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In a rare streak of frivolity, both our co-editors bought the Sony WH-1000XM3 noise-cancelling headphones out of their own pocket. Two months on, do either of them regret spending just shy of £300 on a pair of headphones? Here, they give their long-term verdict on the headphones.
I can remember the moment I fell in love with the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones, writes Tim Danton. Sony had just announced their release in a keynote at IFA 2018, a tech trade show held in Berlin each September, and I elbowed my way to a listening stand.
With hundreds of journalists around me, the noise was both loud and constant. And then I placed the headphones over my ears. Instead of the noisy rabble, I could hear every note of the vocalist (I can’t remember who it was), and that was it. I was sold.
It was a similar love-at-first-listen moment for me, too, writes Barry Collins. I put them on while traipsing around the CES 2019 showfloor and was staggered by the noise cancelling – I genuinely looked around to make sure there was no repeat of the power cut that had hit the show the year before and instantly reduced a clattering din to silence. Then I realised the lights were still on. Dumb arse. So two months on, any regrets Tim?
Zero regrets. So far, they’ve kept me company for a 13-hour flight, many train journeys and I occasionally slip them on in the office too. They’re the most effective noise-cancelling headphones I’ve tried by a huge distance – I can now listen to podcasts on the London Underground and actually hear what people are saying!
They’re also far more comfortable to wear with my glasses than any other headphones I’ve tried. That’s in part due to the leatherette finish, but also due to the way they cushion themselves around the ears. There isn’t the harsh press of other headphones.
My only criticism is that I can’t stay connected to two devices at once over Bluetooth. But I feel sure you’ll come to that…
Yeah, that is super-annoying. To be clear, it’s not staying connected to two devices simultaneously we’re talking about here, but being able to switch between two different devices without effectively having to re-pair the headphones every time you change device. I can’t believe Sony overlooked something so simple.
So which of the voice assistants do you use with your headphones – Alexa or Google Assistant? And do you make much use of that facility at all?
I’ve set it up with Alexa, but this is one of those areas where virtual assistants can be overhyped. Whenever I do think of using it, I hear the weird, robotised semi-American accent saying: “Either your mobile device isn’t connected, or you need to open the Alexa app and try again.”
I’m almost of the view that the headphones would be better without a voice assistant. At least that would get rid of one of the buttons on the earpiece.
I’ve taken the opposite tack: I’ve gone for Google Assistant. I don’t make much use of it – having to press a button under an earcup to engage the assistant is awkward and I feel a pleb using it in public. However, it can be handy for ringing someone while I’m walking the dog or for playing a specific album without having to drag my phone out of my pocket.
One of the handiest voice assistant features I’ve found so far is the option to have your messages read to you. The headphones will tell you you’ve got a new text or WhatsApp message and you have to press the button to get the full message read to you. You can then dictate a reply. Again, that’s handy for quickly dealing with a message without fishing your phone out.
So, let’s lance a boil. It’s summer and you might be wearing your headphones on dog walks or a walk to the station. How hot and sweaty do you get in these things?
That isn’t a boil I need to lance, and thank you so much for that image. Sure, my ears get warm after a couple of hours, at which point I take a break from them. But these headphones are primarily for sedentary use, surely?
I have walked around London wearing them but never once felt hot and sweaty. I’m starting to wonder what you’re doing with yours…
Walking the dog, mainly. One of the things I love about these headphones is that I can listen to podcasts and not have a single word drowned out by passing traffic, because the noise cancelling is absolutely on point. (Pro tip: make sure you look about eight times before crossing any road, because you won’t hear cars coming.)
But… But… here in the muggy midsts of June, I do find the earcups get a bit sweaty if I’m walking with them on. The XM3s are about as light as they could possibly me, but that leatherette padding does get moist. Sorry I had to reach for that word.
When it comes to battery life, I find I’m getting pretty damned close to the promised 30 hours. I’ve charged them twice in the two months I’ve had them. How about you?
In all honesty I haven’t been tracking battery life. Because I’m mainly using my headphones for travel, I just need them to retain charge over a few weeks – and they do that perfectly. For example, I picked them up today after a three-week gap and they still had 70% charge. And, three weeks ago, I certainly didn’t bother recharging them before popping them back in their case.
Kudos to Sony for the case btw. It’s light but still includes enough protection for me to sling it into my rucksack without worrying, and includes slots for the bundled airplane adapter, the 3.5mm cable and USB-C charging cable. Tidy.
But you know what we haven’t talked about yet? Music playback. And that’s what I truly love about the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones. I’m listening to Lost On You by Lewis Capaldi right now (don’t judge), and it’s coming through so clearly that I can every timbre of the piano and his voice.
I know you only listen to Spandau Ballet’s Greatest Hits, but even so you must have noticed the quality here?
So, for Christ’s sake keep this to yourself, but earlier in the year I treated myself to a pair of Blue Lola headphones because they were on a ridiculously cheap offer at the Argos store on eBay. They are astonishingly good and I didn’t expect a wireless headset to match them.
And they don’t. There’s not a much in it, but the bass and drive from the Lola headphones can lift you out of your seat, while I find the XM3s more restrained. That said, because of the noise cancelling, I find myself hearing new things in tracks that I’ve listened to thousands of times, because everything else is airbrushed out and you can hear that faint ride cymbal or backing vocal for the first time. The Lolas are going on eBay soon, by the way.
Is there anything else we’ve forgotten to mention? What about the touch gestures on the right earcup? How do they work for you?
So so. Swiping up and down for volume works well, as does holding my hand over the cup to temporarily hear what’s going on (eg train announcements), but I find that pressing the centre to pause/play doesn’t always work as it’s tricky to hit them in exactly hit the right place. And I never bother to skip tracks by swiping right; it just doesn’t feel natural.
Have the touch controls become second nature to you, a daily wearer of the headphones?
No, I find them equally faffy. Swishing upwards to turn the volume up has a one in three hit rate for me, and I do worry that with continued use of the touch controls, the matte black finish of the cans will take on that worn, shiny appearance.
Talking of turning the volume up, by the way, one of the big advantages of these cans is that – because the noise cancelling is supreme – you don’t need ramp up the volume to drown out background noise. That’s got to be better for our chances of being able to hear one another in the old people’s home.
So, in conclusion, the noise cancelling is ace, the sound quality superb, the battery life is heroic, the voice assistants are so-so, the touch controls are too fiddly and the Bluetooth pairing is a pain in the posterior. Yet, despite the flaws, it seems were both smitten. Time for the scores on the doors.
Sony WH-1000XM3 long-term test scores:
Where to buy the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones
If you want the reassurance of a two-year warranty, buy the Sony WH-1000XM3 cans from John Lewis. It sells both versions for £279.
NOW READ THIS: What’s a safe volume level to use with headphones?