Now that the Sony WH-1000XM4 has been released, bargain hunters will no doubt look into whether or not the WH-1000XM3 is a worthy alternative. Given that up until the release of the latest in Sony’s line of top-end ANC headsets, the WH-1000XM3 were the best noise canceling headphones, it’s definitely a worthy comparison to make.
Editor’s note: this post was updated on December 8, 2020, to address the Apple AirPods Max.
Related: Best Sony headphones
Who are the Sony WH-1000XM3 for?
- Casual listeners will love the Sony WH-1000XM3, as it offers a huge boost in sound quality over general consumer headphones when used with Bluetooth
- Commuters will appreciate the excellent noise cancellation offered by these headphones, best in the market.
- Air travelers will find the Sony WH-1000XM3 in the Best Buy vending machines at many American terminals, and you know what? That’s the best piece of hardware in there.
Very rarely will I say that a set of headphones is for “everyone,” but active noise cancelers that are comfortable and sound as good as the Sony WH-1000XM3 fall into that category. They perform well on commutes, flights, and just out on the town. Generally, these are headphones for everywhere but the computer… and even then they’re not bad if you’re not deep into the lossless audio game.
What features do the Sony WH-1000XM3 have?
Despite being largely identical in many ways to the older Sony WH-1000XM2, a few upgrades have made the brand-new WH-1000XM3 a better buy for the long haul. For example, the ear pads are deeper, and the addition of USB-C charging means that you won’t have to scour and scrape for an obsolete cable to top off your cans.
While these are fairly minor upgrades, it does mean that you won’t have to worry about your headphones falling apart in a year or two. Instead, you’ll have your needs met by a modern design, with very little headaches. I’m not sure that these tweaks are completely worth upgrading for if you already own last year’s model, but if you’re buying a new set of headphones: these go a long way to setting Sony’s offerings apart from Bose, Sennheiser, and AKG.
Probably the best thing about the headphones is that you rarely ever need to use your phone to control your music. Once you’ve got the headphone app installed, you can easily navigate playback with swipes of your finger (forward, backward swipes), adjust volume by swiping up or down, and activate your voice assistant with a long press. Initially, that assistant was limited only to the default one on your phone but the company has recently announced an update to the headphones that will give them full compatibility with Amazon Alexa as well. All you have to do is update through the Sony Headphone Connect app on your smartphone and you can choose whichever virtual assistant you want—depending on what smart products you have in your house, or simply which one answers your questions better. Additionally, you can temporarily hear the world around you by cupping your hand over the right ear cup, which makes the headphones use their external microphones to pass your surroundings on to your ears. This is great for when someone needs to tell you something, or for plane announcements.
Does the cold affect the Sony WH-1000XM3?
Many users report extreme cold affecting the touch controls of the Sony WH-1000XM3, so be wary if you’re in an environment that freezes over a lot. Neither Adam nor Chris had issues with the Sony WH-1000XM3 in the frozen northeast US or Canada, but it’s possible that it varies from model to model.
Are the Sony WH-1000XM3 well built?
If you’ve never used the Sony WH-1000XM2 from last year, noting that the WH-1000XM3 is virtually identical isn’t going to tell you what you need to know about these cans. For example, that the WH-1000XM2 were our pick for best headphones for most people for a long time, and this year’s refresh look to take that crown from their older brother. They’re extremely light, have great padding, and oh yeah: deliver on the promise of high-end active noise canceling headphones. Really, the biggest differences are the USB-C charging port, soft touch material, and new buttons.
The chassis of the WH-1000XM3 is the same hard plastic as its predecessor, though there isn’t any fake plastic leather over the ear cups anymore. Instead, it’s now a soft-touch material that your fingers can easily glide over. At the top of each ear cup are two wide microphones that collect data for the noise canceling unit to destroy outside sound.
