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

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 new Surface Headphones, which showed promise and are designed to compete with this model.

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.

The headphone folded up in its included carrying case.

David Carnoy/CNET

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. 

The Bose QuietComfort 35 II, which has come down in price by $50 to $300, remains excellent. But until Bose upgrades it, Sony's WH-1000XM3 has taken over the title as the top noise-canceling headphone on our list.

Sony WH-1000XM3 specs

  • Weight: 254 grams
  • 40mm Liquid Crystal Polymer drivers
  • Redesigned headband and slightly softer padding on ear cups
  • Up to 30-hour battery life with Bluetooth and noise canceling on
  • 10-minute quick charge gives you 5 hours of battery life
  • USB-C charging
  • New HD Noise Canceling Processor QN1
  • Smart Listening by Sense Engine
  • Quick Attention Mode allows you to have conversations without taking your headphones off
  • Multimicrophone array for improved voice calling
  • Customizable Automatic Power Off function
  • You can activate your voice assistant with a simple touch
  • Price: $350, £330, $AU499
  • Available in black or platinum silver with gold highlights

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