Times are changing for headphone reviewers. For years, a review of any headphone with active noise canceling had to include two things: a discussion about how much worse the headphones sound with ANC activated, and the mandatory “while not as good as Bose…” caveat. Well, those days are gone – Sony’s new MDR-1000X ($350) is a Bluetooth headphone with active noise cancelling that we think is excellent, without qualification.
Everything about the 1000X is geared towards portability. In the box is a semi-rigid travel case, airplane adapter, 3.5mm cable, and charging cable. Its cups swivel and fold; it collapses to be literally as small as possible. Despite what we assume is a sizable internal battery, the 1000X weighs only 276g. The design and construction of the 1000X are classic Sony, which is to say nearly flawless. The headphone is almost entirely made of plastic, but does not feel cheap — everything feels sturdy, all joints move smoothly, and there are no rattles or squeaks to speak of. The monochrome matte black finish looks extremely classy; the 1000X is also available in a tan color, but we can’t help but wish there were more color options available.
We found the 1000X to be an extremely comfortable headphone. Its ear pads are thin but soft, with an opening just large enough to encircle the ear. Though this doesn’t leave a lot of extra breathing room, it seems to make sense for optimal isolation on an ANC headphone. Its other contact points – the outside of the cups and the headband – are covered in the same protein leather and are pleasing to the touch.
There are only three tactile buttons on the 1000X, but don’t let that fool you – there is a ton of functionality here. Pairing, on/off, and battery level checks are performed with the power button. Noise canceling and ambient sound modes (Normal and Voice) are toggled via their own button. Play, pause, track, volume, and Siri are controlled via swipes and taps on the right ear cup – we found these to be very responsive, even through thin gloves. The 1000X’s best trick, however, is its Quick Attention feature: cupping your hand over the right ear cup instantly pauses the music and activates the exterior microphones, allowing you to hear your surroundings and have conversations without fumbling to pause the music.
Pairing was quick and easy with our iPhone and MacBook, and we had no problems running the 1000X all day on a single charge. We found the 1000X’s controls to be quick and responsive, with its volume controls linked to that of the iPhone and battery level displayed in its status bar. ANC and ambient sound modes are indicated with voice prompts which, unfortunately, cannot be disabled. Sony includes a Sound Optimizer feature, activated by long-pressing the NC button on the left cup, that supposedly adjusts the sound and ANC to ear shape, whether you’re wearing glasses, and other listening conditions – we tried it, but didn’t notice a significant difference.
As longtime fans of Sony audio gear, we remember the days of CD players with “Mega-Bass” switches and, more recently, their “Extra-Bass” line of headphones; we expected the 1000X to sound as bassy as its predecessors. To our surprise, the 1000X has a very neutral sound signature. We have no complaints about detail or extension in either treble or bass, but neither is overpowering. There’s a “polite” quality to the 1000X’s sound that while non-fatiguing, might sound non-engaging to some listeners — where some headphones sound “in your face,” the 1000X delivers music with poise, as if being careful not to offend. Though it might not be the most exciting sound on the market, it’s probably well-matched for the 1000X’s intended use — a multi-hour flight or noisy commute.
If the review ended here, it would be safe to conclude that the 1000X was a very good headphone. But wait, there’s more.
The 1000X has the best active noise canceling that we have tested to date. It easily handled our NYC commute torture tests, all but disappearing the rumbling wheels, squeaky brakes, and static-filled PA system of the subway cars and the low roar of the streets. The Ambient Voice and Quick Attention features were handy for catching announcements, but we really loved the ability to commute in peace. Wind seems to cause problems for the ANC system, but that has been a common limit of every ANC headphone we’ve yet tested. ANC also works in passive mode and, counterintuitively, music sounds better on the 1000X with ANC activated in passive — in fact, the only configuration in which we did not like the 1000X’s sound was when we used the headphone cable with ANC disabled.
We generally don’t expect great sound quality out of an ANC headphone. We have grown accustomed to accepting mediocre sound quality in exchange for good ANC because, if we’re forced to choose, it’s better than no music at all. The Sony MDR-1000X changes all that with superb build quality, well-implemented features and, most importantly, high-quality ANC. It’s not a perfect headphone – we would have preferred a more engaging sound signature, and it’s a shame that that the 1000X sounds flat in passive mode. Still, the 1000X is not just a “Bose alternative” — it stands on its own, and should be high on the list for anyone looking for an ANC headphone.
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