SONY WH-1000XM2 wire­less NC

Sony WH-1000XM2 wire­less noise-can­celling head­phones

Sound + Image - - Contents - JF

In up­dat­ing last year’s award-win­ner, Sony adds some clever new abil­i­ties. Use­ful? Or too much?

For Blue­tooth noise-can­celling head­phones that are so very clever, their man­u­fac­turer, Sony, doesn’t go out of its way to walk you through their op­er­a­tion. In the box is a ref­er­ence guide, which has no in­struc­tions at all, and a set of op­er­at­ing in­struc­tions that are en­tirely pic­to­rial, fold­ing out into a large A2 sheet cov­ered on both sides with pic­tures and ar­rows among which you may, once you ad­just to picto-lan­guage, find the an­swer to any ques­tion you’re pon­der­ing.

Why, for ex­am­ple, is the word ‘am­bi­ent’ marked on the NC but­ton? What are the bunch of test tones in your ears fol­lowed by the an­nounce­ment ‘op­ti­mised’ when you hold the NC but­ton for too long? An­swers give they none at all, while only a sep­a­rate slip of pa­per and a small link box men­tion the Sony Head­phones Con­nect app which makes things rather eas­ier than learn­ing the var­i­ous but­ton com­bi­na­tions. For more than this you need to go on­line and pe­ruse the 121-page Help Guide.

So with that in front of us and the head­phones charged through their mi­cro-USB charg­ing socket, let’s see what’s avail­able.

In de­sign terms the WH-1000XM2 is very close to that of the MDR-1000X head­phones from a year ear­lier, which went on to win our Noise-Can­celling Head­phones of the Year award. (Their price is also the same as the fi­nal price for those head­phones.) They can be used in wire­less Blue­tooth mode, or ca­bled, ei­ther pas­sively, or us­ing power and NC.

One big plus — you can turn the noise-can­celling off (this seems an ob­vi­ous re­quire­ment to us, but on some mar­ket lead­ers you can’t do so), and it can be op­ti­mised to your sur­round­ings, and even how you wear them. Sony’s process in­cludes an ad­just­ment for the air pres­sure, so you’ll do well to re-op­ti­mise them once you reach cruis­ing al­ti­tude.

The goal here is not only to make the noise-can­celling ever more ef­fec­tive, but also to keep its ef­fects as be­nign as pos­si­ble. As Sony proved last year, it has de­vel­oped ex­cel­lent noise­can­celling abil­i­ties that equal or ex­ceed the lead­ers in the field, with these head­phones com­bin­ing the pas­sive iso­la­tion of a firm but com­fort­able fit with ex­cel­lent ac­tive noise- can­cel­la­tion that is clean and sta­ble, with none of the eye-wob­bling ef­fect that lesser sys­tems can in­duce. It proves com­fort­able and ef­fec­tive whether you’re us­ing it to pro­vide a bed of si­lence for mu­sic, spo­ken word or in­flight movie, or sim­ply to sit in rel­a­tive si­lence rid of the back­ground rumble of jet en­gines. (How­ever, in the last of these cases, they will turn off af­ter a while, reawak­en­ing you with the jet roar. This only hap­pens in Blue­tooth mode, so to stay sleep­ing peace­fully, keep the ca­ble plug in the head­phones, even if it’s not con­nected to any­thing.).

You can also use the ‘am­bi­ent’ mode to over­lay the NC with a mi­cro­phone feed from out­side, very handy if you’re lis­ten­ing for air­port an­nounce­ments,