It’s unclear if Sony addressed the reported cracking issues with the previous iterations of the WH-1000X, but I didn’t run into any breakage or damage in my time with them. And I suppose that’s to be expected—I’ve absolutely abused the Mark 2 over the past year, and it still looks fairly new… minus somewhat flattened padding.
Battery life is great on the Sony WH-1000XM3, lasting 24 hours of constant 75dB playback… with maximum ANC running. This is an absolutely stellar result, and should keep you protected from the outside world for long trips.
How well do the Sony WH-1000XM3 cancel noise?
When you’re buying active noise canceling headphones, the main reason you’re opening up your wallet is because they make the world melt away around you, right? Because of this, we test isolation and attenuation. And just like their predecessors, the WH-1000XM3 do a fantastic job of killing outside noise—drubbing the Bose QuietComfort 35 II, anyway.
While you’ll still be able to hear sounds like your office mates speaking near you, droning sounds like an HVAC system, engine noise, and other persistent notes will be muted out. That’s pretty much the best you could possibly ask for in a set of active noise canceling headphones, as the tech can only do so much. This is among the best ANC we’ve seen to date.
Can a software update make the noise canceling worse?
Yes. And no.
Essentially, many new ANC headsets require software updates for this, that, and the other. Because you have to connect to a set of headphones via Bluetooth—which has very little bandwidth—sometimes updates fail when they get marked as complete. Use the Sony app to see if there’s a mismatch in the version of software your headphones report, and what it actually has if you run into this problem. Nine times out of ten a re-install of the update will take care of it, and that’s true of Bose headphones, Sony headphones, any that require software updates over Bluetooth.
How do the Sony WH-1000XM3 sound?
Great, really. We’ve come to a point in wireless headphones that most of the big gripes are gone, replaced by minor ones. For the Sony WH-1000XM3, the sound is quite good, bolstered by the fact that they target a very consumer-friendly sound by default. Though the chart it produces is wavy for some reason, don’t take that to mean that it’s got an issue with the overall response: it’s just that pink noise as a testing signal is inherently messy. It could also have something to do with the optimizer settings for the test head, which appear to be a work in progress. The main takeaway here is that the headphones target a consumer sound, with emphasized bass, a little bump in the mids, and a peak at about 10kHz.
I mentioned earlier that the WH-1000XM3 isn’t for audiophiles looking for lossless listening, so I feel like I owe you an explanation. Sony’s headphones really are best in class here, but they’re not perfect. The LDAC codec is certainly impressive by many metrics, but only when you can get the 660 or 990kbps modes. Weirdly enough, the 330kbps default connection is worse than SBC in some ways, so you may find you should dive into the developer options in your phone to lock the WH-1000XM3 into 660kbps just to be sure you’re getting the best of what your headphones have to offer. The 990kbps mode may be tempting, but we find that 660 is a great middle ground that still exceeds your hearing capabilities.
So what does all this mean for you? Well, I can show you!
Bass is heavily emphasized in the LDAC and default SBC modes, but you can change this by using Sony’s app if you wish. However, you may elect to keep things as they are to really feel the bass in recordings that underplay it a bit. You may find that engine noise masks a bit of the bassline and bongo thumps to the one and only recognized version of September.
Mids and Highs
Mids take a bit of a backseat to the bass if you use the stock LDAC connection without swapping off to equalize your music. You may want to turn the bass down a bit if you’re jamming out to old Queen records.
What about 360 Reality Audio?
If you’ve never heard of Sony’s 360 Reality Audio, be sure to watch the video above. By using the Headphones app, you can take photos of each of your ears, and upload them to Sony to be analyzed by a machine learning algorithm so that you can listen to music on several streaming services in 3D space. Using the advantages of MPEG-H and countless remasters of songs stretching back to 1970, there’s a lot to discover about music you know and love. If you don’t already, consider getting a subscription to the following streaming services to take advantage of this feature:
Is the Sony WH-1000XM3’s mic any good?
