Although other makes/models of noise canceling headphones have at times drawn almost even with market-leader Bose, and some have surpassed their sound quality, none have ever exceeded the noise canceling capabilities of the Bose products. To date, Bose’s position has been secure as the absolutely very best for noise cancelling.
Noise cancelling is tremendously beneficial for all who fly. First, noise canceling protects our hearing and massively improves the musicality and dynamic range of the music and other audio we listen to when traveling.
Second, we suggest that one of the elements of jet lag and the general feeling of exhaustion one suffers from after a long flight is due to our brains having to “work hard” during the flight, trying to tune-out the steady background sounds of the flight – sounds which, as if by coincidence, are just under OSHA levels of concern, but which for four (or fourteen!) hours of steady exposure truly do exhaust and possibly even harm us. 85dB is traditionally the point at which extended exposure to sound levels is considered harmful. We wonder if the airplane manufacturers spend enough to keep noise levels below 85 dB, but having done that, don’t spend a great deal more to bring the noise levels down much lower.
So we – and many others – have our noise cancelling headphones on, from the start to the end of a flight, whether we’re listening to any audio through them or not, and we’re sure that helps us feel more refreshed at the end of a flight.
We all know that, for most of us, most headphones “sound the same” when listening to audio programs on a plane. Okay, one might sound a bit different to the other, but it is a struggle to work out which is better and which is more accurate to the original sounds. For that matter, with all the sound processing that goes on in a movie or even audio recording these days, the notion of “original” is not valid in the first place – you don’t really think that gun shots are as deep and resonant as they are in the movies, do you?
Chasing after the absolute best or purest sound is a very subjective thing, with the differences really only appearing when doing close-comparison A/B testing between different sets of headphones, rather than in the real world. Furthermore, a noisy plane is not a good environment for pure audio quality to start with, and so we have always considered sound quality to be less important in a set of noise canceling headphones than their underlying active noise canceling.
But if the purity of the sound is subjective and difficult to establish, the good news about noise cancelling is that it is relatively easy and unambiguous to detect the difference between good and bad noise cancelling. The background noise either reduces or doesn’t reduce, by more or less than other sets of headphones. So, if you pay more for better noise cancelling, you are (or, at least should be!) getting a clearly apparent perceptible difference.
Introducing the New Sony WH-1000X M3 Wireless Noise Canceling Headphones
The last couple of months have seen us barraged by advertisements for and reviews of the new Sony WH-1000X M3 Wireless Noise Canceling Headphones that were released late last year. Phew – that’s got to be the longest name for a set of active noise canceling headphones, and so please forgive us if we don’t type it out in its full glory every time!
Both the advertising and the sycophantic reviews they’ve been collecting seem to imply that these are now the new “best of breed” headphones with better noise cancelling than Bose or any other make/model (even though we suspect few reviewers have done side by side comparisons).
We stumbled over their high $349 price for a while, because in truth, the components within them almost surely cost less than one-tenth their retail price. Strangely, high-end noise cancelling headphones have not only held their unrealistically high prices over the couple of decades we’ve been buying and reviewing them, but if anything, they’ve been inching up in price, even though there’s been precious little or any increase in the underlying cost to make them.
But, after many requests from readers to comment on these new headphones, we felt obliged to buy a pair, and indeed, we were interested ourselves to see if Bose had finally met its match.
Before coming to that key question, let’s look at the headphones in general.
What You Get
The headphones come in a nice retail presentation box, and inside is a carry case that, slightly amusingly, has a paper card within it showing how to fold the headphones to fit inside. This was even necessary and helpful, the first time we tried to replace them.
As well as the headphones, you get a 4′ audio cable that happily uses standard 1/8th inch connectors at both ends (with barrel, single ring and tip connections). Although, as near as we can tell, the audio cable is absolutely ordinary, normal, and standard, Sony recommend using only their connecting cable, not others. We’ve no idea why that would be, other than as a way of hoping to sell overpriced replacements as and when they might be needed.
Sony also provide, in the box, a dual prong to single prong connector for airplanes that still use dual pronged connectors. We had thought they no longer existed on modern planes/seats, but were surprised to see them on several AA flights recently, so clearly some airlines still use them. But there was not a 1/8th inch to 1/4 inch adapter to allow you to use the headphones with eg the output of a regular audio receiver. You really don’t get much in the way of extras for your $350, do you.
