Sony WH-1000XM2 review: Sony's top noise-cancelling headphones match Bose for best

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). 

Clarifying the sound differences

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.

The headphones when folded flat.

David Carnoy/CNET

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.

And the winner is...

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.

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