The Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones have now been replaced by the XM4. The XM3 are still available, still excellent and have been heavily discounted, so keep reading if they appeal. Alternatively, here's our Sony WH-1000XM4 review.
Given the Sony WH-1000XM3 over-ears are among the best wireless headphones we've ever heard, it’s hard to imagine that pre-summer 2016, Sony didn’t have a premium pair of wireless, noise-cancelling headphones in its arsenal. Then out of nowhere, the WH-1000X pair appeared, challenged noise-cancelling supremo Bose, and ran off with one of our coveted Awards.
A year later, a second-generation model, the WH-1000XM2 brought with it tweaks that solidified Sony’s new-found noise-cancelling reputation. But increased competition, notably from the Bowers & Wilkins PX, meant it didn’t pick up an Award.
But even when that second-gen model was released, their successor was already in development. The lengthy gestation period of the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones is the result of a move to analogue amplification, resulting in a significantly improved audio performance over their predecessors, according to Sony.
Build & comfort
At first glance, the design of the XM3s is similar to that of the XM2s, but the differences are almost entirely positive. Our only minor complaint is that the move from metal to plastic in the headband makes the new pair look slightly less premium than the outgoing model.
But that also contributes to an overall weight saving of 20g over last year’s pair. Combined with a new, thicker, softer cushion, it feels as though there’s almost no weight resting on the top of your head. With wider earpads that surround the ear, these are one of the most comfortable pairs of on-ears we’ve tested.
Meanwhile, the XM3s look less awkward too, thanks to the headband leaving less of a gap to your head. It’s a straighter, less balloon-like appearance.
The finishes have changed slightly, too. The black pair gains copper highlights that we’re rather fond of, while last year’s Champagne Gold finish has been replaced by Platinum Silver with brass highlights.
The mottled texture on the earcups of last year’s model has also gone, replaced by a smooth, matte surface. The right earcup features a touch-sensitive panel rather than physical buttons. Double-tap the cup for play/pause or to answer a call, swipe up or down to change volume, and forward or back to skip tracks.
Hold your hand over the cup to activate the ‘Quick Attention’ mode, which reduces your music to a whisper and lets in outside noise. It’s useful if someone is talking to you, but we’re not sure that holding your hand to your ear and leaving your headphones on is the universal sign for ‘you have my full attention’.
This gesture also allows you to communicate with your chosen voice assistant: Siri is available if you’re connected to an iPhone, and Google Assistant is on its way via a firmware update scheduled for later this year. Amazon Alexa support is still to be confirmed.
The general touch controls are pretty accurate, but they do take some getting used to. That first day or two of listening you’ll likely change volume a few times when you’re attempting to skip tracks.
Sony has improved the quality and increased the quantity of microphones used for voice calls, so whoever you’re talking to should hear you more clearly. But if you’re more concerned with keeping the outside world at bay, Sony has also improved its already superb noise-cancelling. You can now set the function to be permanently on, even when not playing anything, meaning that you can use the noise-cancelling to quieten everything down for a peaceful nap.
Frequent flyers may also want to take advantage of the returning Atmospheric Pressure Optimiser, which tweaks the frequency response and microphone sensitivity of the headphones for improved performance at high altitude. Just remember to run the Optimiser again when you’re back on terra firma.
Further controls and customisation options are available via the Headphones Connect app, available for Android and iOS. The options contained within aren’t terribly useful, but if you want to tweak how much noise-cancelling is deployed for certain activities, or disable the auto-off feature, this is where you need to do it.
Far more useful is a quick charging battery. The XM3s go from empty to full in three hours (rather four hours for the XM2s), while a ten minute charge gives you five hours of use (rather than 70mins) – stats no doubt helped by the move from Micro USB to USB-C. Overall battery life remains unchanged at 30 hours.
But the really big deal for these Sony headphones is the move to analogue amplification. Sony has worked tirelessly to produce a chip that combines noise-cancelling, a DAC and an analogue amplifier in a form small and light enough for a pair of headphones. With the QN1 chip contained in the WH-1000XM3s, it has managed the feat.
All that effort has paid off, because the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones offer a clear sonic upgrade over the preceding pair, to the extent that the M2s, which we loved at the time, sound closed-in and almost dull by comparison.
This is an open, spacious sound that gives every instrument, effect and vocal room to breathe. There has been no loss in terms of directness, either – vocals are still focused and direct, but the instruments around them are delivered in a way that makes it feel as if you’re in the room with the band.