Sony also include a ridiculously and impractically short 8″ USB cable that terminates in a USB-C connector, used for charging the battery sealed inside the headphones. You’d think that for $350, Sony could afford a slightly longer cable, but instead it insults us with a tiny 8″ cord. My first reaction was “Oh no, there’s no way I could charge the headphones and use them simultaneously with something this short:”; and subsequently discovered that perhaps the short cable was deliberate, because the headphones become totally non-functional while being charged. But even so, it is very likely that there’ll be more than 8″ between the charger outlet and where you can conveniently place the headphones. Being nickel and dimed over things like a too short charging cable really does jar with the ultra-high end price of the headphones.
Talking about too short/too small, the user instructions are in an insultingly small font. Note to the 20-something-year-old graphic designer who did this : Not everyone still has the vivid sharp eyesight you currently do.
You’d think Sony might understand this simple thing and print its instructions in a font that doesn’t require a magnifying glass to read.
Equally annoying, instead of instructions in a nice little booklet, they are on a huge piece of paper, folded many times over to bring it down to size, but requiring to be fully unfolded to read. Once you’ve finished unfolding it, you have a large 16″ x 23″ sheet of paper – good luck with that when cramped into an airline seat. Your (coach class) seat is barely 18″ wide, and the piece of paper is 23″ wide.
We semi-solved this unnecessary problem by downloading a PDF of the instructions from Sony’s site and then viewing them at a high magnification on our computer screen (forget it if you want to read them on a phone screen). But the stupid page layout meant we were continually scrolling around in a struggle to find what we were looking for.
There is a second same-sized piece of paper also provided, this one being similar to the annoying instructions that come with IKEA furniture. Lots of illustrations, but no words. The literacy rate in the US is 99%, and the written instructions, while too small to easily read, are in three languages, so there would seem to be no reason why Sony needed to provide a visual puzzle for people who can’t read English as well as a microscopic set of instructions.
We’d prefer well written and readable instructions with inline illustrations as needed, rather than puzzling pictures and icons that raise more questions and new issues than they answer.
Even worse though was the lack of detail in the one double-sided sheet of user instructions, which Sony proudly terms a “Reference Guide”. Normally you’d expect a reference guide to be complete. But not so. Instead, many things are entirely missing and unexplained (like the time we accidentally initiated an “optimizer” mode by pressing the Bluetooth button for too long – what is optimizer mode, how does it work, and how do we turn it on or off?).
In other cases, there is a suggestion to refer to a Help Guide for more information, for example where it says “If sound skips frequently during playback, the situation may be improved by setting the sound quality mode to ‘priority on stable connection’. For details, refer to the Help Guide.” But no Help Guide was included and the reference guide didn’t say where to find it. Some careful searching of Sony’s site found it here.
There’s also a surprising problem with this massive 130 page Help Guide. Even this very lengthy document is not complete. For example, if you go to the section that explains the so-called “Voice Guidance” (am I the only one who finds it mirthlessly funny that voice guidance needs to be explained? Isn’t there a fundamental problem when you need to explain the explanations?) you’ll see that if you want to change the language the guidance is spoken in, you have to go online and refer to and probably download a second 33 page manual.
Even more annoying, this second manual is written for 14 different models of headphones, each with a different set of features. So you might see something that seems interesting in the manual, only to discover, elsewhere in the manual, that your headphones don’t support it. Are you confused yet?
While Sony does not included a printed copy of the 130 page guide, you can buy one separately if you wish. The cost for a copy of this essential manual? $33.66. Yes, after spending $350 on the headphones and getting nothing more than a couple of scraps of oversized paper with unhelpful incomplete instructions and a wordless visual puzzle on them, if you want to actually understand what your headphones are doing when they make various noises and express various comments to you, and if you prefer a hard-copy to a PDF, you’re up for another $33.66. And, wait – there’s one more insult waiting to please you. If you order one of these manuals, you’ll discover that in addition to the massively overpriced manual price, you’ve another $8 shipping to pay on top.
As for the supplementary 33 page manual? You can’t buy a copy of that at all.