say, and us­ing the app you can even tune the fre­quen­cies that come through. And these head­phones re­peat the trick in­tro­duced by the award-win­ning MDR-1000X where cov­er­ing the right head­shell with your hand tem­po­rar­ily ducks the mu­sic and turns on the ex­ter­nal mike, which we call the “beef or chicken” mo­ment (Sony calls it ‘Quick At­ten­tion’) — you can have a chat with­out re­mov­ing or lift­ing the head­phones. The sound it­self is pro­duced by a 40mm Liq­uid Crys­tal Poly­mer (LCP) di­aphragm, and has var­i­ous sig­na­tures de­pend­ing on whether you use Blue­tooth wire­less op­er­a­tion or the sup­plied ca­ble. The lat­ter al­lows high-res per­for­mance (if your play­back de­vice can de­liver it), with the head­phones specced to de­liver from 4Hz to 40kHz in this mode (these fig­ures quoted to JEITA pa­ram­e­ters, which we had trou­ble track­ing down). The head­phones can be used pas­sively, also then of­fer­ing higher sen­si­tiv­ity of 103dB/mW (ver­sus 98dB pas­sive), though also higher im­ped­ance (46-ohm ac­tive, 14-ohm pas­sive). You get longer bat­tery life us­ing the ca­ble, of course — for­ever in pas­sive mode, 40 hours with NC on —com­pared with 30 hours via Blue­tooth with the NC on. The ca­bled con­nec­tion max­imises per­for­mance sig­nif­i­cantly, and they sound their best with the head­phones pow­ered on, and prefer­ably with NC on as well (it comes on by de­fault with power). In pas­sive use they are clear but a lit­tle soft and overly un­der­pinned in the lower mids, whereas once pow­ered up there’s more dy­namic range, more clar­ity in the midrange and tre­ble, and the bass is far bet­ter de­fined. So for best sound qual­ity, ca­ble is king. But wire­less is, of course, far more fun, and here the Blue­tooth im­ple­men­ta­tion in­cludes not only the base-level SBC codec, and the iOS-friendly mid-qual­ity AAC, but also both aptX and aptX HD, plus Sony’s own LDAC. The fi­nal two of these al­low “near” high-res per­for­mance via Blue­tooth, be­ing mildly lossy codecs ca­pa­ble of 24-bit/48kHz (aptX HD) and 24-bit/96kHz (LDAC) — re­mem­ber­ing that your source de­vice must also sup­port the codec in or­der for this ex­tra res­o­lu­tion to flow. If you do, your sound qual­ity could lift to some­thing closer to the wired per­for­mance.

Even with­out this, how­ever, the WH-1000XM2 head­phones de­liver well-balanced sound with noth­ing in the way of un­due em­pha­sis or shou­ti­ness. They can sound just a lit­tle bit dull when play­ing at low lev­els, but do re­veal more in the way of de­tail as you turn them up, and re­main im­pres­sively ac­cu­rate and ar­tic­u­late even when up at the loud­ish lev­els they can reach via Blue­tooth. (They can go louder with the ca­ble, but we didn’t find our­selves want­ing more level via Blue­tooth, as can of­ten be the case, and the ex­cel­lent noise-can­celling makes the avail­able range still more ef­fec­tive.)

You can sink into their sound, so that it’s only in di­rect com­par­i­son with the ca­bled per­for­mance you re­mem­ber what you’re miss­ing. When we switched from ca­ble to Blue­tooth (us­ing the AAC codec) while lis­ten­ing to Right Hand

Man from the thrilling ‘Hamil­ton’ sound­track, the kick­drum punch, the clar­ity of the conversation, the phat­ness of the bass synth — all these things were muf­fled sig­nif­i­cantly with the move to Blue­tooth. Their neu­tral­ity of sound is ev­i­denced by our test tracks all sound­ing as they are — the overly edgy I Read It (in the Rolling Stone) sounded a lit­tle edgy, the soft McCart­ney My

Valen­tine sounded soft. Our favourites sounded won­der­ful. Spo­ken word was very ac­cu­rate in tonal­ity.

So while there are var­i­ous EQ and sur­round op­tions avail­able via the app, as usual we pre­ferred things as the en­gi­neer (and the artist) in­tended, and we were pleased to see them all set to ‘off’ by de­fault. Most pe­cu­liar among these is ‘Sound Po­si­tion Con­trol’, which en­ables you to “choose the di­rec­tion you want the sound to come from, just as you can with a wire­less speaker”. What, by mov­ing it around the room? Sure enough, in the app, you get a choice of mov­ing the sound to front left, front right, rear left (which sounded like hard left to us), rear right (hard right) and, most in­ter­est­ingly, ‘front’, which did in­deed seem to move the im­age from con­ven­tional ‘in-the-head’ to front-ofthe-head, though at the cost of mak­ing the mu­sic sound as if it had been mixed in a bucket. Un­less you’re deaf in one ear, avoid. Sur­round op­tions: just avoid. What are they think­ing? It’s sin­ful to mess with such a fun­da­men­tally fine bal­ance.

