thoughts on various Sony wireless headphones
in the news review audio
☆: Monday, September 7, 2020. ∆: Tuesday, September 8, 2020. Belief: very likely.

Since moving to California, the one constant has been loud, distracting construction noise. My first apartment had construction right outside that started two months after I moved in. Then I moved to a new one, and the same exact thing happened.

After the first apartment, I got WH-1000XM3, but have always been looking for new ANC1 devices.

My usual ANC setting is a quiet apartment, with lots of construction noise coming in from the outside. Sometimes I go for walks near loud highways.

WH-1000XM3

I ordered these on February 3, 2019, and I’ve been using them daily ever since. 60% of the time, nothing is playing, and they’re in ANC1 on mode. The other times are on calls, or playing media.

The headphones do really well with low frequency sound cancellation. Construction is dampened, but they’re not magic: you can still hear it unless you have music playing. It’s just way more tolerable. I definitely can’t go without them.

I downgraded mine to firmware version 2.0.0. Many people reported that after this version, the quality of ANC was reduced. I honestly can’t tell if it’s better or worse fully updated or not. This process is not trivial. Don’t buy them if you need to downgrade and aren’t completely confident in doing so.

Version 2.0.0 does not support either Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa.

positives

  • Really great battery life. Lasts multiple days on a single charge.
  • ANC is genuinely really good. Nothing is perfect, but without ANC on the world is terrible. With it on and nothing playing, it’s tolerable. WIth ANC on and playing media, almost all external noise is gone.
  • Signal is very strong, and they can play audio between rooms through walls easily. I sometimes forget which device is connected.

negatives

  • Touch gestures are a total disaster.
    • They frequently misinterpret the “volume up” gesture for “next track” and “volume down” for “previous track.”
    • Most media players, including YouTube, nPlayer, and other things on iOS interpret this as “skip the entire episode or video” which is incredibly frustrating.
    • You can’t ignore them, because…
  • When you re-pair the headphones to a new device, the volume level that the operating system sees and the headphones’ internal volume level isn’t synchronized. This may mean you have to use the annoying gestures to raise/lower the volume. Sometimes, the OS notices it and then synchronizes OS and headphone volume levels (e.g., on iOS), but other times you have to actually manually adjust two volume levels (e.g., Kubuntu 20.04).
    • Multi-device support, which is called multipoint audio in the industry, does not exist. You have to re-pair to change the audio source. This involves around 30 seconds of button pressing and settings navigation each time you want to change devices2.
  • Because the only mics on the headphones were originally designed to be used by the ANC engine, ANC turns off when you use them for audio capture (e.g., in a phone call). So calling anyone has significantly worse noise isolation than normal if you opt to use the default microphones.
    • The built-in microphones are terrible, so there’s no way you want to use them unless you’re forced to.

wishlist

I decided pretty early on that I would upgrade to a better set of headphones with both strong multipoint audio support, for at least three devices, and improved ANC. The wishlist for these specific headphones is:

  • Multipoint audio for at least 3 devices, but literally any number more than 1 is better than what it is.
  • Better active noise cancellation, because why not?
  • Better / more accurate touch gestures would be a huge win.
  • Better on call microphone, ideally with ANC on even during calls.

WH-1000XM4

WH-1000XM4 is the sequel to the WH-1000XM3. I considered them an instant buy, and I preordered them on announcement, because of multipoint audio and improved ANC.

The multipoint audio feature promised to connect two devices at once and play audio on-demand between them. Early reviewers said that it was buggy, but that software updates had it stable.

The improved ANC was a function of Sony adding 5 microphones and upgrading the bluetooth chip. A Sony rep on Amazon’s Q&A section said that it was “20% improved,” while reviewers like MKBHD said that it was improved at specifically canceling out high frequencies. The notable thing here is that Sony didn’t swap out the underlying noise cancellation processor. That remained the same between WH-1000XM3 and WH-1000XM4.

I returned them within two weeks of getting them because of issues with multipoint audio.

positives

  • Better active noise cancellation.
    • Even though I have my WH-1000XM3s on version 2.0.0, the WH-1000XM4s canceled out more air conditioner noise than their predecessors.
  • Better onboard microphones.
  • Better in every way than WH-1000XM3.

negatives

  • Multipoint audio didn’t work for me at all.
    • I tested this on two devices: an iPhone SE (1st generation) and iPhone 11 Pro Max, running iOS 13.5 and iOS 14 beta respectively. Neither worked. Pressing the on button simply caused the switch to turn on in the app, only to immediately turn back off.
    • Some users on Reddit reported that they got multipoint audio working after fully charging the headphones. That didn’t work for me either.
    • Lots of people had the problem on iOS, but not on Android. It may have been an iOS only thing.
  • Even if multipoint audio worked, though, it wouldn’t have met my requirements. I just assumed they would be able to connect to two arbitrary devices at once (e.g., two different MacBooks). This isn’t possible. The multipoint audio function that Sony designed only works if one of the two devices has the Sony Headphones Connect app installed.

untested

I had these for so short a period of time that I never tested the touch gestures more than once or twice.

WF-1000XM3

The WF-1000XM3 model number refers to truly wireless in-ear monitors made by Sony. They were interesting to me because I like to walk next to busy highways, which are very loud. I understand that some people worry about the safety implications here, but I assure you: I’m perfectly safe!

I had these for about the same time as the WH-1000XM4 headphones. I returned them, because they kept falling out of my ears. AirPods fit in my ears just fine, but AirPods Pro fall out after a while, and these did too. I tried all of the available ear tips, and all of them fell out3. I’m not quite sure what’s wrong with me.

positives

  • Touch controls were awesome. Better than AirPods and AirPods Pro. They’re capacitive, so they work using the same system that modern phone touch screens use. No pressure required. Awesome.
  • The ANC was really good when they were in my ears with a seal. They blocked out most types of traffic with ease. Made walking near a highway easy to do without feeling like it was killing my ears.

negatives

  • The audio kept cutting out while walking. I had an iPhone 11 Pro Max, so the bluetooth connection from the phone should have been fairly stable. It was on iOS 14 beta, though, so maybe that’s why it was so bad?
    • I’ve only had this happen in San Francisco, walking under electric lines on Mission, wearing AirPods. Never anywhere else with AirPods.

other

  • The case has an annoying red LED that lights up when the monitors are charging. I found this really distracting.

  1. Active noise cancellation. [return]
  2. If the headphones are powered on and connected, holding down the power button for about 30 seconds skips the “power up” announcement and goes straight to “bluetooth pairing” after they turn back on. [return]
  3. I also tried the medium & large sized Comply ear tips for them. They did hurt my ears, but didn’t help fix the problem with them falling out. [return]