There was a time when electronic devices were famous for their “batteries not included” policies. Now that has been partially solved by built-in and non-replaceable rechargeable batteries, some manufacturers have come up with a new pinprick of pain. Manuals not included.
And still another pinprick of annoyance as regards documentation. It is out of date. It relates to software version 4.1.0; the headphones, after updating, now have new undocumented features in their 4.1.1 software (ie Amazon Alexa support and changing the language for the voice guidance). This new software version was released on 16 January, and this review is being written on 3 March, six weeks later, but still no documentation.
Wouldn’t it be nice if Sony could synchronize the release of its software to the same-time release of the documentation explaining it. With electronic PDF files and online distribution, there’s no publishing delay or excuse possible to explain or excuse this lack of timely documentation. It is sloppy careless planning from a company that used to know better and now no longer seems to care about anything other than over-pricing their headphones and then over-spending on promotion to compensate for the lack of underlying quality, value and service being offered.
The big issue exposed in the almost 200 pages of documentation is that these headphones are (take your pick) mind-bogglingly complicated to use, or perhaps extremely flexible and powerful in their functionality.
For me, I’m more at the mind-bogglingly and unnecessarily complicated end of that scale. When I buy a set of headphones, I just want to stick them on my head, plug them in, and optionally turn on the noise cancelling. End of story. But not so with these Sony headphones, where engineers have added every thinkable digital effect without stopping to consider if they really help or hinder the end user’s experience.
As an example of that, the voice explanations that you hear in the headphones. You can program where they appear to be coming from. Ahead, behind, to the left or to the right. Sure, it is clever, but is it really necessary?
The headphones have a one year warranty.
Controls and User Interface
Ugh. We hate that there even needs to be a heading for controls, let alone a pretentious phrase such as “user interface”. As we said, we don’t want controls. We don’t want a user interface. We just want simple working headphones.
One of the things we love about our Bose QC-25 headphones is that there’s a single simple on-off switch. Even better, when you turn it on, a tiny indicator light goes on. If the battery is getting low, the light flashes. If the headphones are off, the light is off. That’s it. Simple, impossible to forget or misunderstand.
But, and similar to the Cleer Flow Bluetooth Noise Cancelling Headphones we reviewed a month ago, instead of a simple slide switch and indicator light, Sony gives you a press-button and two multi-colored lights that flash in different patterns to mean different things (see the extraordinarily lengthy listing on the right), and a voice inside the headphones to tell you if you are turning them on or off, or if you are Bluetooth pairing, or who only knows what else.
You have to be careful to press the button for the right amount of time so that it knows you want to turn the power on or off rather than wanting to invoke some other arcane control command.
Worse still, although there are indicator lights on both ear cups, neither of them remain on when you turn the unit on. There’s no visual way of determining if the headphones are on or not.
No, Sony – this doesn’t make it easier. It makes it so much harder. Please give us a simple power slide switch and power on light. And if we really need to know about all these other things, give us more indicator lights with helpful labels alongside each one, or a LCD status display, or something/anything that doesn’t require us to learn the contents of almost 200 pages of instructions and memorizing 16 different types of colored light flash sequences.
Not only can you not tell if the headphones are turned on or not, you also can’t tell by looking if noise cancelling is on or off. And if you press the mode button that turns the noise cancelling on/off, you have to be careful, because it does other things, too. For example, if you press it for too long, other strange things happen like an “optimizer” turning on and emitting strange tones.
In addition to the two buttons you see, there are also hidden controls you don’t see. By tracing up and down, or backwards/forwards, or other patterns on the right ear cup you can remotely control the audio volume and music playback. We find this gratuitous, confusing, and utterly unnecessary. Invariably, the device you’re struggling to control by tapping out patterns on your headphone ear cup is within reach and right in front of you, with nice clear on-screen controls to do whatever you want. What is the point of struggling to remember various gestures and tapping combinations when your music player is right in front of you, with easy to use controls?
In addition to impossible to understand/remember controls on the headphones themselves, you are also encouraged to download an app to your mobile phone and control the headphones from that. I downloaded the app, which immediately asked to be able to track my location through the phone’s location services. Why does the app want to know my location? Too many apps these days are too intrusive and invasive. Why should an audio app need to know where I am?
