Released in August, Sony's WH-1000XM3 headphones are the latest in Sony's line of flagship headphones, following on from the WH-1000XM2 model that debuted at IFA 2017 and the original MDR-1000X that launched in 2016. The line was designed to compete with Bose's QuietComfort line, especially in terms of noise cancellation, and we've wrapped our ears in a pair of the third-generation cans to see how Sony's latest effort stacks up.

What's in the box

Opening the cardboard packaging of the headphones reveals a couple of instruction booklets, and a fabric carry case that holds the headphones, a 120-cm-long (4-ft) 3.5-mm audio cable, short USB to USB-C charging cable, and a double-pronged airplane adapter. The zippered carry case measures about 21 x 17 cm (8.3 x 6.7 in) at its widest points and is rigid enough to provide good protection for the headphones. It also has dedicated separate areas inside for the two cables and the airplane adapter, so they won't bounce around inside the case and scratch up the headphones.

As with just about everything you buy these days, there's also an app for iOS and Android that's easy to download onto the device of your choice thanks to the QR code on the instructions. This Headphones Connect app provides access to a variety of the headphone's multitude of features and settings, so it's definitely worth a download straight off the bat. The headphones can also be connected to two devices at the same time, such as a music player for listening to music, and a smartphone for making calls.

Cosmetics and comfort

Sony has made a few minor cosmetic changes with the WH-1000XM3s compared to its predecessor. Two color options remain – black or platinum silver with gold highlights – but gone is the slightly textured plastic on the cups in favor of a smooth finish. It's a good look, but is likely to be a bit more susceptible to visible fingerprints, especially since the exterior of the right ear cup acts as a touch surface for volume and playback controls.

The new model is also lighter than its predecessor, tipping the scales at 255 g down from 275 g, which isn't a huge amount in the grand scheme of things, but any reduction in weight for something sitting on your head for extended periods is always welcome. Further improving the comfort of the new model is the thicker headband cushion that is wrapped in some extremely supple faux leather that also features on the super soft ear cups, and a headband that is more oval in shape to fit the head better and allow for more compact carrying.

Performance

Bose has long been the name to beat for noise cancellation headphones, and there has been no shortage of pretenders to the crown. Sony's latest tilt at the title comes packing the company's new QN1 HD Noise Cancelling Processor, which it claims offers around four times greater noise cancelling capabilities than the processor found in the WH-1000MX2s. In addition to more effectively dealing with transport noise, Sony says the new processor, coupled with dual microphones, is designed to better deal with street noise and voices.

We found Sony's offering performed slightly better than the Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones for turning down the volume on general background street noise, but it's dealing with transport noise where they really shine – which is a major plus since regular travelers are one of the main target markets for noise cancelling headphones. Unfortunately, I didn't take any flights during my time with the WH-1000XM3s so couldn't see how they performed against the incessant hum of a jet engine, or test the Atmospheric Pressure Optimizing feature that alters the noise cancelling performance based on the surrounding air pressure. However, I did manage a few train rides, both shorter metro and longer regional trips, and car trips, and the headphones really excelled at reducing the engine/wheel noise to an almost imperceptible level.

Noise cancelling headphones have a harder task dealing with mid to high frequency sounds, like human voices, but the WH-1000MX3s performed pretty well here too. They weren't able to completely cancel out conversations from train passengers directly behind or beside me, but did render them to more distant place – not unlike they've been put in Rob Brydon's box.

And that's without playing any music at the same time. When playing some tunes, nearby conversations are all but unnoticeable – unless you're positioned near a particularly loud talker. And if you do want to let in the outside world briefly – to briefly talk to the airplane cabin crew, for example – holding your hand over the right earcup turns down your music and disables the noise cancellation, so you can carry out a conversation without taking the headphones off.

Additionally, the Adaptive Sound Control feature allows you to set the preferred level of noise cancellation based on your current actions – ranging from full noise cancellation, wind noise reduction, and letting through various amounts of ambient noise. For example, in the companion app you can set it to let a higher amount of ambient noise through if it detects you're running so you can better hear oncoming traffic, or up the noise cancelling to maximum if you're on the train. But if you don't want to go the app route, there's a physical button on the left earcup that lets you cycle through noise cancellation, ambient noise, and no noise cancellation settings.

In terms of audio quality, the headphones pack the same 40-mm drivers found in their predecessor, which boast a frequency response of 4 to 40,000 Hz. But the new model is now capable of 32-bit audio signal processing thanks to the aforementioned QN1 processor, which also includes an inbuilt digital-to-analogue (DAC) converter and analogue amplifier. The end result of all this technical wizardry is rich, full, natural sound with clarity in mid and high tones and strong bass. No matter your musical preference, you shouldn't be disappointed with the sound quality of the WH-1000MX3s. The headphones also support SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD and LDAC codecs, with the headset automatically switching to one of these when "Priority on sound quality" is selected in the app.

Orienting your swipes takes a little practice, but the gesture controls on the right earcup also work a treat, meaning you can leave your phone in your pocket and control volume (swipe up/down), skip tracks (swipe left/right), pause/resume playback/answer call (double tap) and activate Siri or Google Assistant (long press).

Battery life is also just about the best in the biz too, with Sony claiming 30 hours of listening over Bluetooth with noise cancelling activated. And if that doesn't prove enough, the quick charging function gives you five hours of playback from just a 10-minute charge. Hard to complain there.

One weakness

However, there's one area that the Sony's still can't hold an ear candle to the Bose headphones and that's voice call quality. Although the WH-1000MX3s see the introduction of multiple microphones, which appear to have played their part in improving noise cancellation capabilities compared to their predecessor, their performance when capturing voices for phone calls is less impressive. In calls from a quiet room, the voice captured by the WH-1000MX3s was noticeably more muffled on the receiving phone In a direct comparison with the Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones. That's not to say the voice was unintelligible – far from it – but if you're likely to be making plenty of phone calls while wearing the Sonys, it is something worth taking into consideration.

Conclusion

With the WH-1000MX3 headphones Sony has managed to improve their already impressive predecessor. With super soft faux leather on all the bits that touch your head, they're comfortable enough to wear for long periods, if you're on a long-haul flight, for example. But for those trips and others, it's the noise cancelling capabilities that really sell these headphones, setting a new bar for other headphone manufacturers to strive for. But it's not just the sounds of silence where they excel: the Sounds of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel – or anything else, for that matter – sounds great on these headphones as well. If you're a regular air traveler or want to turn down the other passengers on public transport, then the WH-1000MX3 headphones make an ideal traveling companion.

Sony has also priced the WH-1000MX3 headphones competitively. They retail for US$350, putting them on an even keel with the Bose QuietComfort 35 II headphones, but Sony appears to be pushing them hard so they can be found quite a bit cheaper without too much trouble.

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