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For two decades, I’ve travelled with earphones. Wired or wireless, cheap or mid-range, if I’ve listened to music on a plane or in a hostel, that’s what I’ve used.
When my last pair broke in Borneo a couple of months ago, though, I decided to expand my horizons. I trawled forums and review sites for weeks, looking at models with passive and active noise-canceling, in- and over-ear, cheap and eye-wateringly expensive.
Eventually I settled on two options, both well-regarded, expensive headphones with active noise cancelation.
After annoying the salesman in an electronics store for half an hour, going backward and forward between the latest versions of high-end Bose and Sony models, I made my decision, plunked down my credit card, and walked out of the store clutching my new purchase.
Close to a month later, here’s my experience of how the Sony WH-1000XM2 headphones have fared in the real world.
Battery Life and Portability
What I Don’t Love
Specifications and Features
The Sony WH-1000XM2 builds on the success of the previous model, with only minor improvements. They’re a full-size set of premium headphones, with a feature set and a price tag to match.
In the box, you get the headphones (shocking, I know), a quality 3.5mm audio cable, travel case, airplane adapter, and charging cable.
One of the buttons on the left earpiece controls power and Bluetooth settings, while the other switches between noise-cancelation, “ambient” mode (which brings in outside sounds when you need to be aware of your environment,) or neither.
A recent update lets you use the latter button to activate Google Assistant instead, but since you can then only switch noise-canceling modes within the smartphone app, it doesn’t seem particularly useful unless you’re a super-fan of voice-activated devices.
The outside of the right earpiece is touch sensitive, letting you play/pause music, answer calls, change volume, and skip tracks with a swipe or double-tap.
The headphones have a few features I haven’t seen elsewhere. The one I’ve used most is “Quick Attention,” where covering the right earpiece with my hand drops the music volume and amplifies external sound. It’s ideal for when somebody wants to talk to me, or I need to hear whatever’s going on around me, without having to fumble around taking my headphones off.
Sony says atmospheric pressure has an impact on frequency response and noise cancelation, and there’s a pressure sensor built into the headphones to help deal with that. Hit the calibration button at 35,000 feet, and you’ll apparently get a better experience. I’ve got a flight next month, so will be interested to see if it makes any difference.
There’s also an accompanying smartphone app that lets you do things like turn off high-definition streaming to save battery life, or monitor your environment to determine if (eg) you’re running or in a vehicle, and change the noise-cancelation settings to match.
The headphones are available in black and gold. The latter is a minor improvement over the beige of the previous model, but still, it wasn’t hard for me to decide which colour to get.
In the three weeks I’ve owned these things, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to test out how well the noise cancelation works. In a word, it’s fantastic — it’s hard to emphasise enough what a difference it’s made to my listening, travel, and working experience.
I’ve taken several bus and train rides with the headphones, including a multi-hour coach ride from London, and the incessant rattles and squeaks, engine noise, station announcements, and loud conversations disappeared almost entirely as soon as I hit the power button.
The room I’ve been staying in for the last week is close to a hospital and right on a busy road, with no sound insulation. Cars, ambulances, garbage trucks, and passers-by compete to keep me awake all night, and until I found a store to sell me earplugs, the headphones were the only hope I had of getting any rest.
They did a remarkable job of getting rid of the noise, to the point where I could barely hear anything even without music playing. Of course, wearing big headphones to bed isn’t a desirable or comfortable option, but since the alternative was no sleep whatsoever, they worked very well in a pinch.
I’ve also been using the headphones most days in cafes and co-working spaces, and when the background din has got too much, I’ve been able to retreat into a quiet, focused world of my own at the touch of a button.
Noise cancelation works best on consistent, repetitive sounds like engine noise, even without anything playing. With music at a low volume, almost every other sound disappears as well.
Every time I’ve tried headphones like these in the past, I’ve been struck by an odd sensation of being underwater when the noise cancelation kicks in. That was true for the first day or two with the Sonys as well, but I got used to it quickly, and now no longer notice it at all.
As soon as I unpacked my headphones, I found a recommended playlist for testing sound quality, fired up Spotify, and settled in for an extended listening session. That lasted about two minutes, since I had to then jump up and get everyone else in the house to listen for themselves.
Comparing them to any earphones I’ve owned before isn’t really fair, since they’re at least three times the price, and over-ear headphones should always sound better than in-ear versions unless they’re absolute garbage. Still, I’m going to say it: the sound quality is incredible.
I must have listened to the guitar solo in Hotel California hundreds of times in the past, yet there were suddenly several nuances I’d never heard before. The orchestra from the Gladiator soundtrack crashed and reverberated around inside my head, and I lost a good chunk of my evening completely immersed in Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
I’m not an audiophile, so I’m not going to go into great depth about the intricacies of the high-end frequencies or subtleties of the dynamic range. All I can really say is that I couldn’t find a song that didn’t sound dramatically better on the WH-1000XM2 than any headphones I’ve used before, and I’m listening to more music than I have in years as a result.
I’ve had less than great experiences with the range and reliability of Bluetooth earphones in the past. Music would regularly break up or cut out, even with my phone in my pocket or sitting just a few feet away.
