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The Best Travel Headphones
I spend more time on airplanes than I do in cars, and I’d find my time in airplanes almost intolerable without effective means of attenuating the racket of flight. When you’re in a vessel hurtling nearly 600 mph through the air, accompanied by all the forces necessary to propel it -- not to mention the hundreds of people within it and the noises they make -- it’s a cacophony I can barely stand for minutes, let alone 13 hours. Active noise canceling (ANC) headphones are more effective than even the tightest sealing passive in-ears, especially where long-wavelength low-frequency noise is concerned (which even the best-isolating ear-plugging passive earphones can’t stop).
For me, active noise canceling headphones rank just below my passport and clean underwear in terms of packing priority. Here are the best ANC headphones I’ve used:
In terms of canceling noise, the WH-1000XM2 sets a new standard. On several long flights totaling over 100,000 miles, I’ve done head-to-head comparisons between the WH-1000XM2’s predecessor (the Sony MDR-1000X) and the Bose QuietComfort 20, Bose QuietComfort 25, QuietControl 30, and Bose QuietComfort 35, and it's clear to my ears that the Sony cuts down more airplane noise than Bose’s latest and best. I also compared the MDR-1000X and the QC35 in city environments, while walking and train-riding around downtown and, and, again, the Sony also did a better job of keeping bustling city and train noises out. The MDR-1000X also seemed to me to have broader noise attenuation than other ANC headphones, more effective at muting voices and higher frequencies than I'm used to. Again, the MDR-1000X was last year’s model, and the WH-1000XM2 offers incremental improvements that put even more distance between Sony and every other ANC headphone I’ve tried.
To help accomplish its unrivaled level of noise-canceling, Sony uses custom audio signal processing and analyzing technologies they’ve coined "SENSE ENGINE." Part of the WH-1000XM2's SENSE ENGINE implementation is something that Sony calls the “Noise Canceling Optimizer” which plays a set of tones that help SENSE ENGINE analyze the user’s physical characteristics and wearing style -- including hairstyle, whether glasses are being worn or not (which affects the seal) -- and adjusts its noise-canceling accordingly to maximize performance. A new feature that Sony added to the SENSE ENGINE with this latest model is “Atmospheric Pressure Optimizing” which is intended to deliver optimal sound at high altitude -- a feature I can't recall seeing on any other headphone (except Sony's new WI-1000X, also in this Guide).
Prior to the Sony MDR-1000X (again, the WH-1000XM2's predecessor), I'd occasionally sacrifice some noise-canceling ability for better musicality by sometimes choosing Sennheiser's MOMENTUM Wireless over Bose's headphones. With the WH-1000XM2, choosing between noise-canceling over-ear headphones is no longer necessary, as I find the WH-1000XM2 one of the best sounding Bluetooth headphones I've yet heard. The WH-1000XM2's bass is meaty and controlled, and then nicely balanced from the midband through the highs. It’s a tonal balance that plays well with both music and movies, and can be customized by the user (which I’ll cover in just a minute). If you use one of its higher-bitrate wireless options (LDAC or apt-X HD, covered below), the WH-1000XM2 resolves more detail to my ears than any other Bluetooth headphones we have here, except the Audio-Technica ATH-DSR9BT and beyerdynamic Xelento Wireless (both of which are non-ANC models). Also, even though it's obviously a closed-back headphone with good passive and active isolation, its digital signal processing seems to add some spaciousness beyond what I'd expect from a headphone that can so effectively shut-out the outside world. The WH-1000XM2 is a headphone I enjoy listening to not just for a wireless headphone, but for general listening in its active mode, wired or wireless. In its wired passive mode, the tonal balance and imaging take a noticeable hit -- it's enough to get you by when you run the battery down, but that's the only time I'd recommend using it in this mode. It's rather obvious the WH-1000XM2 was really made to be used with its electronics on (which you can also use in wired mode).
While we're on the subject of battery life, one of the improvements Sony made to the WH-1000XM2 is extending battery life to a maximum of 30 hours with ANC on (compared to 20 hours with ANC on with the MDR-1000X) and up to 38 hours with ANC off (compared to 22 hours). In other words, they took already-outstanding battery life and made it even better! They also added an emergency charge mode that will give you 70 minutes of play time with just 10 minutes of charging. In terms of battery life for this class of headphone, then, Sony sets a new standard. It'll get me around the world without worrying about charging, and that's a big deal for a travel headphone.
For wireless, the predecessor MDR-1000X was quite complete, supporting both aptX and AAC, and also Sony's wireless technology called LDAC with around three times the data throughput of standard Bluetooth. In exciting news earlier this year, it was announced that LDAC (previously only available on Sony's Walkman models and Xperia phones) would be available as part of Android 8.0 Oreo! In addition to all of that, the WH-1000XM2 adds aptX-HD to the list! To the best of my knowledge, then, Sony is the only company offering headphones that support both LDAC and aptX-HD. So if you have a current Walkman model or Xperia phone (and soon some Android phones), you can experience the highest bitrate Bluetooth currently available with LDAC. With Astell&Kern's current line of digital players and several later-model Android phones (and also now Sony's latest Walkman and Xperia models) aptX-HD is on tap.
The Sony WH-1000XM2 is also equipped with extremely useful situationally adjustable noise-canceling. Of course, there's the full-on, Personal-NC-Optimized noise-canceling that provides the most noise cancellation, but there are a few other modes. The first (and often the most handy) mode is called "Quick Attention" which is enabled by touching three fingers to the capacitive touch surface on the right earpiece. Activating Quick Attention mode quickly turns the music (or movie sound) way down and concurrently activates the outside microphones to feed ambient sounds into the headphone -- again, very helpful.
