Sony MDR-1000X Noise-Cancelling Headphones: Australian Review

Image: Sony

Once in a while, a company takes all the good bits from its previous products and puts them together in a new one, one that hits the mark just right. Sony's newest headphones have all the noise-cancelling smarts of older MDR-series headsets, add a bunch of genuinely useful extras, and bring the fight to Bose's best QuietComforts with superior sound quality both wired and wireless.

What Is It?

Sony's $699.95 MDR-1000X headphones — not the most exciting name, but a welcome change from the naming convention of the equally complicated h.ear on wireless NC — integrate two of the features I look for most in a pair of headphones. You get Bluetooth, in this case regular Bluetooth plus the AptX high quality streaming codec and Sony's own LDAC proprietary high-res codec. You also get noise cancelling, and while it's not adjustable like Audio-Technica's older QuietPoint cans are, it's very effective — more on that later though.

The MDR-1000X comes in two colours: a dark, professional black with a leather finish on the earcups and satin black plastic coat on the metal headband, and a beige one with the same trimmings in fawn. Whichever colour you opt for, you'll get a matching hard leatherette carry case that the headphones fold into, bundled with a wired 3.5mm headphone cable and two-prong airplane adapter. The earcups of the MDR-1000X are clean and free of any markings apart from a small NFC tag on the left, but that's because the right is touch sensitive just like Parrot's Zik 3.0.

On the right earcup, you can swipe up and down to change the MDR-1000X's volume, swipe forwards and back to change tracks, and tap with a single finger to pause or restart playback on both iOS and Android — as long as you're playing music over Bluetooth, at least. Usefully, though, you can also cup the entire ear with your hand to temporarily pause music and switch on an ambient noise boost rather than noise cancelling, which is very useful if you're approached by someone that wants to speak to you — for example, cabin crew on a long-haul flight.

The MDR-1000X has an integrated battery that Sony says is capable of 20 hours' use with noise cancelling switched on, and another two hours if noise cancelling is disabled. That battery charges over microUSB on the bottom of the right earcup, while the bottom of the left is where you'll find that 3.5mm wired audio connector. Three buttons are clustered there, too — power, noise cancelling and ambient sound mode activation, all of which you press and hold to activate. There's no app or fancy software to adjust settings, though.

What's It Good At?

First, and most importantly, Sony's MDR-1000X sounds good. In the past few years, the company has built a solid reputation for the sound of its Hi-Res Audio cans and the MDR-1000X stands up to that promise. Over Bluetooth, but doubly so if you're using the bundled chunky metre-long 3.5mm audio jack cable, you'll get frankly excellent sound with a great deal of high-end detail and plenty of powerful, deeply booming bass. It's not a cold or clinical or monitor-grade flat sound, so there's a bit of colour — to the treble, especially — but not at the cost of any particular frequency range.

Bluetooth these days is, for streaming music fans, more than enough to deliver all the quality that you can expect from your Spotify or Apple Music downloads. If you have a recent Sony Xperia smartphone, you'll get even higher quality Bluetooth sound thanks to LDAC, but for any of a bunch of other Android phones you've also got AptX support for better-than-usual Bluetooth sound. If you're using an iPhone, it's all equal unless Beats comes out with a high-end pair of headphones using the new W1 audio chip.

The MDR-1000X, too, is very well built, more than the equal of Bose's QuietComfort 35. Firstly, they're very attractive for a pair of headphones; the leather on the earcups looks classy and luxurious without being gaudy — something Parrot struggled with on the Zik — and the foam earpads are wrapped in a softer leatherette that doesn't sweat or irritate. The headband has an excellent range of motion and telescopes to fit large heads, the earcups swivel over a generous range and can both hinge out of the way to fit into Sony's included carry case.

To round out the whole package, the Sony MDR-1000X hits all those other marks that are harder to quantify for a pair of headphones that you might be wearing for sixteen hours. The padding is just enough to clamp the MDR-1000X comfortably on the wearer's head to block out ambient noise — more than Sony's chief competitors, when noise cancelling is disabled — but without pressing enough to cause fatigue after a short time. The battery life lives up to and beyond Sony's promises — I topped 22 hours with noise cancelling enabled.

What's It Not Good At?

Good as they might look, Bose's QuietComfort 35s — particularly in black — still look better. It's a tiny difference, but Sony's headband on the MDR-1000X balloons slightly above the earcups, and it can make the wearer look slightly like they're wearing Mickey Mouse ears. The satin black metal earcups of the QuietComforts, too, is just that little bit nicer to feel in the hand than Sony's leather. If you have either, you'll be very happy with purchase, but comparing them directly shows the difference between the two — both excellent, but one that slightest bit classier than the other.

The MDR-1000X is also significantly more expensive at $699.95 than the $499 Bose QuietComfort 35 that I think they compete directly with. To realise the value of that difference in cost, you really should be listening to them with the wired headphone jack to maximise that Hi-Res Audio quality, but then you lose the convenience of those touch-sensitive controls on the right earcup. As it is, apples for Bluetooth-powered apples, you're paying for Sony's luxury styling. It's nice, but is it worth another $200?

This isn't a criticism — it's praise, in fact — but Sony's most useful feature in the MDR-1000X is one that you might actually find frustrating. When you touch a couple of fingers to the headphones' touch-sensitive right earcup, the ambient noise boost kicks in. It's very useful for listening in to a question asked of you while you're wearing headphones — from a flight attendant, from a charity fundraiser in the street — but if you're the kind of person that leans against their arm on a table, it happens to kick in all the time. It's something you have to learn to avoid.

Should You Buy It?

Sony's $699.95 MDR-1000X is an expensive pair of headphones, even if you're a frequent traveller or constant commuter that can take full advantage of both the MDR-1000X's excellent noise cancelling and convenient Bluetooth. You'll have to really like the way they look — and I do! — to justify the price tag. But if you do buy them, you'll get a pair of headphones that sound excellent whether wired or wireless, with battery life enough for the longest flight or a week of trips from home to work and back.

If you already have a Sony smartphone and can take advantage of the LDAC codec for the highest possible quality of Bluetooth streaming, the MDR-1000X becomes more appealing over its competitors from Bose and Audio-Technica and Parrot. If you don't, the choice is harder to make, but the MDR-1000X has no real glaring flaws to speak of. I'd put them up on the pedestal with the Bose QuietComfort 35 as my two favourite Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones — whichever you pick, you'll be very happy with your purchase.

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