THE GOOD The Sony MDR-1000X is an excellent-sounding, comfortable wireless headphone with effective noise-canceling that measures up to Bose’s for muffling ambient noise. It has good battery life and some nifty extra features geared toward frequent travelers.

THE BAD Not great as a headset; its adaptive noise-canceling is too noticeable at times.

THE BOTTOM LINE If you can overlook a few small drawbacks, the MDR-1000X is a top-notch wireless noise-canceling headphone that’s stacked with features and sounds excellent.

 

8.4OVERALL

  • DESIGN 8.0
     
  • FEATURES 9.0
     
  • SOUND 9.0
     
  • VALUE 8.0
     

When it comes to noise-canceling headphones — those models that actively block outside noise like airline engines — Bose is generally considered the gold standard, but Sony’s engineers have been on a mission to beat Bose at what it does best.

The result of their efforts is the MDR-1000X, which Sony is calling its most technologically advanced headphone. It features both wireless Bluetooth connectivity and adaptive noise-cancellation in a swanky looking chassis that retails for $400, £330 or AU$700.

Sony says it developed new ear pads for this headphone, and the embedded touch controls for volume adjustment and skipping tracks either direction are more responsive than those found in its predecessor, the MDR-1ABT.

I’m not going to get into all the technical details but this headphone is equipped with similar drivers to the highly rated MDR-1A (a wired headphone) and has microphones not only on the outside of the ear cups to measure ambient noise, but inside to take account for the shape of your head and ears, and whether you wear glasses.

Sony has trademarked this feature, calling it the Sense Engine, and the company says it tailors the noise-canceling individually to you. You can also choose alternate settings that allow more ambient noise to seep in or even filter out everything but voices so you can hear announcements in airports while listening to music.

Another cool feature is the ability to muffle your music and let the outside world in by simply holding your hand over the right ear cup, where the touch controls are located. Once you finish talking to someone, you remove your hand and the music resumes playing at its previous volume and the noise cancellation kicks back in.

Battery life is rated at 20 hours and a cord is included if you want to listen in wired mode. You don’t need power to use it as a corded headphone (that means if the battery dies, you can still get sound out of it), but it sounds better as a powered headphone in wired mode.

Like a lot of Sony’s latest headphones, the company is promoting it as a high-res headphone, with support for Sony’s proprietary LDAC format that’s supposed to provide higher quality sound than conventional Bluetooth streaming. Unfortunately, you need a Sony music player with LDAC to take advantage of it. (Sony makes a variety of hi-res music players, but I suspect that the majority of people will use this headphone with their phones).

Also, Sony says this is the first headphone to have its Digital Sound Enhancement Engine (DSEE HXTM) built-in to “upscale compressed music from any source to near hi-res audio sound quality, even in wireless mode.”

Bose QuietComfort 35 comparison

Since this was designed as a direct competitor to the Bose QuietComfort 35, the obvious question is: Which headphone is better?

Headphones and audio in general tend to be a subjective experience, so the answer isn’t entirely black and white, but I’ll give you my thoughts.

The sound quality of the two headphones is close. They’re both top-notch Bluetooth headphones — relatively well-balanced, with punchy bass, good detail, and natural-sounding, present mid-range that isn’t too forward. The Sony offers a touch more clarity and is slightly more dynamic (touch more treble and bass push), but the Bose seemed to be the smoother headphone, and — with some tracks — I liked its sound better. While I’d personally give the slight nod to the Bose for sound, depending on the shape of your head and ears, and your listening tastes; you could prefer the Sony.

As for comfort, the edge goes to the Bose. You can argue who wins on build quality — the Sony does have metal in its headband and seems well constructed — but I found the lighter Bose easier to wear over long periods (both steamed up my ears in warm weather). I should also note that the Sony barely fit my head and may not work for some people with small heads.

On to noise-canceling. I think the Sony’s noise-canceling is quite impressive and right there with the Bose as far as muffling noise. But its adaptive nature seemed problematic at times. For instance, wearing it on the subway, when I tilted my head downward, the noise-canceling changed, which I found irritating. In a world of shifting noise, I didn’t want to be constantly reminded that I was wearing a noise-canceling headphone that was adapting to the environment. In the office, the two headphones were equally matched. But on the go, I preferred Bose’s steadier noise-cancelation.

Feature-wise, the Sony is the winner, but some people may find all the modes, touch controls, adaptive noise canceling and optimization a bit complicated. But the Sony’s ability to muffle your music and let the outside world in by simply holding your hand over the right ear cup is a definitely winner.

Lastly, I should mention how the two headphones perform as headsets. Like the Bose, the Sony appears to have some sort of side-tone feature that allows you to hear your voice in the headphones as you speak, although it’s not as evident as it is with the Bose. However, callers said I just didn’t sound that good over the headphones; my voice was slightly muffled and they could hear lots of ambient noise, including a co-worker talking nearby, his voice seemingly amplified over mine. People’s feedback was more positive when I was using the Bose QC35 to make calls, so I give it the edge in the headset category.

Final thoughts

The Sony MDR-1000X is an excellent noise-canceling wireless headphone that has some small drawbacks. It’s a step up from Sony’s H.ear On Wireless NC that I rated highly and folds flat into a slimmer carrying case.

Sound quality is top-notch for a Bluetooth headphone, and while its adaptive nature isn’t always a plus, the noise-canceling is as effective as the Bose at muffling noise. However, the Bose is lighter and arguably slightly more comfortable. It also costs $50 less. If I had to pick between the two, I’d go with the Bose, but others may find the Sony the more compelling choice.

This article first appeared on cnet.com