The best ANC headphones just got better

Calling a product ‘the best’ of anything is not something I take lightly. Everyone has different preferences and needs, so I always try to adapt the recommendations to each person’s tastes.

But when someone asks “which noise canceling headphones should I buy?” my answer is almost always “the Sonys”.

Granted, sometimes one of the latest Bose models gets the nod too, and I actually tend to find the Bose sound more neutral right out of the box. But Sony has been driving progress in the noise-canceling headphone space for the past few years, and the new $400 WH-1000XM5 is no exception.

As shown in multiple leaks, the WH-1000XM5 sports a sleek new design. Eye of the beholder and all that, but to me the WH-1000XM5 looks better than its predecessors. That’s especially true as Sony had only made minor tweaks to their design since the original MDR-1000X headphones launched in 2016. That look was getting a bit stale, and headphones were never this stylish in the first place.

SonyWH-1000XM5

The headphones are also now more comfortable. The padding on the headband now extends across the top of the ear cups, and the material on the ear cushions also appears denser and slightly thicker. Those with larger ears will also appreciate the extra space inside the cups.

It all leads to a design that is more comfortable, looks better and feels stronger. The big caveat of the new thicker design is that, well, it’s bigger.

The earcups no longer have secondary hinges, meaning the Sony ones can only be folded up for storage (instead of folding into a smaller size). Consequently, the new carrying case is also larger and takes up more space in your bag.

The choice seems to have been made for aesthetics and durability (I’ve seen the arms of previous Sony headphones fail on a couple of occasions), but it’s a bit strange to make travel-focused headphones bigger, not smaller.

Another weird option for travel: you no longer get an adapter for those weird dual 3.5mm jacks that people only use on planes. I haven’t used one of those in a decade, but that might be annoying to some frequent flyers given the $400 price tag (although you can get one for about $5).

Design aside, there are multiple iterative but significant improvements to the 1000XM5.

First things first: the 1000XM5 are better at noise cancellation than the 1000XM4. Not much, but there is a slight improvement in blocking out high-frequency sounds like voices (as opposed to low-frequency sounds like the hum of an air conditioner).

Sony says that it is using AI, additional microphones and a more powerful processor to improve performance in this frequency range. Whatever the reasons, you’re getting the best noise-canceling performance money can buy.

The headphones also sound better than their predecessors. I found the 1000XM4 to be too “V-shaped”, with particularly pronounced lows and slightly raised highs. The 1000XM5s are better balanced for both my ears and my headphone measurement settings.

They still have an excessive amount of bass, but the rest of the frequency range seems more neutral to me. You can also easily reduce the amount of bass in Sony’s Headphone Connect app, so it shouldn’t be much of a concern for discerning audiophiles.

That said, it’s worth noting that if you have long hair, like me, you may run into occasional distortion artifacts.

Like many noise-cancelling headphones, the 1000XM5 use their microphones to regulate bass output when there’s a lackluster seal, something that also plagues many people who wear glasses. That’s mostly a good thing, as it means you won’t lose all the bass due to imperfect tuning.

But as I have found with others Noise Cancellation headphones, this can also cause audible distortion when playing music at high volume.

SonyWH-1000XM5

This is because the driver is forced to work harder to create more bass when there is an imperfect seal. It would be nice if Sony found a better balance between bass output and distortion for those of us with a lot of hair, or just used even thicker pads. But reducing the amount of bass in the Sony app goes a long way toward minimizing this distortion.

Sound quality aside, my personal favorite upgrade is proper support for Google Assistant (and Alexa) with keyword detection. Previous Sony models also had tight integration with Google Assistant, but required you to hold down a button while speaking. It was awkward, and meant that I pretty much never used the feature.

On the 1000XM5, like Sony’s LinkBuds, you simply say ‘Ok Google’ to summon the assistant. It means I can control music and audiobooks hands-free while doing the dishes or walking my dog. It’s also handy when it’s raining and the touch sensors aren’t working properly (note: Sony’s aren’t officially waterproof).

It’s the difference between using voice assistant several times a day and never using it, if you’re the kind of person who cares about voice assistance in the first place.

Lastly, the WH-1000XM5 finally supports multipoint connections, meaning you can connect to multiple devices at the same time and switch audio between them seamlessly. The caveat is that you can’t use LDAC, Sony’s highest quality Bluetooth codec, while using multipoint. You’ll have to make do with AAC, though most people won’t be able to tell the difference.

SonyWH-1000XM5

The question on many people’s minds will be “should I upgrade?” If it’s coming from the 1000XM4 or 1000XM3, then probably not. The new design is clean, but the improvements are iterative rather than revolutionary.

So it’s a good thing Sony is keeping the 1000XM4 on the market for $349. You can save a little money (or a lot more, if you buy a used one) and get almost the same noise-canceling performance. That said, some buyers may find it worth spending a little more on features like multipoint connection, better sound quality, and improved Google Assistant support.

The Sony 1000XM5 only makes minor improvements to the 1000XM4, but that’s all the company needed to do. After all, being better than the best is a good place to be.

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