Here we go again. Another Bose QuietComfort 35 competitor. Samsung just made the Level On Pro Wireless, and now Sony's crashing the party with its MDR-1000X. It can feel, at times, like we're just beating the dead active noise-cancelling horse here.
It's an exceptionally fierce competition, but while there are some definite similarities between them – they're all noise-cancelling headphones with four microphones, a 20-hour battery life and their own codec that promises Hi-Res Audio when paired with any of the brand's music players, for example – Sony's MDR-1000X brings its own bag of parlour tricks to the table.
It's these tricks, this attention to the minor details, that gives the MDR-1000X the edge on the QC35s, especially if you take into consideration Sony's X-factor: the LDAC codec and DSEE HX that converts uncompressed or lossless 44.1kHz/16bit files to near Hi-Res quality sound.
Announced at CES in 2015, LDAC is Sony's play into the high-resolution audio space replacing, or rather enhancing, Bluetooth by promising 96kHz/24bit music in wireless mode for anyone rocking a Sony Xperia Z series phone (Z3 or later), Hi-Res models of Walkman, 4K Sony TVs, AV receivers or a Sony-branded wireless speaker.
If your smart product of choice doesn't start with an 'X' or 'Z' however, all hope isn't lost – the MDR-1000X are still a comfortable, decent-sounding pair of noise cancelling cans … if you have $400 (£330 or AU$700) just laying around.
Sony's been using a similar design on its premium headphones for some time now. The Sony MDR-1000X faintly resemble this year's H.ear On MDR-100ABN with the only major difference being the exterior microphones located on each of the earcups.
Each cup houses a 40mm closed dynamic driver encircled by thick faux leather pads. While Samsung opted for a pair of on-ear headphones, Sony's are absolutely over-ears. They engulf the entire ear, which actually make them quite comfortable for extended use.
Moving up the bridge a bit is a hinge that allows the earcups to fold up for easy storage and a padded plastic band. The band is fairly flexible and strong enough to resist a fair amount of force, but it's still worth being fairly careful around. For the price it'd would've benefitted Sony to make the bridge a bit sturdier (that's where a vast majority of breakage happens), but overall it's a minor complaint.
Along the underside of the cups are two ports – a standard 3.5mm aux and microUSB port that you use for charging. The 1000X comes with a USB-to-microUSB charger, but not a wall converter, which implies that Sony expects you to use your laptop to charge the headset in between usage. That said, Sony provides an extraordinarily long 5-foot 3.5-to-3.5mm cord which means that practically no portable device should be out of reach from the 1000X.
Speaking of the battery, Sony claims that you can expect the MDR-1000X to go about 20 hours with both active noise cancelling and Bluetooth turned on, or about 22 hours without noise cancelling. I found that estimate to even be a bit conservative – I wore mine for two days straight listening to music for about eight or nine hours each day and the battery just dipped below the 50% mark.
Now, you might be wondering where the touch controls are. Eschewing traditional buttons, Sony has made the right earcup touch-activated. Tap twice pauses/plays the current song. Swiping left skips back, while right moves you forward. Finally, swiping up raises the volume and down, as you might expect, lowers it.
The added benefit of touch controls is that you can also use the built-in microphones to answer incoming phone calls with two taps on the right earcup and activate your personal assistant of choice by pressing and holding the center of the earcup for a few seconds. (Phone calls, by the way, sound exceptionally clear through the headset and those who I spoke to reported that I sounded clearer using the MDR-1000X than I have using any other headset.)
The touch controls only work when the headset is in wireless mode, however. Plug it into your laptop, tablet or phone and you won't be able to control the action from the headset.
The headphones support NFC for quick pairing on Android devices that support the feature. However, I couldn't connect the headphones to more than one device at a time – a minor problem if you want to listen to music off your laptop but still want to have the MDR-1000X connected to your phone in case someone calls.
Performance and features
There's a lot to unpack here, but if you only leave with two takeaways, they should be that the MDR-1000X has excellent (though not totally perfect) noise cancelling chops and music playback – especially when using another Hi-Res Audio device – is outstanding.
Let's start with the noise cancelling, as it's arguably the biggest reason the headphones cost as much as they do. What separates Sony's noise cancelling tech from Bose's is that Sony's identifies different types of audio cues and works specifically to counteract them.
