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Sony WH-1000XM3 review: Mind-bogglingly good

To say that Sony won me over with their previous-gen wireless over-ear headphones with Active Noise Cancellation would be an understatement. The WH-1000XM2 were not only phenomenal at what they did, but also priced very reasonably compared to its competitors in the Malaysian market. It was a cocktail to be reckoned with and it was one you really couldn’t argue with. So, when I saw the successor WH-1000XM3 launch late last year, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a pair to try them out.

In all honesty, I didn’t think it would be a whole lot better than the XM2 simply because those were already so good. But, today, after spending some quality time with the Mark 3 headphones, I have to say that Sony made all the right upgrades with this newer model.

Sony WH-1000XM3

I know, I know, I’m a little late to the party, but for some reason I just never got the chance to get my hands on one of these devices until today. Sony Malaysia’s flying me out to Japan to check out another of their wireless ANC headphones, and just before we boarded the plane they handed me a pair of WH-1000XM3 headphones for the long journey. Obviously, I took this as a prime opportunity to give these a proper test.

While I definitely enjoyed my time with the WH-1000XM2 headphones, there were a couple of things I would have liked to see addressed in an updated variant. And when I got my hands on the WH-1000XM3, it was almost as if Sony read my mind (or, my review, I suppose) and went ahead and just fixed all of it with these new cans.

It’s the details that really matter

Sony WH-1000XM3

One of the biggest things I value in a pair of headphones is comfort, and while I did find the Mark 2s to be good, I always wished it was a little better because you do feel those headphones if you wear them for upwards of five hours. Maybe it was down to the weight, or the plushness of the padding, who knows? Well, thankfully Sony did because they’ve done wonders with the Mark 3s.

Sony WH-1000XM3

For starters, they’re about 20 grams lighter than the Mark 2 and Sony also says that they’ve got deeper earcups and a thicker headband. While I didn’t bring my measuring tape to verify these claims, I can testify that even after wearing them for almost the entirety of my 7 hour flight, I didn’t feel fatigued. They were still very comfortable over my ears with a gentle but firm clamp that I think fits even better than the old one did.

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Sony WH-1000XM3

Besides that, Sony’s also updated the port selection so you get a USB-C port on the WH-1000XM3 instead of an old-fashioned micro USB port, plus it has fast-charging now. From 0%, I hooked it up to my Mi Powerbank 2, and in 30 minutes I had over 80% of battery in the headphones which meant I was gucci because these cans still retain the 30-hour battery life of its predecessor. One nice touch I was glad Sony included with these headphones is a more precise battery readout. Previously, it would only tell you if you had low, medium or high battery. Now, it’ll say that you have around 60% of battery, for example, which is definitely preferred over a vague low, medium or high.

Sony WH-1000XM3

In addition, Sony also kept all the excellent interface features of its older headset. You get the same swiping gestures for volume, skipping tracks, pausing playback, and ambient sound inclusion, but this time the touchpad has a much nicer surface. It’s like a smooth matte texture that feels really good on the fingers. Sony also tweaked the buttons for power and NC control so they’re not flat anymore, and are pretty easily distinguishable without much fiddling around.

Sony WH-1000XM3

I also like the little design touches Sony added with their new over-ear headphones. Even though they didn’t change the shape by much, they did give it a little more pizzazz to spice up the old design that I know some found to be pretty boring. The model I have here, for example, is a sleek and clean matte black that has also been augmented with a couple of shiny copper-coloured bits around the microphone grille and Sony logo. I like that because it’s a little bit of flair without being garish and pulling away from the otherwise stealth design. It’s almost like a tasteful application of lipstick, for lack of a better comparison.

But, Sony didn’t just give us a bunch of quality-of-life upgrades with these headphones. They also upgraded the core aspects of what makes these ANC headphones: The way they sound, and the active noise cancellation.

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Sony WH-1000XM3

Sounds like an upgrade

Sony says that the WH-1000XM3 headphones come with a new 32-bit DAC built into the new custom QN1 noise-cancelling processor, so you should get better bass and resolution than before. Now, regarding audio quality, I’m probably not the best person to talk about that in depth because I don’t have audiophile-grade ears. I just know what I like, and what I don’t. And the headphones I primarily use are a pair of Audio Technica ATH-M40X monitors which means they’re often devoid of character and exist only to reproduce the sound exactly as the mixer intended.

I remember my colleague and musician Nic being surprised that I use monitors to listen to music because he felt that they were a little boring. But I liked them because they had a crisp quality to it that’s not easy to find at that price point.

Sony WH-1000XM3

On the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones though, I don’t really get that “crisp twang”, but I do get what sounds like a lot more playfulness. The bass line is more prominent, and it has pretty good sound staging for a small pair of closed cans. It gives you a warm feeling to the music which is quite fun–for lack of a better word. But whether you end up liking it or not, is really up to what you like your music to sound like. I like the way these headphones sound, and I think a lot of you would too.

That said, whether you’re an audiophile or not, I think the one thing everyone will be able to appreciate with the WH-1000XM3 is its noise cancellation. My goodness, these things are amazing.

In a world of your own

Sony WH-1000XM3

If you’re someone who flies very often, then ANC headphones are definitely something worth investing in. I was a sceptic at first, but the difference between having a pair of good ANC headphones versus not having any ANC is mind-boggling. And when we’re talking about Sony’s WH-1000XM3 headphones, mind-boggling is probably the best word to describe how well it drowns out the roar of the cabin.

The moment you turn these puppies on, you can almost feel the sound being sucked out of your ear holes in like a shwooping fashion. Like, purse your lips and inhale sharply, that’s the shwooping I’m talking about–it’s uncanny. There were a couple of instances where I actually had to lift one of my earcups just to make sure the cabin hadn’t gone quiet itself.

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Sony WH-1000XM3

Of course, it doesn’t completely eliminate the roar of the cabin–I don’t think anything could–but there is a significant drop in ambient noise. And this is great for when you want to sleep, but I think the best part about having ANC of this quality is that you get to choose how loudly you want to listen to your music. Often, I find myself playing my music louder than I would like just so I can hear it over the ambient noise. But, with the XM3, I don’t have to do that so it’s less fatiguing on long journeys.

I think another important thing the new WH-1000XM3 headphones do is that it silences without feeling deafening. There isn’t that sort of high pressure feeling you get with some other ANC headphones–even the XM2 to some extent–which helps the headphones stay comfortable over extended periods of time.

Sony WH-1000XM3

So, in case you haven’t noticed it yet, I really like these headphones. I think Sony has done a great job with updating a whole bunch of little things across the board that add up to make the WH-1000XM3 a significant update over its predecessor. And I particularly like how they didn’t have to do a lot of these things, but went ahead and did it anyway because they wanted to produce the best product they could.

Plus, I really like the fact that they did that without also introducing a hike in the retail price for these headphones. In Malaysia, the RRP for a pair of WH-1000XM3 headphones is exactly the same as the Mark 2s–RM1,599. But, if you search online, you’ll probably notice that you won’t ever need to pay full price for these. In fact, you will often be able to find these for around RM1,000 if you can wait for a major sale date, or around RM1,300 if you can’t. That’s crazy good value for a pair of headphones that are this good at what it does.

Photography by Rory Lee on the Sony a6400.