Sony MDR-1000X Wireless Noise Canceling Headphones
The insanely rapid growth of smartphones is beginning to level off to a comparatively sedate 6% compound annual growth rate (CAGR). That's what happens when virtually everyone is already staring into their palms...the market is pretty saturated. That's good news for us headphone geeks because now that everyone has their phone they can start lusting the next worthwhile gadget, and that turns out to be wireless headphones.
For the first time last year, wireless headphone sales exceeded that of wired headphone sales. The trend started in ernest about three years ago, and we're currently in the "hold on to your hat, this thing is exploding" part of the growth curve.
The big makers have know this for years of course, and they've been planning their strategy and developing product for this very moment. This new generation of headphones is evidenced by the recent releases of Bose' first wireless noise canceler; the whizz-bang AKG N90Q; the sophisticated and feature rich Sennheiser PXC 550; and even the somewhat old school but impeccably stylish and great sounding Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wirelessperfect for audiophile sensibilities on the move. This is a new era for headphones with buttons and switches, and it's a treat to watch manufacturers take their high-stakes stab at defining the blockbuster wireless headphone category.
Arguably the most famous brand in audio has just joined the fray, and with the MDR-1000X Sony has painted a pretty convincing picture of a successful 21st Century headphone. Let's take a look.
Styling, Build Quality, and Comfort
Wow, these headphones are bee-you-tee-full! Not at all in a flashy way at allthey're understated; elegant; shapely. It's as if someone drew the perfect idealized headphone, and then Sony brought it to life.
Materials are all synthetic, but it appears of very nice quality. A protein leather covering over the outside of the ear capsule is their most prominent and pleasing design feature. Frankly, I was unable to tell if it was real or fake leather until I read a mention of artificial leather on promotional materials. The 1000X is available in a black or tan color scheme...both look terrific to me.
The main headband arch is a strap of metal that extends into the headband ends and acts as detented sliders for size adjustment. Adjustment is a tad on the easy side, but once in place remains secure.
Headband pad is protein leather over soft foam, and does primarily touch in the middle of the top of the head. The headphones are fairly light however (277gr.), and I never had a problem with a hot spot at the top of my head.
Ear cushions are protein leather over memory foam and ear openings are quite generous (62mm X 38mm); ear cup depth is also good, my ears just touch the foam cover inside at the back. I found the MDR 1000X a very comfortable headphone...just a hair shy of being as comfortable as the Bose QC35, which have slightly deeper ear cups and are amazingly comfortable.
MDR-1000X accesorization is a little on the poor side. The five foot cable is terminated with a 3.5mm straight TRS plug into the left earpiece, and a 90 degree angle 3.5mm TRS plug at the player end. The 1000X can operate passively on the cable when the battery runs dry; and the cable can be used with active noise canceling. Unfortunately, all of the player and headset functions (pause, volume, ff, answer, hang-up, etc) are unavailable with the cable attached. The cable has an odd, plastic feeling insulating cover. I've had some other Sony headphones with this type of cable and when it gets out in the Montana winter cold it gets very stiff.
A short 20" USB cable is included for charging. Unfortunately, if you plug it in to charge the headphones, no active functions are available at all. If you plug it in to charge it, the only way to listen is passively over the wire. Also, sadly, you cannot play music digitally over the USB cable. Sony advertises this headphone as "Hi-Res"; it seems to me if you are truly making a headphone with real "Hi-Res" sensibilities, you'd want to be able to listen to at least 24/96 over the USB cable. Battery life is claimed at 20 hours with a four hour full charge time.
It does come with a nice hard-side, clam-shell case. However there is no interior pocket for cable storage and cables can not be left attached to the headphone when in the case. There is an exterior back pocket with a very thin fabric cover for the cables...but there's room inside for a pocket and I want the case to sit flat on the table, not on a lump of cable. Also in the box is one of those double-prong airline connectors...oddly, there is a small pocket inside the case for this adaptor.
Ten years from now manufacturers will have a much better idea of what really works and makes sense with these ever smarter headphones, and headphones will likely have relatively similar features. But at this point in time, because everyone is making these complex headphones for the first time, the feature sets can be quite diverse with some features unique to a particular model. I'll point some out as we go along.
Noise Canceling - In it's highest setting, broad-band noise canceling isolation with the MDR-1000X is measured at -23dBr; the Bose QC 35 does 5dB better at -28dBr. The Sony is not as good a noise canceler as the Bose. On the other hand, the MDR-1000X has a number of noise canceling modes and features. I would characterize the maximum amount of noise canceling to be a bit better than average. Pretty good, but not great.
