Way back in the day, Sony practically invented the smiley face EQ (accentuated highs and lows with little detail left for the mids) which I simply assumed was their way of overcoming early knocks that their mono transistor radios sounded tinny. For this reason, I and many others eschewed Sony's more consumer-facing headphones in favor of flatter and more detailed full range offerings from competitors.
That never prevented Sony from selling lots of headphones--and of course, Sony manufacturers one of the best-respected headphones among audio professionals and budget audiophiles alike in the form of the MDR-7506. And as the inventor of the Walkman, Sony virtually single-handedly ushered in portable music listening before a little company called Apple came along and reinvented the way we listen to music on the go. Which brings us to Sony's newest Bluetooth wireless noise canceling headphones.
The WH-1000XM2 at $349.99 is not inexpensive, but packs the features and benefits necessary to place it alongside the likes of Bose QuietComfort 35 II (reviewed here) and Sennheiser PXC 550 (reviewed here), which are also each $349.99, and the PSB M4U 8 (reviewed here), which are just at bit more expensive at $399.99.
Features and Benefits
All four of the above-mentioned headphones are full-size, circumaural design. That is, they fully enclose your ear, which provides a degree of passive noise reduction, and they are comfortable once you make the easy headband adjustment to get the right fit. All are Bluetooth wireless and employs 4.1 aptX HD codec (ultra low latency + great range, typically in excess of 30 feet), all allow for hands-free calling when paired to your smartphone, and all have active noise canceling with some ability to add back in various degrees of what's going on around you.
They all also utilize touch controls for call answer / reject, volume up / down, track pause, play, skip ahead, or back and offer companion apps to fine-tune these features and adjust the sound signature. Each of these four does all of the above quite well. So, let's focus specifically on what Sony does differently. Weighing only 9.7 ounces, these are the lightest of the bunch, and yes, I noticed that difference when wearing them. They felt just a bit more comfortable, with just the right amount of caliper pressure to keep them from flying off my head. The touch controls are intuitive, and though my swipes were ignored occasionally, generally they were very good.
I like the way these headphones look and feel, and they fold up and fit well in the included premium carry case, which has a printed pictogram insert that can serve as a refresher course on the touch controls so you don't have to refer to the manual if you should forget how everything works. I really appreciate that.
Another great feature is access to either Siri or Google Assistant depending on your preferred mobile platform. To date, the WH-1000XM2 has the only voice assistant function that supports both. Battery life is rated at up to 30 hours with noise canceling on and via Bluetooth wireless, and 40 hours when wired with noise canceling turned off.
A full charge takes approximately four hours. I evaluated these on an international roundtrip flight of 10 and 11 hours per leg, and continued to use them walking around in between, always wirelessly and always with noise cancelling on, only charging them once halfway into the week, and had no problems with battery life.
There is a quick charge feature that Sony claims equates to 10 minutes charge yielding 70 minutes play but it was not clear from Sony's manual or website whether or not this is from completely flat, nor if that is with Bluetooth wireless operation and/or noise canceling. In any case, suffice it to say, the battery life is excellent.
Pairing was straightforward and easy, either by typical discovery mode or via NFC. Subsequent pairing was automatic when the headpones powered on. I used the WH-1000XM2 watching movies and lip sync was not an issue.
The range of these headphones is outstanding. Bluetooth range is like any relationship: it takes two to make it work and the transmitter was either my iPhone or the TaoTronics aptX Bluetooth Tx/Rx device I have plugged into my HDTV. In either case, the range far exceeded the typical 30 feet we have come to expect and sometimes only hope for with Bluetooth. So again, the WH-1000XM2 performed extremely well.
The Headphones Connect app from Sony offers several customizable features, including Adaptive Sound Control, Ambient Sound Control, Noise Canceling Optimizer, Sound Position Control, Surround Sound Settings (Arena, Club, Outdoor Stage, Concert Hall and Off), Equalizer (Bright, Excited, Mellow, Relaxed, Vocal, Treble Boost, Bass Boost, Speech, Manual, Custom 1, Custom 2 and Off), and also a "Clear Bass" function with a slider that allows adjustments from -10 to +10.
Hang on; we're not done yet... There is also a Sound Quality Mode, where you can select between priority on sound quality or stable connection. And last but not least, something Sony calls DSEE HX, which can be set to on or off.
If you're feeling a little overwhelmed by all the possibilities, I remind you of the immortal words of Douglas Adams: "Don't panic" While listening to music I explored each of the above extensively, and you'll never guess what I wound up liking best (or maybe you will): anything that had an "off" option I preferred off and left all other features in their flat or at least most neutral position.
I did run the noise canceling optimizer and kept that setting where the app determined it should be. I also found the ability to tailor Ambient Sound Control to what you might be doing at the time a useful feature. My conclusion is it's nice to have the options and even nicer to be able to easily defeat features to your liking. The app is very well designed and all the above features do pretty much what they say they do.
I conducted several lengthy listening sessions with the Sony WH-1000XM2, with various musical genres, and watched a variety of video content, from energetic action movies to quiet dramas, wired and wireless, with and without noise cancelation, and there is no doubt these headphones sound wonderful. I would easily rate them near-audiophile quality. No smiley face EQ curve here, unless that's what you want, as you can easily dial-up whatever EQ settings you like. Sony even added LDAC, which enables hi-res audio, and when your source is not hi-res, DSEE HX is a digital sound enhancement engine, sort of like the audio equivalent of video up-converting.
Walking and jogging with the noise cancellation on and with various amounts of outside sound allowed in via the Ambient Sound Control worked perfectly. It's really nice to exercise without dealing with wires between your headphones and your entertainment source. While running on a treadmill, I positioned my iPhone on the little shelf in front of the display and watched Netflix while the miles and calories rolled by. Of all the hours across multiple listening sessions, here are a few choice cuts that stood out:
"The Shape of Water" by Alexandre Desplat from The Shape of Water Original Motion Picture Soundtrack showcases breathy Theremin-like tonalities, accordion, and woodwinds. The WH-1000XM2 placed each element in its own space.
"Burial Ground" by Stick Figure off the Burial Ground album blends reggae rock with staccato guitar and piano stabs behind doubled vocals beautifully. The transients were handled beautifully as well here.
"Come See Me" by Ludacris off the Disturbing Tha Peace album really shows off the extended bass response these Sonys have.
Sennheiser PXC 550 ($399.95) has an incredible array of features and benefits, including excellent sound quality, adaptive noise cancelling, and a fold-up design.
PSB M4U 8 ($399.99) (reviewed here). Does everything really well, and prior to this review was my number one pick in this category but comes in just a bit more expensive than the WH-1000XM2; however, allowing for personal subjectivity I would call it a tie between the PSB and Sony.
Bowers & Wilkins PX Wireless (reviewed here) is their latest $399 wireless Bluetooth headphones and they were very well received by HomeTheaterReview.com publisher, Jerry Del Colliano who has reviewed nearly all of the headphones in the premium wireless category in recent months. The Sony's might be a little more comfortable but the B&Ws have a more luxurious feel and excellent sound in today's marketplace.
Right now, the wireless headphone market is a win-win-win scenario for the customer looking for a noise cancelling full-sized cans. Between the Sennheiser, PSB, and Sony you really can't go wrong. You might be able to audition all three, as well as the Bose QC 35 II, at your local big box electronics store, and if you can, I suggest you do just that. These are all great options that likely will come down to personal preference.
But for now, my rankings have the Sony and PSB tied for first, Sennheiser PXC 550s next, with the Bose QuietComfort 35 II a strong contender.