Sony WH-1000XM3 review: Sony lays claim to top noise-canceling headphone

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The Good The excellent-sounding Sony WH-1000XM3 is more comfortable and 20% lighter than its predecessor. It offers slightly improved noise canceling and performs better as a headset for making calls. Battery life is strong, and it has some nifty extra features geared toward frequent travelers.

The Bad Your ears can get a little warm inside the ear cups. I encountered some adaptive noise-canceling hiccups.

The Bottom Line With its comfortable fit and superb performance, the Sony WH-1000XM3 is the noise-canceling headphone to beat.

9.0 Overall
  • Design 10
  • Features 9
  • Sound 10
  • Value 8

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.

Read: Best noise-canceling headphones   

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.

Sony has changed the shape of the headband. The WH-1000MX2 (left) has a more rounded shape while the WH-1000MX3 (right) has a more oval shape.

David Carnoy/CNET

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.

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