SONY WH-1000XM2 wireless NC
Sony WH-1000XM2 wireless noise-cancelling headphones
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.
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.