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Sony WH-1000XM2 vs Sony WH-1000XM3: which is better?

Sony WH-1000XM2 vs Sony WH-1000XM3: which is better?
(Image credit: Sony)

There's no shortage of over-ear headphones around, but very few marry wireless and noise-cancelling tech like recent Sony models. What makes Sony's efforts all the more impressive is that until 2016, the company didn't even make a pair of premium Bluetooth noise-cancellers. They were definitely worth the wait, then.

Shop around online and you'll see two key models vying for your attention: the Sony WH-1000XM2 and their successors, the WH-1000XM3. Both offer fantastic sound quality, awesome noise-cancelling, and wireless connectivity, but which is for you?

We've run down the main categories below, including battery life, design and sound quality, so you can see which comes out on top. Because when you're dropping around £300 ($350), it pays to do your research, especially if you're thinking of picking up a pair during the Black Friday sales.

MORE: Best headphones 2019: all styles, all budgets

Battery life

Sony WH-1000XM2 vs Sony WH-1000XM3: which is better?

(Image credit: Sony)

Like the XM2s, the XM3s boast 30-hour battery life - that's easily long enough to last a flight from Singapore to New York. But when it comes to charging up, the XM3s have a distinct advantage.

They go from empty to full in three hours, which is a full hour quicker than the XM2s. And they're especially useful if you're stepping out in a hurry: just 10 minutes of charge time gives you five hours of playtime. That's up from just 70 minutes for the XM2s.

So the XM3s are the clear winners here.

*Winner: Sony WH-1000XM3*

Design and fit

Each new model brings with it improvements in design, right? Well, not always...

The XM3s have a plastic headband, in place of the metal one in the XM2s. While this makes the headphones 20g lighter, not everyone will like the step down in materials - for some, it could make the headphone feel less premium.

The flip side is that they feel lighter on your head, while thicker, softer cushioning in the earpads making it feel like you're not wearing headphones at all. Add to this the wider surrounds around the ears, and you've got one of the comfiest pairs of noise-cancellers around.

The WH-1000XM3s look less awkward too, as the redesigned headband no longer leaves a gap between it and your head.

There's also a slight difference in the finishes available. Both are available in black, but the XM3s sport copper highlights compared to grey on the XM2. Also, the Champagne Gold finish originally available on the XM2s was replaced by a new Platinum Silver finish with brass highlights for the XM3s.

*Winner: Sony WH-1000XM3*

Sony WH-1000XM2 vs Sony WH-1000XM3: which is better?

(Image credit: Sony)

Controls

Both headphones have the same control mechanism - a touch-sensitive panel on the right earcup which you operate with a series of taps and swipes. You double-tap to play/pause or answer a call, swipe up or down to change volume and left and right to skip forward and back. Simple.

You can also hold your hand over the earcup to activate 'Quick Attention' mode. This lowers the volume of the music and lets in outside noise, so you can listen out for oncoming traffic, order a coffee or have a chat with a colleague, all without taking your headphones off.

They both support voice assistants too, so you can just speak to control.

Both are intuitive ways of controlling the headphones. And as there's little-to-no difference between the two, this round is a dead heat.

*Winner: draw*

Sound quality

Sony WH-1000XM2 vs Sony WH-1000XM3: which is better?

(Image credit: Sony)

The XM3s have a real advantage over their forebears in this area. They feature an analogue amplifier, as opposed to the XM2s' digital one. The result is a clear sonic upgrade.

Sound is open and spacious, with every instrument, effect and vocal given room to breathe. While the vocals take centre stage, the instrumentation is delivered in such a lifelike way you could swear the band was in the room with you.

There's also more detail and dynamic subtlety on show, giving live recordings a more emotive and engaging edge, and lashings of extra bass to really drive home pounding dance tracks.

Not that the XM2s are any slouch. They boast refined highs, an impressive level of detail and a weighty, full-bodied bass. It's just that in comparison with their successors, they sound a little dull. Which is a mark of just how great the XM3s sound.

*Winner: Sony WH-1000XM3*

Noise-cancelling

Sony WH-1000XM2 vs Sony WH-1000XM3: which is better?

(Image credit: Sony)

The XM2s were some of the best noise-cancellers around when they hit the streets a couple of years ago. As well as great standard noise-cancelling, they boasted a neat feature called Atmospheric Pressure Optimiser, which detects changes in the atmosphere and tweaks the noise-cancelling accordingly.

In other words, they'll know if you're flying in a plane tweak the noise-cancelling accordingly. Clever.

Thankfully, the XM3s have this too, plus both pairs let you leave noise-cancelling on even if you're not listening to any music. Cue a nice, peaceful nap.

Like the XM2s, you can also choose a noise-cancelling level from a set of presets based on your activity at the time: things like running, sitting still or travelling in a vehicle. This is done through Sony's Headphones Connect app.

But the XM3s also improve the noise-cancelling across the frequency range, blocking out more unwanted noise than before. And that's why they win this section.

*Winner: Sony WH-1000XM3*

Price

Newer models cost more, right? Not always...

Surprisingly, at time of writing, the XM3s are actually available for less than the XM2s: around £260 ($298) compared to £299 ($348) for their predecessors. Which makes them an absolute steal.

Add to this the fact that the XM3s are in plentiful supply, and you've got another clear winner.

*Winner: Sony WH-1000XM3*

Verdict

In the end, it's no contest. The Sony WH-1000XM3 sound better, boast better noise-cancelling, and are lighter and more comfortable to wear. Throw in the fact that they're cheaper too, and it's game, set and match.

The only possible point against them could be the shift to a plastic headband instead of the metal of the XM2s. But if you can see past that, you'll have an awesome pair of headphones on your hands.

MORE: Best wireless headphones 2019