Tech Review: Sony WH-1000XM2 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones: The real deal

I can be prickly when reviewing headphones. I try not to be, but as the son of a musician I was raised in a home where good quality sound was considered very important and its an expectation I’ve never been able to shake in adulthood. I expect a lot from my headphones, even the cheap ones. I don’t like being mean to headphones that don’t measure up to my lofty personal standards, but it means that when I encounter a pair that does, I get to lavish them with praise. Thus, this review will be about me lavishing praise upon Sony’s WH-1000XM2 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones.

The WH-1000XM2’s are the sort of headphones you see a lot of in business class lounges at airports, and not just because they’re a $500 pair of cans (its no co-incidence that the bulk of Sony’s key art for the WH-1000XM2’s features people dressed in suits on planes).  They’ve got a lovely shape and the two colours they come in — black and beige — are stylish but quite understated. They don’t want to be pulling the eye away from their user’s no doubt fashionable attire, they just want to be a part of it.

The material and padding used around the ear cups and headband is remarkably soft and doesn’t hurt the ears after long use. The build is lightweight, meaning you can keep them on for hours and while the cans themselves jut out from head a little, the overall sculpt is very nice and plays into corporate casual vibe Sony seems to be reaching for. So they look great and they feel good while you’ve got them on. Looks typically don’t feature heavily in my headphone reviews because, honestly, does it matter what they look like? (Editor’s note: Tomorrow’s review of Sony’s 1000X in-ear wireless noise cancelling headphones will put this position to the test so keep an eye out for that.)

There’s two things that really matter in a headset like this, and the first is how they sound. Here is where WH-1000XM2’s excels. The noise cancellation takes effect from the jump, and you can feel the WH-1000XM2’s clamp down on your ears. The sensation at first of a sense of a vacuum being created — your ears seem to be pulled into the cans themselves as they close the seal around your ears and cast out external sound. It holds up. The moment cancellation takes over, you find yourself in near sensory deprivation. There’s still certain noise that can make it in — the snapping of fingers at arm’s length for instance — but the moment you press play, it really is just you and the music. Even the endless clamour of construction around our Melbourne office couldn’t penetrate the WH-1000XM2’s when they were in motion. If noise cancellation isn’t what you need, you can wind them back to let in ambient sound or turn the noise cancellation off entirely. For home use or use while in transit, I can’t think of a reason you wouldn’t want noise cancellation to remove the howl of the plane or bus engine. If you’re using them on the walk to the train station however, maybe switch the noise cancellation off.

The second thing that matters in a headset like this is battery life, and this is another area where the WH-1000XM2’s excel. In a two week review period that saw me using these headphones for several hours every day, I only had to recharge them once. That’s extremely impressive given their sound quality, volume and overall distance of their Bluetooth tether (I was able to leave my phone in the bedroom and walk around my entire apartment without interruption or stutter). For those who don’t want to run out of juice on a long-haul flight, this will be reason enough to keep the WH-1000XM2 in mind.

You can also hold your hands over the outside of the cans to turn the volume down enough to hear someone speaking to you too, which is nice. It means you don’t have to take the headset off, you just take your hands away and volume returns to normal. The downside to this was I found the cover-sensitive outsides of the cans a bit touchy — if I rested my head on something or brushed one hand past them, sometimes that would be all it would take to trigger the volume-down feature. For the most part its fine, but just know that it can be tripped up quite easily. I’ve been wearing them at my desk while writing this review and on three separate occasions I’ve rested my right fist on them as I thought about what I was going to write, and that also set them off.

Despite the degree to which they keep external noise out, there is a certain amount of audio bleed. If you’re blasting high energy Kpop on the bus, chances are everyone around you is getting some of it. Volume-wise, however, the WH-1000XM2’s are balanced well enough that you may not need to crank them all the way up unless sat in the window seat above the wing or something.

The WH-1000XM2’s sound every inch like the kind of quality you expect from headphones in their price point. Everything is well balanced from highs to lows and you are able to hear to the back of the mix, picking out individual instruments without issue. Despite the isolation from outside sound, the bass never overpowers the listener, never thunders with enough to force to rattle the cans themselves. These are polite headphones, they have manners. I threw a lot of different genres and songs at these headphones and they put up an impressive performance each time, showing off a versatility that speaks to the quality of their internal mixing.

These are remarkably solid headphones for their price range — comfortable, easy on the eyes (not that that matters) and they sound great to boot. It’s rare that I find myself sad to send a review kit back to the manufacturer, but I really will be in this case.

Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: Great sound; Great look; So light!
Lowlights: Volume Down sensors on the sides can be a mite touchy
Manufacturer: Sony
Price: $499
Available: Now

Review conducted using a retail kit on loan from the manufacturer.