Sony has been on everyone’s wish list with the WH-1000XM3 active noise cancelling headphones, but as good as they are the one thing they are not is cheap. At $300-$350, they’re definitely a splurge. Which is why when the company released the WH-XB900N headphones it caught our attention. For a good amount less, these offer many of the same features including active noise cancelling, touch-sensitive playback controls, and super long battery life. So what are they missing? Should you buy these over the WH-1000XM3?
Editor’s note: This review was updated on March 8th, 2020 with links to new information about 360 Reality Audio and streaming services
Who are the Sony WH-XB900N for?
- Bass lovers. If you’ve tried the WH-1000XM3 headphones and felt like they needed more low-end emphasis, then these are right up your alley.
- Anyone considering Beats. Beats headphones are known for their bass but their headphones lack many other features like good active noise cancelling, NFC pairing, high-quality codecs, etc. If you or someone you know was going to get a pair, just go with these instead.
How are the Sony WH-XB900N built?
The first thing you notice about the Sony WH-XB900N is that they’re made mainly of a lightweight plastic (254 grams) which is nice considering that you’re going to be using them out and about most of the time. They’re surprisingly flexible and fit on the head nicely thanks to the padding at the crown and the earpads. Sony usually does a good job at making sure that its headphones are fairly portable, and these are no different. The ear cups rotate 90 degrees to lie flat and fold at the hinges for a smaller footprint. The plastic build also has a weird texture that almost feels like it’s fused with fabric or something similar that provides just a bit of grip to it which really comes in handy when using the swipe playback controls.
The plush memory foam padding feels light on the ears, though like most other over-ears I find that they get somewhat warm after extended usage. Something to be aware of if you’re in a warmer climate as I don’t find these let my ears breathe all too well. That said, the padding helps with isolation which is way more important to the listening experience so I suppose it’s a fair trade. The ear cups also swivel slightly for a better fit and, on the blue model we’re testing, there’s a visible light blue color accent which I feel is a nice touch.
Then there are the buttons, which are on the left earcup and slightly raised so you can feel which one you’re pressing. You’ll get a power button and a custom button, both of which are clicky enough and don’t feel poorly made. Also on the left earcup is the 3.5mm and USB-C input for connecting an audio cable and charging, respectively.
How does the Sony WH-XB900N connect?
Pairing to the Sony WH-XB900N headphones with my Pixel 3 was, as seamless as pairing to AirPods on an Apple device. As soon as I turned on the headphones a small card dropped down on the screen of my phone prompting me to connect. If for some reason that doesn’t work for you, you can still take advantage of the built-in NFC to pair, or you can do it the good ol’ fashioned way by going into Bluetooth settings. Speaking of which, these are rocking Bluetooth 4.2 which is a bit of a bummer for a pair of headphones that came out in 2019 when Bluetooth 5.0 was available, but on the bright side, these are packed with Bluetooth codecs.
Not only will you get Sony’s own high-quality LDAC codec, but you’ll also get aptX and aptX HD as well. Of course, none of these are perfect as our testing shows, but they let you ditch the standard SBC codec that all Bluetooth audio devices use. But you’re going to want to download the Sony Headphones Connect app. Once you do so, you’ll be able to control the amount of ambient noise you’re comfortable with as there are twenty different levels ranging from maximum noise cancelling to using the microphones to hear everything around you. Or you could always just leave adaptive sound control on and let the headphones change on the fly depending on your surroundings.
You can also adjust the sound position control from the app, which as the name suggests: lets you pick from which direction you prefer to hear your music coming from. It’s not quite 360 Reality Audio that Sony has been pushing lately, or even the like what you’d find on the Creative SXFI or Audeze Mobius, but it’s still pretty neat—although you’ll have to switch from whatever codec you’re using to SBC as it prioritizes stability. The same is true with the built-in equalizer and the reverb presets that you’ll find in the app.
Further down in the app is also where you can choose the function of the custom button the left earcup. You can choose between having it instantly access Alexa or the Google Assistant at the press of the button. After using it for a few days, I found that it works perfectly and almost exactly like it does on my phone or the more expensive WH-1000XM3. It answers my questions, adds reminders, and lets me know of any notifications coming from my phone. Though, this, of course, is somewhat limited depending on the internet connection your phone has.
I also found that connection strength was fairly stable even when I wasn’t using the SBC codec. I never had a single skip in about five days of use when my phone was on my desk, and it only stuttered quickly once when my phone was in my pocket which isn’t bad. As far as video lag is concerned, there’s none in my experience. Thanks to the codec support on both the headphones and on my Pixel 3, I didn’t have to worry about any YouTube video I was watching turning into an old kung-fu movie with poor audio syncing. The touch controls also work nicely, letting you switch between songs, adjust volume, answer phone calls, and play or play with just a swipe or tap. Just like the WH-1000XM3, you can also hold your hand over the touchpad to instantly enable ambient mode which lowers your music and uses the built-in microphones to help you hear what’s going on around you.
