“Are those the XM3s?” My seat mate lights up despite the dreary 1-hour delay on the tarmac without air conditioning in the sweltering Singaporean evening as my Lufthansa flight addresses an air system fault.
I had the chance to take along the Sony WH-1000XM3 noise cancelling headphones on my last trip to Spain, and with about 15 hours in the air, it had quite the journey ahead. But at the end of it, I stood convinced that the headphones were the perfect option for frequent fliers who can afford it. Its drawbacks are few, but essentially define the product category and target audience neatly for the brand.
This might be the easiest review I’ve done, ever. The WH-1000XM3 has the best noise cancellation in its class, bar none. I had to endure a screaming child seated, no, jumping behind me for the 12 hour-long leg of the journey. Yes, I was nothing short of seething with mirth, but also brimming with pleasant satisfaction that the XM3s sucked out the bundle of chaos wrestling with my backrest. That alone almost justifies the SGD 549 price tag on this bad boy, although you might be able to find it for cheaper on discount.
There’s little to gripe about the sound quality – no surprise, given Sony’s pedigree in high-end audio. For a headphone that can retail for more than S$500 without discount, it had better. The Sony WH-1000XM3 is best described as full-bodied and great for easy listening. For more picky, self-described audiophiles, the headphones deliver LDAC at 660kbps that provides a powerful connection at minimal cost to sound quality.
There were numerous other plus points: the cans were probably the most comfortable noise cancelling headphones I’ve tried. I kept my headphones on continuously for about 10 hours, and the plastic construction helped it remain light enough to not exert any pressure on your crown, nor require a stronger clamping force on the ears to stay affixed to one’s head.
The headphones comes in a luxurious hard carrying case, although I would have preferred if they had included a neoprene or even a simple fabric sleeve for a more compact travelling experience. I pack really light on my travels, and having to decide between throwing the cans in my carry-on a la mode or squeeze in the slightly bulky hard carrying case can be a tough choice. Within we find the requisite adapters and cables for charging and wired use on your devices or on a plane with the two-pronged adapter.
But such a steep price point warrants deeper scrutiny, and the Sony WH-1000XM3 does have three main drawbacks.
Firstly, ANC system, as powerful a performer as it is, is not entirely faultless. As with most ANC headphones, airflows over the microphone openings from drafts of air and from environmental wind can induce a light roaring sound. There’s little that can be done to completely eliminate this. When you blow, the airflow from your mouth produces almost no sound, but blowing into a microphone induces a distinctive sound.
Noise cancellation systems basically reproduce the input from the microphones in real time, but in an inverse sound wave to cancel out the actual sound. But the “actual” sound is a silent draft of air, and all you’re left with is its inverse. In any case, a minute tilt of my head away from the source of airflow would be sufficient.
The next issue is a rattling noise that is created in specific situations. I’ve only noticed this when on vehicles that vibrate violently. Think an old bus, or on a taxiing plane. Sometimes, a thumping noise can be induced whilst walking. Given these drawbacks, it would be wise to dedicate the XM3 for long trips by plane or train. I would still consider the headphones suitable for regular day-to-day intercity commutes, but they aren’t ideal.
Finally, the Sony WH-1000XM3 can only be paired to a maximum of … one device. This means that when I reach my office with my headphones on and paired to my phone, I am unable to reconnect it to my laptop, tablet or desktop without first unpairing it from my phone. That’s a huge detriment to an otherwise perfect pair of wireless, noise cancelling headphones.
Because of this flaw, the headphones are really best suited to long-haul travelling by plane or train. There’s really no issue with using them on your daily commute – I did, but it’s nigh on impossible to own them as your sole daily driver. I found myself swapping them out for my AirPods generation 2 when reaching work or home. They pair instantly, and can reconnect to my other Apple devices in a matter of seconds. Most importantly, they don’t seem as antisocial than a huge, visible pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
There’s a bunch of other negatives, but in all fairness, no other competitor has done it well. Wired performance is still lacking; I wouldn’t faff about with the different noise cancelling settings – they work and sound the best with it cranked all the way up.
At a recommended retail price of SGD 549, the Sony WH-1000XM3 represents the pinnacle of the wireless noise cancelling world. Though available for slightly less on discount, the headphones are worth exactly what you pay for. Where it shines in terms of noise cancellation, sound quality, comfort, design and luxury, frequent fliers, travellers who demand nothing but the best can appreciate the finer points of this device.
However, no gadget is without its drawbacks. The WH-1000XM3 has a few, but they can be significant ones. Small issues with the noise cancellation system might prove more irksome to some individuals over others, but the limitation in terms of Bluetooth pairing is patently the biggest drawback. In my opinion, this eliminates it from Daily Driver status for most individuals who utilise multiple devices.