Sony MDR-1000X Review: Okay Fine Sony, You Win
Let’s start at the end. Sony’s $400 (MSRP) MDR-1000X headphones are the best wireless noise-cancelling headphones on the market. Their features may not be worth the extra premium to you, but if you want the best at any cost, here you go.
Are they better than the Bose QC35? Yes. I’ll have a full Headphone Showdown coming tomorrow, which I’ll link here. UPDATE: Here’s the full showdown!
After spending some time with a demo pair of these, I wrote them off in a ranty article as lacking in the bass department.
Fortunately I saw these measurements, which show plenty of bass, and a surprisingly good response for a noise-cancelling headphone.
So I bought them. And they’re amazing.
Sony’s MDR-1000X is the feature-laden follow- up to the Sony MDR-100AAP and MDR-100ABN, a great stylish hi-res headphone line they released a year earlier. Unlike the multi-colored 100, the 1000X only comes in black and beige.
My local Best Buy features a demo unit attached to what appears to be a Sony-developed android tablet app. You can click around the screen and read about different features, and you can play a limited selection of tracks. The tracks seem almost randomly selected. The Sense Engine(tm) noise-cancelling optimizer, ambient sound modes, and touch controls are all disabled on the demo unit for some reason.
After spending my time listening to a couple tracks on the demo unit that I was familiar with, I concluded that the headphones were a bit bass light and fired off a ranty blog about it. I now know this to be patently untrue, and I apologize for my earlier rant. The bass here is thick and rich thanks to sharing a driver with the exceptional MDR-1A (more on the sound later).
I’m not sure if the demo unit is badly EQed, or driving the pair incorrectly, or if it’s a defective pair, but keep in mind that my demo experience in-store did not reflect well on the actual sound of the product.
Also I found a repeatable bug in the demo tablet software. If you switch between the tracks too quickly, it eventually starts rendering the titles and the art backwards!
For a noise-canceller, these sound incredible. They have the Sony house sound. It’s thick, rich, warm, and powerful, with enough detail in the highs that nothing becomes muddled. Fatigue is a complete non-issue. They’re not the most-detailed or the most-resolving headphones I’ve ever heard (that’d probably be the MSR7), but they’re incredible considering all the filtering and noise-cancelling stuff going on.
Over the last several years, Bose has lead the market on sound quality in active noise-cancelling headphones. Sony has just won the trophy. The bass is a little less punchy and in-your-face than the Bose QC35, but the mids and the highs are much clearer and more natural. On the QC35, as described so well by Tyll at InnerFidelity, the highs have a slightly tinny, crinkly feel to them. The Sony’s suffer from no such problems.
Soundstage is wide and lush, as it is on many other closed-back Sony headphones. The MDR-1A drivers are put to good use here, offering a sound on the warm side of neutral that should please all but the most discerning of audiophiles. You could happily own these and no other headphones.
And yes, all of this is based on the wireless sound quality. I’ve spent most of my listening time using the AptX codec, but you’ll still get good results in SBC or AAC mode. I haven’t heard any annoying artifacting from the compression. These also support Sony’s proprietary LDAC codec if you own one of their phones or high end players. I think the wireless sound is just as good as the wired, but then I’ve never been the sort of person to nitpick the differences between those.
You’d have to be really cynical to hate the sound of these…like I apparently was when I wrote my impressions piece last year. If you need the best sound in your ANC headphones, you need the 1000X.
I once called Sony’s MDR-1A headphone family the comfort champs. The 1000X carries on that legacy. It’s not quite as plush or relaxed on the clamping force as the 1A, but it’s well-balanced and easy on the head, and totally wearable for hours and hours. The slightly heavy 275g weight is perfectly distributed by the plush headband and ear cups. The clamp is tight enough that you’ll always notice that you’re wearing headphones, but they shouldn’t cause fatigue.
They’re not the absolutely most-comfy headphones on the planet, but only because their weight and clamp means they don’t totally disappear on your head. But, they’re as good a wear as you can possibly get without those qualities.
I have a big head and wear glasses, and these are still great! I can wear them just halfway adjusted, where many other headphones force me to extend the cups all the way. Also, the pads seal exceptionally around my glasses, thanks in part to the Sense Engine optimization I’ll discuss more below in the features section.
The pads get just a touch warm and sweaty after a long session, but they’re not uncomfortably hot. A quick wipe should solve the sweat problem, and the pads are replaceable.
If you’re the sort of person that’s bothered by stuff touching your ears, be warned that the cups are much shallower here than other headphones like the QC35. The pads use a ring of memory foam around an inner foam inside the cup that will most definitely touch your ear, no matter what size it is. However, they’re really comfy inside. The effect is not unlike the feel of the racetrack-style pads on the MDR-V6 that I wouldn’t shut up about. I’m glad Sony learned from and stole from themselves, when it comes to comfort and pad seal.
The design of the 1000X is nearly identical to the 100AAP, but with more premium materials and slightly sleeker overall look. The headband is now completely exposed metal, and several of the other parts here are metal as well. (Unfortunately, the hinge pieces/lower headband covers are plastic, and might be prone to cracking. Oh noooooooo! I haven’t had this problem with my unit, but you should be aware of it!) A high-quality synthetic leather is used for the ear pads, the backs of the ear cups, and the included case. It’s the same leatherette used in fancy shoes, and as a result they smell like new shoes when you first open them.