Usually microphones are pretty terrible on headphones, but the Sony WH-1000XM3 is the exception to the rule. While the nature of transmitting audio still means that quiet sounds might get amplified in order to mask shortcomings of the power situation, the actual technical capabilities of the microphone are quite… okay. However, it doesn’t combat the proximity effect very well, so your voice will sound bassier than it usually might.
See that flat line up there? That means that throughout the range of notes that make up all the parts of a human voice, the Sony WH-1000XM3 doesn’t really treat any differently than the other. In short, your voice will sound roughly exactly how it should on your recording, or on the other end of a call. Of course, different voice clients and recording programs handle recording bitrate and dynamic compression differently, so be sure to kick the tires on a few phone calls before your return window ends to see if you like how these headphone handle it.
I will mention that the microphone doesn’t do so well with outside noise rejection, nor does it mitigate something called the “proximity effect.” If you have a super bassy voice like mine, you may find that phone calls are a little annoying with these headphones.
What about the Shure AONIC 50?
Of course, the Sony WH-1000XM3 has been one of the best ANC headsets on the market for a couple years now, so it was only a matter of time before more serious competitors came out of the woodwork. Shure is an Illinois-based company that’s famed for their microphones and other audio production equipment. In order to compete in the high-end consumer market, the company released the Shure AONIC 50 active noise canceling headphones earlier in 2020 and they’re really, really good.
Not only are they contenders for the best ANC headphones out there, but they’re easily the best USB-C headphones (thanks to the USB-C connection that allows data transfer), and among the best wireless headphones too. However, the Sony WH-1000XM3 still hangs tough. They’re not only cheaper than the Shure headphones, but they’re also a little more versatile with the Sony Headphones app enabling features like the 360 Reality Audio and more.
What about the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700?
Bose has long been the foil to Sony in the noise cancelling headphones department, but Bose’s latest release is a bit of a departure from the norm. Boasting an enhanced microphone array and a higher pricetag, the 700 series headphones from Bose are very compelling. However, the differences in performance and Bluetooth codec availability is a bit of a letdown in comparison to the Sony WH-1000XM3. That’s not to say that the issue is as clear-cut as that, but you may want to do a bit more research if you’re having trouble deciding between the two headphones.
What about the Apple AirPods Max?
Apple just released its first pair of over-ear headphones: the AirPods Max, which aim to compete against products like the Sony WH-1000XM3, Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, and even the Shure AONIC 50. The headphones sport a rather unconventional design, featuring a knit mesh canopy headband and large, smooth ear cups that are reminiscent of an oversized Apple Watch—which makes sense since the left ear cup actually uses a digital crown for volume control.
The AirPods Max offers virtually the same features found on the Apple AirPods Pro, including active noise cancellation, Transparency Mode, Adaptive EQ, and Spatial Audio. As with all of Apple’s audio products, the AirPods Max comes with the company’s proprietary H1 Chip for seamless pairing and reliable connectivity. These headphones also boast a 20-hour battery life, in addition to fast charging, providing you with 1.5 hours of listening after a 5 minute charge.
While the specs of the AirPods Max are certainly impressive, its real-world performance remains to be seen. Apple fanboys looking for a pair of over-ears may want to consider waiting for the AirPods Max, which is set to ship in mid-December. Just make sure to start saving as soon as possible, since these headphones retail for $549 USD.
Is the Sony WH-1000XM3 worth buying in 2020?
Probably! While the Sony WH-1000XM3 is easily one of the best headsets out there, its little brother the Sony WH-XB900N is a credible budget pick, and gets you about 70% of the performance of these headphones for $100 less. That’s not a bad trade at all. If you’re on a budget, get the WH-XB900N and don’t look back.
A gadget that costs $349 might sound like it’s too expensive, but it’s really not for all that it gives you in return. A really good set of active noise canceling headphones is worth its weight in gold, and the Sony WH-1000XM3 is among the best out there. Plus, with the release of its successor, expect the WH-1000XM3 to be available for a much lower price during Prime Day and Black Friday. If you want to save even more cash, consider buying the WH-1000XM3 through the Amazon Renewed program.
