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Sony WH-1000XM2 review: Sony's top noise-cancelling headphone matches Bose for best

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The Good The Sony WH-1000XM2 is an excellent-sounding, comfortable wireless headphone with effective noise canceling that measures up to Bose's for muffling ambient noise. Its battery life has been improved and it has some nifty extra features geared toward frequent travelers.

The Bad It should perform a little better as a headset. Battery isn't replaceable.

The Bottom Line Sony's WH-1000XM2 may not be quite as comfortable as Bose's QuietComfort 35 II, but in some respects it's a superior headphone.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

8.8 Overall
  • Design 9.0
  • Features 10.0
  • Sound 9.0
  • Value 8.0

Review Sections

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.

As of Dec. 1, the Sony is $50 cheaper, but that might not last. As long as it does, 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.

Better noise cancelling, longer lasting battery

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.

The headphones have a new textured finish.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Feature-packed

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.

The WH-1000XM2, in beige, with its included carrying case.

David Carnoy/CNET

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. 

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