If you travel much, you know why noise-canceling headphones are so important. Ninety decibels for six hours can do a real number on your eardrums, your brain, and your stress level. For ten years, Bose was the only maker worth considering. The noise-cancellation (NC) system in its QuietComfort cans was much better than anyone else’s — and I know it, because every few years, I’d round up 15 or 20 pairs of headphones and compare them on cross-country flights. (To the family in row 22 who thought there was something seriously wrong with me: now you know.)
And that’s why I was so surprised when, on a recent TV shoot, my buddy Mike the cameraman told me there was, at last, something even better. He told me to try the Sony WH-1000X M3 headphones, which came out late last summer. They’re $348 — exactly the same price as the Bose QuietComfort 35 II. Both headphones can be wired or wireless — that is, they can connect to your phone with Bluetooth, or to the plane’s seat-back screen with a cable. Both have Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant built in.
Both the Bose and the Sony are supremely comfortable and lightweight, with pillowy ear-cup padding and just the right amount of head-grip. And both do an astonishingly good job at noise reduction. (NC circuitry is generally best at eliminating steady noise, like plane engines and air conditioners. These headphones owe any damping of irregular noise primarily to their superb over-the-ear seal against your head.)
But I fell in love with the Sony WH-1000X M3 for six reasons:
1. The right ear cup is a trackpad. Put your finger against it and swipe up or down to adjust the volume, left or right to change tracks, and double-tap to pause or play your music or your video.
2. When someone’s trying to talk to you, you don’t have to remove the Sonys. You just rest your hand on the right earpiece to make them pass the outside world’s sound through to you. Brilliant.
3. The Sonys have a battery life of 30 hours on a single charge. The Bose model: 20 hours.
4. The Sonys charge over a USB-C cable. In practice, all that means is that they get a fast initial charge. In ten minutes, they get enough juice for a five-hour flight. That’s a fantastic feature when you’re heading for JFK and realize you forgot to charge them.
5. The Sonys sound better. The bass is stronger and deeper, the midrange is balanced, the highs are crisp.
6. The Sonys use a standard 3.5-mm headphone cord, which is easy and cheap to replace. The Bose model requires a cord with a rare 2.5-mm plug — a special order.
I do wish that the Sonys could be paired simultaneously to two devices — a phone and a laptop, for example — like the QuietComfort, but in most other ways, the Sony WH-1000X M3s are the best NC headphones ever made, and a shiny new pair lives in my carry-on.
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