Thankfully, that’s not the case with these ones. They literally haven’t missed a beat since I started using them, even when I walked away from my phone upstairs to the other end of the house to test them out.
To my ears, at least, there’s no discernable difference in sound between the Bluetooth and wired connections. That’s probably helped by the aptX support on my Pixel 2, one of the few phones with this higher-quality streaming music standard, but even so, it’s surprising.
I expected to use the audio cable when sitting at my laptop, for better sound and longer battery life. So far, other than when testing it for this review, it’s remained in my backpack.
Battery Life and Portability
Sony rates the battery life of the WH-1000XM2 at 20 hours of normal Bluetooth use, around 30 hours if you turn off high-definition streaming, and nearly 40 hours when using a cable.
Unusually for published battery specs, that seems pretty accurate in my testing. I’ve gone a week without needing to charge, even when using the headphones a few hours each day. Charging from flat took around four hours with a standard micro-USB cable, and a quick ten-minute charge gives around an hour of listening time.
In unsurprising news, over-ear headphones are less portable than in-ear versions. Traveling as much as I do, the size always seemed like it’d be a hassle, and that’s the main reason I’d never bought them in the past.
So far, those concerns have only been partially borne out, since I’ve usually got a small backpack with me whenever I’m on the move. The bundled travel case is actually a little smaller than I’d expected, so there’s no problem fitting it in my bag.
When I head out without my backpack, however, dealing with the headphones can be frustrating when I’m not wearing them. They’re not comfortable draped around my neck for long periods, and holding them in my hand isn’t any better. I just find myself awkwardly swapping between the two every few minutes instead.
The upshot? If I’m taking my headphones somewhere with me, I need to take a bag to put them in as well.
One of the reasons I decided to buy over-ear headphones was because I’ve never been able to find in-ear versions that stay comfortable for long. Regardless of the size or type of earbuds, my ear canals would become painful after two or three hours. Given I’d often want to wear them for much longer than that while working or on long journeys, it was a bit of an issue.
I have no such problems with these headphones, wearing them for 4-6 hours without any pain. The cans are just large enough to fully envelop my ears, and the soft padding doesn’t rub or put pressure anywhere it shouldn’t. They’re super-comfortable, in a way I suspect in-ear models could never be.
The padded headband is fairly adjustable, which I was happy about. There’s a relatively small “sweet spot” where the band isn’t so tight that it pushes down on the top of my head, yet not so loose that the headphones slip off my ears. I’ve figured out where that sweet spot is now, but it took a day or two of fiddling to get it right.
I was a little concerned about my ears getting too hot after a while, but that mostly hasn’t proven to be a problem, even with the balmy spring weather we’ve been having in the UK lately. The only time I noticed it was on a half-hour walk in direct sunshine — by the time I got to my destination, my ears were definitely starting to sweat.
As mentioned earlier, the headphones aren’t ideal for sleeping unless I’m happy to lie on my back and not move all night. I did snooze for an hour on my bus ride, but even then, it took a while to find a comfortable position where I wasn’t knocking an earpiece into the headrest.
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What I Don’t Love
Presumably in an attempt to save battery life, the headphones will power themselves off after five minutes if they’re not connected to Bluetooth, with a spoken announcement to let you know.
Most of the time that’s fine, but I was less than thrilled about it in the early hours of the morning while trying to block out those trucks rumbling past outside my window. Tracking down my phone and fiddling around with the Bluetooth settings didn’t do much to endear me to my girlfriend. Not that she was getting much sleep either, mind you.
The touch controls work well enough, but they’re sensitive, and take some getting used to. Even now, I often find myself skipping forward when I want to hit pause, or changing the volume when I’m adjusting the headpiece position.
As mentioned before, the headphones also made my ears uncomfortably warm after walking for a while in the sun. You’d be better off with sweat-proof earphones if you’re planning a lot of use in hot, sunny conditions, or wearing them while working out.
In case it’s not clear from the preceding 1500+ words, I’m extremely happy with my purchase. The sound quality is even better than I’d hoped, and the noise cancelation has made traveling more enjoyable, work sessions more productive, and crappy accommodation more bearable.
Battery life and Bluetooth connectivity is excellent, the headphones are comfortable enough to use all day, and the extra features veer more towards being useful additions than pointless extras.
Of course, very little is perfect in this world, and these are no exception. If you’re traveling super-light and every inch counts, you may not be able to justify the space in your luggage. Carrying a bag to store them in while walking around is undoubtedly less convenient than stuffing earphones in your back pocket, too.
The sensitivity of those touch controls could do with a little tweaking, and that automatic timeout for noise cancelation really needs to be optional. Finally, of course, there’s the price: these are expensive headphones. I didn’t love the hole they left in my bank account, and I’m a bit worried about loss, breakage, or theft on the road.
Still, if those are the only problems I can come up with, there’s not much to complain about. If you can afford the price and are looking for top of the range headphones that noticeably improve your life, the Sony WH-1000XM2 should be right up the top of your list. Highly recommended.
Main image and man in cafe image via Sony