Newer headphones offer some interesting ANC features like the Jabra Elite 85h, but only the Shure AONIC 50 goes toe-to-toe with the raw ANC power of the WH-1000XM3. Even if it’s not technically very different than its predecessor, that’s okay: all the WH-1000XM2 needed to be truly great headphones were a USB-C charging port, and deeper ear pads… which the WH-1000XM3 provide.
Active noise cancelers are the rare headphones that work well in just about any situation, and that’s why they’re so valuable. You’re not going to enjoy listening with high-end open back headphones on the subway, after all. The Sony WH-1000XM3 are the perfect travel buddies with great battery life, solid sound, and a price point under its main competitors.
Next: Where to buy headphones
Should you upgrade to the Sony WH-1000XM4?
The Sony WH-1000XM4 introduces artificial intelligence (AI) into the mix, and its used to improve noise cancelling along with audio processing. The WH-1000XM4 features a new DSEE Extreme processor, which improves dynamic range when upsampling audio. Other features include improved fast charging: 10 minutes of charging via USB-C provides 5 hours of playtime.
Another new feature: speak-to-chat. This enables listeners to engage in conversation without having to interact with the headset at all. The five-microphone array in tandem with AI voice recognition software learns when you’re speaking and automatically decreases the volume as you and your conversation partner talk back and forth. Listeners still have the option to allow ambient noise in by placing their hands on either of the ear cups.
Bluetooth multipoint connectivity is finally supported, so you can now connect the Sony WH-1000XM4 to two sources at once. This is ideal for users who want to keep an ear on their smartphone notifications while streaming a movie on their laptops.
Build quality has also been tweaked, as Sony made the headset lighter by using a lightweight plastic. Comfort has improved too: pressure is more evenly distributed around the ears, and the stitched has receded further into the ear cup, so the seam no longer brushes against the head. The Sony WH-1000XM4 comes in silver and black and is available now for $349.
Frequently Asked Questions
You might be able to get a better price on the WH-1000XM3 now that the WH-1000XM4 has been released, but if you want even better ANC and Bluetooth multipoint, go with the XM4.
By using the Sony Headphones app, you can use the manufacturer software to tone down the bass a bit (Chris uses "clear bass" -1). Alternatively, you could use an app like SoundID or Wavelet, which will correct your headphones to the Harman target first, and let you tweak it afterward.
They probably could, but I wouldn't. The microphone is less robust than a dedicated headset's, and will pick up a lot of background noise.
Not unless you have an adapter, no. Consoles typically are tougher to connect wireless headphones to. The only other way you can get the Sony WH-1000XM3 connected to the PS4 is through its 3.5mm cable.
Yes. Included in the packaging is a 3.5mm to 3.5mm male-t0-male cable that you can use to listen to wired sources. Each end has a TRRRS end, allowing for two channels, and a microphone.
In theory, you just need to be able to connect your source (in this case, your TV) with something over Bluetooth. If your TV supports Bluetooth, it should be able to connect to your headphones. If it can't, you may want to look into finding an emitter that can connect to your TV. That way, you can solve the issue with a cheap workaround instead of buying a new TV—or headphones.
Yes, the Sony WH-1000XM3 wireless noise cancelling headphones are compatible with video chat apps like Zoom, Skype, Facebook Messenger, and more. The headset must be paired with the source device being used with the video conferencing app. Depending on what app is being used, a pop-up may appear requesting permission to use the headset microphone before continuing into the chat. If you want more information, we have an entire list of the best headphones for conference calls!
You can certainly receive audio from your PC to the Sony WH-1000XM3 wireless headphones via Bluetooth or by wire, since the headphones retain the 3.5mm input. As far as sending audio to your PC is concerned, you may use the Sony microphone system to record audio into a digital audio interface such as Audacity or Adobe Audition.
No, the Sony WH-1000XM3 uses Bluetooth 4.2.