Sony WH-1000XM3 2020 review – Buy now or wait for XM4?

wh-1000xm3
wh-1000xm3
Specification
Type
Over Ear circumaural
Driver
40mm Dynamic
Frequency Response
4Hz - 40kHz
NFC
Yes
Bluetooth Version
4.2
Codec Support
SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD, LDAC
Battery life
Max. 30 hours(NC ON), Max. 38 hours(NC OFF)
Noise Cancelling
Yes
Links

As a long time lurker on Reddit one question I have seen pop up many times in the past year is “Should I get the Sony WH-1000XM3 now or wait for the 1000XM4?”. Sony’s WH-1000XM3 is their current top of the line Bluetooth wireless active noise cancelling headphone which launched in August 2018 for $350 and today is still the TOTL but is often found selling for less than 250. Many people were expecting the 1000XM4 to launch at the end of 2019 but this never appeared. Then again at CES 2020 there was still no sign of the 1000XM4. This has lead to many questions asking when the XM4 will be out and if it’s still worth getting the XM3. So let’s take a look at the XM3, what are its strengths and shortfalls and is the XM4 likely to improve on any of these points?

Comfort

If you are familiar with my reviews you should have noticed by now that I value comfort and build quite highly, it doesn’t matter how good a headphone sounds if you cannot tolerate wearing it for any length of time. Obviously, comfort is a rather subjective thing however I can honestly say I think the Sony WH-1000XM3 has some excellent comfort features and I find this to be extremely comfortable even during extended listening sessions. I can confidently say I could wear these all day and not have any issues.

The headband has a pleather coating and is deeply padded with a soft and plush padding. The weight of the headphone itself is just 255g which especially considering this is a wireless headphone that contains a battery is really excellent.

The earpads are nice and large in circumference so there is plenty of room for your ears, the padding is not especially deep however the lining of the driver has a nice soft foam. The earpads themselves are memory foam and conform to your head quite nicely. The earcups have a good range of lateral and vertical movement to help the headphone conform to your head. And clamping force is strong enough that they stay put nicely but light enough not to cause any discomfort.

As a stickler for headphone comfort, I can honestly say these get top marks from me.

Portability

Second only to comfort perhaps the most important feature of any portable headphone is y’know, portability. Again the Sony WH-1000XM3 excels here too. As previously mentioned, the weight is a rather light 255g so these are not going to weigh your bag down at all. They are able to fold up in a couple of different ways, up into the headband and with the earcups flat. They come with a hardshell carrying case which gives ample protection for the headphones themselves. Including a stuff pocket on the outside for storing accessories such as the included charging cable. The case itself is quite compact and doesn’t take up too much room in your bag.

Active Noise cancellation

It should come as no surprise that the active noise cancellation in Sony’s flagship ANC headphone is top-notch. But first, let’s talk about what ANC is for. ANC does not cut out all noise, especially high frequencies, there are no ANC headphones that are able to do this. However, where ANC excels is in cutting out low-frequency drones such as aeroplane noise, traffic noise, aircon noise etc. Now I’ve not tested the ANC versus the Bose QC 35 II however from what I’ve read these perform at least as good as those if not better (especially considering Bose firmware updates). But I have tested them back to back with the admittedly cheaper Sennheiser HD4.50BTNC and the Sony WH-H900n (Hear.on 2) and this is the best noise-cancelling of the lot.

I find these do a fantastic job of completely cutting out the noise of the office aircon. They won’t completely cut out the office chatter but no headphone will do this however, they certainly do a better job than any other headphone I’ve ever tried.

To give an example of the expected performance of the ANC on these, I sometimes wear them whilst doing the household chores. We have a combo boiler here that provides instant hot water. When the hot tap is running whilst I’m doing the dishes I will hear the higher frequency noise of the water splashing but the noise of the boiler itself is almost completely cut out. And this is not a quiet boiler, standing in front of the boiler and then taking the headphones off it is really striking just how much noise the Sony WH-1000XM3 is able to cut out.

I also live on a busy street, the traffic noise can get a bit much at times especially when I have the window open. With the ANC on with these, I cannot hear the traffic at all.

I’m quite sensitive to noise when I’m working and I’ve been working in an open-plan office. I have found the ANC in these to be a lifesaver. I have often sat at my desk wearing the Sony WH-1000XM3 with ANC enabled and no music playing to help me concentrate. In fact, I’m doing that right now as I write this review.

Noise cancelling is a feature you either think is just ‘nice to have’, or it’s a feature that you think is necessary. If you think it’s just a ‘nice to have’ feature then you might not need to spend quite so much on a noise-cancelling headphone and can prioritise other features. However, if you must have noise cancelling, then the Sony WH-1000XM3 is truly fantastic, even now in 2020 it is still right up there at the top. Could the 1000XM4 have a significant jump in terms of noise-cancelling performance? Possibly, but it’s also likely that any gains if any will be small but we will have to wait and see.