Some credit for this per­for­mance, from iPhones any­way, may be down to Sony’s DSEE HX ‘up­scal­ing’ en­gine, which kicks in to im­prove lesser codecs (SBC or AAC).

We’ve talked at some length with Sony’s top en­gi­neers on this point, and they claim to be able nei­ther to hear nor to mea­sure a dif­fer­ence in nearly all cases be­tween a DSEE-up­scaled 256k AAC file and a high-res 24/96 ver­sion of the file. Which sounds crazy, but that’s what they say, and it ex­plains how LDAC pur­ports to fit 24-bit/96kHz down a Blue­tooth pipe of­fer­ing only 990kbps, when 24-96 re­ally re­quires 4608kbps, or per­haps half that us­ing loss­less com­pres­sion. We ab­so­lutely be­lieve the en­gi­neers, and we reckon this points to­wards the whole high-res mar­ket be­ing in most cases a wild ex­trav­a­gance of data. (For more: www.avhub.com.au/DSEE.)

There is also some­thing Sony calls S-Mas­ter HX, which seems to be a high-rescapable am­pli­fier cir­cuit no­table for high sig­nal-to-noise at those higher fre­quen­cies, thereby able to de­liver high-res au­dio with­out tram­pling on it at the fi­nal stage. The great Eric King­don of Sony Europe notes that since S-Mas­ter HX “is ef­fec­tively the D-to-A con­verter it­self, when you’re lis­ten­ing to the mu­sic you get a very sim­ple purely dig­i­tal re­play sys­tem.”

Other clever bits on these head­phones in­clude the right head­shell be­ing swipable up or down for vol­ume, for­ward/back for next/last track, and that ‘cup-to-chat’ fa­cil­ity men­tioned above. One moan here — the head­phones beep as you raise or lower vol­ume by swip­ing the head­shell up or down. But of course you can hear it’s rais­ing the vol­ume, so why pro­vide a sec­ond au­di­tory con­fir­ma­tion? And at max­i­mum vol­ume it not only triple-beeps but ac­tu­ally cuts the sound for a good half-sec­ond. Gee, thanks for that — real handy if you’re try­ing to fol­low spo­ken word con­tent or a movie.

An­other glitch re­peat­edly oc­curred in use with an iPhone — the Sonys would auto-re­con­nect via Blue­tooth, showed as paired, but mu­sic played out of the phone, not the head­phones. Re­con­nec­tion re­quired a com­plete ‘for­get this de­vice’ and re­con­nect — not every time, but most times (per­haps 20 oc­cur­rences) dur­ing our use.

Once con­nected, how­ever, we never had any in­sta­bilil­ity of con­nec­tion. Should that hap­pen (in some lo­ca­tion over­loaded with com­pet­ing aerial filth), the app al­lows you to tem­po­rar­ily pri­ori­tise the con­nec­tion over sound qual­ity, a po­ten­tially handy in­no­va­tion.

Phone calls worked well us­ing the head­phones’ built-in mi­cro­phone, not­ing only that our iPhone did re­quire us to turn off its own speaker to di­vert the caller to the head­phones.

Con­clu­sion

Good sound, good smarts. Bad on the in­for­ma­tion pro­vided in the box, but that’s an is­sue only un­til you learn what’s pos­si­ble. A few op­er­a­tional quirks, but on the whole, use­fully smart, es­pe­cially once you in­stall the app. Shall we com­pare them with B&W’s PX wire­less noise-can­cellers at a sim­i­lar price? Yes, lets. The Sonys are con­sid­er­ably larger, and less gor­geous in de­sign. They have a slightly softer sound. But they do score on be­ing more fully overear, with bril­liantly ef­fec­tive and adapt­able noise-can­cel­la­tion.

Sony’s noise-can­cellers use the flat outer right head­shell as a play­back and vol­ume con­trol sur­face. Cup your hand over this and the ex­ter­nal mi­cro­phones are piped through, so you can hear your sur­round­ings tem­po­rar­ily.

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