In addition to the normal noise canceling mode, the MDR-1000X has two other modes: Ambient Sound Voice and Ambient Sound Normal. In the plot above, the black trace is no headphones at all. The blue trace is the passive isolation of the MDR-1000X un-powered; you can see it gives the best isolation at high frequencies, but almost none below 200Hz. The normal noise canceling mode (green trace) mainly relies on passive isolation above 400Hz, below that active noise canceling really kicks in to get rid of the rumble and isolation increases to around -28dBr.
In Ambient Sound modes some of the outside sound picked up by the microphones is fed into the audio signal you hear so you can remain aware of your environment. These modes operate both with active noise canceling and when using passive isolation.
Ambient Sound Normal mode is for when you're walking around and need a relatively normal outside listening response so you can hear traffic and the like. In the plot above, you can see the Ambient Normal mode (purple line) doesn't really isolate much except for between 600Hz and 4kHz where it reduces the outside sound by about 10dB. In listening, the outside world sounds fairly transparent, but a little muffled.
In Ambient Voice mode, the rumbling low frequency noise below 200Hz is canceled just as in normal noise canceling mode, but much of the mid- and high-frequency area is only modestly attenuated. This allows voices to be heard and understood with relative ease. In listening, it basically makes the world sound a bit like a bandwidth limited old school telephone, and it does work well for speech intelligibility. This mode is good for things like sitting in a noisy train station, where it gives you relief from low frequency noise but allows you to hold a conversation and/or remain aware of announcements.
Not a noise canceling mode per se, but the MDR-1000X has a cool feature that lets you to instantly turn down your music and listen to what's going on outside by simply placing the palm of your hand on the right earpiece. It operates in any of the above noise canceling modes, and works really well to focus on an announcement or a quick conversation with a flight attendant. As soon as you remove the palm of your hand from the earpiece the music volume will raise and you'll return to the previously selected noise canceling mode.
Lastly, and this is unique in my experience, the MDR-1000X is able optimize it's noise canceling performance. From what I can tell reading Sony support and product information, the optimiser compensates for changes to the seal of the ear cupsfor example when putting on glasses and the arms create a leak in the seal.
In the plot above, I first placed the headphones on the measurement head, then ran the optimiser to calibrate the noise canceling, and then took a plot of the isolation (black trace) for a baseline. I then stuck the pointy end of a chopstick between the head and pad to break the seal a little, and remeasured the isolation (blue trace). Finally, with the chopstick in the same position, I re-ran the optimizer and re-measured (green trace).
You can see the isolation is improved just a few dB in the area below 200Hz. I did try a number of different things to see if I could create a situation where the optimisation showed a more dramatic improvement...to no avail. It did always show an improvement, but it was always small.
Odds and Ends
The MDR-1000X has a couple of features I couldn't, or didn't know how to investigate. To start there's this text on the product page:
The Digital Sound Enhancement Engine HX (DSEE HX) upscales compressed digital music files (MP3, ACC, ATRAC and WMA) and takes them closer to the quality of High-Resolution Audio. By restoring the high-range sound lost in compression, DSEE HX produces your digital music files in rich, natural sound.
Just guessing here, but this DSEE HX process may be buried in the Bluetooth receiver circuit somewhere to cause compressed transmissions to sound better. I'm not sure how I would test this, but I did feel the BT connection sounded very nearly as good as the wired one.
There is a Sony proprietary Codec in the 1000X called LDAC. This profile allows certain Sony products to transmit 24/96 digital streams over a Bluetooth connection. I didn't have a LDAC capable source to test this feature.
Touch Panel and Controls
I was generally a little disappointed in the ergonomics and responsiveness of the MDR-1000X controls. Power, noise canceling, and ambient sound mode buttons are located on the outside rear edge of the left ear capsule. Buttons are flat with the surface of the headphones, so the only physical identifying feature for your fumbling fingertips are some small raised bumps on the surface of each button. The problem is that the bail joint that allows the headphone to swivel up and down is near the top button and it has a little dot/bump identifier next to it for blind people to identify the left earpiece. Together, the dot and bail feel like a button to the finger tips and I was often fumbling in the confusion.
The outside of the right earcup is a touch sensitive panel. Up and down swiping motions raise and lower the volume; forward and back swipes give next and previous track. I found these swiping motions fairly reliable. Unfortunately, the tap to the middle of the panel for pause/play and phone answering seemed quite unreliable. After playing with it for quite a while it appears that I can only activate this control in about one out of three or four attempts on average.
I also found the Bluetooth pairing and especially multi-point pairing to require manual intervention more often than I expected. The Bose does a much better job of pairing and handling phone call interruptions. I did always got things to work adequately, but I had to work at it a bit too hard. I feel the Sennheiser PXC 550 had much more responsive controls. On the other hand, the Sony sounded better. Guess what we're talking about next?