These new premium Bluetooth and noise-cancelling headphones, the MDR-1000X, were high on Sony’s IFA Berlin launch list, and we must first declare that Sony Australia flew us to IFA at their expense, and presented us with these headphones to use on the return trip ahead of their official launch. (We've since passed them onto another magazine.)
So how are they? Very impressive. At $699 in Australia they’re at the premium end of executive-style noise-cancellers, but they certainly look and feel it, and sound it too.
Of particular note is what Sony refers to as “the most responsive cancellation of ambient sound frequency range on the market”, by which they mean to say they reckon they have the best noise cancellation available, having measured this against rivals using guidelines established by JEITA (the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association). To demonstrate this prowess to visiting journalists at IFA, Sony had the 1000X model racked up alongside models from Bose (the QC35s, which we had just reviewed) and Beats (model unknown) in a room loaded with plane-like ambient noise. Of course one must always be wary of demonstrations by one company against models by others, but the scenario did indeed have the Sonys better delivering a personal silence beyond either rival — the Beats nowhere close, the Bose model leaving a strange midrange rattle compared with a cleaner silence from the 1000X.
There are several extra features beyond the Bluetooth and noise-cancellation, including a temporary passthrough of external sound (‘Quick Attention’) simply by placing a cupped hand over the right headshell, handy when the nice lady arrives to ask if you want beef or chicken. It took us a long while to do this rather than dropping the headphones around our neck, but once we got the hang of it, it certainly works well, though we do wonder if it looks a bit rude, keeping your headphones on when talking to people. There is an entertaining video available online of a cool Sony dude demonstrating this function, and he does come off looking a bit rude, even un peu sleazy.
There is also a button to select continuous passthrough of external sound with a choice of either full-range or only speech frequencies — Sony suggests using this, for example, to hear boarding calls in airports while still enjoying music. We found the full-range mode overly intrusive, but the voice mode did provide a reasonable level of noise-cancellation while passing midrangey speech or announcements through clearly enough for you to stop and pay attention when required.
In Bluetooth mode there are also touch controls on the right headshell, sliding up and down to adjust volume (rather too slowly, step by step, rather than from low to high in one swipe), as well as forward and back for next/last track.
Sony has, however, resisted the urge to go to the excesses of Parrot Ziks or the just-reviewed Sennheiser PXC 550s in offering endless unnecessary EQ or app options, and voice alerts are used only when they are useful, rather than every time you so much as sneeze. We were alarmed by a paragraph in the launch literature which read as follows: “These are also the first headphones with the DSEE HX built in to upscale compressed music from any source to near High-Resolution Audio sound quality, even in wireless mode.” Marketing nonsense? We thought so, and challenged Sony’s engineers about it. You can read the results at www.avhub.com.au/dsee.
Note also that although this product is labelled with Sony’s Hi-Res Audio logo in some Sony literature, the MDR-1000X headphones cannot receive or deliver actual high-res audio except when using the cable from a suitable analogue source. Despite the apparent claims for Sony’s LDAC codec, they cannot deliver true 24/96 via Bluetooth (www.avhub.com.au/ldac).
The sound via cable was indeed excellent — a little soft until you engage the power button, and best with NC on (preferably using the ‘optimiser’ function so you don’t use more NC than you need). Here the sound is rich and strong, weighty but well balanced from bottom to top. Leonard Cohen’s difficult vocals were kept intact; McCartney’s ‘My Valentine’ avoided softness yet Dion’s ‘I Read It’ avoided harshness, a good result on our standard ‘problem’ tracks. Sweeps confirmed their strength down very low and evenness through the rest.
Via Bluetooth, with or without noise cancelling, things are just slightly softened, Diana Krall’s voice on ‘Alone Again Naturally’ a little thickened, though still spacious and musical. Perhaps the 1000X couldn’t quite match the (un-EQd) Sennheiser’s clarity and detail of sound, but then the Sonys were far easier to use. For cabled noise-cancelling, the Bose QC25s have to win it on value. But for Bluetooth plus noise-cancelling, sensibly delivered, the Sonys are real contenders.