For this latest wave of wireless ANC headphones (three models, the other two being the WI-1000X and the WF-1000X), Sony created a mobile app (called "Sony Headphones Connect APP") that allows access to several new DSP features and customizations in the WH-1000XM2. Some of the new features include virtual surround modes (outdoor stages, clubs, halls, and arenas). The app also allows you to adjust imaging through something Sony calls "Sound Position Control," which allows you to choose the direction you want sound to come from. When it comes to this feature, I only use the front location on occasion for news and other content that’s mostly talking (though the other settings are fun to play with). There’s now an equalizer in the app which is very nice to have as an option, and the settings stay in the headphone until you change them or change connected devices. Most importantly for me, though, is the app-access to the ANC settings, which allow you to customize ANC to suit your needs, and to define your ambient mix settings for the headphone. I make ample use of the ambient mode with voice focus when I'm traveling, so that I can hear gate announcements at the airport, and stop announcements on the train. (You can also cycle between your ambient setting, full ANC, and ambient/ANC off using a button on the headphone.)
Another nice feature addition with the Sony WH-1000XM2 is automatically-adjusting adaptive ANC (called "Adaptive Sound Control") that detects your activity (traveling, walking, or waiting) and adjusts ambient sound settings accordingly, with customizations available in-app. The traveling mode shuts off ambient; walking mode favors a full ambient mix; and waiting has voice-focused ambient mixed in.
One thing I'm still not fond of with the WH-1000XM2 is its capacitive touch panel (on the right earpiece). While it responds quickly and consistently to the three-finger touch for Quick Attention mode, it's still not something I always get right (and I'll own up to my own ham-fisted ways, so maybe it's this particular user, too). Occasionally (and mostly while watching movies on my iPad), gesture controls on the WH-1000XM2's capacitive touch panel result in incorrect actions. The only ones I get right 100% of the time are the double-tap play/pause/answer/hang-up functions and the three-finger actuation of "Quick Attention" mode. Sometimes when I swipe to turn the volume up or down, I unintentionally change music tracks. What would I prefer? Buttons, like on the Beats Studio3 Wireless. I understand old-school buttons aren't as esoteric as a capacitive touch panel, but they work every dang time. As for other headphones with capacitive touch panels: The Sennheiser PXC550's capacitive touch controls are far more responsive, reliable, and well-executed than Sony's, in my opinion.
Also, as a wireless headset for phone calls (in terms of outgoing voice quality), I'd have to give the advantage to the Sennheiser PXC550 and the Bose QC35, based on the feedback from people I've talked to on all of them. The Sony works well enough as a headset, but the people I've spoken to with these headphones give the edge in outgoing voice clarity and overall outgoing sound quality to the Sennheiser and Bose, so this is one area this Sony isn't taking the crown. This is somewhat surprising to me given how outstanding the outgoing voice quality was with the older (and now discontinued) non-ANC Sony MDR-1RBT Bluetooth headphone.
With any headphone -- especially one you may end up wearing for hours at a stretch -- assessing comfort is a very individual thing, with our various ear sizes and shapes, and head sizes and shapes. For me, the Sony WH-1000XM2 is the most comfortable of the travel over-ears we have on hand. On a recent from Tokyo, I wore the WH-1000XM2 for the bulk of the approximately 18-hours span from my Tokyo hotel room back to my house in Metro Detroit. The only times I removed the WH-1000XM2 from my head during that time was for the occasional human interaction, and to compare it to a couple of other active noise-cancelers for this Guide. For me, hours-long comfort is what's most important -- I say this because the Bose QC35 and Sennheiser PXC550 feel initially more comfortable to me, more pillowy. After hours of use, though, both the Bose and Sennheiser, while still comfortable, cause more hotspots on/around my ears, and on the top of my head, than the Sony.
The WH-1000XM2's build quality feels excellent to me, with extensive use of metal throughout. (I've used the predecessor MDR-1000X for well over 100,000 miles of flying, and it's held up exceedingly well.) Perhaps the metal also contributes to its sturdy weight, which at around 275 grams is a bit heavier than the Sennheiser PXC550 and the Bose offerings, and about equal to the Parrot Zik 3. However, as I mentioned earlier, it's still the most comfortable of the bunch for me, so what little extra mass it's burdened with is very well distributed atop my head and ears.
The WH-1000XM2 comes with a very nice, compact, zip-up hard-side carrying case, is available in black or beige, and is priced at $349.99, down from the $399.99 they were charging for the MDR-1000X, and now exactly the same price as Bose's best, which is a great place for Sony to be with it. Sony's latest is better at noise-canceling, sounds better with music, and (on my head) is more comfortable, making it my very top pick right now for the best travel over-ear headphone.
I also think the Sony WH-1000XM2 is a very important headphone, as its noise-canceling prowess and sound quality are easy to demonstrate and easy to appreciate, so the potential for its appeal in the broader market parallels Bose. This is potentially of outsize importance, as the Sony WH-1000XM2 can be an effective gateway drug for the mass market to high-quality audio the way they’ve been wanting it —- wirelessly and with ANC —- with the very best of the current Bluetooth technologies (aptX-HD and LDAC) in one headphone.
Given that Bose's QC35 and the QC30 are still quite new, I think it'll be a while before the team from Massachusetts can reclaim the title from the team in Japan. Sony rewrote the rules and upended the order with their MDR-1000X last year, and again with the WH-1000XM2 this year.