The headphones sit really nicely on the head, with a close form-fitting profile that looks far more fashionable than anything else I own.
I have no complaints or nitpicks about the design here. It’s a great update of the 100 series, with nicer materials. They feel really sturdy too, like they were engineered to last for years while still feeling soft in the hand.
Much has been made in online audiophile communities about some mild creaking in the ear cup joints, and mine indeed have a little of this, but only when you press on them intentionally while they’re on your head. And my Bose QC35s are a bit more creaky. I don’t think it detracts from the overall quality, but you might not feel the same way.
This might as well be the entire review, right here. This is a FEATURE PACKED pair of headphones, to the point of absurdity.
First up, the proprietary Sense Engine noise-cancelling system. It’s sooooo good! For years and years, engineers have tried to work their way around Bose’s noise-cancelling patents and create something comparable, if not better. Well, Sony has finally done it. These block out more outside noise than Bose’s best. Not by a whole lot, but by enough of a margin that it’s immediately noticeable in a side-by-side test.
This margin widens a little further if you use the optimization feature, which is my favorite thing about these headphones. You hold down the noise-cancelling toggle button, and the headphone plays a number of test tones, measuring your ears and looking for leaks in the pad seal caused by your hair or glasses. Then it uses digital trickery to improve the noise-cancelling and the sound quality.
It really really works! JBL’s Everest Elite headphones have a similar feature, but this one works much better. It’s amazing. I’ve always lost a tiny bit of noise-cancellation performance thanks to my glasses, but here I get an incredible level of silence, especially once I’ve optimized. The coffee shop I like to write in goes away just about completely when I’ve got music on, instead of the 90 percent deletion I’ve had with Bose’s products. And it’ pretty darn quiet even with the music off.
No noise-cancelling system can block out all noise, but no one else out there is blocking out this much while also making music sound this good. It took years and years, but Sony beat Bose. I guess…I guess that’s kind of a spoiler for my upcoming headphone showdown article.
The Sense Engine also features an ambient sound button that lets you pipe in either voices from the outside world, or the entire audio spectrum. Both the noise-cancellation button and the ambient sound button are easy to reach on the back of the left ear cup, just above the power button.
If you cup your hand over the right ear cup, your music is turned down, ANC is turned off, and ambient sound is pumped in. This is great for quickly talking to someone or taking a listen to the world around you. Or for just seeing how quiet it really is inside your headphones.
I was skeptical about the touch controls on the right ear cup, but they work quite well. If you have confidence in your gestures, it should have no trouble detecting them. You can turn volume up and down, play and pause, and skip tracks.
I wish the AirPods had volume controls. I also wish they weren’t still backordered for six weeks. Ahem.
Sony includes their S-Master HX amp with DSEE audio upscaling. Basically, you get plenty of power to drive these to loud levels, and some real-time business is going on to help more compressed digital audio sound good. There’s also full support here for hi-res audio, should you own any of that.
Pairing is a quick and easy process, either through NFC or the standard Bluetooth menu of your device. You can use many codecs, and they all sound great. SBC, AAC, AptX, and LDAC support are all included here. I’ve tried it in AAC and AptX and they both sound great. Wireless range is solid, and about what you’d expect from a modern Bluetooth device; the Beats Solo 3 Wireless remains in a class by itself as far as long range listening goes. Connected to my computer, I was able to walk to the far end of my apartment three rooms away without issue.
The included 3.5 mm cable is the typical slightly-recessed Sony design, but it shouldn’t be too hard to replace. The headphones will work without power, but you’ll lose a chunk of the mid-range frequency response/quality in the process. So, keep them powered on even if you don’t want to use noise-cancelling. Battery life is rated at around 20 hours, depending on what features you’re using and your volume level, and that seems just right to me.
The included case is almost a carbon copy of Bose’s typical hard shell case. It has a nice leatherette finish and should hold up in your bag just fine.
Microphone quality for calls is solid. There’s no sidetone feature by default. You’ll have to enable one of the ambient sound modes. The headphones have a voice built-in to inform you of pairing status and other info, and it sound very natural and good. You can’t connect to multiple audio sources, and have to manually switch between different devices. That’s an ever-so-slight bummer in this price range, and something a future model could look to improve. But not at all a dealbreaker.
I can’t believe I nearly missed these because of a bad demo unit.
Having heaped all this praise…$400 is a lot of money to spend on headphones. These sometimes go on sale for about $350, and at that price they’re an easier buy, obviously.
As to other wireless ANC headphones, Bose’s QC35 is normally $350, and Sony’s own MDR-100ABN has been hovering around $200. Both headphones offer really great listening experiences, comfort, and extra features….but they’re not the absolute best like the newer Sony’s are. I can’t really see how Sony could do much to improve upon these, and I expect that a new version would be a very minor iteration at best, maybe replacing the Micro USB port with a newer connector and adding new colors.
Also, much like how there is now competition in the CPU market between Ryzen and Intel’s stuff, Bose now has a competitor who has really stuck it to them. It’ll be neat to see how they respond.
So are these the absolute best value-for-the-money? No. Oh no. Of course not! But they’re not overpriced. And if you want all these features, you’re going to love them.
Please forgive me for yelling about them a few months ago. I didn’t know what I was talking about. These should probably have beaten the Bose headphones in my Best Wireless Headphones of 2016 article.
Full Headphone Showdown tomorrow!