What is the battery life on the Sony WH-XB900N?
Sony claims a battery life of 30 hours of constant playback with active noise cancelling turned on. At the time this post went live, the battery on these were still going strong. We can finally report a final playtime of 37 hours and 22 minutes of constant playback at an output of 75dB. That is insanely long, and you most likely won’t have any issues with battery seeing as it last more than enough for a flight from New York to Hong Kong. That said, these do charge via USB-C so if they die you can charge them back up with the same cable that comes with most phones nowadays (unless you have an iPhone). On top of that, they have a 3.5mm input and come with an audio cable so you can still use them if the battery runs dry.
How do the Sony WH-XB900N sound?
I should preface this section by saying that if you’re into bass, these will be right up your alley. I, however, would prefer not to have my eyeballs shake when listening to Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, which I didn’t even know was possible before wearing these headphones. If you were hoping for similar attention to detailed sound as the WH-1000XM3 headphones, then you’ll be disappointed. These are clearly tailored for bassheads.
The mids didn’t have that same problem and seem to do a good job with both instruments and vocals. Though I will say that because of the strong bass on these, there was some unintentional masking going which forces you to really pay attention to anything in the lower mids. I had no problems with the highs which were clear without being piercing. The cymbals throughout the song Generator ^ Second Floor by Freelance Whales sounded fine and had a nice amount of reverb with the cymbals.
As you can hear in the sample below, my voice is pretty much unaffected by the microphone as most of the important frequencies have fairly equal emphasis. That means that my voice is being picked up nicely by the microphone and most of the frequencies will sound equally loud to the person on the other end. Even someone with a deeper voice like Chris Thomas, whose voice was cut off by the Bose QC35 in our last versus video, would come away unscathed by this microphone.
360 Reality Audio works with the Sony WH-XB900N
If you have a subscription to Deezer, Tidal, Amazon Music HD, or nugs.net: you can stream Sony’s library of 360 Reality Audio content. Using the Sony Headphones app, take photos of your ears, and the app will calculate how to alter the signal to make you hear your music in 3-dimensional space. It’s a really cool feature, but because the library is limited to about 1000 songs currently, you may find it takes a while for your music to get remastered. Not to worry though: once they are, you’ll get to rediscover your favorite tunes from 1970 on in a way you never could have experienced before.
So should you buy the Sony WH-XB900N?
While the WH-XB900N are a really good pair of headphones, they’re not a replacement for the WH-1000XM3 (seriously, can we get better names for headphones please?). These are now going for about $150, which is a roughly $100 cheaper then when they first came out—and significantly cheaper than the WH-1000XM3. While it’s not cheap by any means, these are definitely a great deal now.
Even though the WH-XB900N headphones pack a serious punch with all of the Bluetooth codec support, the active noise cancelling, crazy long battery life, and the overall quality build of the headphones, the sound signature on these is drastically different and emphasizes low end notes way too much for my liking. When these first came out I said in this review that they’d be worth it if you can find them for $100 less. Now the time has come and they are just $148, meaning if you’ve been wanting a premium pair of bass-heavy headphones now is the time to pull the trigger. If you love bass then these are hard to beat as they offer all of Sony’s best offerings with a touch of extra love in the low-end.
However, because these aren’t a flagship product, it may be a blessing in disguise. Many users of the top flight of ANC headphones have been getting firmware updates that fail to install over Bluetooth, leading to things like reduced ANC performance and sound quality. These headphones seem not to have these issues, in part because there aren’t many more features that devs are trying to cram into them. If you don’t want unexpected headaches, these might be a smart buy.
What alternatives are there?
If you still want bass but can’t ditch the cool factor that the Beats brand has, then you should check out the Beats Solo Pro. While these are on0ears and not over-ears, they’re well-made and have decent active noise cancelling to boot. The problem is the lack of a proper seal causing sub-par isolation, which is to be expected as these are on-ears. You also won’t get any of the codec support you’ll find here or the transparency mode, but still, Beats has actually made a good product with these.
While the WH-XB900N headphones are cheaper than something like the WH-1000XM3, they’re still not exactly cheap. If you can save your pennies for a little longer, it might be worth just splurging and picking yourself up a pair of WH-1000XM3. These have slightly better active noise cancelling, better sound quality, and a better build, but otherwise are more or less the same. You’ll still get the convenient touch-sensitive earpads and access to any Bluetooth codec your heart desires.
If you still haven’t found anything that piques your interest, don’t worry we have more recommendations. Luckily, we get a chance to test a lot of products here at SoundGuys, so we have a list of some of the best active noise cancelling headphones we’ve tested thus far. Definitely check that out if you’re still looking.
Frequently Asked Questions
You should only have to toggle the ANC on once, or it will be on by default when you turn the headphones on.