Could Sony improve on its best noise cancelling headphones in 2018? Well, yes. The WH-1000XM3 (M3) is superlative – and that is no mean feat.
We said the WH-1000XM2 (review here) was “Exceptional – the one to beat.” It is fair to say the WH-1000XM3 has even better noise cancelling, sound quality, and battery life. And the price is a meagre $399. Who could ask for more?
What is a Sony WH-1000XM3?
It is an over-the-ear, automatic noise cancelling (ANC) headphone with benefits. Benefits include an amazing fit (lighter and even more comfortable even for long wear); 30-hour battery life (up 50% over the M2); even better frequency response (better sound); and what I consider the best noise-cancelling in its class (Sorry Bose, Sennheiser etal.).
3.5mm to 3.5mm stereo cable (great – no more mini-stereo jacks)
Aeroplane dual pin adapter
USB-A to USB-C (very short cable)
Hard zippered carry case
First impression over the M2 – lighter but still very much a Sony.
The WH-1000XM3 look like the M2 predecessor but when you put them side-by-side, you can see the design refinements.A better padded top band, slightly slimmer ear cups but more room inside, and USB-C charging. Add Google Assistant (for Android devices) and even better ANC and sound quality.
If you are an M2 owner, don’t rush out because the new app also works with it. Or perhaps find a relative to palm them off on and go for the M3.
Codecs 101 – how they affect music playback.
Codecs provide encoding and decoding that compresses audio into small data packets that Bluetooth can transmit.
Bluetooth defaults to a standard SBC codec – a low complexity sub-band codec that suits compressed, lossy MP3, AAC and WMA music. It can transmit at up to 320kbps, but that is usually closer to 100-150-200kbps. Music is ‘psycho acoustically’ manipulated to lop off data it can’t transmit. There are also latency issues – 100ms or more that can affect sync, especially for movies. But to most, it sounds fine!
By comparison, higher quality codecs like Qualcomm aptX/aptX LL/HD are up to 352/576kbps, and Sony’s adaptive rate LDAC is up to 990kbps.
What this means I that these can handle higher 16/24/32-sampling and up to 48/92/192kHz bit rates. Android Oreo and Pie now support these lossless codecs, but it does depend if the smartphone processor can handle them.
You may have to go into Developer Options on Android smartphones to see if it supports higher bit rate codecs. To access Developer options, go to Settings, and search for Build. Tap seven times to activate it. If you mess anything up, then just turn off developer options!
In other words, there is so much affecting how any Bluetooth device sounds – let’s not even enter the Apple world where AAC reigns supreme.
It can pair with any Bluetooth NFC device or use the normal Bluetooth discovery. Regrettably, the WH-1000XM3 is not multi-point (e.g. pair to two devices), so you need to re-pair if using another device.
How do the WH-1000XM3 sound?
We can’t use our test instruments on over-the-ear headphones (or buds). So, we rely on how it sounds to us. Our tests include both SBC and LDAC mode with a Samsung Galaxy Note9.
SBC theoretically gives 20Hz-20kHz (16-bit/44.1kHzsampling). Frankly, MP3s sound pretty much the same on this and LDAC because the recording (encoding) format was lossy to start with. For example, Spotify mobile streams at 96, 160 or 320kbps –all very lossy rates. It does not offer Hi-res audio streams, so SBC is fine for most.
LDAC gives 4Hz-40kHz (96kHz sampling). To test this, we read Sony’s guide for beginners and found some FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec at1411kbps) from one of Sony’s recommended music services. Suffice to say that FLAC content tends to be ‘paid for’.
The WH-1000XM3 shine with FLAC and LDAP (even aptX HD).
But Joe and Jane Average will likely only use these with Bluetooth SBC and lossy content never knowing what they are missing.
If you want to test the difference go to Sony’s test siteand you can download and hear the same track in AAC and FLAC if you have a device that supports it. The difference is amazing.
Sony provides DSEE HX (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) that can upscale music and make it sound better. Now it is impossible to put back lost information from an MP3 file but DSEE HX does make an audible difference, and it seems to reduce treble harshness, induce some bass and lower noise levels.
The app provides EQ pre-sets for bright, excited, vocal, treble boost, bass boost, speech and manual. These do make a difference as processing is done in the earphones –not by the smartphone or computer sound chip.
Again, it is hard to measure volume on over-the-ear, but it had 84dB on MP3 and 92dB on FLAC. Sony claims up to 104dB – this is deafening for a headphone.
Apart from Bluetooth 4.2 LE, it has a stereo 3.5mm (standard) plug to 3.5mm cable. This can be used with ANC (the headphones have power and do the processing) and without ANC (the source device does the processing). In the Note9 case, it has enough amplifier strength to give good volume, and the music quality and volume was very similar with ANC on or off. I did try with a low-cost Android smartphone and with ANC off there was insufficient volume for the 40mm drivers.
It has a USB-C port for charging only. Sony claims 30/38 hours ANC on/off. It supports Quick Charge – Sony claims three hours for a 0-100% charge and 5 hours music on 10 minutes charge. Post Review Note: We can now confirm the Sony charge claims are conservative.
You will have to provide a charger – 5V/2A (10A) is fine but it will work with a USB-C Power Delivery 2.0 charger (18W or higher) and should charge faster again.
My only disappointment is that it cannot use USB-C for both charging and music as my Sennheiser PCX-550 can. To put that in perspective you can’t listen while you charge unless you use the 3.5mm jack with ANC off. But Quick Charge almost eliminates that issue.
Ambient noise and ANC
Perhaps the most interesting thing is the sensor that can measure atmospheric pressure and adjust the sound. It is no gimmick – sound is very different at ground level to 40,000 feet, and it compensates for that.
ANC can go from almost 100% (can’t hear my typing on a clicky mechanical keyboard) right down to letting in car and city noise. You can also toggle ‘focus on voice’, and it allows typical voice frequencies through. It has settings for sitting, walking, running and public transport.
There is also sound position control (adjust the speaker’s directionality) and a touch to talk function.
Let’s just say there is a lot of processing power from Sony’s dedicated QN1 ANC processor.
It can use your smartphone’s voice assistant by long pressing the ANC button. All that means is that is uses the mics on the headphones instead of the smartphone.
GadgetGuy’s take: Sony WH-1000XM3 ANC headphones
We all have favourites. For example, my wife loves her Bose QC-35 II (small and cute), I prefer the Sennheiser PXC-550 (a real man’s headset), my impoverished adult son likes SMATE (cheap and cheerful), my adult spendthrift daughter likes Sony WH-1000XM2 (classy),and a friend has a Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 (good value).
But for the past year, I have been commuting via NSW’s trains (never seem to get the quiet carriage) and using the WH-1000XM2 as well as the Sennheiser PCX-550 (a couple of years old). The M2 beat the Sennheiser and now the M3 beats the M2.
The caveat is that there is little difference between them if you are using Bluetooth SBC – they are all excellent headsets. The SBC/MP3 music and movies I play do not begin to stretch the device’s capabilities.
However, now I know more about FLAC and aptX/HD/LDAC you can be sure I will be more discerning.
Value for money
Ease of Use
The best noise cancelling
Really comfortable at 255g – more so than the M2
30-hour battery life. USB-C and fast charge
Better sound compared to M2
To get better sound, you need to invest in lossless FLAC audio
Can your smartphone handle aptX/HD and LDAC codecs?
No multi-point Bluetooth
No USB-DAC audio