Features

The Sony WH-1000XM3 is loaded full of all of the latest features. This is quite telling that now a couple of years after release the 1000XM3 still has all of the features one should expect from an ANC headphone in 2020. There’s USB-C charging, the 30-hour battery life, the codec support, control set and software support. When the 1000XM3 was released it was class-leading and today in 2020 whilst other manufacturers have been playing catch up, that still remains true. Let’s go over some of these features:

The codec support is complete and includes: SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD, LDAC

The inclusion here of AAC and both aptX and aptX HD, as well as LDAC, means these are able to use the best codecs currently available.

The Bluetooth version 4.2 is a little behind the curve in 2020. A few more obvious benefits could be better battery life, not that 30+ hours isn’t good enough already, more connectivity options for multi-device pairing and perhaps a reduction in latency for when watching video. How much these features mean to you could be the deciding factor. Whilst battery life is pretty excellent at 30 hours with NC on, the 1000XM3 is only able to be paired to a single device at a time. Multi-device pairing is something I expect to be included in the 1000XM4 although we will have to wait and see if this is included.

The Sony WH-1000XM3 is able to use NFC for quick and painless pairing to your mobile device. Simply tapping your NFC compatible device to the side of the 1000XM3 initiates the Bluetooth pairing process so that you don’t have to do this manually. This is a pretty convenient feature and does go some way to compensating for lacking multi-device support.

The 1000XM3 has a mix of physical and touch controls to operate the various features. There is a dedicated button for cycling the noise-cancelling mode. This button can be remapped in the app to voice assistant control. Most of the remaining controls are operated using the touchpad on the right-hand ear cup.

This touchpad features gesture controls to operate volume, next track, previous track, answering and ending calls. There is also the quick attention feature which is enabled by covering the entire touchpad with your hand and actives ambient mode to allow you a quick way to hear whats going on around you.

I should note that some users have complained that the touchpad is quite sensitive to moisture. That is to say that moisture on the touchpad can cause erroneous touch input. This shouldn’t be a big issue as the 1000XM3 is not a headphone designed for waterproof use and I would hesitate to use these in the rain. However, some users have said that in very cold conditions where condensation could form on the touchpad this can cause an issue. I personally have no problem with this as I never walk around outdoors wearing full-sized headphones and if I did I wouldn’t wear them in adverse weather conditions. However, if you do live in a cold climate and do wear headphones outdoors a lot this might be something to consider.

The 1000XM3 has multiple levels of noise cancelling and ambient sound modes that allow you to hear the outside world or adjust the mix between noise-cancelling and ambient. For example, you could set the headphone to have noise cancelling on but allow vocal frequencies through so you can still be aware of when people are trying to talk to you. Or you can completely disable noise cancelling and have ambient sound completely on and this pipes outside noise directly into the headphone via the external mics which allow you to be completely aware of your surroundings.

All of these features and more can be accessed via the app for your mobile device. This app also provides an adaptive sound control mode that automatically adjusts the level of ambient sound or noise-cancelling depending on your current activity. For example, if it detects that you are walking it will turn up the ambient sound for you so that you can be more aware of your surroundings.

Also in the app are ways to update the firmware, tweak EQ, configure voice assistant control and more.

As touched on previously the Sony WH-1000XM3 has a 30-hour battery life when using noise-cancelling however this increases to 38 hours when noise cancelling is disabled. This is excellent and as I found I was using my headphones a few hours a day at work this would get me through the whole week without needing to recharge. Recharging is done via a USB-C charging cable and takes just 3 hours.

If you do run out of battery you also have the option to use the headphones in wired mode using the included 1.2m cable. The 1000XM3 has a 16-ohm impedance / 101 dB SPL when operating in passive (powered off) wired mode. It is also possible to use the headphones in active mode whilst using a wired connection and this bumps up the impedance to 47 ohms and 104.5 dB SPL. So these are pretty sensitive headphones and should be easy to drive off of pretty much any device which is to be expected as they have to be driven by the inbuilt amp.

All in all, the feature set is really quite fantastic. What improvements Sony can bring for the 1000XM4 may be small refinements we will have to wait and see, but its clear that the 1000XM3 is not lacking in the feature department.

Price

The Sony WH-1000XM3 launched at $350/£330. As of right now as I write this review Amazon has the WH-1000XM3 for £240 in the UK and $255 US and are routinely going for sub 250 prices. We can expect the 1000XM4 to cost at least $350 when they launch, will they be worth the extra $100+?

Sound

The sound quality of the 1000XM3 is pretty good although audiophiles will most likely not be satisfied. So let me set your expectations. There are refined and musical headphones, there are aggressive and analytical headphones, there are exciting and v-shaped headphones and then there are headphones like the 1000XM3 which are relaxed and casual headphones. This is a headphone with a particular focus on portability, wireless convenience and active noise cancellation. It is a given that anyone buying such a headphone is looking at features first sound quality second. Of course, it would be ideal if there existed the perfect headphone that not only contained this feature set but also audiophile-grade sound quality but we are not there yet. Perhaps this key area will see the largest improvement in the 1000XM4 but that remains to be seen. However, the Sony WH-1000XM3 does sound pretty decent for a casual headphone. It has a rather relaxed and enjoyable “fun” sound signature that whilst not audiophile-grade levels of detailed or neutral I have to ask, does that matter?

