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The Sony WH-1000XM2 reviewed here was released in August 2017, and remains one of our top picks for wireless noise-canceling headphones. While the Bose QuietComfort 35 II is lighter and more comfortable to wear, the Sony WH-1000XM2 arguably sounds a tad better and offers more features. It also sometimes gets discounted to less than $300. The price for the Beats Studio3 Wireless has dropped (you can get it for less than $225 online), so it's become a more attractive option in this category.
The original review of the Sony WH-1000XM2 -- first published December 5, 2017 and otherwise mostly unchanged -- follows.
Sony's MDR-1000X was one of our favorite noise-cancelling wireless headphones of 2016. This is the new enhanced version, the WH-1000XM2, priced at $350, £330 or AU$499. It looks very similar to the original and also comes in beige or black, but the finish is slightly different and Sony reduced the number of buttons to help simplify things.
The big question is whether it's a better option than Bose's QuietComfort 35 II, which added a quick-access Google Assistant button and remains a top pick in the premium wireless noise-canceling category. The short answer is that in some ways it is, but in other ways, it isn't. I gave them both the same rating. Maybe that seems like a cop-out -- but really, they're both so good, and so close, I like them both equally.
When we first published this review, the Sony was $50 cheaper, but currently they're both about $350. If you see it cheaper, I'd choose the Sony. But if they're both the same price when you're making your decision, I'd encourage you to try each one for yourself. In the meantime, here's a primer on everything Sony did to challenge Bose.
For starters, the already excellent noise canceling has been upgraded with atmospheric pressure optimizing, ambient sound control, an equalizer and surround and sound position control. The added features are supposed to help you better tailor the sound to your environment. The atmospheric pressure optimizer, which is designed for plane use, is currently unique to this headphone. Sony's Headphones Connect app allows you to tweak all these new features.
Sony didn't change or upgrade the sound -- it remains excellent for a Bluetooth headphone -- but battery life has improved. (The battery isn't user replaceable, but neither is it on the Bose.) It's now rated at up to 30 hours with wireless and noise canceling on or up to 40 hours if you use a wired connection. You probably won't quite hit those numbers if you play your music at high volumes, but I used the headphones pretty heavily for almost four days before I had to recharge them. There's also a Quick Charge feature that gives you up to 70 minutes of battery life from just 10 minutes of charging. The headphone charges via standard Micro-USB, not the newer USB-C.
There were some complaints about the build quality of the earlier MDR-1000X -- with some units the headband was apparently cracking. Sony says this new model uses upgraded materials that help make the headphone sturdier. It's hard to tell how much of an improvement it actually is, but in the month or so I've been using it, I haven't had a problem and I do like the new, textured finish on the earcups.
Like its predecessor, this model has touch controls on the right ear cup for adjusting the volume, controlling playback (pause/play, skipping tracks forward and back), as well as answering and ending calls. They generally work quite well, but not everybody loves touch controls. It sometimes required an extra swipe or tap to get the desired result.
Sony retained perhaps the headphone's best extra feature: The ability to muffle your music and let the outside world in by simply holding your hand over the right ear cup, where the touch controls are located. Once you finish talking to someone, you remove your hand and the music resumes playing at its previous volume, and the noise cancellation kicks back in. It really comes in handy when a flight attendant approaches you for your drink order on a plane while you're watching a movie.
Features like that make this one of the most -- if the not the most -- feature-rich, high-tech headphones out there right now. I mentioned some of the new stuff earlier, but I'll highlight a few other items, including the noise-canceling optimizer, which you access from the app or by pressing a physical button on the left earcup. It tweaks the noise-canceling settings based on the type of seal you're getting from your headphones. That seal could vary depending on whether you're wearing glasses or have just changed your hairstyle.
You can customize the headphone's sound profile to your liking via EQ settings in the app, raise and lower the amount of ambient noise you want to hear and even set the headphone to filter out ambient noise but allow voices to come through, so you can hear the public announcements in airports, alerting you to when your flight is boarding.
With its deep roster of features, this headphone will certainly appeal to someone who likes to play around with their headphone's settings. That said, I did find some of them a little confusing -- there almost seems like there's too much technology thrown at you. A set of "surround" modes made whatever I was listening to sound worse, so I wasn't sure what the point of them was.
I'm not saying that the Bose QuietComfort 35 II is for "audio purists." After all, that cohort wouldn't settle for anything less than a good set of wired headphones that might cost a little less and sound better. But the Bose has a fixed EQ setting and although there's a companion app, you won't find much to tweak in it. The Bose is pleasantly straightforward. It's also a little lighter and more comfortable to wear. The Bose weighs 236 grams (8.3 ounces), while the Sony weighs 272 grams (9.6 ounces).
Arguably, the Sony delivers slightly better sound than the Bose. It has a little more clarity than both the QC35 II and the Beats Studio3 Wireless. The Bowers & Wilkins PX is also an excellent sounding headphone in this category, but is a little more expensive and some people may find it less comfortable, with noise canceling that's not as strong.
Steve Guttenberg, who writes CNET's Audiophiliac column, compared the earlier MDR-1000X with the original QC35 and came away with a stronger preference for the Sony's sound. "The QuietComfort 35 was no slouch," he said, "but it flattened dynamics and the sound seemed less alive. Bass definition was also less distinct than what I heard from the MDR-1000X."
The thing about audio is that everybody's ears and music tastes are different, so not everybody is going to have the same reaction or preference. With certain tracks I found myself leaning toward the Bose's sound -- or the Beats' sound for that matter. In my Beats Studio3 Wireless review, I said it was a more exciting headphone than the Sony, which has a little bit more of a laid-back, warmer quality. Overall, though, the Sony does acquit itself well with a wide range of material, with punchy bass, good detail and natural-sounding, present midrange that isn't too forward. This is a headphone you can listen to for long periods.
It's also one of the only -- if not the only -- headphone that truly measures up to the Bose for noise canceling. With the earlier MDR-1000X, I encountered a little bit of weirdness with the adaptive nature of the noise canceling. But everything worked smoothly with this new model. It did a great job muffling sound on the streets of New York, in the subway and in our open office, where voices can get pretty loud.
The character of the noise canceling wasn't the same as Bose's. The Bose seems a little more geared toward reducing the din of noise while you're flying while the Sony, as Steve remarked, "reduced the noise over a broader range of frequencies." But the differences are slight. They're both excellent at muffling noise.
I should point out, however, one small noise-canceling complaint people have had. If you wear the headphone without listening to any music, it shuts down after 5 minutes to conserve battery life. If you just want to use it for noise canceling and not listen to anything, the best way to do that is to plug in the included cable and go wired while keeping the noise canceling on.
If you're wondering whether the headphone sounds any better in wired mode, the answer is no, not really. It sounds about the same.
My only other comment concerns how the headphone performs as a headset for making calls. It's good but not up to the level of the Bose. Like with the MDR-1000X, people's feedback was more positive when I was using the Bose QC35 II to make calls. It's an area that Sony could improve upon a little. After all, this is a headphone that appeals to mobile professionals and frequent flyers. It should have top-notch headset capabilities.
For those looking for a definitive answer as to what the best wireless noise-canceling headphone is, I can't give you quite what you're looking for. I could tell you to get this model over the Bose, but there'd be some among you who might end up trying the Bose and thinking it was more comfortable and more to your liking for whatever reason.
But I will say this. The Sony WH-1000XM2 is certainly a worthy rival to the Bose. It's right there with it and superior to it in some ways -- just not in every way.