Even more annoyingly, while it requests permission for my location, it won’t work if the location permission is refused. I allowed it to know my location so I could test it for this review, but immediately afterwards, deleted the app. It also wanted to access my contacts and calls, but that is probably for a slightly more benign reason, as part of its Bluetooth phone calling service.
As soon as I connected the phone to the app, it told me there was a new version of software for the headphones, but it wouldn’t let me download it because the phone’s built-in rechargeable battery didn’t have enough charge. No worries, you might think, do the same as we do with a phone – connect a charger to it and proceed.
Well, not with these headphones. Connecting a charger to them instantly turns everything off. They won’t do anything while they are being charged. That’s an unfortunate design weakness – we saw that also with the Cleer headphones, but whereas the Cleer headphones were vaguely “middle of the market” the Sony ones claim to be the very best, and we’d think they’d have done a better engineering job to allow the headphones to be charged at the same time they were operating.
You can control much of the headphone functionality through the app on your phone. Which means, to do something like perhaps control the volume, you can either use the regular volume control on the player, you can use the volume control in the app, or you can use the volume control on the headphones. Three different ways to do the same thing, when one should be (and is!) more than enough.
The headphones have another annoying “helpful” feature – they’ll automatically switch off after five minutes if you don’t have a Bluetooth connection. Apparently the concept of listening through a wired connection didn’t occur to Sony. Fortunately, this auto-off “feature” can be turned off via the phone app, but if you don’t choose to download the app, there’s no other way to turn this off.
A related “helpful” feature is that if you’re listening through a connecting cable, say on a flight, and then want to get up, stretch your legs, and visit the toilet, perhaps you first disconnect the connecting cable from the headset and then wander down the plane with the headset still on your head (nowhere else to put it, anyway!). But if you disconnect the cable, the headset automatically switches off.
Not only is this an annoyance, but it is made worse because there’s no way you can tell, by looking at the headphones, if they are switched on or off. No indicator light.
You want more annoyances and “helpful” features? Maybe you have your headset connected to your phone in case you receive an incoming call while listening to music via a connecting cable from something else – an MP3 player, a tablet, whatever. A phone call comes in, but – ooops. Because you’ve plugged in the connecting cable, the Bluetooth feature has been “helpfully” disabled. You’ll need to take your headphones off and take the call the regular old-fashioned way.
Or what say you’re listening to audio, through Bluetooth, from one device (eg a tablet), and another device (your phone) then has a call come through it. How do you switch the headphones from one device to the other, and back again? We’re sure there’s an answer somewhere in the 200 pages of documentation, but we’re also sure that we really can’t be bothered trying to find it and memorize it.
Back to simple old-fashioned things, the headphones are comfortable to wear, and seem to be reasonably robust and well made. They weigh 8.8 oz, only a little more than the Bose, and their ear pieces are sufficiently large to accommodate most normal sized ears, although perhaps a little smaller than Bose, which usually seems to have larger earcups, internally, than most other manufacturers we’ve come across. The ear pieces are a bit larger, externally, than Bose, but not enough to be significantly bigger (about 0.15″ deeper).
From a comfort point of view, they are fine with no issues or problems. But even the simple act of putting your headphones on is harder than it needs to be. One of the things we love about recent models of Bose headphones is that they have large prominent impossible-to-miss identification of which side is left and which is right. Sony prefer to keep you guessing, with tiny little symbols. Their designer might think this makes them “look smart” and “modern” but for users, it is another annoying point of needless frustration, and especially in the half-light of an overnight flight, you don’t want to have to be turning on the overhead light every time you want to put your headphones on, so as to work out which way to put them on your head.
They have a rechargeable battery inside them that doesn’t seem to be user replaceable. We were going to tell you how long the battery lasts, but it is, uh, complicated, as is apparent from this section of the reference guide that we show on the left. We count 10 different possible battery life scenarios.
It seems their battery life is similar to or possibly slightly shorter than that offered by the Bose QC35 II (which they simply express as 20 hours with Bluetooth, 40 hours without), and the Sony headphones take a bit longer to be fully charged (3 hours compared to 2 hours with Bose).
Alexa and Google
Should you be so minded, you can make your headphones become another Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant type device, with you speaking questions and requests/commands and getting Alexa/Google to respond and do things for you. It may even be possible to have both services activated on the headphones – this may be part of the new undocumented 4.1.1 release of software.
