Review: Well-balanced noise canceller from Sony
By Edwin Yapp April 4, 2018
- Well designed, feature-packed follow-up to an already good model
- Good sound, noise cancellation, great overall package but has a few quirks
NOISE cancellation headphones have come a long way since they were just wired in nature. Today, major brands have incorporated Bluetooth-enabled models, but without compromising on both sound quality and noise cancellation features.
The leading de facto brand is Bose but others now play in its pool now. A few years ago, Sony Corp introduced the MDR-1000X and most recently, followed up with the WH-1000MX2 (WH), which as the name suggests, is a second-generation noise cancelling device from the Japanese maker.
So, let’s get straight down to it.
Design and build
Sony has always prided itself on being a consumer electronics company that has great pedigree in the products that it makes, and the WH is no different. On the face of it, Sony has built a very solid headphone that is practical to use and store.
For instance, the core structure of the headphone is made with brushed aluminium and the plastics employed are all top-quality stuff. To store the headphone, just twist the ear cups and tuck the left arm of the headphone underneath the right one and you’ve almost halved the size of the headphone.
The ear muffs are made of soft leather and are, for the most part, quite comfortable to use. The only issue I had with the over-the-ear headphones is that it can get quite hot using them over long periods of time, which is the case with the WH. Using them in an air-conditioned environment helps though.
Some reviews do note that Bose’s QC35s, are more comfortable than the Sony unit but I’ve no direct experience of this. All I can say is that with my limited experience with the QC35, I do find that their ear muffs feel softer than the WH. In terms of colour, there isn’t a lot to choose from and Sony terms them as ‘black’ and ‘gold.’ The review unit I had was the gold one, but I think the colour is more beige than gold.
Storage of the WH comes courtesy of an oval carrying case, which I find to be pretty solid and as compact as can be for a headphone this size. The WH also comes equipped with a 1.5m cable, which is pretty handy should you not want to use the wireless Bluetooth for receiving music from your smartphone or music player. This is quite useful for frequent travellers, who can use it to connect with the plane’s onboard entertainment system via a standard 1-to-2 jack adapter supplied by Sony.
The WH also supports hands-free calling and touch controls (more about these features later). Like the capacitive screens we’re so used to on our smartphones, users are able to control volume up/ down and next track/last track by merely swiping across the surface of the right ear cup.
Double tapping the centre of the ear cups plays or pauses your tracks. If you’re on a phone call, double tapping it will answer/terminate your call. However, I did find that when using the cable connected to your player, the touch controls didn’t work. It’s probably because the command controls don’t traverse the cable as opposed to when it’s working in Bluetooth mode.
This was quite frustrating during a recent long-distance trip I took on a plane. So, do take note. The WH weighs 272 grammes and is slightly heavier than The Bose weighing in at 235 grammes.
Lastly, Sony says users of Google Assistant will receive support for this feature on the WH via a firmware upgrade coupled with the use of Sony’s Headphone app. The upgrade is expected to come during the second quarter of this year.
All in all, the WH exudes the premium quality and feel you would expect from a flagship noise cancelling headphones that rivals the best in the market. Full specification for the WH can be found here.
Battery and features
The WH is rated to have a battery life of 30 hours on paper with noise cancelling and Bluetooth on and 40 hours just with noise cancelling on (without Bluetooth). As you would expect, real life tests of the WH yield lower figures. My own tests clock the WH at about 80%-90% of those figures.
Practically, this means about three to four days of usage in various scenarios such as working at the desk, watching a movie, or sitting in a car or train. My test on a plane gave me quite good battery life; I recently made an 20-hour plane journey (to-and-fro), with Bluetooth and noise cancellation on a single charge.
The numbers are pretty good and shouldn’t give you any issues whether you’re a casual user or a frequent flyer. If there is any weakness it is that charging the unit takes a painful four hours, which is a long time to wait unless you’re doing so while sleeping.
My advice is to charge the WH whenever you have a chance, say after two days of straight usage for a hour or so when you’re working at your desk. This keeps the thing going without you having to worry about running out of juice.
Besides the noise cancelling feature, the WH comes equipped with quite a few nifty features. On the sides of the left ear cup, you have two buttons. The first is the power on/off button. The second is a toggle switch, which allows you to turn on what Sony calls ‘ambient mode.’
This essentially allows partial ambient sounds to come through the unit, thus allowing you to talk to someone temporarily. Toggle this switch one more time and you’ll turn off the noise cancelling altogether.
I found the ambient mode convenient to have; however, the WH does amplify the surrounding sounds a tad too much for my liking. For example, if you’re standing under or next to a fan, you’ll hear the noise of the wind quite loudly, and that’s simply quite irritating.