During a demo with an engineer from Sony, they took me through three distinct settings they felt most people used noise cancelling. The first setting, and the most obvious, was a plane. So while I was listening to Daft Punk's Get Lucky (just a heads up, this is played at pretty much every single music demo I've ever gotten) the engineer started a recording of a plane engine from a speaker located above my head.
Now, I wasn't completely oblivious to the roar – even with noise cancelling on I immediately noticed that something had changed – but compared to the sound of the engine with the headphones off, it was almost entirely diminished. There aren't many headphones that can almost completely block out a separate speaker blasting a dull roar of an airplane engine, but Sony's MDR-1000X actually did.
The last two scenarios they walked me through were a bus, which, instead of a dull roar, was more of intermittent loud noises and audible conversations, and an office that had no loud noises and just loud conversation.
As you'd expect, the headphones blocked out the dull roar just fine, but Sony made the claim that the headphones would allow voices to pass through … which didn't happen. This is done so that if someone is talking to you – or, worse, yelling at you to get your attention before you get hit by a car while walking on the street – you can actually hear them. But this mode simply didn't work, either there during the demo or when I used them around town.
The mode that I did find impressive, however, is what Sony is calling Quick Attention Mode. When you use your hand to cup the right speaker, the volume drops immediately and the exterior microphone channels all incoming noise into the headset. This could be useful if you're waiting to hear important information about a gate change at the airport or if you want to have a brief conversation with someone without taking off your headphones.
Overall the noise cancelling works well, and while it doesn't work quite the way Sony claims it will, it's near as good as Bose's QuietComfort 35s are with the added perk of Quick Attention Mode.
Music playback-wise, it's a similar story: the Sony MDR-1000X are darn impressive (I'd even use the word "outstanding" here) … but it comes with the caveat that you won't get the most out of them unless you're using a Sony device.
One of the MDR-1000X's biggest draws is that they support Hi-Res Audio via Sony's LDAC codec and DSEE HX which supposedly takes MP3 files and digitally adds in missing data lost during the compression process. Technically speaking, DSEE HX converts uncompressed or lossless 44.1kHz/16bit files to near Hi-Res quality sound – up to 96kHz/24bit. That said, whether you'll be able to hear the difference between audio upconverted using DSEE HX is up for debate.
Music transmitted via LDAC, on the other hand, is amazing however the only players that support it are Xperia Z series phones (Z3 or later), Hi-Res models of Walkman, 4K Sony TVs, AV receivers and its wireless speakers.
If you don't own any of those devices, it's not all bad, however. The MDR-1000X supports SBC, AAC and aptX codecs, meaning that there are a few different ways to get high bitstream music from your device to your headphones.
Music, both in aptX and AAC, sounded relatively crisp with sparkling highs and crystal-clear mids. Listening to classical tunes felt like I was transported to my favorite music hall which I then proceeded by nearly blowing out my eardrums listening to the Violent Femmes.
The MDR-1000X are a solid-sounding pair of headphones, and clean, too. You won't find a lot of artificial tampering here like you do on any of Beats' headphones, but in order to get the best sound you'll probably want to be the owner of Sony device.
The MDR-1000X are, in almost every sense of the word, a premium pair of headphones. The faux-leather earpads are extremely comfortable for extended periods of time, they do an excellent job cancelling external noise and fun features like Quick Attention Mode and Hi-Res Audio through LDAC are neat tricks you can't find anywhere else.
They're also good-sounding headphones, and doubly so if you have a Sony device like an Xperia smartphone or Hi-Res Walkman laying around.
But, that said, if you don't fall into that category there are better-sounding headphones for less money – especially if you don't mind dropping the noise cancelling feature. Similarly, I thought the active noise cancellation was done better here than in other headphones, but it's probably not what I'd consider the top of its class.
Sony was right. The MDR-1000X are definitely the closest competitor to Bose's QuietComfort series I've ever had the pleasure of testing. Some high-end codecs (LDAC, AAC and aptX) help the 1000X sound even better than the QC35s, but ultimately the noise canceling is a bit less effective in Sony's pair of cans.
What should drive your decision on whether to buy the MDR-1000X is your music player – if you're a Sony Xperia owner, you'd be hard-pressed to find a pair of headphones that sound as good as these with noise canceling tech built-in. Even if you're not, Sony's wares are still worth a listen – and maybe a purchase – if you aren't too put out by its $400 (£330 or AU$700) price tag.