The two problems with this is that it will only work if the headphones are connected, via Bluetooth, to a device that is in turn connected to the internet (and you’re not using the cable connector to route audio to the headphones at the same time), and you have to remember what button you push, or how many taps you do on the right ear cup, and whether you then stop tapping or hold your finger on the ear cup while talking.
That is enough of a challenge to remember if you use your headphones much of every day, and you regularly use the Alexa/Assistant feature. But for those of us who generally only use our headphones while traveling, and most of the time to listen to the audio on a seat-back movie while flying through a connecting cable, we’ll never remember how to activate the service, and/or it won’t work.
We love using Alexa with dedicated Amazon Echo Dot units. But we can’t motivate ourselves to learn how to use the headphones to do the same thing.
The headphones give a rich warm sound, with power on or off, and with noise cancelling on or off, and perhaps with Ambient Sound on or off as well (so many different possible combinations!). We didn’t test with the ambient sound on/off because that is not intended as a normal state, just a temporary state so you can hear something. (Normal people find it easier to just remove their headphones to hear an announcement or a Flight Attendant asking you if you want chicken or beef for your entrée.) There is surprisingly little difference in sound quality between these different settings.
Solo piano pieces sounded reasonably crisp with some sense of the percussive explosion of sound as the hammers beat the individual notes/strings (wires) in the piano. Complex richly scored orchestral pieces didn’t go mushy, but allowed a sense of the different instrument groups and their respective identities.
Having said that, the music was also a bit “empty” and lacked forwardness or presence. It lacked sparkle. For example, the opening three bars of the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, with violins and violas only, didn’t sound quite as ethereal and enticing as it could and probably should. It was as if there were a curtain between the players and the microphones. Through high quality speakers/headphones, you immediately sit up intrigued, savor the sound, and wonder what is happening next. Through these, you sort of think “okay, get on with it”.
So we rate the sound quality as ordinary and okay, but no way exceptional. See our further comments about sound quality in the section comparing these headphones to the Bose QuietComfort series headphones.
Turning the noise cancelling on caused an impressive reduction in ambient noise and definitely among the best we’ve heard (or, seeing as how it is noise canceling, perhaps we should say “among the best we’ve not heard”!).
There were also two other settings for allowing ambient sounds, either in general or primarily voice, to filter through and be heard as if you didn’t have headphones on at all. But you can’t/shouldn’t normally have both noise cancelling and ambient sound on simultaneously, so for the all-important and most-of-the-time noise canceling function, the ambient noise function is irrelevant and just another unnecessary feature.
Furthermore, in a typical scenario where you want to quickly interact with a Flight Attendant or fellow passenger, or listen to an in-flight announcement, it is so much quicker and easier just to lift your headphones from your ears. By the time you’ve fumbled and found the right button to push, then pushed it for long enough to activate the setting, and then had the voice guidance happily tell you “Ambient Mode On” and for the feature to finally, after all of that, activate, you’ve missed the announcement or need to ask the person to repeat what they are saying. Plus, don’t forget, at the end of this, if you had taken your headphones off, it is a simple act to put them back on. But if you activated Ambient Mode, you now have to step through the button pushes to de-activate it again and restore Noise Cancelling.
There are also other vague features such as an “adaptive sound control”. We really don’t understand what this is, and more to the point, we don’t care. We view it as another manifestation of the featuritis that is rampant in these headphones.
It seems to be a more “advanced” (or should that be, “retarded”) feature than was once offered by having a “volume” type control for the noise cancelling on earlier headphones. We never liked this, because we could never think of a time when you wouldn’t want maximum noise cancellation. We asked manufacturers when and how it would be useful, and could never get a sensible answer back; we think it was there purely because it was an easy extra “feature” to offer and perhaps help sell their brand compared to another brand.
It is the same now with the multiplying digital “features”. The only thing that matters is noise cancelling, and you want that to cancel the maximum amount of every possible noise. If you don’t need the best possible noise cancellation, buy a junk set of $50 headphones instead and save yourself $300 and the frustration of puzzling controls that are of no real function or benefit!
We compare the Sony noise cancelling to the Bose in the section below.
