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For more than a year Sony's WH-1000XM3 has been the highest-rated wireless noise-canceling headphone on CNET, and it's still my favorite overall. It's still hard to beat its combination of design, features and performance -- both its sound and noise-canceling capabilities. Priced at $350, £330 or AU$499, the WH-1000XM3 is regularly discounted to $300 and sometimes less.
Several top noise-canceling models, including Bose's Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, arrived in 2019. When I reviewed the Bose I compared the two in depth and they ended up neck-and-neck overall. The Sony WH-1000XM3 was slightly more comfortable, with better battery life (30 hours compared to the Bose's 20) and meatier bass sound. Meanwhile the Bose 700 has a sturdier headband, always-on Alexa voice assistant as an option, more detailed sound and superior performance for making calls. The biggest difference is price: The Bose is currently $400, so the Sony is definitely the superior value.
In 2020 we should see a new Sony WH-1000X -- the fourth-gen model, or M4 -- that will hopefully address some of its small drawbacks, including that slightly disappointing headset performance and a set of touch controls that can be adversely impacted by cold temperatures. It's unclear when it will arrive, but in the meantime it's safe to expect more discounts on this M3 model.
As I said when I first reviewed the WH-1000XM3 in October 2018, it seems as if Sony's engineers went through CNET's 2017 review of the WH-1000MX2 and corrected each small issue I had with it. The biggest design change is to the shape of the headband and padding on the ear cups. The headband is now more contoured to your head, and the headphone has shaved off 20 grams of weight. The padding on the ear cups is also a little softer.
The end result is a headphone that's clearly more comfortable than its predecessor.
The Bose QuietComfort 35 II from 2018 is still lighter at 235 grams versus 254 grams for this. But Sony is now neck-and-neck with Bose in terms of comfort, which had been one of Bose's advantages.
The other big change is that Sony has moved from Micro-USB to USB-C charging. As part of the switch, there's a new quick-charge feature that gives you 5 hours of use from a 10-minute charge. That's pretty impressive -- and the 30 hours of battery life at moderate volume levels is also great.
I was critical of the headset performance in my review of the earlier 1000X models. For the WH-1000XM3, the engineers shifted to a new multimicrophone array system that filters out background noise while picking up your voice during calls. I made several calls, and headset performance definitely has improved and has now become more of a strength than a weakness.
There are a few other cosmetic changes. The exterior finish on the ear cups, where you'll find the touch controls, is smoother. And the carrying case is slightly different. It reserves a spot for the short USB-C cable as well as the included headphone cable -- yes, you can use this as a wired headphone, great for the plane's in-flight entertainment system -- and it sounds great in wired mode.
Sony reps told me this model has the same drivers as its excellent MDR-1AM2 headphone, and I think this sounds better than the Bose QuietComfort 35 II: it sounds more natural with a little better definition, clarity and strong, punchy bass. There is some bass push -- I found myself wanting to lower the volume on one our test bass tracks, Alt-J's 3WW, to tone things down a bit. But the bass doesn't get boomy, it's just muscular. Overall, the headphone is clean-sounding for a Bluetooth headphone and sounds nice and open (for a closed-back headphone anyway).
I gave the headphone to Steve Guttenberg, who writes CNET's The Audiophiliac column, for a listen. Steve can be hard on Bluetooth headphones but had positive things to say about the WH-1000XM3: Nice treble, warm, natural midrange and bass that was deep but also defined. He didn't have any real complaints about the sound.
Sony has updated the chips inside the headphone, upgrading the noise canceling and sound processing. It says its new HD Noise Canceling Processor QN1 offers four times the performance of its predecessor and works not only for noise canceling, "but also realizes stunning high sound quality with 32-bit audio signal processing and the combination of DAC with amplifier functionality."
I didn't experience quite as dramatic an improvement in performance as Sony suggests, but after my initial tests it's apparent that the WH-1000XM3 certainly measures up to Bose's noise canceling and arguably surpasses it. I've worn it in the streets of New York and underground on the subway, as well in the air for a cross-country plane ride to and from Seattle, where I got an early look at Microsoft's Surface Headphones.
Like its predecessor, the headphone features adaptive noise-canceling, atmospheric pressure optimizing, ambient sound control, an equalizer and surround and sound position control. As before, the 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 and the WH-1000MX2. Sony's Headphones Connect app allows you to tweak all these features.
The only issue I encountered was that sometimes the adaptive noise canceling would randomly shift gears. For instance, I'd be walking in the streets and all of a sudden I'd hear a little ding, my music would cut out, and the noise-canceling would turn off, allowing ambient sound to leak. You can toggle off noise canceling by pressing a button on the left ear cup. But I hadn't touched the button (that button can also be programmed to activate Google Assistant if you have it installed on your device). I'm not sure what happened, but I had to manually reactivate the noise-cancellation.
Some people will value all the WH-1000XM3's features and settings, but they're also a bit confusing and some of them seem like overkill. For instance, I found Sony's "surround" sound modes kind of worthless. None of them seemed to make the sound any better, so I avoided them.
Those small gripes aside, I'm happy to report that Sony has retained perhaps the 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 listening to someone -- say, a flight attendant -- you remove your hand and the music resumes playing at its previous volume, and the noise cancellation kicks back in.
Also worth noting: Sony now allows you to customize the automatic-off function. Previously the headphone would automatically shut off after a short time to preserve battery life if you weren't listening to music. But now you can set it to stay on. This allows you to use the headphone's noise canceling feature even when you don't want to listen to music.
The long and short of it is, despite some relatively minor issues I encountered with the adaptive noise canceling (perhaps they'll get fixed with a firmware upgrade), the Sony WH-1000XM3 is a top-notch headphone. And while it may not be a huge upgrade over its predecessor in terms of performance, it's definitely more comfortable to wear.