FOR Superb sound quality; best noise-cancelling; comfort AGAINST Fiddly touch control; expose weaker recordings
It’s hard to imagine now but, pre-summer 2016, Sony didn’t have a premium pair of 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 brought with it tweaks that solidified Sony’s new-found noise-cancelling reputation. But increased competition, notably from Bowers & Wilkins, meant it didn’t pick up an Award.
But even at the time of the WH-1000XM2S’ release, their successor was already in development. The lengthy gestation period of the WH-1000XM3S is the result of a move to analogue amplification, resulting in a significantly improved audio performance over their predecessors, according to Sony.
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 The black pair gains copper highlights that we’re rather fond of, while last year’s Champagne Gold finish has been replaced by Platinum Silver with brass highlights.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, though we doubt that leaving your headphones on and cupping your hand over your ear is the universal sign for ‘you have my full attention’.
This gesture also allows you to communicate with your voice assistant: Siri is available if you’re connected to an iphone, and Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa if not.
Skip a beat
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 noisecancelling. 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 right earcup has a touchsensitive panel instead of buttons