considerations and shortcomings
The battery isn’t going to last forever. I don’t know how much it will cost to get a new battery installed when the time comes. At a guess, it won’t be cheap! That said, it is very liberating to have wireless headphones, even in a desk-bound office environment. I wouldn’t want to be without that capability now.
Left or right?
There is a little ‘R’ and ‘L’ symbol on each strut coming from the ear-cup so you know which way around they are. Why they don’t stick a dirty great ‘R’ and ‘L’ on the mesh on the inner of the cups is beyond me. I’ve seen that on other branded headphones and it seems so obvious and beneficial I’m not sure why it isn’t the defacto manner for labelling the cups. With the XM3s it’s hard enough to see in broad daylight, I imagine it would be a real pain to determine orientation in the variable light of a commute.
Apple is allegedly working on some new noise cancelling headphones that can auto-detect left/right side as you put them on. That sounds brilliant. These might go on eBay if that happens!
Headphone cup rotation
When I take the headphones off, it would make sense for me to twist the ear cups clockwise with my right hand and anti-clockwise with my left hand. That would make the ear-pads face the surface to put them down. Instead, they actually rotate the opposite way, meaning that unless I flip them over to rest them on the desk, they go cup outer down. And that is liable to end up in scratches over the outside of the cups.
I can’t think of a good reason they go the way they do so that’s pretty annoying.
Occasional audio glitches
There are occasional drops/skips in audio. Not enough to be a deal-breaker and I can’t attribute this to anything in particular. But it happens sometimes and it is annoying.
Switching Bluetooth source
You can’t easily switch between two Bluetooth sources. Say you want to connect to Spotify on your desktop and iTunes or YouTube on your phone. Switching between the two sources is a pain. You need to disconnect one before you can listen to the other. I don’t think this is necessary with the Bose QC35 IIs so I hope the shortcomings can be addressed in a future update of the Sony XM3s.
On the face of it, I still think spending £290 on a pair of headphones is ridiculous. That said, this is price of entry for high quality noise-cancellation currently. Having enjoyed the benefits of the extra focus these Sony XM3s have afforded I can’t help feeling they are worth it.
If you find your environment perpetually distracting you may find, like me, that the significant outlay is actually money well spent in the longer term.