Review: Sony WH-1000XM2

My search for a reliable pair of wireless headphones has yet to come to a happy ending. I have needed to start looking in the next level of options, which brings me to the big boys: Bose QuietComfort 35 II, Bowers & Wilkins PX, (maybe I'll get around to the) Sennheiser PXC 550, and the subject of this article: the Sony WH-1000XM2. 

The XM2s are a relatively quick refresh of the MDR-1000X, which, as far as I can gather, suffered from intermittent connectivity issues and cracked headbands. Sony seeks to fix those problems with the nearly identical-looking mark 2. 

Styling & Construction

The WH-1000XM2 headphones have an understated look that I really appreciate. It has a no-nonsense aesthetic that most manufacturers seem to shy away from: two circles that are strapped to your head with a band across the top. It's black. Enjoy. 

Materials feel nice in the hand, though it doesn't exactly ooze handcrafted-quality. There's plastic galore but it feels solid, rather than brittle. A sleek metal band emerges from the plastic to give some confidence to the headband, and it's a welcome addition. It adds strength and much more flexibility than this plastic could manage. The pleather pads and head cushion are soft and the stuffing has some good recoil to it, though I don't have much confidence in the longevity of them. I have owned numerous Sony headphones over the years and they have had one thing in common: the faux leather dries, cracks, and flakes away. 

There are two things, aesthetically and therefore inherently subjectively, that I really don't like about the style: the outside of the ear cups have a strange, pebbly, faux-leathery look to them? Also, while I like the black/gray colorway, the other beige-gold option is not a great one, for being the only other option. Obviously some will disagree with me on one or both of those things, but hey, that's why we have options, people. 

Look at that nice, shiny metal covering the top of the headband.

Comfort

These are full-size, circumaural headphones, which means they should carry all of the weight evenly across the top of your head, then transfer all clamping force into the ear pads around your ears, on to your head. These do that, but only just barely. 

First of all, they feel fine on the top of my head; no pain points on the crown, as some headphones cause. My ears do sit inside the ear cups, but it's a tight squeeze. But the problem is the shallowness of the ear cups. The thin, mesh layer that protects the drivers from dust and debris sits directly on my ears. Like, all over my ears, hugging them tightly. 

If you were to have told me ahead of time that every square inch of my ears would be completely touched/covered by something while wearing these, I would have guaranteed that I would hate wearing them. But the odd thing is, I don't. Somehow they're comfortable. 

The only real downside is the heat buildup. That's no surprise given the tight quarters, the mesh blanket for the ears, and the closed-back design of the ear cups. In testing these out, I've worn them in hour-long sessions and have needed a break every time. Wearing them throughout an entire long flight is likely out of the question, but your mileage may vary. 

Narrow, shallow ear cups and a layer of mesh that likes to get fresh with your ears make for a warm environment.

Super Fancy Tomorrowland Headphones

These headphones have some crazy tech jammed into them. It's starting to be what people expect, but when you take a moment to think about it, it's flooring. Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, DSEE HX, S-Master HX, LDAC, sound quality that adapts to your current activity, atmospheric pressure adjustment, preset and manual equalization options, virtual sound modes (for some reason), sound position control (for some reason), an ear cup gesture that allows you to temporarily hear your surroundings, controllable ambient sound injection, touch- and gesture-based controls on the right ear cup, and probably the best noise cancelling available. 

Look: some of that is nice. People will use some of those things. But for the most part, people will turn these on, pair them to a phone, let it do its automatic noise cancelling adjustments and leave it at that.

The Bluetooth connection quality is questionable. I'll have instances where the audio will do a quick click/mute/hiccup thing every 10 seconds or so. This happens at home and at the office, with my phone and with my computer. There's a bluetooth priority setting that allows you to select connection quality over sound quality, but that seems like an unnecessary choice to need to make. Isn't the fact that these are wireless... kind of the point? Priority number one: have a reliable connection. 

Another Bluetooth problem is only connecting to one device at a time. Say you're connected to your phone and want to switch to your computer; the process can be cumbersome. I have had instances where I can simply turn off the Bluetooth on my phone, then choose to "Connect" to the Sony's via my computer's Bluetooth menu, but more often than not I've been thrown into connection purgatory, needing to press and hold the power button to turn the headphones off, release, press and hold again for 7-10 seconds to turn it on and activate pairing mode, then connect them to my computer as a new device. I have suspicion that this is more a function of glitches and firmware problems, as I can't see Sony shipping these headphones with half-baked Bluetooth reliability.

I have the latest iPhone, and it can't take advantage of the NFC or LDAC (some Android users will love that sentence). 

I don't believe that Sony's DSEE HX is "fixing" low-quality music—it can't repaint the details.

The adaptive sound control constantly interrupts my music and beeps at me to signify that it's adjusting itself. Cool story, bro. Just make the adjustment in the background maybe? I don't need to know how the sausage is made. 

The virtual sound modes are a ridiculous addition that Sony thought to include. If it's supposed to sound like I'm in an arena during a concert, the music will include that effect. The sound position control is equally bizarre: want the music to sound like it's being played at you from over your left shoulder? Oh, no? Well, it's an option if you change your mind. 

