The beautiful sound of silence.
Midway through last year I switched from Bose QC35’s to the new Sony MDR-1000X noise cancelling headphones for travelling. While the Bose QC35’s were excellent the Sony’s were just that little bit better, than even the newer Bose QC40. There was nothing in it for noise cancelling – although some reviewers claim the Sony’s were superior. What got me was the clearly better audio, so much so that the Sony’s are now my main home music listening cans. The original MDR-1000X’s can now be had for around $370 (way down from the launch price of $699), and at that price are extremely good value.
Now there’s a slightly improved model, the Sony WH-1000XM2, and you can pick a pair up for a bit under $400, despite the official launch RRP of $499 and that’s definitely the way to go, effectively rendering the old set unappealing from a value standpoint.
The new model is built from better materials, Sony says, but in terms of look and feel they’re essentially the same, though the important claim is that the new model is more resistant to cracking around the band, which is apparently an issue though mine are still perfect.
The new model also retains the wonderful ability to mute sound by simply cupping your hand over the right cup, which is the quick and easy way to ask the flight attendant for another little bottle of red wine. Touch controls are also embedded on the right cup for playback control as well as answering calls.
The new WH-1000XM2’s have a very nifty noise cancelling optimiser that, over the course of a few seconds, analyses the ambient noise and adapts the signal processing for best effect. The older model had this too, but it’s since been improved. So, for a white noise background like a plane it delivers optimal silence for that environment, while on a train it adjusts itself to do a better job of cutting random peak noises, noisy chit chat and overall clatter. It’s certainly noticeable over default noise cancelling, though for short trips on the train I usually don’t bother because default is fine, but for flights it’s now a ritual routine I go through after take-off. It’s a far better solution than having to fiddle around with an app-based EQ pre-set!
On flights a new feature really comes into its own. The WH-1000XM2’s do a very neat trick called atmospheric pressure optimisation, which measures barometric pressure around you and then tweaks the output to compensate. Sony explained that in flights in particular what you hear is directly affected by the unusual pressure inside a cabin, so the idea here is to optimise for a proper ground-level listening experience. To the best of my knowledge no other audio product does this.
The new model also retains the wonderful ability to mute sound by simply cupping your hand over the right cup, which is the quick and easy way to ask the flight attendant for another little bottle of red wine.
These features all combine to make the Sony WH-1000XM2’s probably the most technically sophisticated headset on the market today. With these improvements you would expect an improvement in audio quality as well, but this has been left alone, and that’s fine. Like its predecessor, the WH-1000XM2 offers a powerful sound that’s EQ neutral. Beats by Dre these are not, yet they can still deliver a deep kick that’s clear and defined, not boomy. They easily stack up against home headphones in the $500 - $1,000 range. In passive mode sound is as good as any but when cabled they come into their own with a full and rich sound. And that’s with the power off... power them up and the amplification strengthens the sound perfectly, and it’s better again with NC enabled. You can see from the specs that the frequency response effectively doubles when they’re powered up.
Comfort is good, but these would benefit from a little more cup padding. They do fully enclose my average-sized ears which is more than many allegedly ‘’over-ear’ cans claim, and for an hour or two they can’t be criticised at all, it’s only when the flight enters double digit hours that the relatively sparse padding becomes a little irritating. They’re certainly soft enough, but slightly thicker padding wouldn’t go astray. Clamp force is just about perfect, they hold themselves in place very well when manoeuvring out of an economy seat but don’t apply uncomfortable pressure.
Speaking of which, you can now run for 30 hours of non-stop NC listening, up from 20 hours of battery life in the previous model. That’s very handy for long connecting flights with extensive layovers and no access to a charger. So, they’ll easily handle Sydney-London with enough juice to carry you through the cab to the hotel.
That rounds off a very appealing package from Sony and by all accounts, and my own experience, the WH-1000XM2’s now lead the pack for the best NC headphones you can currently buy – helped enormously by the far lower launch price than the $699 the previous set was priced at.