If I’m using a portable headphone for the purposes of enjoying some music on the go and blocking out external noise whilst trying to concentrate on my work, do I care that the headphone I’m wearing is not super detailed? The answer is of course no. In fact, if this were a super detailed headphone I’d most likely be distracted by the music instead of working. If I’m busy getting to and from work on the train and taking full advantage of the various noise cancelling and ambient modes, do I really care that the bassline in whatever track was a little muddy? No, not at all.

Timbre is ok, nothing stands out as wrong. Imaging is ok and soundstage seems to vary depending on the noise-cancelling or ambient mode currently being used. The soundstage is actually pretty good at times, they definitely don’t sound as cramped as an M50x for example but don’t expect it to sound wide open.

So what do they sound like then? In a word, ‘bassy’. This isn’t specifically a bass focused headphone, that accolade goes to Sony’s XB range of headphones where the XB literally means eXtra Bass. However, these are about as bassy as a headphone should be that is not aimed specifically at bass-heads. The problem is that it is a little bloated and rubbery and boomy in places. Basslines are big but not particularly defined. There is a significant warmth filling the entire low end and particularly for rock, blues and jazz-based genres, this is quite overpowering. You’re basically looking at a 5dB low shelf from 200Hz with a good extension all the way down into the sub-bass. Having said that for bass focused genres such as EDM and Hip-Hop these are where the XM3 really come into their own and are really quite enjoyable with a nice full and large sound. They don’t quite have that slam that makes EDM genres super exciting but this does suit a more casual style.

The midrange has seemingly gone awol. Although it doesn’t actually sound recessed it’s just been swallowed up by the low end. Vocals sound not forward or recessed but fighting for room in the mix. Unfortunately, the low end has made pretty much everything below around 1kHz a little muddy and indistinct.

Treble is interesting, its quite smooth and not too peaky or grainy sounding. However, it is quite recessed in the low-mid treble between around 2kHz and 8kHz by as much as 5dB in places. The result of this is that the overall sound signature is really quite dark. There’s a little bit of sparkle between 8kHz and 10kHz but after this, the treble just seems to roll off a cliff.

Ok ok so that’s bad right? Well yes, but also no.

As much as this is lacking quite somewhat in technicality, detail, dynamics and is quite bass overboosted and bloated, reset your expectations to what this headphone is. It’s a casual, portable, wireless headphone with a fantastic feature set with a focus on noise cancelling. This is a relaxed warm-bassy tilt with no harshness in the treble, a rather mainstream sound signature which could be argued is actually perfect for the casual use for which this headphone is intended. You could listen to pretty much anything on these, even the most energetic music and they would make it sound soft and relaxing. Just the ticket when trying to get some rest on a long flight for example.

So like I said previously, this is not a sound signature that is going to satisfy an audiophile. Would I prefer a more neutral, or at least less of that 5 dB bass shelf signature with some actual detail? Yes of course, but I think for the intended use case of these headphones, the shortcomings of this sound signature are entirely forgivable and the intended mainstream audience will no doubt enjoy the bassy and relaxing sound.

1000XM4

Ok so do I buy the Sony WH-1000XM3 now or wait for the 1000XM4? Well, this is the age-old question in the world of technology, upgrade now or wait. There is never a one size fits all correct answer.

The chances are that the 1000XM4 will be an incremental upgrade on the 1000XM3. Perhaps seeing an upgrade to Bluetooth 5.0, maybe with an in improvement to the ANC and perhaps the control scheme if at all and maybe with a tweak to the sound signature. However, it would not surprise me if the sound signature isn’t much different from the 1000XM3 with a more casual and mainstream vibe rather than an audiophile focused sound. You would need to decide which of these features are worth actually waiting for.

Then there is the price, currently at sub $/£250, to my mind, the 1000XM4 which is likely going to launch for at least $350, is going to have to offer a significant upgrade on the XM3 to be worth that extra $100. Even when the XM4 does launch, the XM3 doesn’t suddenly stop being a good package.

To my mind, the XM3 is already an excellent ANC package at a good price, it is quite likely that the XM4 will be only slightly better but at a $100 more, I have to wonder if it would be worth it. But to me, the biggest threat to the XM3 is not actually from the XM4 but from Sony’s other older ANC headphone the WH-H900n aka the h.ear on 2. This is a fantastic headphone with many of the same features as the XM3 and a slightly less bloated sound signature that can be found for less than $150. And also if you’re just after a super portable audio solution then you’ll get much better value from IEM’s. A similar but less bass-bloated sound signature the Blon BL-03 IEM can be had for less than $30 and the Tin T4 has a much more neutral sound signature for around $100 and many other options.

But I think if you are after a feature-packed wireless headphone with top of the line noise cancelling and a relaxed casual sound signature then the Sony WH-1000XM3 is still definitely worth a look, even now in 2020.

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