I'll stop shitting on the feature set for a moment to say that the Ambient mode stuff is actually pretty nice. While you typically hear nothing around you, due to the closed design, noise cancelling, and music drowning out anything that's left, the Ambient mode actually uses the onboard mic to listen for voices and pumps them into the headphones. You can adjust the focus (just voices or everything) and the volume. It's surprisingly helpful. 

The big problem: the touch- and gesture-based controls on the right ear cup were a huge mistake. The responsiveness is laggy, at best, but frequently misses the input altogether. Instead of quickly pushing a nice, clicky button to turn up the volume, you do this slow, dumb upward motion and it'll just barely turn it up a second later. Go to adjust the ear cup on your head and accidentally restart the song you're listening to. 

It's not cool, convenient, or clever. It's a design flaw. I just don't understand the decision—the other ear cup has physical buttons. Just give us the tried and true three-button setup that everyone is used to; it's been on basically every headphone cable for years. 

An even larger issue with the touch controls is accidental activation. It's truly ironic—I try to use the controls and they occasionally don't listen; I attempt to slightly adjust how the headphones are sitting on my head and I skip to the next song. This wouldn't be a problem with physical buttons.

Whew... I need a break. Here's a few pictures:

Noise Cancellation

Sony's noise cancellation performance is truly impressive. While I don't have any good way of measuring the performance with facts and figures, I can say from experience that it is on par with the Bose QuietComfort 35 II (which I also own and can test back-to-back). Some professional reviewers measure and say the Sony's are better, others measure and say the Bose are better. Both are great and neither is different enough to make that be part of your purchasing decision.

Noise cancellation is fine-tuned via a measuring/calibration process where it plays a series of tones and measures what it hears. This process can correct for your surroundings, your position and activity level, your altitude's atmospheric pressure level, and even the way the headphones are sitting on your head—say, with or without glasses. While I don't notice a different result after running that process, I trust that it is doing something

Audio Performance

This is the section that I'm admittedly pretty torn. On one hand, I definitely have some issues with some spots along the frequency band, but on the other hand, the overall tonality is pleasant. Allow me to break it apart:

While these likely won't please many "bassheads" out there, the bass response is what hits me first, for better and for worse. It has a strong presence with satisfying thumps and rumbles. However, it is certainly overemphasized way past neutral, and it bleeds well into the midrange. 

The low end of the midrange is elevated, which creates a slight sense of muddiness. The upper end of the midrange is actually recessed, which reduces "presence" and makes things feel slightly veiled. Overall, the midrange is smooth, so it's subtle. But it's noticeable. 

Treble range is also relatively smooth except for a few hot peaks and a steep drop-off in the upper-treble area. Those few issues make for a bit of "graininess" and makes me feel like I'm missing some detail and clarity.

But: it's all smooth. Aside from the super-high-end drop-off (I'm talking 10k range and beyond), there aren't any major peaks or valleys of concern. It's just smooth and warm (and a little muddy, a little veiled). While I really appreciate the satisfying thumps in the low-end, I guess I just crave more airiness, more clarity, more transparency, and I feel like I'm missing that with these headphones. And one may say, "use the app's EQ capabilities to adjust the sound to your liking." Good point. I could do that. But I just stubbornly don't want to. I don't like that Sony intentionally finished and shipped these headphones with a heavy signature. If someone wanted that, that's the right time to use the EQ and boost what you want.

That being said, I completely understand how someone may love this sound signature. Especially if you're into electronic, hip-hop/rap, or the overly-bright genre known as "pop," there's a good chance you might really like these. They're fun and well-suited to compliment those genres.  

Sony WH-1000XM2

Conclusion

The Sony WH-1000XM2 look good and travel compactly in a nice little case (see a picture in the gallery above). They are mostly comfortable, though heat buildup is an unfortunate downfall. Sound quality is overall smooth and pleasant; punchy and fun. Unfortunately I find them a little too muddy and cluttered for my liking. They sound pretty good, but the audio performance is very much overrated around the internet.

While the noise-cancelling is probably the best (by a hair), the feature set is unnecessarily long and the touch-sensitive controls are a disaster. Some of the features are neat and welcomed, but I wish Sony would have cut some of them from the to-do list and spent that time working on a better control scheme. 

All in all, the WH-1000XM2 are attractive, mostly comfortable, and sound nice. If you can deal with the controls better than I can, they're a good option.

But they're not the headphones I'm keeping... 

Pros

  • Sleek, utilitarian design
  • Physically comfortable
  • Folds small and includes nice carrying case
  • Deep feature set and advanced customization
  • Tied with Bose for best-performing noise cancellation
  • Solid, agreeable sound quality

Cons

  • Gesture-based controls
  • Plasticky build
  • Ear cups become hot after a while
  • Gesture-based controls
  • Some features are silly and/or don't work very well
  • Single-device Bluetooth connection
  • Gesture-based controls
  • Micro-USB charging port
  • Warmer-than-neutral and very punchy sound won't please those looking for accurate sound
  • Oh, did I mention the gesture-based controls?