Are the Headphones As Good (or even better than!) Bose?
This is now getting to the ultimate question, for which all the preceding has merely been introduction and prelude. How do the headphones perform, compared to the Bose headphones.
There are several different measures to compare the two. Size and weight, for example. The Sony headphones are slightly bulkier than the Bose ones, but not profoundly so, and as for weight, the half ounce or so of extra weight with the Sony headphones is something you’ll never notice.
Comfort is another parameter worthy of consideration, particularly when using them for maybe ten hours at a time. We couldn’t sense any difference in comfort – the Sony headset had similar “clamping tension” against the side of our head, and sufficiently roomy earcups as not to squash our ears at all.
Sound quality is something some reviewers get seriously hung up about, all the more so because much of that evaluation is objective, and even more so because in a noisy environment and with relatively low-quality Bluetooth as a way to receive the sound signal, no headphones will ever be capable of providing a high quality sound environment.
Sonarworks and Headphone Sound Quality
These days, for some lucky makes/models of headphones, there is now a great “leveler” that makes the differences between different headphone brands become almost irrelevant and non-existent. This is the wonderful Sonarworks True-Fi program, that now works on iOS and Android devices as well as on both Mac and PC laptops. We review the Sonarworks product here, suffice it to say that it goes a long way to balance and compensate for the distinctive peaks and troughs of any set of headphones and their frequency response by selectively boosting or cutting the volume across the spectrum, making any supported set of headphones enjoy a much more even frequency response. It won’t make distorted sound become undistorted, but it will make headphones more tonally neutral and accurate.
Both the Sony and Bose models are supported by this excellent software. So, we’ll limit our response on sound quality to simply acknowledge that both are more than sufficiently satisfactory for this purpose.
The Key Question – Comparative Noise Cancelling
So what about the noise cancelling?
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And now, on with the balance of the article. There’s still plenty more.
Ultimate Recommendation – Bose or Sony?
The mainstream review sites usually stumble at this point. Both Bose and Sony are major advertisers, and both would be very upset to see the other brand labeled as the clearly superior product, and an unambiguous endorsement given to their competitor. You’ve probably noticed how traditional review sites are a bit like modern schools – everyone passes, everyone gets a prize, and no-one fails.
So it is sometimes very hard or even impossible to get a simple answer to this simple question, which is an essential question when considering a $350 (plus sales tax too) purchase. Which should you buy? Real life demands a clear answer to that question, unless you want to buy half a dozen sets of headphones.
We get no advertising revenue from either company, and have paid full price for all the various Bose and Sony headphones we’ve purchased over the years. Our loyalty is to you, not to them, so we don’t hesitate to clearly call which is the winner and which is the loser.
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It is true that both sets of headphones are good. But, as to which is best, a clear answer to that question is offered to our generous supporters. If you’re not yet a supporter, please consider becoming one – it only takes a couple of minutes, and you then get immediate access to the extra content in this article and to a range of other extra features on our site, too.
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We also in the special section advised our supporters of the very best headphones on the market today, from a top-name brand, and costing less than half the price of either the Sony or the Bose QC35 II headphones.
So, please, do think about becoming a supporter. If you’re in the market for headphones, our advice today could save you over $175.
You definitely should always travel with noise cancelling headphones, and because the difference in performance between good and not so good noise cancelling headphones is so pronounced, you should pay a bit more to get a lot more functionality.
The Bose and Sony products are both near the very top of the best performing headphones available today. The Sony headphones in most respects are as good as the Bose headphones. In cases where there is a difference, it isn’t a huge difference, either which way. Both have similar feature sets, and perform similarly well.
They are also almost identically priced – an amazing coincidence in our free market economy, right? The Sony WH-1000X M3 Wireless Noise Canceling Headphones are priced at $349. But if you scroll down this linked Amazon page a bit, you might find a slightly lower price for refurbished or grey market (“international version”) sets.
The Bose Quiet Comfort 35 II noise cancelling headphones are also priced at $349. Bose is aggressive at insisting that their price not be discounted, so there’s no real bargains to be found anywhere, although Amazon sometimes offers them refurbished at a lower price (scroll down the linked listing).
Supporters know of a third product, less than half the price, which gets our top recommendation, particularly on the ease of use and value fronts.