Combine that spaciousness with greater detail and enhanced dynamic subtlety and raw, analogue recordings such as The Road by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are fabulously emotive and engaging, the varying pressure of the piano key presses clearly, mournfully delivered, and a real sense of sorrow conveyed as the strings are introduced and gradually build to the track’s heartbreaking peak.
Tonally, there’s a generous extra helping of lovely, deep bass, which helps the WH-1000XM3s produce a satisfying rendition of SBTRKT’s throbbing Trials Of The Past. But this extra bass never threatens to unbalance the presentation – instead it simply reinforces the overall delivery, adding weight and richness in a pleasant, natural and, dare we say it, analogue way.
Essentially, there’s nothing to complain about here. The clarity and detail offered means that a recording’s sonic flaws can become exposed, but that’s hardly the Sonys’ fault. The generally crisp, sparkly treble is ample compensation as far as we’re concerned.
Sony has further improved its noise-cancelling tech, which was already superior to the majority of rivals when the M2s launched. Sony says it has been improved right across the frequency range, but that the biggest gains are in the mid-to-high area.
They are markedly better at blocking out the general hubbub of a busy office, which is one of the trickiest feats to pull off. Constant, consistent sounds, such as a plane’s engine, are the bread and butter of a pair of noise-cancellers, and the M3s are an improvement here, too.
In short, these Sony’s block out more of the outside world than any rival, and replace that noise with some of the best audio quality available at this price.
Add all of the ingredients together – the increased comfort, improved noise-cancelling and serious audio ability – and you have a close to perfect pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
Of course, Sony has now replaced the WH-1000XM3s with the WH-1000XM4s and – spoiler alert – they're even better. The XM3s are therefore now the second-best pair of noise-cancelling headphones you can buy but, thanks to some heavy discounting, they're still an excellent buy while you can still get them.
I find that the latest model has really too much bass. Really, really too much.If you listen to something acoustic, like a piano or a guitar, the sound is not very natural.
In comparison, the MDR-1000X has a more natural and balanced sound.
However I have to say that the new model XM3 gives no listening fatigue at all and invites you to always increase the volume. Even with poor recordings, the sound is never too harsh while with the MDR-1000X you really had to decrease the volume.
The XM3 sound can be equalized with the Sony's app but, if you enable the equalizer, the Bluetooth connection automatically switches back to SBC codec (low quality codec).
It is very disappointing that you cannot use the equalizer with the high quality LDAC Bluetooth codec.I hope that Sony will solve this very bad issue soon.
As an audiophile, I do feel uncomfortable with equalizers. My philosophy is that the headphones should sound right just out of the box. Can anyone suggest a good third-party equalizer? I mean, an EQ app that works well and does not degrade the sound quality too much.
Maybe What Hi-Fi should write a review about EQ apps. It would be very interesting.
Overall, I am not very satisfied with my purchase.
I've tried a TaoTronics device, but that didn't work.
Completely useless for calls, meetings, online gaming etc.
More info: sony/comments/g3m22lView: https://www.reddit.com/r/sony/comments/g3m22l/dont_wh1000xm3_audio_quality_drops_on_call/
Very comfortable, can wear for hours, and the noise cancelling is good. Can't compare with Bose etc as these are the first high quality NC ones I have owned.
But I do have a few gripes with them:
lack of multiple connection option; I have two MacBook Pros, an iPhone and an iPad - it is such a hassle to move from one of them to another, takes ages. Have to shut the bluetooth down on the first one (so the keyboard and mouse stop working as well) - simply disconnecting is not enough as they just reconnect to the same device again - and make sure nothing else nearby has bluetooth on, and then try to get the headphones to connect to the next device.
When it is connected to a computer, the controls for the headphones via the app on my iPhone no longer operate of course, because the headphones are now bluetooth connected elsewhere. So no way of adjusting the Equaliser.
While it will connect with each of my computers etc, it refuses to connect to my partner's MacBook Pro even when its little blue light is flashing indicating it is pairing mode - it just doesn't appear in the list of nearby devices. Have given up trying to get a connection.
Same when trying to get it to connect via Bluetooth with my Sony TV - just never appears on the TV in the list of available devices.
the touch controls are good, but if you are in wired mode (eg sitting on a plane for 14 hours plugged into their movies) then they no longer work. They only one that does work is putting your hand over the RH cup to mute the sound. Physical buttons would have been better, but how old fashioned.
It doesn't seem to remember the selected Equalizer setting. Have to reset most times I start to listen to music.
Bass is over-emphasized. However is not that bad, and if you want you can use Wavelet app eq presets made for this cans. With this you get a more natural and balanced sound. Note: you can use this feature with high quality LDAC (990 Kbps)