Wireless noise cancellation has become much more common over the last year, but that doesn’t mean the category has improved dramatically. Other than the best-in-class Bose QuietControl 30, there aren’t too many good choices—most are either too expensive (relative to the Bose model) or offer subpar noise cancellation, or sometimes both. Enter the Sony WI-1000X. In terms of audio performance, the $299.99 WI-1000X earphones deliver arguably better sound than the QC30. As for noise cancellation, they surprisingly offer an experience that’s nearly as effective as Bose. It’s been a while since Bose released the QuietControl 30, and while its noise cancellation still sets the standard for the category, some competitors are clearly starting to catch up.
Available in gold or black, the WI-1000X is one of the bulkier neckband designs we’ve seen, yet it’s also one of the classier-looking models. The inside of the neckband has a padded portion covered in a leather-like material, and a refined brushed metal surface on the outside. The design is reminiscent of a luxury car’s interior, which suits the price. The earpieces house ambient mics on the outer panels, and they connect to the neckband via cabling that can be tucked into a gripping section on the top in order to manage cable slack.
The earphones ship with a wide array of eartip options—there are four pairs of silicone eartips in various sizes, and three pairs of what Sony refers to as Triple Comfort eartips. The material seems like a cross between silicone and memory foam, and they do a solid job of sealing off the ear securely and comfortably, though we didn’t notice an obvious fit advantage. In fact, the silicone tips were slightly more secure for our ears during testing.
On the inside of the neckband, there’s a control panel on the left side with buttons (marked with raised icons) for power/pairing, volume, and a playback button that also handles call management and, when pressed multiple times, track navigation. On the right side, the inner neckband houses a single button for switching between noise cancellation, ambient, and off modes.
Sony includes a cable that allows you to use the earphones as a wired pair. The cable connects to the micro USB charging port and terminates in the standard 3.5mm headphone jack found on most mobile devices. This is definitely a rarity in this category. When the cable is connected, the earphones can still be used in noise-canceling or ambient modes, or you can turn them off and use them in passive mode.
Also included is an airline jack adapter and a classy zip-up pouch that is both handsome and useful, with storage pockets inside for the various accessories. Clearly, Sony is aiming at the travel crowd with the WI-1000X, and the accessories, at least, do a fine job in that department.
The mic for phone calls offers excellent intelligibility. Using the Voice Memos app on an iPhone 6s, we could understand every word recorded far more clearly than we typically can through Bluetooth earphone mics.
The Sony Headphones Connect app offers multiple useful features. In addition to simply turning noise cancellation on or off, you can adjust the levels using the NC Optimizer feature, which measures the ambient noise of your surroundings and creates a customized noise-canceling filter. There’s also an ambient sound control switch that allows you to adjust just how much or little of your surroundings you hear when ambient mode is activated—a fader in the app can be adjusted, and you can also choose to “focus on voice” to better hear someone speaking to you. There’s a user-adjustable EQ feature with several presets, some of which are customizable. For example, it has five bands that can be boosted or cut to alter the sound signature.
There’s also plenty of bloatware packed into the app—there’s no need to bother with the truly awful surround audio effects, for instance. You can also choose to place a higher priority on a stable Bluetooth connection than on audio quality, though we highly suggest you don’t. Chances are your connection will be stable no matter what, but switching this option more or less ensures lower-quality audio performance. There are even more micro functions you can mess around with. We won’t list them all, but the app is a thorough, feature-driven inclusion.
Sony estimates battery life to be roughly 10 hours with noise cancellation on, and 17 hours with it off. These numbers, however, will also vary with your volume levels, and your mix of wired and wireless use.
The WI-1000X earphones offer excellent active noise cancellation (ANC). Like the best ANC on the market from Bose, there’s no high frequency hiss added to the listening experience here—when no music is playing, and you are in a relatively quiet room, the earphones don’t add an audible hiss, and manage to make things even quieter. Low frequency rumble like you hear on planes will be diminished substantially, as well as most low frequencies in general. The whir of an AC unit is completely eliminated by the ANC. Like all ANC, the earphones have a bit more trouble with higher frequencies, but the eartips do a decent job of naturally tamping them down somewhat. In both ambient listening mode and ANC mode, audio sounds virtually the same as it does when both of these modes are disabled, which is exactly how it should sound.
Bose still does a better job with human voices than anything we’ve tested, but the WI-1000X come close to matching it. The earphones are so close to Bose in terms of noise cancellation quality, in fact, that if music is a higher priority to you than noise cancellation, we recommend the WI-1000X over the QC30.
We tested audio in default, flat EQ mode, but keep in mind you can always tweak things in the app. On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the low frequency response is impressive. There’s some solid bass depth here, balanced out by a crisp presence in the highs. And of course, you can make things truly thunderous if you want.
Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the WI-1000X’s general sound signature. The drums on this track get some extra bass presence—it doesn’t quite take them into unnatural territory, but they have a heaviness to them that definitely comes from some bass boosting. The acoustic guitar strums and Callahan’s baritone vocals both benefit from a solid high-mid presence that lends some contour and treble edge. The highs are also pumped up slightly, pushing the higher register percussion forward in the mix a bit. It’s a balanced sound signature, but with plenty of sculpting on both ends of the frequency range.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop receives plenty of high-mid presence, allowing its attack to retain it punchy presence, while it also get some added thump in the lows. The vinyl crackle that’s typically relegated to the background sounds somewhat boosted here—more evidence that the highs are pushed forward in the mix a little. The sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat are delivered with serious depth that can only get more intense with the app’s EQ, but the default level is quite full. And, it should be noted, you can also dial the bass back significantly with the app’s EQ. The vocals on this track are delivered with ideal clarity. There’s perhaps a smidge of added sibilance, but it’s not distracting. If it bugs you, EQ it.
Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene from John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, get a stronger bass presence than perhaps purists will want. The lower register instrumentation definitely has more body and depth than you typically hear with a more flat response-style pair. The higher register brass, strings, and vocals are crisp and bright, however, so there’s no balance issue here, just a sculpted sound signature.
Aside from offerings from Bose, the Sony WI-1000X earphones deliver some of the best in-ear noise cancellation we’ve heard. Their audio performance is also a bit more compelling than the typical Bose sound signature, and Sony has an advantage in that you can drastically alter the sound signature to your taste. Combined with the generous array of accessories, it’s possible that you might prefer the WI-1000X earphones over the Bose QuietControl 30—they’re the more music-lover-friendly of the two.
In the noise-canceling in-ear realm, we’re also fans of the neckband-style Jabra Elite 65e and the wired Libratone Q Adapt Lightning. But Sony is really giving Bose a run for its money, and the WI-1000X are worth it if you place audio quality just ahead of noise cancellation.