One useful feature that was carried over from WH’s predecessor the MDR-1000X is that you can mute your music playback by covering the right ear cup with your right palm, arguably the coolest feature the WH possesses.
Personally, while the capacitive touch controls are quite cool to use, it does take a bit of getting used to. Sometimes, when I was trying to lessen the volume, I ended up inadvertently triggering the next/last track instead.
I’m not a big fan of using it and would have preferred that Sony built in physical buttons for controls, much like how Bose has done with the QC35s. The muting function however, was very useful.
Next page: Does it truly measure up?
Let’s get straight to it. How good is this noise cancelling headphone? Many reviewers usually benchmark noise cancelling headphones against Bose’s gear, and for good reason. Bose has been the leader to catch since it was a pioneer player in this area dating back to models such as the QC15 or QC3.
Bose’s latest iteration is the QC35s, which I didn’t have as a point of comparison. However, I do own a QC30, which is an in-ear noise-cancelling headphone, built on the same electronics save for the in-ear configuration as opposed to the over-the-ears QC35.
In my test, I feel that the Bose is still the gold standard for noise cancellation and that the WH falls short of this standard. That said, the Sony headphones are pretty effective at cancelling most ambient noises; for the most part it’s a credible challenger.
Where I feel the WH does better than the Bose is overall music playback quality. The dynamic range of playback is better than my in-ear style Bose QC30. Although I didn’t go head-to-head with the QC35s, I do believe Bose’s sound signature is pretty much the same across its product range. Having had first cursory tests of the QC35s before, I can say that the Sony performs better in music playing.
Whether you’re playing heavy pop material such as Bruno Mars Uptown Funk or Michael Jackson’s Love Never Felt So Good; jazz standards the likes of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York; classical materials the likes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony; the Sony performs well across all the highs, mids and lows, with good clarity.
Some may find the bass a tad strong, but that really depends on the materials you’re listening to. There is also a Sony app you can use to tune and equalise your music (see below). The soundstage is also pretty good for a headphone as stereoscopic projection is well executed.
One plus point is that Sony supports a wide range of codecs – how Bluetooth waves are transmitted from the source to your headphones – including SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD, LDAC.
LDAC is Sony’s proprietary high definition sound format and while the WH supports all the aforementioned formats, you’ll need a player that transmits those corresponding formats to derive the maximum benefit from them. Head over to this site to get a primer on different Bluetooth codecs.
Finally, there is no perceptible difference in using the headphones in either wired or wireless mode – at least none that I can detect.
Sony headphone app
You can download the app for iOS and Android easily and once you’ve done so, the app does give you a number of features you can experiment with. For instance, you can boost highs and lows via EQ settings; raise or lower the amount of ambient noise you want to hear; even set the headphone to filter out ambient noise but allow voices to come through.
One feature which is unique to Sony is that is employs what it calls a noise-cancelling optimiser, which you access from the app or by pressing a physical button on the left earcup. This feature purports to tweak the noise-cancelling settings based on the type of seal you're getting from your headphones. This seal is affected by whether you have long or short hair or if you’re wearing glasses or not, for example, Sony says.
Overall, while I found the app feature-packed, I do think the adage, “too much of a good thing” applies here; I found the app confusing to use and not enough explanation within the app to make it truly useful. Unless you go Googling details, you’ll struggle to customise some of the app settings.
Finally, phone conversations using the WH were acceptable and the noise cancelling was great if you truly want to shut off all other sounds around you during a conference call.
Wrap up, pricing and alternatives
As a top-notch, high-end headphone, Sony’s WH-1000MX2 does what it promises. It is well-built, plays music in high quality and cuts off noise well. It also has a litany of features should the geek in you want it and has great battery life to boot.
There are some quibbles however. For instance, it shuts down after five minutes to conserve battery life when in ‘idle’ mode, like when you just need it to cut noise when sleeping on an airplane without playing music.
One workaround is to plug in the included cable in order to keep the noise cancelation active, but this would entail you having to deal with not being totally wire-free. It would have been nice to have a setting in the app to disable the auto cut-off timer, ala the Bose Connect companion app.
So the bottom line is should you get one?
On performance, pricing (officially RM1,599) and specs alone, I can unequivocally recommend it as an alternative to the Bose QC35, which officially retails for RM1,990.
But in reality, shopping (and paying a lot) for a high-end noise cancelling headphone is more than about pricing. There is the comfort and form factor; audio and noise cancelling performance; and features to consider also. Along with this is whether you fancy having Sony’s touch controls versus physical buttons.
There are other options in the market. The Sennheiser models, Beats, AKG, and a host of others. However, not all of them are marketed in Malaysia, so your best bet is to look online for options.
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